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What Breastfeeding Taught Me about being a Mother

1By Kendra Atkins-Boyce, Portland, Oregon

It’s been almost three years since the breastfeeding relationship with my daughter came to an end. Looking back, I realize that breastfeeding, especially with the hurdles and struggles I dealt with, prepared me for the rest of motherhood in some very profound ways.

  1. Breastfeeding taught me that I am enough, even when I don’t feel like it. I never did develop a full milk supply. At one point, I was able to provide about 90 percent of my daughter’s needs, but that was my upper limit. I felt frustrated until I realized that what my daughter really needed was her mother. Even when I felt like I was incomplete or lacking in some way, I was her everything. I’m glad I learned early on that I am enough, especially now as I’m navigating the health challenges that go along with fibromyalgia syndrome. On “flare” days, I have trouble being upright, but I know that I’m exactly what my daughter needs, even if all I can do is watch television with her, tell her I love her, and point her to the snack drawer.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me that much of what happens with my daughter is out of my control. Sometimes you can do everything exactly right and you’ll still encounter difficulties: your child will fall down, get sick, or be mean to someone. I could browbeat myself for what I didn’t do, or I could give myself credit for what I have done: I’ve raised a little person with her own thoughts and opinions who will make her own way in the world. It’s nice to see myself in her, but I also have to remind myself that she is not me, and I have to be her safe place to land when she feels like she’s spiraling out of control.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me to sit still and savor the moment. Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and nothing can help you practice being present like sitting down to feed your baby. When your baby needs to eat, everything else has to stop. Cooking, cleaning, dusting, making phone calls, and answering emails have to fade into the background while you take in her sweet smells, brush the soft hair from her face, and listen to the contented sighs of your baby gulping down milk. Now that she’s six years old, my daughter rarely ever slows down enough to let me hold her like I did when we were nursing. I’m now really glad that I took the time to be in the moment when we each stepped back from what we were doing to connect with each other.
  1. 3Breastfeeding taught me to find the tools I need. While breastfeeding is a natural act, it doesn’t always proceed naturally (or smoothly). I learned how true this was in my daughter’s first hours of life. Being able to breastfeed was important to me, so I worked very hard to find the support and tools I would need to make it work. Knowing how to find the tools I needed for that challenge has served me well when navigating other inevitable challenges. It helped me learn how to trust my mothering radar when trying to discern what advice to follow.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me to rely on other people. Motherhood can be very isolating. Your life is dictated by someone else’s needs and wants (and nap schedule). It can be easy to stay home where you have some semblance of control. At times, especially in the middle of postpartum depression, I was tempted to shut people out, but I realized that I needed a tribe of people to support me: my family, my colleagues, other parents, and my La Leche League Group helped me come back together when I fell apart. I had to learn to reach out instead of retreating. When their support wasn’t quite enough, I also reached out to a professional counselor who helped me climb out of the dark hole of depression.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me to ditch “mommy guilt.” I can only do the best I can do at any given moment. I know some people judged me when I fed my baby from a bottle. Some people judged me for feeding my baby at the breast. I am not here to impress anyone else with my mothering skills. My allegiance is to my little family and it works best when I am happy, healthy, and free of feeling obligated to do anything besides love them and care for them. I may snip at my daughter when my patience wears thin, I may let her have too much screen time some days, and she may have a sweet-tooth the size of Texas, but she knows she is loved and safe, and that’s the only thing that really matters.
  1. 2Breastfeeding taught me that my relationship with my daughter will frequently change. Sometimes I am my daughter’s favorite person in the world, and sometimes she won’t talk to me because I won’t let her have a cookie. When she was an infant, she was totally dependent on us for everything. As she grows, she will realize that her father and I are only human. Our role will continue to shift from center stage in her life to front row seats for the show that unfolds. During the first few shifts toward independence, I had a hard time adjusting, but now it’s become so much fun to see where she’ll go next.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me that the only people who should make parenting decisions are parents. As soon as my baby bump started to show, I noticed the phenomenon of people offering me parenting advice. Strangers would comment on whether I looked like I was having a boy or a girl and a few brazen ones even asked whether I planned to have an epidural. The questions and advice didn’t stop when Karys arrived; in fact, it amped up. People commented on her weight, my weight, the kind of diapers we used, how I fed her, and how often she should be sleeping. Even now, my daughter seems to be an invitation for people to comment about my parenting (she’s too loud or too shy, too creative or too hemmed in, depending on who’s noticing). The barrage of advice just never stops, be it in person or online. Friends and strangers will continue to give advice. My decisions on breastfeeding, weaning, toilet training, and everything else were deeply personal and not the subject of a public debate. What I learned to do is figure out what advice to trust and whose opinions to value and then let the rest of it become background noise to the decisions I trust my husband and myself to make.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me the power of self-care. When I got too stressed or tired, my milk supply dwindled. When I nourished my mind, body, and spirit, my milk supply increased. My milk supply became a barometer for how well I was treating myself. Now that I’m not nursing anymore, I still have to keep tabs on my energy level in the same way I once counted diapers and measured ounces. When I start to feel depleted, I have to recharge my battery in order to be the mother my family deserves. The way I think of it, I’m teaching my daughter to value herself by showing her that I value myself.
  1. Breastfeeding taught me the power of a mother’s love. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect my daughter. I had a cesarean birth because she was in distress. I worked hard to establish my milk supply. I worked full-time outside the home to provide for my family, and then I took time off work to help my family transition to a new way of life. My mother love is fierce, and our three-year breastfeeding journey helped me own it, embrace it, and use it to make life better for my family every step of the way.

4I am so grateful for the breastfeeding relationship my daughter and I were able to develop. It set the tone for our relationship today, and it helped me develop confidence in myself as a mother. Whatever your choices as a mother, I hope you can find ways to celebrate your triumphs and learn from the struggles.