Breastfeeding as a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse
By Kathy Joling, Glendale, Arizona
***Content warning: Childhood sexual abuse***
Finding out I was going to be a mother was the most exciting news I’ve had in my entire life. I already loved him immensely from the minute I knew this little soul was growing inside of me. I promised him that I would do everything in my power to be the best mother I could be.
At the 12-week ultrasound, we discovered that my son had a bilateral cleft lip and palate. After doing some research, I felt depressed because I didn’t know how I would breastfeed him because of his cleft. Breastfeeding was important to me because of all the benefits it would provide to my child as well as solidifying our bonding experience. We visited a feeding specialist at the cleft center and voiced our concerns. She instructed us on how to use the special bottles for babies with cleft lips and palates. Successfully breastfeeding a baby with a bilateral cleft lip would be very challenging because he wouldn’t be able to make a complete seal and the suction wouldn’t be great when he latched on. I knew I was going to try anyway. If that didn’t work, I would pump and give him breast milk through the bottle.
Fast forward to the night he was born. Right away I wanted to put him to the breast. I was determined and wouldn’t have felt right if I didn’t at least try. I put him to the breast, and instinctively he tried to suckle. I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of panic and fear. I could feel myself shrinking away from him as he rooted around. I kept this feeling to myself partly because I felt shame and partly because I didn’t want to deny my baby. At the very least, he was getting skin-to-skin contact. After a few minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and I told the nurse that I needed to put him down.
I knew right then I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed him. My fear was being judged. As a new mother, there is pressure to breastfeed or buy organic or send your child to the best preschool. Some may view a mother who doesn’t breastfeed as lazy or not doing what she can to provide the best for her child, but there may be more to her decision. I reacted to breastfeeding with panic and fear because I was sexually abused by a male family member and a male friend of my parents from when I was three years old until I was eight years old. As a child, I never told my parents or anyone about the abuse I endured.
I believe that not getting the support and counseling I needed then has affected me as an adult. That explains why I was still tormented more than 30 years later.
My reaction to my son trying to nurse was so strong that I vomited. When I realized that nursing him wasn’t an option, I tried to pump. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal because the pump wasn’t a person; it was just a machine. I was mistaken because, when I put the pump’s flange to my breast and felt the sensation, I was immediately repulsed. Feelings of shame and disgust washed over me and I reached out so violently to turn the pump off that I knocked it down.
It was difficult for me to understand what was happening to me. I felt like a failure—like a horrible mother for not being able to get over my feelings so I could feed my baby. I believe the stress and anxiety affected my milk production in the long run. I didn’t want to let my baby down, so I made myself pump as much as I could. I fed him the breast milk first and then formula afterwards. I was able to do that for a few weeks but, despite my efforts, I was never able to pump more than one or two ounces at a time. After a few weeks, that dwindled down to nothing but a few drops. By the end of the first month, he was drinking formula exclusively.
A few years later, I found out I was expecting again. I told myself that this time would be different. I knew what to expect so I could prepare myself. When I held my new baby for the first time, I knew I had to try. I put my son to my breast, but he didn’t root around like our first son did. I tried to encourage him by putting my nipple in his mouth, and he started to move his head side to side. He had a hard time latching on, but the second I felt his mouth on my nipple I immediately felt that same sense of fear and disgust. It broke my heart. This was my second chance; I couldn’t give up so quickly.
After a few minutes, we realized that the baby was not going to latch. The lactation consultant brought pumping supplies to me. She said to pump for now and then to try breastfeeding again later. While I was waiting for her to set up the pump, I already knew I couldn’t do it. But I convinced myself that it was still early and I could pump. And if I continued to pump, I would be able to make plenty of milk to feed him.
When I held the flange to my breast and turned the pump on, I felt scared and devastated. My eyes started to tear up. I asked the lactation consultant to turn the pump off. Then I asked her if she had experience with women who were sexually abused. She said she didn’t have experience with someone in my situation, but she did offer some coping mechanisms to use while I was I pumping, such as listening to the same song only when I was pumping.
The coping mechanisms did work, and by the time my baby was one week old, he was drinking breast milk exclusively. This worked for a few weeks, but when he started to drink more than two ounces at a time I couldn’t keep up with the demand. The little stockpile in the freezer I had built up began to dwindle away. It got to the point where I was pumping just before feeding because I had no reserves.
The time had come to make a decision. I asked myself how important breastfeeding my baby was to me. Was it going to hurt him if I stopped? What was my motivation to keep on trying? That’s the moment I realized that I was doing this not only for my baby, but for me as well. I was no longer a child, no longer a defenseless victim being taken advantage of by adults. I was a wife and a mother of two sons. It was time to take my body back, to own my breasts as a source of providing nourishment for my child and not in a sexual way. I had nothing to be ashamed of.
I was so tired of feeling disgusted, and I furious that after all these years I was still being victimized by these men. My baby was more important to me than these men, and I wasn’t going to let them win. I’d had enough. So that night I got into bed and cradled my son. I put him to my breast, and instinctively he began to root around. With a little guidance, I felt him latch on. When I looked down at his little face, I felt whole for the first time since I can remember. I breathed a long sigh of relief. I did it!
I’ve been exclusively breastfeeding for four months now. It hasn’t been easy. There are days when I want to give up. He won’t take a bottle anymore, so I’m the only one who can feed him. Sometimes when he is very hungry and nurses more intensely, I have to close my eyes and remember that he is my baby, not an abuser. My goal is to continue until he turns one year old. I may try to nurse longer if I’m able to do so. It really doesn’t matter how long I breastfeed. I know that, even if I stop tomorrow, my baby will be okay. Breastfeeding doesn’t equate my love for him.
It was still difficult for those first few feedings because the flashbacks didn’t just stop. However, I found that, instead of scaring me, they just started to annoy me. I said out loud, “I don’t have time for this!” and kept nursing my baby.
I knew I was going to be okay the first time I nursed my son in a restaurant. When the waiter came by to take my order and I continued to nurse, I had to hold a giggle inside.
Because of my son, I was able to overcome the horrific memories that have haunted me most of my life. Nursing my son gives me a freedom I’ve never had. That’s what this journey has given me: freedom. (Lots of extra snuggling with the baby, too!) I wanted to share my story because I had a hard time finding resources when I started this journey. It was a dark and lonely time for me. And if I can help even just one mother break through the barrier of pain, then having shared this was well worth it.
Editor’s Note: If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you may wish to seek out professional services. Many resources are available. One example is the National Sexual Assault Hotline which can be reached at 800-656-HOPE or through its website at www.rainn.org/. Additional resources on the La Leche League International website include: Breastfeeding after Sexual Abuse: www.llli.org/nb/nbabuse.html.