Monday, November 8, 2010

Guest post: Empowering Breasts!

I'm really pleased to share with you an email I received from an anonymous blog reader about how she was able to use breastfeeding to reclaim her breasts and body for herself and her baby after being raped. I understand that this may be triggering for some of you, so please walk away if you cannot or should not read anything related to sexual assault. I think her message is incredibly powerful and may be just what someone else needs to hear: that it is possible to breastfeed successfully after sexual assault. If you know of any resources for women who are rape survivors and are pregnant and thinking about breastfeeding and natural labor, please leave them in the comments. 

Hi Elita,

I am one of your readers - an anonymous reader at this point. I love reading and educating myself about breastfeeding. There's one point I rarely read anything about, but which I am thankful that you in several posts have pointed out: how empowering breastfeeding can be.

About two years ago I was pregnant and scared. Scared about how I was going to be able to deal with a vaginal birth - am I going to feel powerless and violated like I did during the gang rape? Am I going to have flashbacks of the rape during internal examinations, when the birth becomes very painful, if they have to stitch me up? And if so, how am I going to deal with it? Will I be able to bond with my child? So I surfed the internet for information, wanting to read about women like me, rape survivors, who had given birth. In serveral articles, breastfeeding was mentioned too - as a potential problem. I read that survivors of sexual abuse may feel uncomfortable with the idea of breastfeeding, their bodies belonging to someone else again, their breasts being handled, with the pain that breastfeeding sometimes causes. I hadn't really thought about that before, but reading about it triggered a lot of questions. Maybe that's how I am going to feel? What if the little baby starts searching for my breast and I will feel nothing but disgust? There were only questions and no answers.

And then I gave birth and it was both a smooth birth with effective contractions and no need for pain relief and at the same time a tough birth that required vacuum extraction in the end. But I had been concentrated and calm, there had been no flashbacks and I felt strong and good about myself. The bonding with my baby was immediate. They put him on my chest and I loved him. So simple. He searched for my breast and I gave it to him, lovingly. It took us about six weeks to get the breastfeeding right and those were tough weeks filled with tears, but also with determination. But we got it right and breastfeeding became simple and natural and a pleasure for both of us (and it still is as I decided to let him wean himself when he is ready).

I never felt like the baby was taking over my body in a negative way, the way he sucked never reminded me of the rapists abusing my breasts and the rest of my body. There simply was no connection like that. Instead, I felt myself growing stronger. In fact, it felt like my body belonged to me for the first time since the rape. My body was being used for something positive and normal; I did this, I could make my son thrive and blossom.

I would have loved to read empowering stories when I was pregnant and scared. Instead I got the impression that having been sexually abused is a really legitimate reason to bottlefeed the baby from the start. Of course it is, if the woman just can't deal with breastfeeding. But it shouldn't be presented as the norm, as a logical result of sexual abuse. Breastfeeding has empowered me and I believe it can empower lots of women with lots of different backgrounds and different baggage. And also we must also ask ourselves: is the bottle the solution for a woman who has issues with her breasts? Is the bottle going to solve her problems? Is the bottle going to empower her as breastfeeding could if she gave it a chance?

No, I have not been able to find a support group either. It would be so helpful, though, because one's past affects one's parenting so much. It's not over once you have given birth. When I was pregnant, I wrote a letter to my midwife explaining my fears and she sent me to a hospital psychologist who works with women that are afraid of giving birth. It felt like the psychologist didn't understand me and the issues I have at all and that struck me as very weird - I couldn't possibly have been the first one coming to her with those worries. A c-section was immediately presented as an option and as I said that I want to give birth vaginally, but that I need support, we spoke about what exactly I'm worried about. But she didn't offer any tools on how to handle the situations should they occur. Some psychologists seem to think that you just have to name your fears and they will disappear. One of my greatest fears had been ending up having an instrumental birth - as that has a very specific connection to the rape - and as I mentioned, that's exactly what happened. I think it could have gone either way; I could also easily have experienced the birth as something very traumatic that might have affected the bonding with my child. But I had such a wonderful midwife assissting me, someone who had read my journal and who somehow seemed to know exactly what kind of support I needed. I wish all midwives, obstetricians and lactation counsellors would learn how to deal with the results of sexual abuse and rape, I wish it were part of their training. Of course it can be a relief for someone who has troubles breastfeeding to hear from someone professional that it's ok to give the baby the bottle. But that person is also saying that it's ok for the rapists to still control that woman's body. They should try to fix the underlying problem, try to find out what kind of help the woman would need to overcome her fear/disgust/phobia. It's not fair to tell her to bottlefeed and to allow her to continue to feel that way about her body. She is worth to be healed. And it's certainly not fair towards her baby either.

And returning to the idea of a support group for moms who had been raped or molested - there is no other place where you can feel as comfortable as around people who have experienced the same. I'm pregnant again and I'm wondering how things are going to turn out this time. Will the midwife assissting me at the birth be as understanding as the one I had last time? Will I be able cope with everything without suffering any flashbacks? Will it be an instrumental birth again and what would that feel like? I'm not even sure I will talk about it with someone this time. I have the feeling that they'd think: Hey, you managed well last time, what are you worried about now? Hm, who knows, I might start such a support group if one day I feel strong enough to be more open about it.

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