Surviving the Working Motherhood + Breastfeeding Toxic Stew

My friend Anne had her baby girl within a week of my son’s birth. When Anne’s baby was a few weeks old, she and her husband took the baby to a Major League Baseball game, and Anne posted a photo of the three of them on Facebook. Eighteen months later, I was talking on the phone with Anne about breastfeeding and Mom Guilt in general, and I mentioned that photo.

Me: “Remember that photo you posted of you guys at the baseball game? It sent me into a shame spiral. I spent days thinking, ‘Should we take our baby to a baseball game? Is he getting enough stimulation? They’re such fun parents! I’m such a lame parent.’”

Anne: “Oh. My. God. I posted that photo and spent days thinking, ‘Should we not have taken her? There were so many germs there! It was so loud! My other friends would never do this! We’re such bad parents.’”

In other words: Motherhood is the most efficient anxiety and self-judgment delivery system I’ve ever found. And in new motherhood, breastfeeding is the turbocharger to that system.

Generally speaking, we new mothers are horrible to ourselves. Why do we spend so many hours of the day analyzing our merit as mothers, talking ourselves off ledges, explaining to ourselves that we are doing OK at this, berating ourselves for what we didn’t do today, and comparing ourselves to the impossibly high standards we assume of those mothers around us?

This state of mind seems to be especially true when it comes to breastfeeding. Yes, there are mothers who blissfully do, or do not, breastfeed, and don’t seem to pay any mind to what is being said by society or their friends or their mothers or that horrible lady at the playground (if this is your first child, you haven’t met her yet, but you will . . . oh, you will).

For the majority of women, guilt and self-judgment are part and parcel of breastfeeding. From “Am I making enough milk?” to “Is my milk nutritious enough?” to “I want/need to stop breastfeeding but isn’t that selfish of me?” to “I just want a glass of wine,” the road through breastfeeding is peppered with landmines of guilt.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why the typical Mom Guilt factor seems to be on steroids when it comes to breastfeeding.

First of all, think being pregnant made you motherly? Pregnancy has nothing on the rush of hormones and instincts now flooding your brain and body. At this moment, you were built and made to protect this baby, whom you love more than you imagined possible. (If you don’t feel that feeling yet, don’t add this to the Guilt List. It will kick in eventually, I promise.) Women doing this successfully over the millennia is why we have a human race to speak of.

And for many women, this is our only job for the time being. In a baby’s first weeks of life, we have nothing to judge ourselves on (and what would we do if we couldn’t judge ourselves constantly?) other than our performance as mothers. No performance reviews, sales targets, budgets, or bonuses at work. No beating your best time on a five-mile run (please don’t try to do this in the first few weeks of your baby’s life), no secretly looking around the yoga studio to compare your headstand to your classmates’, no put-together outfit to feel accomplished about (just kind of cross that last one off your list for a good, long while). No hours of volunteer work in the community. No “how many beers can I chug in ten minutes?” (I’m not judging your prebaby lifestyle.)

So, there’s your totally screwed-up mental state. If this isn’t you, I am so, so happy for you. Please come to my house and parent my children while I go out for a drink.

Now stir in a big dose of sleep deprivation and add going back to work into the mix. Not only does going back to work add to your exhaustion and deplete the time you have with your baby, it also introduces the element of juggling milk-making and bread-winning. Now, you can choose: Feel guilty about being away from baby? Or feel guilty about the fact that taking time to pump is hurting your productivity at work? How about both!

I asked hundreds of working mothers how trying to work and breastfeed made them feel. And it turns out the answer is: amazing and terrible at the same time. The majority of women I interviewed cited negative feelings like anxiety, stress, and guilt . . . as well as pride at juggling it all and producing milk for the baby and excitement to be back at work.

Some were candid about being annoyed that pumping was taking them away from diving back into work, and some felt guilty that they were glad to be at work and get a break from the baby.

All of them were exhausted at the dual demands of work and motherhood.

Some felt a lot of pressure from coworkers to stop breastfeeding — especially as they neared or passed the one-year mark. I was surprised at how much of this pressure seemed to come from female coworkers who made comments about formula being just fine for babies (it is, but that’s not the point) or about the baby being “too old” for breastfeeding.

Many were surprised at their own answers, saying they hadn’t realized just how mixed (and strong) their emotions about the whole thing were. As Julie remarked, “Nothing has ever made me feel so empowered and so inadequate at the same time.”

The working/breastfeeding thing breeds its own catalog of things to stress about, feel guilty about, and get super self-judgmental about.

And then there’s the outside world. And in particular, the small but loud subset of “breast is best” (BIB) messengers (both formal, like lactation consultants, and informal, like some random woman on a facebook group you belong to) who use the term not as a rallying cry to help normalize breastfeeding in a world that still sends a woman to a “pet relief area to pump, but as a tool with which to bludgeon new, struggling mothers.

When I began to really struggle with managing breastfeeding and working, I came to hate BIB, to curse it loudly and colorfully whenever I saw or heard it, and to assume that everyone who uses this phrase is a jerk. I wanted to (and often did) shout out loud, “I fucking KNOW. Get off my back about it, because I’m doing the best I can.” When I was at the hardest points of breastfeeding and working, BIB sounded like “Breast is best . . . and you are the worst.” I felt like a failure.

But wait: Remember that we have had a generational break in breastfeeding. Our mothers were sold on the wonders of science and the ease of formula, and many of them didn’t breastfeed for very long, if at all. Breastfeeding certainly didn’t appear much in popular culture. The fact that breastfeeding is kind of a big deal again is due in large part to the work of the earliest BIB folks. I am grateful to them because I know that their work is a big part of why I even valued breastfeeding enough to give it a try, and why there are some (but REALLY not enough, yet) laws to protect my right to do so.

But I know that hearing and seeing BIB again and again, even if it’s meant in a totally innocuous way, can get pretty painful if it’s starting to look like you might not make whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. (And by the way, when you’re working and breastfeeding, not making your breastfeeding goals is not YOU failing, it’s the system — a system of crappy maternity leaves and crappy pumping laws and crappy work cultures towards pumping women — basically designed to make you produce as little milk as possible — failing you.) Hearing BIB from people who clearly want to make you feel bad about it, well, that’s actual bullying.

Social media is a terrible place for bullying in general, and this area is no exception. Women who breezed (or gritted) their way through extended breastfeeding sometimes post things like, “If you really cared about your baby, you’d know breast is best and you’d do anything in your power to avoid formula.” Others take the pseudosympathetic route: “It’s not that I’m antiformula; I know that a very, very limited number of women absolutely have to use formula as a last resort, when they’ve tried everything else, and I don’t judge those women.” The implication is that you are only allowed to give your baby formula if you half killed yourself trying to avoid it, and/or if your baby is on the brink of starvation.

Meeting a breastfeeding goal is something a woman should get to feel really, really proud of. If you can do it and it works for you, and your job allows for it, well, that’s a really great thing that you did.

But women who are super successful at meeting their breastfeeding goals are not better mothers. They are not better people. They’re just people who are finding success in doing a difficult thing. Unfortunately, the smug minority are making everybody else look bad. They’re the grown-up version of the clique of girls in your middle school who said you couldn’t sit at their lunch table because you hadn’t gone to second base or whatever.

When you do come across these women (and some men!) in the wild, do not engage with them. Don’t give them your attention, which is the power they seek. They lack the ability to envision anyone’s life as being different from their own, so responding to them will not result in a productive debate.

So as you head off to climb this big old mountain, I just want to ask you to do one more thing: Picture us, your army of fellow working mothers, who love you.

We are out there, too, feeling guilty and proud all at once.

We are sitting with you, pump perched precariously on your knees, typing an email on your phone, in the storage closet.

We are running with you across the office or the school or the courthouse or the hospital building, late for a meeting but needing to get that milk into the fridge that is located about as far away from the lactation room as it can get.

We are experiencing that moment of nausea with you when you spill breastmilk all over your keyboard (tell the IT Department that it was coffee).

We are with you as your heart sinks when you get to work and realize you only brought half of your pump parts.

We are cheering with you when you make it to a breastfeeding milestone you never thought you’d reach.

We are with you at the store when you buy your first canister of formula, and you cry in the aisle. And we are with you when your baby drinks that formula; we are whispering in your ear that this is OK, this is good, you are still the same good mother you were yesterday.

We are sharing that quiet moment with you every evening when you fill up your baby’s bottles with whatever you’re feeding him, ready for the next day.

We are raising a glass of wine to you when the kids are in bed, in that blissful five minutes before one of them starts crying again.

We are so, so proud of you for being a working mom and for giving this breastfeeding and working thing a shot. And we’re just dying to hear your war stories and successes in this journey.

So go already. Get out there, attach a machine to one of the most sensitive and private parts of your body, and make the magic happen.

You’re a warrior. You’re a badass. You’re a working mother, and that’s an amazing thing.

And when you see one of us on the street, at the airport, or on the train (you’ll know us by our “this is supposed to look like a briefcase” pump bag), know that we are on your side. We’re exhausted. We have dried breastmilk on our work clothes. We have pumped in places we never imagined possible. And we — the real women around you, the ones who have your back — think you’re awesome.

This piece is an edited excerpt from Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, Abrams, 2015

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