Finding parental confidence in any form
As a maternal healthcare provider and mom advocate, I am fearful to admit this. My career choices, first as a Labour and Delivery nurse and now as an IBCLC, have definitely not reflected my personal life choices. I have never experienced the desire to be a mother.
With full confidence, I can tell you that I have never uttered the phrase, “when I have kids…”. I remember thinking that I was missing a key link in my female psyche. Or perhaps I thought about motherhood too much: not only do you have to deal with pregnancy, labour, and birth, but then you have to feed them, clean up after them, and generally tend to their every need. Yikes.
Maybe kids are alright?
As a nurse, I was drawn to labour and delivery because it is exciting and results-oriented. In addition to the adrenaline rushes, however, I found the emotional part of this field to be overwhelming (but in a good way!). Over the course of a 12 hour shift, it isn’t uncommon to see a patient through from the start of their labour to their post-delivery transfer to the postpartum unit. I love seeing the nervous looks on the parents-to-be’s faces as they arrive, I enjoy answering their questions and providing support and education throughout their labour. The moment of delivery is so beautiful: the look of pure love on the partner’s face, while the mother’s demeanor changes immediately from stressed and uncomfortable to calm and nurturing. It makes me so happy to take the new family over to the postpartum unit, sending them off with my sincere congratulations and best wishes.
Back to my personal life: Cory and I had been dating for nearly 6 months when I first met his daughter, R. She was 2 years old, but spoke in full sentences, better than most adults. R made it known immediately that she was smarter than everyone and that she had her dad wrapped around her tiny finger. She had attitude, sass, humour, and was devoid of fear. She also loved Disney princesses, wearing dresses, and having pink and purple EVERYTHING. A very well-rounded and entertaining little being. We mostly played Barbies, watched Barbie movies (which are atrocious, by the way), and completed Barbie coloring books. She was endlessly funny and entertaining, and instantly lovable.
Failure, failure, and more failure!
The first time I watched R by myself, she got a small motorized mouse toy wound up in her hair. There were a LOT of tears (both hers and mine). When R was 3 years old, she mentioned that she wanted to watch a movie with vampires and werewolves. I figured, ‘that Twilight movie can’t be so bad’. It turned out that it WAS that bad and, to everyone’s dismay, she loved it. I take full responsibility for her scary movie obsession that continues to this day.
This was my first foray into anything even remotely like motherhood (though, let’s face it, it wasn’t at all like motherhood). It was going horribly. I cared so much for her well-being, but most people around me lacked an understanding for our situation. Friends would say things like “if I got divorced, I would never let another woman take care of MY kids”. Stepmothers are often depicted in movies as “wicked” or “evil”. I found it difficult to find someone to whom I could relate. At the same time, I felt an astounding sense of empathy for all of my patients, and first-time moms, who are bombarded daily with guilt-trippy articles, social media braggers, and well-meaning family members. Even healthcare professionals often, though unwittingly, bestow judgement and conflicting advice.
What does this have to do with you and your parenting and breastfeeding journey?
Well, a lot, actually. I will focus on the topic of infant feeding because it is my area of expertise, but keep in mind that it is only one facet of parental responsibility. Much of what I say can be expanded to include any part of your parenting journey: child development, discipline, behaviour, etc.
Why is confidence lacking?
Confidence is one of the most important qualities that will determine breastfeeding success. For most of our history, breastfeeding was the only infant feeding option. In the event that a mother was unable to breastfeed, a “wet nurse” (someone who was lactating and could feed the infant; this may have been a family member, but was usually someone hired for this purpose) would take on the feeding duties.
It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800’s when artificial infant formula really fell into favour. First, many wealthy families used “wet nurses” to breastfeed their babies. These women were usually black slaves, who were left with no choice but to nurse the children of their owners. This had dangerous consequences, as the wet nurse would be separated from her own infant for hours/days/weeks/months. Left with no other choice, enslaved families started the practice of “dry nursing”. This involved feeding babies a mixture of grains or flour with water, broth, or butter and resulted in many deaths. Of course, wealthy families noticed that the children of their wet nurses were dying and, rather than recognizing the consequences of separating women from their own infants in order to breastfeed white babies, they naturally only vilified the practice of dry nursing. (Note: this is a very brief history; for more information on how black women were exploited, and their children left to die, please read “Black Milk: White Women, Enslaved Wet Nurses, and Maternal Violence in the Antebellum Slave Market” by Stephanie E.Jones-Rogers, 2011).
At the same time, there was a growing desire for all things scientific and man-made. Doctors (who, let’s face it, were predominantly male) decided that they could create a superior method of infant feeding. Thus artificial infant formula was created. Commercial entities then saw the opportunity to make and market one-size-fits-all infant feeding solutions. Yes, this is a very simplified version of breastfeeding history, and formula serves a very necessary purpose for many infants; but, let’s face it:
Corporations have been undermining women’s bodies by capitalizing on modern society’s lack of breastfeeding knowledge and preying on diminished maternal confidence.
Now, just because breastfeeding is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s easy. Past civilizations lived with their extended families, and were in close contact with women of all ages. Breastfeeding was a daily sight and a regular part of life. By the time a woman was of childbearing age, she would have been exposed to breastfeeding practices for years, would have an excellent background knowledge, high comfort level, and would have multiple support people around at all times. In present-day North American society, breastfeeding is treated as a very private event.
Sometimes, the first time a woman is exposed to breastfeeding is when she is attempting it with her own baby. When feeding in public, women have often been given dirty looks, told to cover up, and even forced to feed in public bathroom stalls.
There are countless obstacles to achieving parental confidence: the aforementioned social media trolls and braggers, well-intentioned but outspoken family members, and strangers in the mall who feel the need to offer their unsolicited advice. Even the copious number of parenting guides and websites, moms groups, and blogs available is overwhelming: it is impossible to know everything there is to know about breastfeeding, child development, and parenting in general.
How do we deal?
You have to do what works for you, your family, and your child. Sometimes, we have to learn to shut out all the “haters” and ignore the judgement. It is a difficult thing to do, especially as a first time parent, when you feel that you need all of the advice. The truth is, most of the “advice” is not useful. You need to surround yourself with encouraging and supportive friends, family members, and health care providers. No one else can truly understand your situation or the parenting choices you make. People will always find ways to judge you, and mothers are a very common target. It is also so important to be “real”, be vulnerable, admit what you don’t know, admit your struggles. If everyone was open and honest about this, we would realize that, although all of our hardships are different, we can all relate to one another on some level. No one is doing it perfectly.
When I started studying to become an IBCLC, I could not believe (and still can’t believe) the amount of information that is applicable to infant feeding. Some of it is credible and valid, but a lot of it isn’t. No new parent has time to read, research, and review all of the materials out there. I vow to be the one to sift through the huge amounts of information, so that I can supply my clients with the best education, strategies, guidance and support. I will use my education and experience to bring about a balanced and realistic perspective; I will make this journey about YOU and your unique goals.
Now, how is my parental journey going?
Well, R is 11 years old now. Still full of attitude and sass, but also deeply intelligent, empathetic, and funny. We have developed a great bond over the years and we always have a fantastic time together. I now feel more responsibility to provide positive role modeling and education; the world of social media opens up all kinds of challenges for parents of preteens. Does she respect me as a parental figure? The jury is still out on that. Sometimes, she does what I ask her to do. Usually, she doesn’t. But she doesn’t do what anyone asks of her, so I don’t take it personally. I have accepted that not everyone will understand our bond and I know that my role will always be ever-evolving but ever-present.