One mother of four shares why breast isn’t always best.
It’s a miraculous and joyful moment when a baby is born, but the newborn isn’t the only one who’s fragile and vulnerable—mom is too.
In thinking about what to write this Mother’s Day, I can’t help remembering one baby boy who will not celebrate this special day—the son of Florence Leung, who took her own life earlier this year after suffering with postpartum depression, perhaps exacerbated by her struggles with breastfeeding (according to her husband who took to social media). Like many moms who saw this story on the news, I saw myself in Florence and identified with her struggles.
I’ve stayed distant from talking about breastfeeding tips and tricks on my blog. Quite frankly, I kind of wish they would vanish from my feeds altogether. I know there is good intention from those who write about nursing, and yes, I completely understand the benefits of it, but the barrage of messages about breastfeeding flooding social media may be doing more harm than good.
Why? Because “benefits” extend beyond the nutritional composition of breast milk, and after the experience of bringing a new life into the world, there is no greater benefit to a family than the wellbeing of the mother.
Breastfeeding is far from “normal” or “natural” for many new moms—heck, even experienced ones like myself. Four kids in and each and every experience I’ve had with feeding my babes has ended up being different and unique. My last was the most challenging. If I share anything about my breastfeeding experience it is this—my mainly formula-fed baby is “exceptional” academically. No effect on brain development and IQ over here. My little one who was exclusively breastfed the longest? Well, he was sick every other week of his first year of life and now eats dust balls and dirt.
In spite of knowing this, “bressure” is everywhere, and it weighed heavy on me. Feeling like I had something to prove to the “lactivists” (as one author calls them) sent me to a very dark place my fourth time around the new mama block. Luckily, I was able to seek support and carried on with it, but it came at a price—I still experience lingering flashbacks of suffering, memories of pain so great it sent me into an out-of-body state with non-stop tears and silent screams for help, wondering why the “feel good” effect from breastfeeding and oxytocin surges weren’t working. The mental fatigue and what felt like physical torture from doing what was supposed to be “best” tarnished my early bonding experience with my newborn. Breast was certainly not best in this circumstance. My mental health was. But hindsight is 20/20, right?
As a result, I don’t ask mom if they’re breastfeeding—mothers don’t need to be questioned about how they feed their babies in those fragile, vulnerable days. I know while struggles are similar, our experiences will be unique. I will not force my advice on you. Instead, I will ask how you’re recovering, or if you need anything. What some of us don’t realize is asking a mother about breastfeeding can send her further into a spiral of guilt, shame and overwhelm. No one should explain her feeding choice.
So this Mother’s Day, there’s another message that needs to be spread. Let’s remove the feeding pressures, perhaps by softening the “breast is best” message. To those who had an easy go of it, that’s amazing. But like so many things on this parenting journey, your experience is unique. We need more consideration for those who it has not been easy for, or those who quite simply chose not to breastfeed from the start. What moms need to hear is “nourished is best” and “mental wellbeing is best.”
With that in mind, here’s an open letter to friends, neighbours, strangers who are currently struggling:
Congrats on your new bundle! Maybe you welcomed your first, or maybe your fourth. I hope you are recovering well and have the support you need in these first precious hours.
I know the first choice you’re about to make as a parent is how to feed your newborn. Go with your gut and do what feels right for you. Tune out those posters plastered all over your room that shout, “Breast is best.” Nourishing your baby is what matters. It might feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders to go with what you “should do,” but I’m your virtual mom friend giving you permission to do what feels instinctively right. There is no greater benefit to you and your family than a content mama, and a million other ways you’ll be able to bond and show your baby love, should you choose to formula-feed. Breast milk doesn’t kiss, snuggle and love your baby. You do.
If you want to give breastfeeding a go, be gentle on yourself. It might come super easy. But know it’s not always an instantaneous, flawless undertaking—the joy may quickly be masked by pain. If that pain becomes too much, if your baby is not thriving as a result or if you feel yourself slipping into a dark tunnel of overwhelm and resentment, let’s get you some formula. Maybe just for one bottle or maybe for the rest of your feeding journey.
There are so many pressures on this parenting journey you will face—return to work versus staying at home; homeschooling versus private school versus public school; organic versus regular produce; it goes on. Learning to silence the noise is what I hope for you. After nearly a decade into parenting I know the greatest badge of honour a mother can attain is not whether and for how long she breastfed her child—it’s having well-adjusted and genuinely good humans to offer the world.
Still, if your world feels like it's crumbling in front of you, if you feel like you can’t handle it anymore and the shame and guilt and anxiety and worry becomes too much, do one more favour for yourself and your child: pick up your phone and get help. You will eventually see the clouds clear.
As much as this note is to all the struggling moms out there, I need to remember these words myself. I was so close to the brink it fills me with despair to know fellow moms have not made it through. You do not need to suffer—suffering does not equate to being a good mother. It is destructive. Being brave and getting help is the first step to making the best decisions for your family. A mom’s wellbeing and a baby thriving outweighs what science deems the optimal feeding method.
Sonya Kerr is a busy Canadian mom of four kids under nine who spends her days embracing hockey mom-hood and attempting to seek a bit of solitude whenever and wherever she can get it. She's the writer and creator behind the blog House of Kerrs.
Where to get help:
Phone 911 in an emergency
Postpartum Support International: 1-800-944-4773
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: suicideprevention.ca
British Columbia: Pacific Postpartum Support Society: 604-255-7999 or 1-855-255-7999
Alberta: Mental health help line: 1-877-303-2642
Saskatchewan: Postpartum Depression Support Group: 306-655-6777
Manitoba: Winnipeg Regional Health Authority: 204-940-1781
Ontario: Ontario mental health help line: 1-866-531-2600
Quebec: Suicide Action Montreal: 1-866-277-3553
Newfoundland: Mental health and addictions: 709-737-4668; 1-888-737-4668
Nova Scotia: Mental health mobile crisis: 902-429-8167; 1-888-429-8167
New Brunswick: Chimo help line: 450-4357; 1-800-667-5005
Prince Edward Island: Health PEI: 1-800-218-2885
Yukon: Mental health services: 1-867-667-8346
Northwest Territories: NWT Help line: 1-800-661-0844
Nunavut: Kamatsiaqtut help line: 1-867-979-3333