Over the last year, there has been a massive cultural reckoning when it comes to the treatment of women. After generations of institutionalized sexism, with two little words, women everywhere made it abundantly clear that we are the sole authors of our physical and emotional narratives. And yet, when it comes to breastfeeding, this immensely personal topic remains stuck in the court of public opinion.
We own our bodies and our choices, and yet one of the most intimate decisions a woman can make about her body is somehow accepted as open for a societal verdict.
There’s a weird phenomenon that happens when a woman has a child. In the eyes of society, she changes. She becomes less an autonomous, fully realized human being, and more an archetype, a symbol for new life and that little seed of potential.
People think they have an ownership share in motherhood. They feel entitled to the possibility held in a pregnant belly, partly because it’s a beautiful one. It reminds them of the future, of a world yet to come. And this may be why people feel they have the right to touch a pregnant woman without her permission, comment on her size, or discuss the shape and position of her belly.
It’s why every aspect of pregnancy is scrutinized and picked apart, why pregnant women hear things like “Are you sure you should be eating that turkey sandwich?”, “Is that decaf?” or “Should you be running?” It’s why women are judged if they gain too much weight during pregnancy and also why they are judged if they don’t gain enough.
Women become public domain when they are pregnant, vessels first and people second. And this societal input continues well after delivery, particularly in regard to breastfeeding.
There are a lot of great, concrete advantages to breastfeeding. None of these were why I chose to breastfeed my two children. I chose to breastfeed because it worked. I never had supply or latch issues. I never had mastitis. Despite some persistent plugged ducts with my daughter and a bout of thrush with my son, breastfeeding came easily to me.
I enjoyed it, the closeness, the way my babies reached up their little hands to stroke my cheek as they fed, the warm and sleepy oxytocin high. On a selfish level, I liked the calorie burning benefit, the ravenous hunger that gave me an excuse to eat like a high school linebacker. I liked the escape hatch that breastfeeding provided, the knowledge that if all else failed, there was one surefire way I could soothe my baby.
I loved nursing both of my children, until the day I didn’t. With both of my children, I didn’t decide to stop breastfeeding because my supply dropped. I didn’t choose to wean because of my career or hectic schedule. There were no medical reasons for the change, no issues with reflux or allergies. My babies thrived and grew on breastmilk, all round cheeks and thigh rolls and big bellies.
I simply reached a point where I no longer wanted to do it, where I was ready for it to end, ready to not feel like a giant sea of hormones, ready to get my body back, to no longer be a food source. It was my body, my breasts, and my choice.
Some might call me selfish, for stopping with no real “reason” to stop. Even though I’m a registered nurse, some might want to educate me, to present studies and research for the benefits of prolonged breastfeeding. Some would caution against formula, list all of the risks and potentially harmful effects.
I know these people mean well. I appreciate the generous, reflexive instinct of humanity when it comes to the topic of childrearing, the village mentality, to want to help care for the child of a stranger. And yet, I also strain against this mindset, because I believe part of it is motivated by the pervasive idea that strangers have a right to weigh in on what a woman does with her body.
How we carry our children, how we bring them into the world, how we feed them. We own these decisions, whether we nurse or formula feed, whether we have an unmedicated birth or get an epidural, whether we follow strict dietary restrictions or eat occasional brie and sushi during pregnancy.
The idea that any of this is up for public debate, while clearly distinct from the issue of sexual harassment, stems from the same dangerous place, a society where a woman is a physical object instead of a human, a collection of parts instead of an individual.
Mothers are many things, but at the end of the day, we are the authors of our choices, the sole proprietor of our bodies and souls. All we ask is for the world to see us and respect our agency.