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Bad Mommy: The Sexism Embedded in Women's Views on Breastfeeding and Childbirth

Women shouldn't impose strictures on other women's individuality and choice when we wouldn't want that from men.
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This summer one of my clients and one of my girlfriends gave birth. As they approached their due dates they described the same familiar upset other girlfriends and women in my practice had reported at the end of their pregnancies.

Well meaning women -- family members, girlfriends, colleagues or strangers -- would freely inform them of the right way to deliver and the right way to feed the baby.

Here are some of the things women actually say to each other:

  • You cannot have a Caesarean!
  • It's not a true birth experience if you don't deliver vaginally
  • Don't have a vaginal delivery; it'll be a nightmare
  • You should demand a C-Section and make it fit your schedule
  • If you want what's best for your baby you'll breastfeed
  • Bottle feeding is wrong, I don't understand why anyone would do it
  • Breastfeeding in public is disgusting
  • You'll never sleep and get saggy breasts if you breastfeed

Over the years mothers-to-be have confided in me their reaction to these words, ranging from, "What she said really bothered me." or "Where does she get off?" to "I wanted to punch her in the fucking face!"

Even confident, well-informed, headstrong women are affected by these comments. If a man were to make statements like this women might brush them off as sexist, thinking he has no right. But women often listen to other women with a different ear, curious to hear their perspectives on things they have in common.

Sometimes even if a woman defends herself against the offending comment in the moment, she still finds it lurks in her mind afterward, because she's about to become a new mother and she too feels pressure to do it right. She may secretly feel guilty or question herself and her judgment ... because she has been judged.

Sexism plays a major part in this pressure to fit all mothering into a box labeled 'The Right Way. Since our history is rife with rules designed by men to keep women in line under male authority there's a psychological reasoning that if women do it the right way they'll be safe and above reproach.

When women unintentionally carry on this tradition of restriction it eliminates the variable of uniqueness in every childbirth and mother/infant relationship. And in those cases in which a woman is unable to deliver vaginally when she desperately wanted to, or can't breastfeed when she desperately wanted to, these comments from other women can contribute to her feeling faulty and broken.

There are women out there who have wonderful easy birth stories; there are women who feel breastfeeding is blissful; and there are women who love bottle feeding. But there are also stories of frightening and bumpy beginnings.

To go through a planned Caesarean based on safety and well-being, or to end up having one at the end of labor for the same reason aren't issues of mothering to be judged. The same is true for bonding around feeding. If a woman knows she'll be incredibly uncomfortable nursing, the tension it would create for her and the baby makes bottle feeding right for them. And if a woman tries to breastfeed and finds either she or the baby cannot due to issues of pain, milk production, latching or sleep deprivation, then the peace a bottle will bring is right for them.

Women shouldn't impose strictures on other women's individuality and choice when we wouldn't want that from men. Making room for mothers and babies to go through the beginning of their lives together in whatever way they feel is best is the right way for them.

So be generous with each other and reduce the risk of getting clocked.

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