Okay, so I kinda learned my lesson the last time I wrote an off-the-cuff blog post from a tweet. I do better when I have time to think and state things carefully.
For the record, my official position on teething is that I think it can - and does for many kids - cause real pain. I remember my gums aching as my wisdom teeth broke through! The part of "teething" that I don't "believe in" is the part where, when babies are fussy and drooly and chewing on their hands for weeks on end, and possibly sleep badly some of the time in there, people are all "it's teething!" and when the teeth finally break through after months of this, they think it proves the connection. It seems to me much more likely that a variety of factors (especially the oft-overlooked developmental ones) cause babies and toddlers to act in a variety of ways. And in my own parenting, I find it more helpful/productive/satisfying to look for those factors rather than to throw my hands up and blame the whole mess on the teeth. But if you like blaming teething, go for it! I couldn't care less.
I am going to talk about breastfeeding and guilt, because I have spent a LOT of time pondering this topic and I'm curious to know what other people think. I have no intent to blame or shame ANYONE, and in fact I want to give you a hug, no matter what your experience of feeding your baby was. Yes, YOU. I like YOU.
I'm writing this, honestly, because I want to help. I've witnessed a lot of guilt surrounding baby-feeding choices. I also just finished several months of extremely helpful cognitive therapy that took me from anxious wreck to a person who could write this piece and mean it. So I'm now a Believer in that approach and I want to help people Solve Their Problems! By Thinking About Them Differently!
That sounds naive. But seriously, this particular train of thought has helped me (as you'll see) deal with some of my own mother-guilt struggles, so. It's worth sharing, I think, just in case.
But it comes with a disclaimer! I am writing this the same way I did the teething post, just kind of spewing it all out, so please give me the benefit of the doubt if you think I'm being judgemental/hasty/irresponsible/whatever. I like you! I support you! I am pro-breastfeeding and pro-mother and I just want everyone to be able to find the best solutions for her family AND to feel good about those solutions.
I fed Camilla and Blaise food from McDonald's yesterday. Chicken nuggets, fries, and a chocolate chip cookie each. They had milk to drink, but unless you think ketchup is a vegetable, this was not a balanced meal.
Not only that, but my kids eat fast food on a regular basis. I'm not going to name the exact frequency because it might make some of you feel smug and some of you feel worse about yourselves, and that is not the point. The point is, they eat fast food. Because it's so processed, I have a low opinion of fast food as nutrition, but I give it to them anyway.
And! I don't feel guilty about it. I might sigh inwardly if the frequency of fast-food-feeding increases in a particular time period, and I might resolve to make the next few meals extremely whole-foody and balanced. But I don't feel guilty.
You know what I have felt massively guilty about in the recent past? My babies' NICU time. Specifically, the fact that while they were there, I didn't sleep at the hospital with them, hold them for every feeding, or spend hours doing skin-to-skin time with them.
I felt deeply, heart-wrenchingly guilty about this. Sometimes I sobbed until I couldn't see straight, so worried was I about whether I *should* be there, and about how my babies might suffer because I wasn't.
For reference: when Linus and Ambrose were in the NICU, I was with them 3-4 hours a day for various feedings/visits, so each of them got about 1.5-2 hours of time with me, plus about an hour of time being held by Bryan.
But it doesn't matter exactly how much time it was. It could've been more and it could've been less. The point is that it was the best solution we had then, and with it I managed a tenuous balance of protecting my mental health, meeting my physical needs, and being there for my older children. If I'd been at the hospital more, those things would've had to give, and it wouldn't have been pretty.
Rationally, I KNEW that we were making the best choices we could, and that it was the right thing for us. Rationally, I have no regrets.
Irrationally, I still get a pang when I see a picture of a mother doing Kangaroo care with her late-preterm baby* or when I read about any parent who spent more time than I did with her baby at the NICU. Almost nine months later, even with a happy ending of healthy, well-attached babies and a thriving family, I still FEEL that I should have been with Ambrose and Linus 24/7 during that time. I feel guilty that I wasn't. It makes no sense, but it's true.
In comparison, it is easy for me to process and reject any hint of guilt I might feel when I read about someone else's children lapping up organic quinoa-flaxseed-kale salad for lunch. "Good for that family!" I think, and then I move on. My kids eat more processed food and fewer vegetables than they would in an ideal world. We're working on it. There's no need to berate myself.
SO. (And here is where I tie in the breastfeeding thread, in case you were worried I'd forgotten the topic!) WHY would I have crushing guilt over a set of GOOD - if difficult - choices we made for our family, while neatly side-stepping any guilt over some less-than-optimal ones?
Why, also, does a blog post by a woman about her wonderful breastfeeding experience - yes, even one that is devoid of judgment of others' choices - almost invariably draw sad/angry/self-flagellating comments from women who did not have the same experience? While a post about a family's organic diet, while it might draw some annoyed comments if it's too judgy, does not generally strike the same sensitive chords in mothers' hearts?
(I said generally! Standard disclaimer about exceptions, etc.)
I have a theory about one of the big reasons, and it is this: HORMONES.
Hey, I'm exclusively nursing twins. You know who expects that? Hardly anyone. Even most dedicated breastfeeding advocates give a pass on nursing multiples. But I am positive, deep-down to-my-core SURE, that if I had stopped nursing Ambrose and Linus for whatever reason, I would feel guilty about it. I would have grief and regret and I would second-guess myself and it would be painful. And all of this would happen DESPITE the fact that people do not expect me to nurse the twins.
It would be totally irrational, just like my guilt about the NICU thing. But I'm sure I would have it anyway.
When my babies were in the NICU, my mind KNEW that the best thing for my family was to take advantage of the excellent care L&A were getting and to focus on providing for all our other needs too, the better to keep us happy and healthy and ready for the way life would change when they came home. My mind knew this, but my body screamed at me: be with your babies! Be with your babies! You have to be with your babies!
I wonder if ceasing breastfeeding doesn't also cause women's bodies to play tricks on them in this way. I know way too many women who fed their babies fully or partially with formula because it was the best choice for their families at the time, who are rationally confident in their decisions, but who still struggle with grief and regret months or even years later. It's sad.
And yet it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: over most of human history, only a woman who had abandoned or lost her baby would stop needing to make milk during his infancy. Women who did feel guilty at the prospect of abandoning their babies - and who thus stayed with them instead - would be more likely to have their children survive, and thus the guilt would be genetically reinforced from generation to generation.
So maybe it is is actually CODED IN, so to speak. WHOA.
I know the message my body screamed at me in the NICU weeks was instinctive rather than rational, and maybe that explains why pumping (which I later hated) was soothing during that time: it reminded my body that my babies were alive and that I was still caring for them.
I believe instinct can be helpful, but I also know better than my body, and in that case, my babies were fine at the NICU without me. They were sleeping, often through their feedings, even. A lot of the time they were under the bili lights and I couldn't have been holding them even if I were in the room. I'm sure that they would've benefitted at least a tiny bit from my presence (as babies always do) but not as much as my family and I benefitted from my being elsewhere.
My babies were carefully cared-for and in the best place for them. My body just didn't know it.
In the same way, babies these days can be fine without milk from their mothers. They can eat formula or milk from other sources, and they can be fed by bottle by their own mothers or by other people who care for them. But maybe... maybe those mothers' bodies just don't know it? And thus: the guilt.
Recognizing that my body was responding instinctively to the NICU separation, and working through it rationally, has helped me a lot. I know people process things in different ways, but I wonder if some women who are struggling with guilt over feeding choices could be helped by recognizing the hormonal/instinctive aspect? Especially if it's all retrospective and there's nothing they can do to change the choices anyway.
I'm curious: what do you think?
*Pictures of parents with early preterm babies just make me feel profoundly grateful for how lucky we were. 34 weeks is a HUGE blessing, prematurity-time-wise.