My son was a planned surprise, which means I wanted him but didn’t think he could ever happen. What was even more unexpected were the feelings that arose around my ability to care for him. It took years for me to figure out that a lot of my struggles as a new mother were directly related to my history as a sexual assault survivor.
One of the unanticipated difficulties was breastfeeding. Eighteen years ago, when my son was born, breastfeeding was not quite as supported in my city as it is now. Just this year an ordinance was passed in support of public breastfeeding, so you can imagine the atmosphere nearly two decades ago!
I had experienced miscarriages and been told I probably wouldn’t be able to have a child. When I found out I was pregnant again after I had given up trying, I was thrilled. Wanting to be “supermom,” I researched everything I could at the local library. I intended to babywear, use holistic treatments, and breastfeed exclusively. I attended a La Leche League meeting and met with a lactation consultant at my clinic. I was going to give my baby everything I did not have as an adoptee in a poor family.
I was open with my doctor about my history of sexual abuse. The clinic provided me with a counselor, nutritionist, lactation consultant, and mentor throughout my pregnancy. I was lucky to have so many resources and support to work through my fears and traumas.
Sumayyah Talibah, a writer, jewelry maker, mother to boys aged 11 and 7, and survivor, says: “I didn’t breastfeed. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Breasts were always sexual for me, having been well-endowed in that area for all of my life. My breasts were usually the first thing noticed about me, commented on, and touched, often without permission. It’s like I had some sort of block when I went to try [to breastfeed], panic attack and all, remembering my experiences.” Like many other moms, she went on to add that she was shamed by nurses in the hospital for not trying to breastfeed.
As for me, I found hospital staff unsupportive of my desire to breastfeed. They refused to let me keep my son in the room with me overnight. Fortunately I had ample support once we got home. I had been taught that “you know he is latched on correctly because it doesn’t hurt,” one of the breastfeeding claims I still side-eye. When he latched on, it sent a shooting pain through my breast and down my spine, and continued to hurt the entire time he ate. I would tense up in anticipation of the pain. I told my lactation consultant, who explained to me that I had a rare condition that would not improve. I tried to nurse for another week or so anyway, but when he developed a serious illness, we decided it was better to not have the breastfeeding stress as well. It wasn’t until later that I was told mine was a reaction often experienced by sexual assault survivors, though I still do not know the name of the condition.
Brooke Benoit, a mother of 6, artist, writer and editor, shared: “When the topic of breastfeeding came up during my first pregnancy, my reaction was no. Why would I do that? Why would I give my breasts to another person all day every day for some indefinite period of time? My husband was surprised by my response. I was a very all-things-natural, loving person and he had assumed I would be a give-all kind of Mama, which I was aiming for, but it had also been lost on him (and myself) why I would even consider an elective c-section. At that time I could not bring the feelings to the forefront of my brain or my tongue because I am a survivor of sexual abuse and am not always in touch with all the reasons why I do certain things out of striving to maintain autonomy over my body at all times. One such thing is that I do not like anyone touching my sexual bits when I am not in a sexual mode.”
How sexual trauma can come back to us during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum varies. Our reactions are not uniform, and there are many possible reactions a survivor might have that are not readily seen as related to a history of trauma. We often live with shame, guilt, and isolation because we do not realize trauma is the root of our issues. When we struggle to breastfeed but cannot articulate why, it is also difficult to get the appropriate support. Lactation consultants, postpartum doulas, and other support providers should be better educated in sexual trauma and prepared to help parents with such history recognize if that may be what is causing difficulties. All those supporting new parents should be open to modifying their approaches when encouraging breastfeeding, realizing that someone may not know or feel safe enough to say why they have a visceral negative reaction to trying. Unfortunately, there is not much quality intersectional writing (or even thoughtful consideration) on the needs and experiences of sexual assault survivors during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.
Chloe Viening-Butler, mother of four boys, artist, poet, and activist shares: “I actually didn’t have any issues at all with that [breastfeeding]. Well… at least until I weaned. While I was weaning and was ready to be done, but the toddler wasn’t ready, I would feel really gross. The only thing that helped me then was to have a safe place or person to speak it out loud to. I wrote about and talked about it, and I was fortunate enough to have people who said directly ‘it’s okay and normal to feel that way’…then at the very least I had put language to my discomfort and heard someone say it was something I wasn’t alone in.”
Tytina Sanders-Bey — lactation counselor, doula, and mom of five kids — suggests there are additional benefits for a survivor when breastfeeding. “At first I was ashamed of my breasts. They were often touched by my first offender,” she says. “Once I began to willingly have sex with a partner, my breasts were often off-limits. I wouldn’t even take my bra off. When I had my first baby and learned about breastfeeding, it actually boosted my confidence. Not only did I have milk to feed my baby, but I felt sexy and it was okay for me to feel sexy. I had that child at a young age, but she was my way away from the boogie man forever.”
Sexual assault survivors have different feelings about their bodies. Some may be very concerned about autonomy, while others might not feel as if their bodies belong to them. Pregnancy and motherhood can amplify these feelings, or cause a major shift. Many survivors look for ways they can exert control over their body, and may feel that breastfeeding either takes away that control or liberates them in some way. Discovering that your body is capable of incredible things, like bringing forth a life and feeding it, can be quite empowering and even enable you to reclaim your body.
If you are a sexual assault survivor and thinking about breastfeeding, here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you do not want to try to breastfeed, you do not have to. We have flipped in the last 20 years from little support for breastfeeding to the prescriptive pushing of breastfeeding. You do not owe anyone else an explanation for your choice. Know that you are not alone, and you are not a bad mother for doing what is best for your unique situation. Your baby is not going to starve or have some terrible illness because you fed them formula. If bonding is a concern, reliving trauma does not make for a happy bonding experience either. Find other ways to interact with your baby. After all, no one has ever claimed that your partner’s bond with the baby is wrecked by a bottle, so yours won’t be either!
- If you do want to breastfeed, set realistic expectations for yourself with a no-shame rule, and gather your supports. You may, like others, discover that breastfeeding doesn’t actually cause the feelings and discomfort you expected. Or, like me, you may discover that it causes other feelings you were not prepared for. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid. Do not try to repress them, but figure out how you would like to deal with them to get through nursing anyway. This may mean that you need to take additional time to yourself before or after feedings. It may mean you take up meditation or seek outside help to talk about how you are feeling. No matter how many times I’m told, I still need to be reminded that taking care of my own needs is not selfish. Being aware of your own needs and honoring them helps you to be there for your baby.
- Prepare your body and think about how you can set boundaries. You may decide that you cannot breastfeed exclusively, or that expressing your milk is less triggering than actually nursing. Brooke says: “One thing I nipp(l)ed in the bud was that some women allow their baby to play with their other breast and nipple while nursing. For me, no way. I have now breastfed six children for two years each and when each one has begun their little explorations of my body while nursing, I gently hold their adorable teeny hand in mine and say ‘no.’ Babies are brilliant, you know, and mine have all respected this first boundary between their body and mine.”
- Have fun! Babies are marvelous, but let’s face it, they are also exhausting! Sexual assault survivors frequently find ourselves constantly on guard, anxious, and obsessed with perfection. Between the hormonal roller coaster and the sleep deprivation of parenting a new baby, these pressures and tendencies can increase. Find ways to have fun, however you define it, and give yourself permission to enjoy your new baby and new life.
Aaminah Shakur is an artist, poet, doula, and healer whose work centers women of color, queer women, disabled women, and survivors of sexual trauma experiences and needs. Their website is aaminahshakur.com.