We’ve all heard the statistics: Breastfeeding is the absolute gold standard in infant nutrition. Studies suggest it prevents everything from diarrhea to pneumonia to diabetes to obesity. A World Bank vice president once said that if breastfeeding were a new technology, its inventor would deserve a joint Nobel Prize in medicine and economics.
For all of these reasons, I chose to breastfeed my three kids, and I’ve also worked through our foundation to help empower women in developing countries to follow best breastfeeding practices.
But I’m also deeply aware that no matter where you are in the world, the conversation about breastfeeding can get a little one-sided. It tends to focus on all the ways breastfeeding benefits a child, while glossing over just how hard — or even impossible — it can be for a mother: physically, emotionally, and logistically. Since this week is World Breastfeeding Week, I think it’s important we acknowledge that side of the story, too.
In the scheme of things, I was actually pretty lucky when it came to breastfeeding. I was physically able to, and I had a lot of support. But even so, I was caught off-guard by how difficult it was.
For my part, I’d more or less imagined that breastfeeding would look like one of those Mary Cassatt paintings I’ve always loved — the ones that show a happily feeding child and a lovingly mesmerized mother, all of it tender, peaceful, and rendered in soft pastels. The reality, of course, was a lot messier. When I think back to my first few days of motherhood, I was overwhelmingly in love with my daughter. At the same time, I was stunned by how long each feeding took. That tiny, precious thing was also an incredibly slow eater. I sat there wondering, How am I ever going to get on with my life?
By the time my youngest child had moved onto solid foods, I had spent hours on hours staring at my breast pump, imagining all the ways I could improve the design. The small ones didn’t have enough suction. The ones that did were the size of a car battery. And the noise was something else. (I briefly even considered patenting my own design. I like to think that in an alternate life, I’m a breast-pump tycoon.)
I think a lot of us go into motherhood with these idealized images of breastfeeding in our minds. But what those don’t show you is that keeping a tiny baby alive comes with a tremendous amount of pressure.
A mom has to worry about whether her baby has properly latched, whether her baby is gaining weight, whether she’s producing enough of that milk that everyone keeps lecturing her is so essential to her baby’s survival and success. There are plenty of people telling her what she’s doing wrong or what she should be doing better. There are fewer who show up to actually help her — or who are designing policies with her and her family in mind.
If she works outside the home, there’s a good chance that even though she’s been advised that she should breastfeed for at least six months, she’s not getting anywhere near that much time off. A growing body of research shows that one of the many benefits of paid family and medical leave is that it helps women who want to breastfeed do so longer. But until those policies become the norm, working moms who want to continue breastfeeding will have to lug a cumbersome pump to and from work every day, hoping their coworkers will be understanding and respectful when they have to carve out time from their workdays to find a private place to pump.
The bottom line is this: Motherhood is a tough balancing act, and every mom deserves the chance to do what’s right for her and her family. If that means breastfeeding, great. If that means formula feeding, that’s totally fine, too. I just want to make sure that every mom truly does have both options.
So this World Breastfeeding Week, let’s start an honest conversation about how we can make it easier for parents everywhere to nourish their babies. And instead of offering new moms more unsolicited advice (they get a lot of that), let’s solicit some.
World Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7 this year, and the entire month of August is devoted to breastfeeding awareness.