You know what phrase I abhor, sometimes?
"All that matters."
I dislike it, specifically, when people confuse it with "the most important thing that matters." And I dislike it most in the cases of two particular topics: birth and breastfeeding.
You hear it a lot. Mother has a birth that leaves her disappointed or traumatized? People trot out the cliche: "All that matters is that you have a healthy baby." Breastfeeding, for one reason or another, fails? It's back again. "All that matters is that your baby is being fed."
I've been fortunate to have had two childbirths that were (mostly) what I wanted. I've been fortunate to have a strong milk supply, good breastfeeding support, and two happy nursing experiences.
So no one has yet given me the dubious comfort of "all that matters." But if things change with future births or future nursing experiences and people try to hand me those lines, I'm going to raise an unhappy eyebrow in their direction.
I get that it's about comforting the mother. Often mothers are feeling guilty or unhappy with their bodies. It is certainly good for them to focus on the fact that less-than-ideal can still be perfectly good. It's good for them to recognize that c-sections and formula are not disasters. It's good for them to realize that the health - mental and physical - of the baby and the mother are the most important things, and that it's worth making sacrifices to safeguard them.
But "most important" and "all that matters" are not the same thing.
Mothers deserve to feel what they feel. The process of giving birth and nourishing a brand-new person is an emotionally-charged hormonally-overwhelming rush of crazy beautiful exhausting despair and love. A mother might be sad and bewildered by the fact that her body didn't rise to the challenge of childbirth, or that she isn't producing the milk to feed her baby. Telling her "all that matters is the baby is healthy and fed" might be an attempt to comfort her. But "all that matters" implies that her feelings about it don't matter. Which isn't true. Or at least, it shouldn't be.
And frankly, you know who benefits from "all that matters"? It's not mothers and babies. It's the system.
We currently have a medical culture that treats the birth process as a illness and gives little real breastfeeding education and support to the average new mother. (We won't get into whether financial incentives from formula companies have anything to do with this.) "All that matters" just helps the flaws in that culture to perpetuate.
When a mother is told that "all that matters" is that her birth results in a healthy baby, who benefits? The doctor who's got a dinner reservation and just wants to cut that baby out of her so he can make it. Never mind whether her body, given time and the right support, could eventually push the baby out safely.
(I know that c-sections are occasionally life-saving. Thank goodness they exist. But necessary at a rate of one in three? I don't think so.)
When a mother is told that "all that matters" is that her baby is fed, who benefits? The companies that make the formula. And possibly the mother, too, if formula turns out to be the best choice for her, but she should at least be able to make that choice freely, instead of feeling like she was forced into it by her body "failing" her.
The medical culture is the thing that's really failing here. But there's no way to change it if people don't talk about it.
A woman who's allowed the privilege of grieving the birth or the nursing experience she wished she'd had is a woman who is more likely to feel, at some point, the anger she deserves to feel about it. Certainly every woman will meet that anger in her own unique way, but I can't help but think that some of them will meet it by digging deeper, and learning, and pushing back.
I understand that many (maybe most?) mothers don't feel as passionately about birth and breastfeeding as I do. That's fine. But I wonder how many of them could, or would, if they'd been lucky enough to have the experiences I've had.
I'm not out to get everyone to have a drug-free birth and breastfeed for two years. Those are the choices that have worked for me; they're not for everyone. But I do want every mother to have the feeling that has made me a happier, stronger mother: the knowledge that my body is strong and capable, and that it has been given the chance to do its absolute best for my children.
Understand, I know that there are rare bodies which really *cannot* get those babies out. There are mothers who would have died in childbirth a hundred years ago. Thank goodness we have safe, modern c-section to save them.
I know too many women, though, who were told their c-sections were necessary, but whose birth stories involve a precipitous induction or spiraling interventions or an impatient caesarean-happy doctor. Their bodies didn't fail them. The medical system did.
The women whose lives have truly been saved by c-section should have the opportunity to be grateful for the procedure, secure in the knowledge that it was vital. And the women whose c-sections were likely unnecessary should have the opportunity to be angry with the doctors instead of disappointed with their own bodies, so that we can all become more educated and more motivated to help achieve a medical system that respects women's bodies and values the natural process of birth.
In the same way, with breastfeeding, there are surely some bodies that will not produce enough milk to feed their babies. That's one reason wet nurses have existed throughout human history. But is the current rate of breastfeeding success the same as it was in the days before our current medical system? I can't believe it is.
I fully support every woman's right to choose the best way to feed her baby, whether it's with breastmilk, formula, or both. Maximizing the physical and mental health and happiness of the entire family is more important than maximizing the baby's breastmilk intake.
However. It seems like there are many women out there who are unhappy with the choices they were forced to make. Mention nursing in a public forum and you will immediately find dozens of women who feel sad or guilty about the amount of breastmilk they were able to give their babies.
Generally the suggested solution is that we all treat breastmilk and formula as equals and stop "making women feel guilty" about not nursing. Granted, there are certainly overzealous breastfeeding advocates who should be more sensitive to the feelings of the women they're trying to help. And rudeness should never be tolerated.
But telling unhappy women "all that matters" is that their babies are eating - when their own instincts tell them otherwise - is belittling and unproductive. Many women whose low supply kept them from nursing are trying to make peace with the fact that their bodies "failed" them, when in reality their bodies were not given the proper chance to succeed. Instead of "all that matters," let's give them permission to be sad or angry and motivate them to start asking the right questions, like: why did this happen? and how can we keep it from happening again?
Mothers deserve the proper tools to make sure they produce as much milk as their bodies can. After that, they make their own decisions about whether to keep nursing full time, and we should respect their choices and laud them for doing the best for their families.
Of course, low milk supply is not the only reason women stop nursing or exclusively nursing, and they should be given the space to be angry about other factors too. Unsupportive relatives, a corporate culture hostile to breastfeeding, pediatricians who expect breastfed babies to grow like formula-fed ones - all these things need to change, and they won't do so without pressure.
I'm all about supporting other mothers. I have no interest (as some people apparently do) in endlessly debating what kind of birth or feeding method is "best." I don't think there is any one best thing; there's only the best thing for your particular family.
I hate to see mothers endlessly attacking each other when we do have real enemies. We deserve to be treated respectfully before, during, and after birth, and our bodies deserve to be assumed competent to accomplish the task. We deserve to have all the information about how to help our bodies feed our babies. We deserve to rest easily in the knowledge that our bodies have been given the chance to do the best they can.
That babies are born, that they live, that they thrive no matter what they're eating: these are the most important things. They're not, however, the *only* important things. Pretending otherwise just enables the forces that push women around.
Let's not let that happen.