Rebuilding the Circle: A Very Delicate Subject

This is the fourth post in our special series for Mother’s Day, themed “Rebuilding the Circle.”  Sometimes, connecting with our own moms as we nurse our babies can be our biggest breastfeeding hurdle – but it’s one we can clear with a lot of love, understanding, and mutual respect.

I didn’t breastfeed – my daughter Danielle did. In fact, she went on to co-found this organization to make breastfeeding more successful and acceptable for moms who choose it. Along the way I learned a thing or two about an experience I missed, and of course my own two children had missed as well. There were times I felt defensive as she and her co-founder Bettina dug up the mother lode of benefits that mom and baby gain from nursing. This feeling deepened when Danielle, at 37, underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer, stage one, in each breast. Had my decision to bottle feed way back in 1967 contributed to her vulnerability to this brutal disease? After all, the latest research clearly showed that breastfeeding helped reduce a daughter’s chance of having breast cancer. And I hadn’t given her that extra dose of prevention.

Admittedly, this was a dramatic case, but mother-daughter relationships are fraught with such guilty thoughts: Did I hurt my kids when I chose to work, to move, to stay married or divorce, to attend this church or synagogue, or none? We’re talking self- criticism here, the kind that burns the conscience and flares up quickly. The kind that mothers spark in daughters and daughters ignite in their mothers. This inter-generational tension is too often a lifelong battle between mothers and daughters. The “pain ball,” as I call it, gets volleyed back and forth. It may rear its ugly head when new moms want their mothers’ support as they choose to breastfeed precisely because this issue falls into the “good mom/bad mom” realm.

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So how best to speak with conflicted or not-so-conflicted moms of my generation, now the excited grandmas so eager to love your babies, about a decision that could too easily trigger these fights? My daughter opened my heart when she wrote in her blog that she knew that she was always loved by her parents. I heard clearly that she was not fighting, but forgiving our decisions. She was as compassionate with me as she was with all those new moms and their newborns who needed a gentle hand to guide them in breastfeeding. She stepped outside of the combat zone to allow me to come forward. Any sign of hostility would have changed my direction, and I would have stepped back.

She made clear that she knew my choice to bottle feed was not made destructively, but reflected what was the cultural norm and knowledge of that time. Formula was marketed as healthy, a scientific breakthrough hyped as nearly of the magnitude of penicillin or the polio vaccine. And it was a path to freedom for mothers long bound to the breast and its restrictions. Bottle feeding meant the ability to sleep more, get more help from others, be outdoors more, work! In 1967, when Danielle was born, I didn’t just walk down that path; I ran it with gusto. This was the era of better-living through chemistry. Science outdid nature. We were even going to the moon.

The conversation between mothers and daughters has to begin with mutual respect for each other and be designed to build trust. The issue is not who has the better baby- rearing methods, but how to achieve the goal of helping the baby to thrive, especially during the challenging early days of mastering the learning curve of breastfeeding.   New mothers who have been ‘booby-trapped’ in the hospital need even greater support from the 360 degree world around them. Daughters who ask for that help and support in a non-judgmental way are likely to be more successful in getting results. I like the model of the new mom being designated as Agent A; Grandma is B; Baby is C. A and B are working to benefit C. They are colleagues, not combatants. Their mutual interest outweighs any differences, which have to take a back seat if the relationship between a new mom and a new grandma is to go forward smoothly.

The 3R’s buttress the goal: respect, rapport, responsibility. I respect you even when we disagree; we share bonds, memories, and relationships that we can draw upon to get along; we are both responsible for the next generation of our family to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

Breastfeeding yields some wonderful benefits for the whole family: mom, baby, and grandma. My generation, the grandmothers in particular will benefit richly: they can get more hugs from babies conditioned to skin-to-skin contact! They embrace with the comfort level they felt being nursed. I used to “peel” my breastfed grandbabies off of me, not just put them down. It was an exquisite feeling.

-The serenity of breastfeeding can be shared. A calm and contented baby loves being held by grandma who can enjoy the loving moments of bonding with more confidence. I felt more competent as a grandmother because the baby wasn’t fretting in my arms. There was less handing back to mommy a crying infant and much more wonderful cuddle time with me.

– Statistics and science support what I found in my daughter’s home –with breastfeeding the babies had less colic, spitting-up (I didn’t even need a bib on my shoulder while burping them), less crying and less medical visits.  My visits were clean fun!

-There is a beauty and wonder of transition as DAUGHTERS BECOMES MOTHERS. This is a sublime moment to cherish, a passing of the maternal torch. Breastfeeding is a nurturing, caring decision that deserves our families’ respect and loving  support. My daughter enjoyed her experience breastfeeding, the babies flourished, and I felt very proud.

Jill and her grandchildren.

All of these assets wowed me over to the breastfeeding side. I was eyewitnessing how contented babies behave and interact. Remember the line in “When Harry Met Sally” – “I’ll have what she’s having?” – well, I wanted for my grandbabies exactly what they were getting. It was so obvious how well it worked.

As we celebrate a day that holds mothers up to national esteem, let’s honor that esteem with an honest admission that we are not always supportive of our nursing daughters. We live in a society that often hides them from sight; we question their decision-making; we label them odd. The stigma is painful, especially when new grandmothers fail to support their own daughters. What we share transcends being pro- or anti-breastfeeding. Mothers and grandmothers are pro-children, and that is our unbreakable spiritual bond.

Happy Mother’s Day

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

ii 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. 


4 thoughts on “Rebuilding the Circle: A Very Delicate Subject

  1. Love love love this! My mom was pro boob, but my MIL was not… It was so weird to that side of the family that I WANTED to breastfeed. Thankfully I’m stubborn and joked about the economics of it… And that with the money saved we would be able to afford his braces later. With humor I was able to change the subject, but had I understood some of the generational changes… I might have responded differently maybe in a way that was a little more proud of what I was doing.


  2. This is a wonderful perspective article. I loved reading it. My mother breastfed us four kids a year each, but it was very uncomfortable for her, and she doesn’t exactly understand my nursing past a year. My MIL was the only one of her five sisters who nursed ANY of her babies–my husband, for four months (her first was tongue tied). She is fascinated by the nursing relationship of between my daughter and me. My grandmother tried nursing her first and developed horrible mastitis and had to have her breasts lanced (ouch!). She didn’t even try with my mother. It’s kind of an emotional breastfeeding history. I am happy to be doing things differently and to have had so much support (LCs, Midwives, YouTube videos, other mothers, etc.). Thankfully, all these women offer subtle support too and my husband is behind me all the way!


  3. That last paragraph really moved me, thank you. It can be so hard when Grandma, who truly wants what’s best for baby too, does not have accurate information and opposes the decisions that Mama makes.


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