How you feed your baby does not define you as a mother
Over the years, I have noticed from my work with Mums, both in my capacity as a psychotherapist and an antenatal teacher, that there are some common myths circulating in our society which have a HUGE impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing as mothers.
I feel it is really important to explore these myths and the impact that they have. Because we all have subconscious beliefs and processes which affect our thoughts, emotions and actions. By bringing these beliefs and processes into our conscious we become more aware of them and as a result we can start to feel more empowered as mothers.
MYTH 1: The decisions we make or actions we take define who we are as people or define our worthiness.
This belief stems from the misunderstanding that we humans are defined by events, situations or other things external to us. That these external factors somehow mean something about us or our worthiness.
The truth is, nothing outside of us can define who we are. Nothing external to us can define our worthiness. We are not a ‘good or worthy person’ because we do ‘good’ things and we are not a ‘bad or unworthy person’ if we do ‘bad’ things. There really is no good or bad anyway, the world just is the way it is, but we innocently categorise things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and assign labels to things because we want to make sense of them in our logical human brain.
Often when people behave in ways which they perceive to be ‘bad’ they believe this to mean something about them personally. They start to feel guilt or shame or both. They start to believe they are unworthy. There really is no such thing as unworthiness – we are all born worthy and we die worthy and nothing that happens to us in our life can make us more or less worthy. But we tell ourselves that it does.
As we grow up, we encounter challenging situations in our lives such as bullying, failed exam results, getting picked last for the sports team, being heartbroken, having difficult relationships, not getting the job we applied for etc and we attach meaning to these events. We believe that they are happening because we are unworthy in some way or we are bad people. We make it mean something about us personally. But all of these things are simply common life events happening externally to us. They don’t mean anything and they cannot take away our worthiness or define us as people.
MYTH 2: We have a ‘choice’ over the actions we take and the decisions we make.
Now this one took me a while to get my head around when I first came across it. But it is this illusion of ‘choice’ that we think we have when we decide to do something. When actually it is not a choice at all. We are simply acting in the way that feels right to us at the time. The REASON it feels right is always going to be very personal to us individually. Which is why some things feel right for some people but not others.
Every time we make a decision in life, this decision will have been influenced by the many subconscious beliefs and processes that we have that we aren’t aware of consciously. So we think we are making ‘conscious’ choices but we are only ever acting in a way which feels ‘right’ i.e. most logical or instinctive for us based on the subconscious beliefs and information that we have at the time. This can never really be a choice because we are not in control of our subconscious processes.
This is why when mothers make ‘choices’ about how they feed their babies, they are doing so with the information and the subconscious beliefs they have at the time. These beliefs will have been formed based on their individual experiences of life, and by the subliminal messages that they received over the course of their life about how their society feeds their babies.
For example, in the Western world, from a very young age we are told that formula feeding is ‘normal’ (a message that formula companies have worked VERY hard to promote), our dolls had bottles and it is more common to see pictures of mums feeding their babies with bottles in children’s books. In most TV programs, films and media publications most Mums are bottle feeding rather than breastfeeding. And so most Mums are ‘choosing’ to bottle feed because it has become a social norm. Why would you NOT bottle feed your baby when everyone else is? Of course this means that formula companies are making a LOT of money! And the more money they make, the more advertising they can do, which means the more powerful they become and the bigger impact they can have on our society and our world.
In other countries where formula companies have not been so successful in stamping out breastfeeding and bottles are seen as alien objects, mothers would not ever ‘choose’ to bottle feed because it is not a social norm. They will have grown up watching their mothers, aunties and other women in their community breastfeeding so, for them, breastfeeding is normal. When they have their own babies, breastfeeding is the ‘choice’ which feels right for them based on their subconscious conditioning and the social norms in their society.
So there really is no ‘choice’ when it comes to making decisions. We can only do what feels right for us at the time and every single mother will have her own individual belief system which will influence her decisions. It is always useful to explore WHY that decision felt right and becoming more conscious of how heavily influenced we are by our society’s conditioning. Because this conditioning impacts every aspect of our lives, not just how we feed our babies.
Another example of this conditioning is the way we view womens’ breasts in our society. We live in a world where sex sells. So breasts have become a commodity to make money. We have therefore grown up in a society where seeing page 3 girls is ‘normal’ and seeing women in bikinis in adverts to sell products, cars, men’s magazines and sporting events is standard. So being surrounded by sexy photos of women has become a social norm, which means we have all grown up hearing the subliminal message that breasts are more for sex than for feeding.
Those examples are just a few of the many influences on our subconscious beliefs about what is ‘normal’ in society. Therefore how we feed our babies stops being a ‘choice’ when we are subconsciously influenced by social norms.
It is just not possible to know where all of our subconscious influences originate from. We will all make decisions based on our own personal experiences of life. All we can ever and will do is what feels right at the time for us personally. And this can never be wrong. Even if we look back at the situation in the future with new information, that doesn’t make our past decisions wrong, it just means that we did what felt right based on the information and belief system that we had at the time.
MYTH 3: We have ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions and negative emotions are unacceptable.
Another common myth that I hear in our society is that there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions. People try to avoid the emotions that they perceive to be ‘negative’ and they think that expressing such emotions means something about them as a person.
Guilt and shame are often confused with each other. Guilt is actually a healthy emotion because we feel it when we do things which feel wrong, our conscience kicks in and we feel guilt and this drives us to take positive action i.e. own it and apologise / learn from it / make up for it etc. This guilt keeps us on track – it’s our internal moral compass.
Shame on the other hand is when we feel we are a bad person because of something we have done or because of an external situation. This is when we are unable to separate ourselves from the external event and we think it defines us as a person. Shame is destructive and corrosive and causes us to feel unworthy or unacceptable.
Anger is another emotion which is seen as ‘unacceptable’. I hear people say things like ‘I am not an angry person’ and what I can hear in their words is that they have somehow learned that it is ‘bad’ to express anger. Being seen as an ‘angry person’ is bad and expressing anger is unacceptable.
Because anger is simply a normal human emotion which ALL humans on the planet experience. So in reality we are ALL angry people!
When people feel that expressing anger is unacceptable they can instead attempt to suppress it. They direct it inwards and become angry at themselves, they can become depressed. They can develop a ‘short fuse’ where they seem to be constantly irritable and snappy, or feel as though they are flying off the handle at seemingly minor situations. Their bodies can start to react to the suppressed emotions and they can become physically ill in some way.
When we can start to recognise that ALL emotions are part of being human and do not define us as a person, we can start to process and express them rather than suppress them. All emotions do in fact have a purpose and, once we can become more accepting of them, we can start to tune into the messages that they give us and feel more emotionally resilient.
MYTH 4: Mothers and their feelings don’t matter – all that matters is the baby’s happiness.
As I have explained above, our subconscious beliefs do have a HUGE impact on our feeding journey with our babies. The women who want to breastfeed their babies are often failed by the whole mess of a system that we are currently living within, which does not adequately support mothers to feed their babies. We are often left to get on with it and sometimes struggle alone.
Breastfeeding, like any new skill, can take time to get the hang of. A strong support network is necessary so that, if women do experience any challenges, they know who to turn to. Funding cuts for such support and antenatal education mean that the majority of women are inadequately prepared for breastfeeding and, once they have had their babies, there is not enough support available to them. The majority of breastfeeding supporters are out there giving up their time for free to support women to feed their babies because they are desperately trying to fill these gaping holes in the system of support for mothers.
So what often happens is that mothers want to breastfeed, are failed by the system (which is external to them) but they end up feeling as though this defines them personally and that THEY have failed to breastfeed. They believe that this external situation somehow means something negative about them as a person and a mother. They feel guilt and shame and believe this makes them unworthy or a failure.
Part of this is also because, as I mentioned above, we live in a very emotionally illiterate society where we are told that expressing seemingly ‘negative’ emotions is unacceptable.
So many mums have emotional triggers from their breastfeeding experience which they haven’t been allowed to process. Mums who have stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to, and very naturally express anger, sadness or grief about their experience are often told ‘all that matters is that baby is fed’ which of course is not the case.
Our feelings matter too and when we stop breastfeeding, we can actually experience a feeling of grief, which can occur because our body is reacting as though our baby has died.
We need time and space to process this grief, but we are often not given that time and space and are told we are selfish for thinking about ourselves when all that matters is our baby gets fed.
But all this unhelpful phrase actually does is shames Mums into silence. They are left with feelings of unexpressed guilt and shame which is then suppressed or projected onto others.
Which means those feelings are triggered every time the topic comes up. They see people talking about breastfeeding and they become defensive. They feel they need to justify their decisions or they feel they need validation from others that their decision was the right one. But this is ‘external’ validation and unless Mothers can process their own emotions, own their decisions and truly accept that they did what felt right at the time, then they will forever be seeking validation outside of themselves and never finding it.
In order for Mothers to reach a point of internal validation, they need a safe place to express how they are feeling about their breastfeeding journey without being shut down, or rescued from ‘negative’ emotions, or told they are selfish or told that their feelings are unimportant. A safe place where they can process all of their emotions, grieve for the loss of the breastfeeding relationship which they may experience, express the anger and the frustration or even the relief that they feel at having to stop and know that it is OK to feel all of those things. They need time and space to do this until they can feel at peace with the fact that they were doing what felt right at the time.
MYTH 5: Other people can ‘make’ us feel judged, guilty, shame, anger, sadness etc.
This is probably one of the biggest myths that I see circulating amongst mothers – especially around infant feeding.
I see so many Mums blaming others for ‘making’ them feel guilty. Blaming others for feeling ‘judged’ for their feeding decisions.
But nobody can make anyone else feel something that isn’t already there. It is just is not possible to put an emotional response into another human being.
What is actually happening here is projection. When we find certain emotions too uncomfortable or overwhelming we project them onto other people. We make THEM responsible for how WE are feeling. We give away all of our power when we do this and we allow external events, people or situations to trigger us. If we find ourselves feeling judged by others, this feeling is actually coming from our own judgement of ourselves.
When we can allow ourselves to process all of our emotions, as mentioned above, about our breastfeeding journey, however long or short it was, we can get to a place of acceptance and peace within ourselves. We can accept that whatever we did, we did because it was the right choice for us at the time. We are ALL only ever doing what feels right at the time and that can never be wrong or be a failure or be anything to feel guilt or shame about.
Once we are at that place then our emotional triggers will cease to exist. We may still feel some emotion, but it will be less powerful, less consuming and less overwhelming and we will no longer feel triggered by others or situations external to us.
When we can truly own our decisions and accept them for what they were, then there is no longer any internal judgment. Which means that it won’t matter what anyone else says, we will not feel judged.
So taking all of the above into account:
- The fact that the decisions we make or actions we take DO NOT define who we are as people or define our worthiness.
- The fact that we can ONLY do whatever feels right at the time – which will be influenced by our own experiences of life and the subconscious influences that we have been exposed to since we were born.
- The fact that Mothers and their feelings about their breastfeeding journey DO matter and we need some time and space to process these properly.
- The fact that there are no ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions and expressing all emotions as we feel them is acceptable.
- The fact that our emotional responses are our own – no one can make us feel anything that isn’t already there.
Once, we can take all of this on board, we start to accept that:
- How we feed our babies doesn’t define us as a mother and it doesn’t mean anything about us as a person.
- How we choose to feed our babies isn’t in fact a choice at all, it is simply a result of our cultural and social influences and our subconscious beliefs.
- It is ok to feel guilt, shame, grief, frustration, anger, sadness and any other emotion associated with breastfeeding. It doesn’t mean anything about us personally. It doesn’t define us. It is just a natural human response to a process which we all go through as mothers regardless of how long that process lasts.
- It is important that we take time to allow those emotions out and process them properly. It is essential that we are given adequate space to do this.
- If we are triggered by seeing other people breastfeeding or talking about breastfeeding, these emotions are coming from within us and telling us that we need some time and space to process them. It is not that anyone else is ‘making’ us feel a certain way. It is that we already feel this way and it is being evoked by people or situations external to us.
Once we can fully accept all of this, then we get to a place where we no longer feel any shame attached to any parenting decisions that we make. And this is how we start to feel truly empowered as mothers, and in our everyday lives.
This is how we will help our children to feel empowered as they grow up. This is how we can help our children to feel more emotionally resilient as they go through life experiencing challenging events which are external to themselves. We can teach them that these events do not define them as people and we love them regardless and they are worthy of our unconditional love always. But before we can do this, we need to be able to say the same things to ourselves.
If any of this resonates with you, and you would like to learn more about becoming more emotionally resilient and feel empowered as a mother and in your everyday life, you may be interested in joining The Empowered Birth Club, where we will be covering all of this and more in our online interactive antenatal and parenting classes, group coaching calls and workshops with leading perinatal, parenting and mental health professionals.
If you sign up before 30th June you will get your first month’s membership for just £1! After that the price will go up to £12 per month (which is still an absolute no brainer!).
You can find more details and sign up here: http://themotherside.org/the-empowered-birth-club/