Is Breast Best?

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    That one issue of Time magazine in May 2012 attracted more than a little attention when it featured on its cover a young mother nursing her 3-year-old son. The woman’s stance – right hand on hip, left arm pulling her son in, staring directly into the camera – was challenging enough, but the copy near the photo was blatantly antagonistic. Are you mom enough? shouted from drugstore and grocery store shelves across the country that week, asking moms from Richmond, Virginia, to Richmond, California, if they were measuring up. Although the article inside discussed attachment parenting as a whole, it was the image projected from that cover of the breastfeeding mother that was most controversial.

    Part of the reason why the image is so powerful is that the Time cover runs contrary to conventional images of nursing: a mother and a child, nestled in a glider in a sun-filled nursery. We moms feel the comfort of the cool air on our shoulders, the warmth of the baby at our breast. In such an image, we can sense the peace. To many of us, this is nursing. Images like this filled the books that we pored over as mothers-to-be, and they filled our minds as we imagined what nursing our babies would be like. They are beautiful images, and they are attainable for most-with time and patience.

    Yet for many women just beginning their breastfeeding experiences, these calm and successful images quickly become as foreign as the Time cover photo. We are briefly instructed on various holds, told the importance of the ever-elusive latch, and given hope that we will obtain the idealized breastfeeding experience quickly and easily. But, shortly after childbirth, we find ourselves in a hospital room with an impossibly sleepy infant, with very little idea of what to actually do. We have no images to match with the struggles that occur in the first days and weeks of nursing. We long for the quiet cool nursery where the mom is relaxing with Her content infant, but that image is so far from the current reality of a new baby that we lose hope, feeling for the first time that, as that magazine cover implied, we are not “mom enough” at all. If a woman is not fully committed to breastfeeding, this early experience is usually enough to make her give up. For those women that persevere, the unexpected challenges often bring with them feelings of inadequacy (“What’s wrong with my breasts?”), worry (“Will my baby grow well?”), and sadness (“I’ve always thought this would be such a beautiful experience”).

    Because healthcare providers are afraid to deter people from nursing because of its many benefits for both women and their babies, we often don’t discuss these challenges ahead of time. We might confuse being supportive (“You can be a successful breastfeeding mother”) with being honest (“Many women find it takes two or more weeks until nursing is well-established”). For some women, nursing remains a challenge longer than that.

    Breastfeeding is a natural process, but it requires nurturing to learn. We need to talk with each other, our doctors, our nurses, and our lactation consultants. We need to accept that the images we harbor of motherhood can serve either to divide us from our goals or to inspire us as we grow in confidence and competence.

    In the end, I believe that most often the answer to the question “Are you mom enough?” Is “Yes!” The true challenge is giving ourselves the time to make it happen.