Though there are strong arguments in favor of breastfeeding it still doesn't mean it's right for all women. But part of winning a motherhood contest means making everyone do things the right way—meaning your way. Explains Long, "Everybody has the idea that the way they do something is the only way. They're often not open to other viewpoints." Problems arise when women who are perceived to be doing things "wrong" are made to feel guilty and defensive. "I noticed that when I was bottle-feeding I got much more of a reaction than I did for nursing," says Messing. "People would look at me as if to say, 'Why are you giving your baby a bottle. You're right here, why don't you nurse her?' I often felt as if I had to give an explanation of why I was bottle-feeding my child."
Mothers are particularly vulnerable to negative comments because they're so anxious to do what's best for their child. "New mothers especially are riddled with self-doubts," believes Long. "You're so concerned about doing the absolute best for your baby that you're easy prey to any suggestions that you're not doing things correctly." Plus, anxiety about motherhood often causes common sense and self-esteem to go on the fritz. That's why implied or stated criticism can be so devastating, especially for women who have unsuccessfully tried nursing. They often feel like failures. Explains one mother, "Everybody talked about how natural breastfeeding is. I don't think that's true, I think it's a learned skill. I gave it up because it was so difficult for me, and I'm still guilty about it."
The Guilt Factor
Guilt may pressure women into nursing even if it makes them uncomfortable. "I breastfed my baby for all the wrong reasons," explains one Sudbury, Massachusetts mother. "My husband really wanted me to breast-feed and so I did. Not surprisingly, I had a very rough time with it. I ended up not only resenting my husband, but my baby as well."
Even when women are doing it "right" and opting to breast-feed, they may still be caught up in the motherhood competition. Some women boast about the length of time they nursed their kids, or about the richness or profusion of their milk. "I had all these born-again breast-feeders bragging to me about their milk supplies," says Long. "They'd say things like, 'My milk was so rich my baby only had to feed for five minutes on each side. It's too bad your baby needs to nurse for forty minutes. Your milk must be thin.'" Unfortunately, women like this feel compelled to bolster their own egos at the expense of everyone else's.
Finding Common Ground
It's time for mothers to put aside their differences and unite. After all, we're sure more alike than we are different in the dreams, desires and love we have for our children. Adds Hill-Walker, "In our society mothers of young children already receive too little support. There's no extended family around and we're a transient society. Frequently the only support a mother gets is from other mothers. That's why it's so tragic. If a woman is made to feel guilty by other parents that often means she's not receiving any support at all." Let's focus on what we really want for our world. We want a healthy baby and a healthy mother, not only physically but emotionally as well. Whatever feeding method a couple selects to achieve this goal is the best way for that particular family. So, lady in the grocery store, I'm sorry. Now if you can only give up smoking . . .