A couple of months ago, I began writing about guilt and breastfeeding. Guilt is one of the more complex human emotions. It is particularly subjective; some people feel a great deal of it, others little or none. What makes one person feel guilt, another may shrug off, not even thinking guilt should be or could be attributed to the given situation.
Turning to Merriam-Webster, I learn that guilt, a noun, is a “feeling of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.”
I’ve heard some doctors, nurses and childbirth educators say they do not want to fully promote breastfeeding because women may in turn feel guilt. There is some sense to that. What if I tell a mother she should breastfeed because her baby will have fewer ear infections, and she still chooses not to breastfeed? Will she feel culpable as she holds her shrieking, febrile infant at the pediatrician’s office? And won’t I then feel culpable for her feelings! Even worse, if she tries desperately to breastfeed but isn’t able to, and then ends up with the shrieking, febrile scenario, I will certainly feel awful if she is connecting the infection with a “sense of inadequacy” on her part.
This is an uncomfortable slippery slope I am tempted to avoid. Perhaps a more moderate take on breastfeeding would better serve all involved. We could change the message from “Breast is best” to “Breast is pretty good if you can and want to do it.” It’s not as catchy, but if we could avoid the guilt! We could then extend this same open-mindedness to smoking cessation, obesity and exercise. If health care providers take a more moderate stance, we could rid the world of guilty obsessions and self-condemnation. Right?
Or we can tell the truth. Breast is best. Babies are less likely to become obese, have diabetes, have GI infections and ear infections. They may even be smarter. Mothers are less likely to be overweight and have diabetes too. Women who breastfeed reduce their risk of some cancers. If we could encapsulate and bottle the benefits of breastfeeding, we would promote it, sell it, work two jobs to buy it ourselves and even endure some pain, if necessary, to be sure to have it.
And what if we tell the truth, and she still decides not to breastfeed, or worse, tries and fails? We will smile, support her and teach her what she needs to know for the path she is taking. We will not guilt her. If she assumes guilt, we will smile, support her and teach her how to move onward. We cannot predict who will feel guilt and to what extent. Therefore, any efforts to preclude guilt are likely to fall flat, acting as a disservice to everyone. Doctors, nurses and childbirth educators have a duty to offer the best information, leaving subsequent outcomes and unpredictable feelings to be dealt with in real time when, and if, necessary.