The Broken Circle of Breastfeeding: Helping Our Mothers Heal

This Mother’s Day is dedicated to our mothers and grandmothers and the world of women who encircle, influence, love and guide us– whether they breastfed us or they didn’t.

Our mothers are an irreplaceable soft-landing and a rich resource for us as we gain our footing and learn to mother on our own. They are a vital link. But breastfeeding can be a sore subject and a loaded trip down memory lane for mothers who didn’t breastfeed. This Mother’s Day we begin a healing cycle for the Booby Trap of the broken circle of inter-generational breastfeeding support.

As they relive new motherhood through us, our mothers hear the advice to breastfeed. Often, deep-seated — even long-ago buried — feelings surface about not breastfeeding themselves, about being told not to bother breastfeeding, about having had the chance stolen from them through routine hospital protocols that bound breasts and administered shots to shut down lactation. We want our mothers to know that we neither judge nor blame them for their decisions; we understand that like every mother, they did what they thought was best based on the information and influences upon them at the time.

And like seatbelts, sunscreen, and car seats, we simply want their help in using the better information we have now, to move forward together toward greater health and thriving for us, our children, and their grandchildren. We know that in order for that to happen, we must first provide a healing zone and a forum in which compassion reigns and they are honored, heard, and accepted. A long-overdue, much needed dialogue is about to begin.

Best for Babes Co-Founder Danielle Rigg, Jill Berke (her mom) and daughter, Hannah, at 22 months. This photo was taken the month Hannah weaned, and just before Danielle was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer.

My own mother did not breastfeed me or my brother. She was told that formula was just as good, that she needn’t be tied to the house (those were the days of Women’s Liberation), and that being a “cow” wasn’t cool. She was young. She was impressionable. She had no role-models.  Only one friend had breastfed and that woman was a token hippie and her decisions labeled accordingly.  I, on the other hand, don’t know where I got the idea that breastfeeding was the way to go, but I always knew that I would. And to my mom’s credit, she never questioned my decision. In fact, she was quite positive about it. Then, as my son (and later daughter) and I, made our way nursing, the magic began to happen and my mom couldn’t help noticing the many pluses that breastfeeding conferred on us all.  She referred to my relationship with my babies as “exquisite,” marveled at their undeniably content dispositions, and claimed that “breastfeeding meant extra hugs” for grandma! And it did.  Having witnessed all of this, she also began to see that she had been robbed of a precious opportunity of her own and said so.

But she didn’t delve any deeper into her own feelings (or at least didn’t express this to me)  until recently.  I am a young breast cancer survivor (both sides affected, both removed) and a serial overcomer of a lifetime of chronic health conditions. In December 2010,  I wrote a post entitled The Cracks in the Foundation in which I candidly discussed how the many layers of stress our bodies endure from birth – artificial baby milk, processed and artificial foods, foods laced with pesticides, hormones and chemicals, toxins in our air, water, products, homes and landscapes — are causing epidemic levels of disease. I juxtaposed all this against the intended norm of health and wellness that breastfeeding (and the experience that goes with it) plus a greener, cleaner environment can provide. I also verbalized that I was not casting blame on the child-rearing decisions of my parents who I knew loved me.

The below is what my mother wrote to me privately as a response to that post.  She’s agreed to share it in the hopes that more moms and their daughters can have this conversation, too. We both hope that it opens the door to a new relationship between you and your mother; you and your relatives; you and your sisters. Honor each other. Support each other. Rebuild the Circle. Happy Mother’s Day.

Hi my precious child: I am writing this in a “healing garden” on the oncology floor where [my cousin] is hospitalized. He is out of the room, at a test, and there is a large-screen computer empty and waiting for me to read your brilliant and heartfelt post on something bigger than my Blackberry. There are no accidents in any of this, I am sure.

I read every word, twice, and am overcome by emotion. The people passing by me must naturally assume that my loved one’s condition here has affected me deeply, and of course they are right. Only it is not [my cousin], but you I am thinking of. The conflation of his cancer, and his highly troubled life, fits well into the theme of your blog – I would guess he started life on the bottle, too, and went on to face addictions, abandonment, and so many hurts that were too much for his fragility as well. I only know that I have a chance today to let you know that I celebrate your mind and soul that in synthesis, and with Bettina, have created a health policy that incorporates love, forgiveness, compassion, rationality, optimism, nurturance, and kindness to promote for everyone the lifetime benefits of breastfeeding.

I personally feel every one of those emotions in the communication you sent. I would add that I missed the skin-to-skin bonding that the act of breastfeeding gives so uniquely. I did experience closeness and hugging and swaddling, but not that most intimate act of baby to nipple and the thrill of knowing that I used my body to deliver what it can do best. Perhaps my love of running is tied into the achievement I felt in sport where my body did work with natural perfection to let me run fast, long, and often win races. I never thought about this analogy as apt for me, but it is: the athlete’s triumph in physical performance is much what a woman feels in natural childbirth and in successful breastfeeding. I know that you did experience this wondrous feat, and your love of running might include its reoffering of what ended when [your last child] matured from breast food to table.

My appreciation of how you expressed yourself to the “parents who raised and love you” is boundless. I need to digest more, to take this with me inside and bring it back out, to tell you more about what has lifted, for your words are uplifting and releasing.  I have been given the best gift of all by you.

Thank you and deepest love, Mom.

Help Rebuild the Circle this Mother’s Day- honor a woman you love with a special gift from the Best for Babes Signature Gear Collection — an Annee Matthew for Best for Babes Nursing Tee,  Melinda G for Best for Babes CamiSutra Nursing Cami, or our Signature Short Sleeve Tee — or all three! Enter special coupon code HEALING at checkout to get $5 off .

Donate to Best for Babes today in honor of a woman who’s touched your breastfeeding journey:

Jill Berke, LCADC, MA, is a writer, public speaker, and counselor who specializes in substance abuse and domestic violence issues. Her goal is to help people recover their best selves and lives. She is the former Assistant Director, Center of Terrorism, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. For many years she headed Jill Berke WordWorks, a communications firm in New York. A thrilled grandmother, she lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband. 


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4 thoughts on “The Broken Circle of Breastfeeding: Helping Our Mothers Heal

  1. Your essay touched me deeply. My sweet mother was also told she should not bother to nurse me, that it “didn’t matter”. I could not have had a more loving mother. She sat beside me and cried with me as I struggled to breastfeed my first baby, always encouraging, but without the tools to help me. Later, after I had stumbled along and relearned this womanly skill, breastfed all three of her granchildren with her close by, she said with disgust and anger; “I could have breastfed! Why didn’t they help me?” She felt robbed. She WAS robbed, or her rights as a mother! Robbed of giving her only child and herself the special gift and intimacy of breastfeeding.
    We can’t go back, but we can go forward. Exposing all the “booby traps” and opening up honest, guilt free dialog is the way to go. YEAH Best For Babes!


  2. What a wonderful post! I find I censor myself, in part because I don’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings. She is a great mom…and grandmother. But she does seem to take my parenting choices as criticisms of her past choices. I can understand this response and I appreciate the idea of an opportunity for these mothers to resolve their feelings about the past. I’m not sure how it looks in practice but I agree it is an important part of the conversation.


  3. I would like to thank you for this beautiful post. It is so refreshing to meet a “lactivist” who actually IS wanting to help women breastfeed, and does not trash those who could not. I too have many health issues, including PCOS, and I tried in vain to breastfeed both of my daughters and I could not. It was sad. I cannot tell you the dirty looks I got when I got out a bottle, or the “advice” on HOW to breastfeed, as I has obviously not done it the right way. 😦 It made me feel like a child abuser. I still am haunted by the fact I could not BF. My mother did not BF me, as I was adopted, but she was totally on board with my Bfing, and went to all of my lactation appointments with me etc. For that I am forever grateful. I wish everyone saw this the way that you did. Thanks again for your candid words, and for all that you do for mom’s and babies everywhere! Happy Mother’s Day to you and your mom! 🙂


  4. I feel blessed and inspired by not only your beautiful post and expression of compassion toward mothers who did not breastfeed, but also by your mother’s generous, insightful response that was obviously written by a woman of great strength. She is a remarkable mother who is able to see past all the mixed emotions she must feel to be the wind beneath your mothering wings!

    I hope the very best for you and all others wanting to heal the broken circle of breastfeeding. 

    What follows may take some by surprise, and it is something I’ve tried to figure out for a long time. 

    Perhaps it’s just that I’m not as compassionate as I think I am. Or perhaps I am more like my mother than I thought, and I hold on to past feelings or beliefs instead of just letting them go. 

    If I had a mother who (like your mother) had expressed, in essence, that if she had it to do over again, she would, then compassion would no doubt fill me as it once did for my mother. I believed she had missed out on one of the most fulfilling things in motherhood. 

    I thought I understood–it made complete sense–why my mom did not breastfeed me (or my brother). She was a teenaged mother when I was born right in the middle of the bottle boom of the 1950s. I never f
    thought ill of her for having done the very best she could considering her circumstances and the information (or lack thereof) she had in those times.  

    After I became a mother, when I talked to my mom about anything breastfeeding related, I was careful to phrase things so she would not have hurt feelings or believe I considered her parenting choices somehow less than mine. 

    My mother is a good mom. She was very “hands-on” which included a lot of cuddle time when we were little. It was important to her to always hold us while feeding us rather than prop the bottle. When I was a teenager, I loved having a young mom. She listened to me, we had long conversations about life, and  she “got” everything I went through and was feeling. She was encouraging and supportive. 

    In my case though, my mother later voiced a stance that took me aback and still blocks any conversation about breastfeeding to this day. 

    Several years after my children had weaned, my mother shared with me that over the years she had learned from watching me with my babies and speaking to other young mothers just how wonderful breastfeeding is. She now knew how good it was for babies. And then, she added, “I still wouldn’t have breastfed.” 

    I could have lived the rest of my life never hearing that final comment. It was if she’d said, “I have all this information now about the benefits of protecting children by using ‘seatbelts, sun screen, and carseats.’ I still would not have used them.”

    I’m still baffled as to why my mother felt compelled to add that final statement. I suspect it somehow relates to her completely sexualized view of breasts and wanting to maintain an image of being someone who would never do THAT. I don’t think she has any idea how the underlying message of her statement was interpreted by me or how much it hurt. And I don’t think any good would come from me telling her, so I just don’t. 


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