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Moving Past Personal Lactation Struggles to Really Help Others

I read a post on Facebook last week where a lactation professional shared (in a group of other lactation professionals) that World Breastfeeding Week is hard for her because she feels grief over her personal lactation journey. Many others generously and kindly commented, chimed in and empathized with her personal struggles, offered encouragement and praise for her work in lactation, and shared that they also entered this field because of a history of personal struggles.

I would venture to say that more of “us” in lactation went into this work because of a personal history of struggles than those who were simply interested in the topic. Overcoming obstacles, managing challenges, and feeling deeply the sense of frustration that comes with birth and lactation issues is highly motivating - after all, we know in our bones what it is like for the people we are training to help. But I have some mixed feelings about that. Your health comes first: If your own lactation story continues to cause you pain, it is unresolved. It is unprocessed. If you continue to feel wounded by words and phrases, by stories shared by other parents, by negative emotions and memories that rush in when others are speaking about lactation (your professional peers or your clients), then you may need to spend some time processing your story and possibly seeking professional counseling to help you heal. Think of it this way: if your work caused you physical pain day in and day out, you would seek to heal that pain. Like the repetitive friction of a shallow latch, experiencing your negative memories and emotions daily as a part of your workday causes you trauma.

Working from a place of grief over one's own lactation history is not a good place from which to counsel others: If you are finding that you spend much of your working time feeling defensive or protective, you are operating from fear. If you are afraid that what happened to you will happen to them, you are not operating from a base of objectivity.

In order to help your clients prepare for whatever may be next, you have to believe in your core that literally any outcome is possible, not just the outcome that happened to you. You cannot assume that what happened to you will happen to them. Your anticipatory guidance must be framed to allow them to see their situation through their own lens rather than yours. Taking care of one another: You may have heard me say this before, but here is a reminder: there is no such thing as a purely professional lactation audience. When “we” (lactation care providers, birth workers, health care personnel in general) say things to each other about lactation and about lactating people, we are not speaking to a neutral audience. 99% of people in that audience have a personal story or a story close to them which is about lactation, and we can too easily or too frequently offend or bring up negative emotions for them. We must speak to each other with the same kindness and empathy we use with our clients, especially when we are making blanket statements, explaining concepts, or trying to question something. Every time.

Prime example: demonizing formula. It's never ok. Why? Because there's no such thing as a “safe” audience where you can just say whatever you want about formula or people who use it without affecting someone within earshot. It isn't helpful and you lose your credibility the minute you do it. Same thing with phrases like “failed at breastfeeding” and “just pumped.” Reaching more people and impacting their feeding choices is a nuanced and delicate task - and as I have recently come to understand, is often one way in which we judge our own impact over our careers. As I reviewed the latest hospital breastfeeding data in my state of California, I remarked to my husband that it's pretty defeating to see that as I have worked to improve breastfeeding in my region over a 20-year period, the numbers show very little improvement. (I realize that may sound self-centered, but don't we all hope to play a part in making a change? If not, why are we even doing this work?!) But I also know that another way to judge the impact of our work is to reflect on the people we have helped and led along the way. Clients, colleagues, aspiring lactation care providers - these are real people whose lives we changed.

Before I sign off, I just want to share one more thought. There is something more in you that you are meant to do in your lactation career. It is my goal to help you find that or to bring it out in you. THAT is why you are here.

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