Breastfeeding – A women’s right

It is time for me to put pen to paper and write about something that has been close to my heart for four years.

It took me a while to come to the conclusions I eventually reached and then they seemed so logical and common sense that I thought that I didn’t need to say something. I was wrong.

You wonder what I am talking about?!
Before I get to that let me set the scene:
(One of many possibilities – feel free to put one in familiar to you).
You are in a shopping mall, having a stall during breastfeeding awareness week. Lots of different people come by, some stop and chat others just rush by.

Women tell you: “Oh – I have done that.”
                              “Breastfeeding didn’t work for me.”
                              “Breastfeeding never was an option.”
                              “I am still doing it.”
I think you get my drift….

And then all of a sudden – out of the blue, a mother screams at you: “It is not that easy or simple” and tears are standing in her eyes. Baffled you try to talk to her, try to explain that you didn’t mean to hurt her that you know how complicated breastfeeding sometimes is. But she doesn’t stop, she nearly runs away from you; leaving you with a sense of sadness and bewilderment.

Where did this come from? Why is this woman still reeling with the emotions from her breastfeeding times after so many years?

This is just one of several encounters I have had with women who, even years later, were still hurting from the experience and the resulting feeling of failure.

I couldn’t let go of these encounters without a satisfactory explanation. I went down many different roads, but all of them left me with the feeling that I was missing something, that the explanations were good, but not covering everything.
Until one day I had to put a presentation about breastfeeding together and I had 10 minutes to make my point.
I decided to find one statement that encapsulates the most important point for me. Easier said than done…
I went through the benefits, but that would fill pages. So I started with the reasons behind the breastfeeding.
Why do women want to breastfeed?
And that’s when it hit me. The whole time I had been putting breastfeeding into the wrong framework. I had looked at it from these different perspectives:

  • Mother – baby relationship
  • Family
  • The community
  • Our society.

All these frameworks were right and they were also not enough.
The reason why women want to breastfeed comes from an evolutionary point of view.
Everything we do (eating, sleeping etc.) is designed with one view in mind:

That we as human beings survive.

Nature didn’t know that we would live in heated houses, be able to buy food and have blankets to keep our babies warm or to put it from a different perspective: Nature has designed life in a way that it relies as much as it can on the human being and very little on things; all these survival mechanisms run on instincts.

The baby’s instincts make it to want to stay with a source of warmth (physical and emotional) and food (often the mother) as it would otherwise not survive.
We as women get hit during our pregnancy with the first connection, or reawakening, of our instincts and when the baby is born we get hit by another dose. Every woman will experience this, with varying degrees, but it will be there.
The reaction to it will be culturally (societal) shaped and again vary a lot. But at the end of the day – when it comes to breastfeeding – our bodies and minds are run by our instincts.
Therefore if a women, for whatever reason doesn’t succeed in breastfeeding her baby, the sense of loss and failure goes much deeper than intellect or emotions; it connects on an instinct level. This woman has ‘failed’ the human race as she hasn’t been able to do the most basic thing: to feed her baby.

This sense of failure goes much deeper than any other failure someone experiences in their life.

There is very little grasp on this in our society, as most people will approach it from a logical viewpoint and say: “Well you did your best, it just didn’t work out” or “You had to give a bottle you didn’t want your baby to starve” or “What is your problem? You are still feeding your baby. You are just using a bottle.”

These well-meaning replies will work on some level for some women, or at least soothe some of the pain, but don’t meet the woman at the root of her deep hurt.
As there are alternative feeding methods there is little understanding that the pain and sorrow is only partly about the sort of food the baby gets and therefore our society then denies these women the right to grieve for their loss.

What these women need is time and space to grieve, debrief and an explanation that meets them on all levels.

So – next time you meet a woman who is very deeply hurt, see if you can give her some of what she has been missing and help her to put it in the bigger framework.
Maybe the ability to understand and be understood can then be the first step to heal.

Petra Hoehfurtner © 2004/2008

First published in ‘Feedback’ March 2009

Published under the title ‘Tears in Her Eyes” in the anthology “Musings on Mothering” 2012 ( as a fundraiser for LLL GB by Teika Bellamy (Editor).