This post isn't addressed to any person in particular, but is addressed to any friend who ends up not breastfeeding. I was inspired to write it when I read these words by my friend Arwyn from Raising My Boychick:
So make the space. When someone says she didn’t breastfeed because it was creepy, listen to her. When someone doesn’t want to tell you why she didn’t breastfeed, or gives you a reason you know to be false, realize you don’t know the whole story, and grant her her privacy. When someone says she didn’t love every damn minute of nursing, don’t assume she’s anti-breastfeeding.
Mostly, shut up and listen.
I agree with Arwyn's words, but wanted to take it a step back and explain to my readers and friends why I won't ask: "Why aren't you breastfeeding?".
I won't ask you why you didn't breastfeed. It isn't because I don't care about you (I do). It isn't because I don't want to hear your story (I'm here to listen). It isn't because I'm judging you smugly in silence (I'm not). But I won't ask you.
I won't ask you because it is none of my business. The decision to breastfeed or not is a very personal one. People sometimes have very personal reasons for choosing not to breastfeed. That can include medical reasons, past sexual abuse, or simply feeling repulsed by the idea of breastfeeding. Sometimes people really wanted to breastfeed and tried really hard, but it just didn't work out and talking about it opens the wounds again each time. So I won't ask, because I don't want people to feel forced into telling me something extremely personal and I also don't want them to lie about their reasons in order to avoid telling me something so personal. I respect your privacy.
I also won't ask you because I don't like people inadvertently spreading myths about breastfeeding. While a lot of people do stop breastfeeding for perfectly good reasons (personal ones or medical ones), there are also lots of people who stop breastfeeding because they believed something that just wasn't true. Maybe they thought their breasts would get saggy (not true), maybe they thought they didn't have enough milk because their baby always seemed hungry (sometimes true, but usually not), maybe they thought a bottle would help their baby sleep better (nope), maybe they believed that because their diet isn't perfect that their baby wouldn't get enough nutrients from breastmilk (not true). When they repeat those myths over and over again, other people internalize them, believe them, pass them along and contribute to myths passing as truths.
So I won't ask.
But if you do want to tell me your story, which a lot of people do, I am here to listen. I will, as Arwyn suggests, first and foremost shut up and listen. When I respond, I will never question whether you tried hard enough or whether your reasons were good enough. That isn't my place. I will support you and I will mourn with you the loss of your nursing relationship (if that is how you perceive it).
But, and this is where it becomes difficult for me, I will try to gently correct any incorrect information that you share. I won't jump right in and say "that is complete nonsense". Instead, I will ask questions and try to understand why you believe what you do. As I do that, I'll try to find the most gentle, caring way to share with you the information I have that is different.
This is really hard because people get defensive. They may get defensive because they are using a commonly held breastfeeding myth as a cover for a deeper reason for not breastfeeding that they do not want to share and they really don't want their cover to be blown. Or they may get defensive because they really believed that myth and if it isn't true, then it puts their decision into question. I don't want to blow anyone's cover and I don't want anyone to feel bad about a decision that they made, especially if they made it because of bad information given to them by someone else. But...but...but...I don't want other women to give up on breastfeeding because they believe something to be true that really isn't true and I don't want you to be robbed of the opportunity to nurse your future children (if you want to) because you believe something that really isn't true.
So I'll listen, I'll support you, I'll support your decision (whether made with good information or bad), but I will, ever so gently, correct any information that is not true. And I'm so sorry for that. I hope you can forgive me.
I should note as well, because I couldn't find a way to work it into the letter, that if I know a friend is planning to breastfeed, I often try to arm them with good information (e.g. good books, good websites, how to find a lactation consultant) ahead of time and let them know that I am there if they have any questions at all. I extend the offer to help, but I don't push it. It is up to them to take me up on the offer if they so choose.
Image credit: Lettres de Lou by Arslan on flickr