30 year old Anindita Roy (name changed) would end up getting triggered knowing that the breast milk being produced for her baby wasn’t enough. “I was trying really hard. I was taking galactagogues, my diet was very restricted, I was feeding on demand and pumping both."
"But nothing seemed to be enough,” she recalls. Roy spoke to her paediatrician who recommended that the baby be given formula milk to supplement all her efforts.” Roy was heartbroken.
“I felt like I was a bad mother, like I wasn’t doing enough and I wasn’t good enough.” Her family, though supportive, was a bit disappointed too.
She says, “It is almost as though feeding formula milk to babies is a taboo - it means that that growth will not happen well or they might not get the nourishment they need.”
Roy adds that friends and relatives around her made her feel that way too. Roy felt anger towards herself that she couldn’t deal with. It was only after talking to a therapist that she was able to deal with her rage in a much better manner.
Roy’s story might echo with many mothers, some of whom end up giving in to the societal and familial pressures and others who choose to fight against these norms.
The norms are at multiple levels but they all point to one fact - breastfeeding is the penultimate responsibility of the mother and that she has to go about it without blinking an eye.
The Social Drama
While breastfeeding is crucial and a huge responsibility that a new mom has, coupled with everything else going on, the pressure of breastfeeding can lead to a lot of anxiety which can turn into rage.
Delhi-based Shikha Shah (name changed) recounts the tough time she had with feeding her daughter who was also diagnosed with typhoid, a few weeks after delivery, “Firstly, I had low milk supply and the fact that my daughter was in NICU for a week, lead to further problems with feeding when she was discharged. I started pumping at night and eventually pumping all the time to increase my milk supply. This went on for months and got to a point where I was pumping whenever I got the chance, even when we stepped out.”
Shikha finally sought therapy to deal with her anxiety about feeding and pumping.
Delhi based psychotherapist Deepti Divya who is also a co-ordinator for Postpartum Support International (USA) elaborates, “There might be enough support and help from the family but what we must remember is that the mother is the primary caregiver and source of comfort for the baby. This leads to the mother losing herself and focusing only on the baby who is dependent on her, all the time."
"Very few women are comfortable feeding in a public place - the society looks down upon it even now and people stare at a mother who is feeding. There aren’t enclosed spaces either, where she can feed her baby peacefully."
"At the same time, milk supply issues lead to something akin to performance pressure as the baby is hungry all the time. All these thoughts are in the subconscious mind of the mother and if the mother is in denial, it builds frustration, depression and rage.”
The Array Of Misconconceptions
Sunita Lad (name changed), a Mumbai-based media professional had difficulty in feeding and with her milk supply as well and she turned to digital media for help. She recounts that when she posted on a Facebook group about her problems and inquired if she should pump and go for formula milk, the administrators and participants of the group started replying in a manner that made her feel pressured to continue with breastfeeding.
“I was on the verge of tears after seeing the replies on the group. The admins and the members of the group spoke as though pumping or formula were harmful for the baby and as though I was shunning my duties as a mother.”
Lad adds, “I exited the group as there was way too much toxicity. Everyone in that group shared a common belief that breastfeeding should happen in the most authentic manner, it should be done for as long as the baby demands it, even over a year."
"They would celebrate women who fed their children for two or three years; some fed their kids till the age of seven and eight years. I felt as though I didn’t love my baby enough.”
Nirula shares her point of view on this by saying that mothers are supposed to be ‘perfect’ and ‘sacrificing’ which is what leads to the problem, more often than not.
“The mother isn’t supposed to think about herself at all. She is supposed to tolerate any amount of pain or discomfort being thrown at her for the sake of her baby. There is an aura of judgement if the mother cribs, cries or complains. She is supposed to be strong, no matter what. And all of this creates a problem as the mother ends up becoming stressed and frustrated, which, in turn, affects the milk supply.”
The Competition & Comparison
Demand feeding is the common tradition in India which makes the amount of milk a source of approval for new mothers. The family attaches a lot of importance to it as well and pushes the mother to consume galactagogues.
“Many a time the mother-in-law or relatives also compare the new mother’s breastfeeding experience to their own and give unsolicited advice or comments, which may infuriate the mother,” says Dr Nirula.
She believes that there is a lot of drama in Indian families around breastfeeding.
“The focus is around the baby being fed and it adds to the irritation in the mother as she has no time to do anything else. Breastfeeding is an activity that ties down the mother to the baby and if the family keeps commenting and comparing her milk supply to others, it definitely leads to anxiety.” Nirula adds that the feeding position, back pain, etc during feeding all contribute to stress in the mother
Divya mentions that it is unrealistic of families to compare the milk supply or the decisions that a mother makes as when a mother delivers a baby there are a lot of hormonal changes that she goes through. And while the biological changes can be managed, the drama adds to mental stress that becomes difficult for the woman to counter.
“The comparison and the unsolicited advice lead to feelings of guilt which become very strong. It leads to helplessness eventually and then becomes rage or depression,” she says.
She adds that there is a lot of anxiety that the mother is going through as she has many changes happening - she has all the attention during pregnancy which suddenly goes away and she instead experiences pressure.
“There are body image issues, time management issues, lack of sex which affects the dynamic with the husband - the mother isn’t going to talk about any of this and on the surface, she will project that everything is okay."
"There might be support from the family and the mother might not complain, but still she pushes herself to be perfect. There is a lot of unpredictability as well, which comes with breastfeeding, which leads to stress as the mother cannot plan rest or me-time.”
Need For Change In The Mindset
Dr Debmita Dutta, a Bengaluru Based Parenting Consultant shares some tips for managing breastfeeding well, at an individual level:
Both parents must attend prenatal classes to set the right expectations for the first few months of caring for a baby. I can assure you that learning about what is normal and understanding what your role is can reduce anxiety considerably.
There are also ways to plan to minimise exhaustion through the difficult months – and the prenatal classes teach that as well.
Having enough physical, logistical, emotional and social support is crucial. The new mom should if possible – only bond with the baby and breastfeed through this time. She should not be questioned about the baby’s crying – that is normal. She should not be judged. She should not be expected to look good and entertain visitors.
Get help for the physical issues the mother may be suffering for – like constipation, incontinence, backaches etc.
Also, Dr Meghna Singhal, a Clinical Psychologist and an Internationally Certified Positive Parenting Coach advises:
The spouse/family can lend support in multiple ways: not judging the mother for her parenting choices (e.g., breastfeeding versus bottle), supporting the mother in handling her new role (e.g., offering to take up nightly baby duty some days of the week), and helping her share her feelings (e.g., telling her that her anger and resentment is normal and acknowledging her difficult feelings, instead of dismissing them).
Moreover, when she does display rage or frustration, family members can help by displaying understanding by helping the mother calm down, instead of launching counter-attacks on her or making her feel that she is ‘overreacting’.'
The spouse and family can also help the mother in making and maintaining lifestyle changes for better physical and mental health, such as eating a well-balanced diet, getting rest and exercise, and enabling intentional time to herself