Months before delivering her baby, Ratri (as she wishes to be called) had prepared everything to ensure breast-feeding would go well when the time came.
The working woman took a lactation course on top of her regular pregnancy gym classes, learning how to massage her breasts and other things to ensure her baby could feed exclusively on her breast milk.
But breast-feeding is more difficult in practice than in theory.
“After a week in hospital, I stopped producing breast milk,” Ratri said. “I regularly went to the lactation clinic to get help, but after three weeks my baby’s weight had dropped by almost 15 percent.”
She was torn between the advice of her lactating support doctor and her pediatrician on whether or not the weight loss was alarming enough to feed her formula. In the end, she decided to use it out of concern for her baby when even the recommended diet didn’t work.
“I cried while I was giving [my baby] formula milk. It wasn’t what I wanted. I dreamed of breast-feeding my baby,” said the mother of one.
Technically, her consultant at the lactation clinic helped provide tips and tricks. Nothing worked.
As if her own feelings were not burdensome enough, negative comments were directed to her, ranging from a light “you’re probably too stressed out” to an extreme “maybe you subconsciously don’t want to have a baby”.
For most mothers like Ratri, guilt about not being able to breast-feed puts enough pressure on them, without having to bear a “bad mother” label imposed by others – not only from strangers but even from lactation advocates themselves.
“The pressure was so intense that I ended up having a nightmare where my consultant came to my room, threw away all the formula milk and shouted that I had to breast-feed,” she said.
“From my experience, I feel that their [the consultants'] concern focused on breast milk per se. More often than not, they push and push for it while neglecting a mother’s physical and psychological condition.”
Compounding the issue is the lack of infrastructure to help a mother’s breast-feeding problems. Ratri, for example, had to travel two hours each way from her home to the lactation clinic.
Ratri confessed that she tired herself out trying to breast-feed her baby. “I’m frustrated,” she said.
Without undermining the positive efforts by lactation advocates, women often feel judged by accusations that they are reluctant to breast-feed their babies out of fear of losing their shape.
“Some rudely say that if you don’t want your body figure changed, don’t have a child. Others say that even hamsters can breast-feed their babies,” Ratri said.
“I hate the slogan ‘cow milk is for cows and breast milk is for babies’. While it’s the fact, I think it’s rude. It’s like calling bottle-fed babies subhuman.”
The complexity of the entire issue means mothers sometimes don’t have the final say.
Ratri’s case is might rare but it exists and needs help, not labels.
“Ideally, a lactation counselor should provide just that: Counseling. Meaning to listen to a mother’s problem and try to provide psychological support,” said Meutia Chaerani, who was one such counselor when she lived in Singapore.
A woman who can’t breast-feed shouldn’t be depressed, although that might be a natural reaction, Rani added. “Because if a woman fails to breast-feed, it’s not her fault. It has a lot to do with support from those around her.”
Indonesian Breastfeeding Association chairwoman Mia Sutanto said that Ratri’s bad experiences should not be generalized against all “lactivists”, a term she used for lactation advocates.
“What is often the case is a very passionate lactation counselor who lacks communication skills that one ended up antagonizing mothers instead of helping them,” Mia explained, adding that not all counselors are like that.
“We are in no position to judge mothers. Only a mother – and God – knows whether they have been a good or a bad mother.”