What Kind of Mother Are You?

This morning, during my daily breakfast internet browsing (a.k.a. my delicious half-hour of wasted time when I could be paying better attention to my children) I stumbled on this empowering photo series called Stop the Mommy Wars. These photos actually brought tears to my eyes because I wish we could all be less judgmental. And I mean all of us, including me.

When I worked full-time after having Charlotte, I didn’t have time to do much judging, but I felt judged. Constantly. A colleague asked “how long did you breastfeed?” I started to explain my emotionally painful journey of extremely low milk supply, but decided to answer more simply: “about nine months.”  Her response: “oh, I breastfed for more than 18 months.” And then she told me all about her comically enormous lactating breasts. She wasn’t judging me; she was trying to connect. She had no way of knowing that the subject was incredibly complex and devastating for me. I wasn’t proud of those nine months I spent pumping and worrying; those long months of producing about one-tenth of what Charlotte needed. Sitting in the supply closet at work, watching those tiny drops of milk amount to less than an ounce per session. I was ashamed. My own mother had no trouble at all with breastfeeding, and I never imagined it would be hard. At our hospital tour, we got free cans of Enfamil–I actually threw them away, not having any idea how expensive formula was. In our international development work, we encourage women all over the world to breastfeed exclusively. In the United States, proponents of breastfeeding often suggest that formula should be locked up at the pharmacy (presumably so that women can be shamed by wanting to feed their babies??). It never occurred to me to give that precious formula to someone who really needed it, let alone save it for my baby, because I’d been taught that formula was the devil.

At a child’s birthday party a couple of years ago, I was getting to know some of the other moms, and one of them brought up the fact that she was so happy not to be working. I nodded in understanding, thinking of how much I longed to be home more. Another mom said, “I just don’t understand how these women can go to work all day and leave their babies. I think they must have something wrong with them.” The other moms nodded. I was in shock. Did it ever occur to them that some of us had no choice? I was “locked in” to my job and couldn’t afford to leave. But let’s assume I did have a choice. Choosing to work outside the home does not make you less of a mother. I get so tired of all those stay-at-home-mom salary memes online, the ones that say a SAHM should earn a six-figure salary for all the work she does. (Mostly, it annoys me because I used to be a nanny, an awesome nanny, and I was paid terribly.) Why do SAHMs seem to get more credit for being moms than the working moms? And what about the dads who do so much around the house? I was the one dropping Charlotte off at preschool, and Dan picked her up on his lunch hour. She napped all afternoon while we worked. Our time at home was 100% focused on child care and chores. Every second away from her, I missed her and wondered how she was. My SAHM friends were working out at the gym, going to the park, throwing birthday parties (and, yes, cleaning up poop and vomit, handling tantrums, etc.). Now that I’m at home with the girls, my life is better. I am closer to them, and I am really happy. (But that has more to do with my personality; although I’ve always tended to take on many things at once, I really thrive when I have less on my plate.) I have some nagging questions: what about the work I was doing to help poor people in developing countries? What about college funds, retirement, maybe owning a house someday? What message do I send to my daughters if I don’t work, despite my investment in graduate education? These questions can’t be answered adequately. At some point, you weigh the pros and cons and make a choice. The next step is to be comfortable with your choice, stop feeling guilty, and stop judging others.

Birth stories are yet another source of judgment and shame. But that really comes down to luck more than anything else. I did everything I could to avoid surgery with my first birth, but in the end, I was five minutes away from being wheeled into the OR. Charlotte’s birth was not pleasant (more like, horrific) and resulted in more damage than a c-section would have done. Willa’s birth was absolutely wonderful, but again, a lot of luck was involved. In South Africa, the norm is a scheduled c-section. My neighbors were all shocked that I wanted to try for a natural birth. My doctor admitted that she had very little experience with natural deliveries, but she was supportive if that’s what I really wanted. I was at a local capacity development workshop around my eighth month and a South African man asked me when the delivery date was. I said something like, “in about a month… but we’ll see when the baby wants to come.” I was not expecting him to give me a stern lecture on how dangerous it is to give birth naturally, and how my body would never be the same again. Thanks for the advice, dude!

When I was pregnant with Willa, a friend asked me what I would do differently the second time around. Without hesitation, I said, “I will not breastfeed if I have the same problems as I did last time.” Well, I had the same problems. And what did I do? I worked even harder this time. I didn’t sleep for the first six weeks, I spent over eight hours per day feeding the baby or pumping, I saw the best lactation consultants (again), bought yet another high-quality breast pump, took all of the herbs, and even tried a South African remedy called Jungle Juice (I shit you not, this is the recipe: 1 litre of boiled water, 1 litre of apple juice, 1 sachet Blackcurrant rehydrate, 60 mls schlehen berry elixir, 10 drops of rescue remedy. I can’t even find schlehen berry elixir outside of South Africa, but it’s in every pharmacy there). I’m not sure whether it was the Jungle Juice or what, but I eventually started producing enough for Willa. Am I proud of it? No–it was crazy. It took a little luck and a lot of time. Time that I wouldn’t have had if I’d gone back to work right away, like so many mothers must do or choose to do. I enjoy breastfeeding now, but it’s still a little bit wrapped up in my mind with all of that work and so much guilt–and don’t even get me started on the hormonal issues it causes. As Willa approaches her first birthday (the AAP-recommended minimum age to wean), I am both relieved and devastated that our nursing relationship will end. But to my pregnant friends and new-mom friends, my advice is never “keep working at it, it’s worth it!” My advice is, “formula is a wonderful thing.” I don’t want to discourage them, but I do want them to know that I support them because they are wonderful mothers. Breastfeeding is sort of irrelevant. It adds another dimension to the mother-child relationship, but so does everything else that makes you unique. Like all of the choices we make as parents, there are tradeoffs. There is no black-and-white answer. Some of us raise our kids in Ethiopia and believe we’re giving them a wonderful gift, while many others would never even consider it. I hope we can all try to trust each other a little bit more; we’re all just doing the best we can as parents.

Nursing selfie!

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