A mama who came to me for help ended up stopping breastfeeding. It’s happened numerous times, but it is a profound experience every time. This mama, she was looking for my permission to stop. But I couldn’t give her that. The decision to stop is not mine to make. Ann had to make this decision twice, once for each of her children. “I needed permission with my first,” she writes. Her own mother voiced the permission Ann felt she required, but I offered instead what I could. “I felt so supported by Katie in my decision, which was validating. It was a devastating but necessary decision for me, and I admire Katie so much, so her support meant everything in that moment.” For her second child, the decision to stop was “just as devastating,” but this time, Ann made her decision with confidence. “I credit Katie’s support with my first for that confidence.”
Another mama remembers the time she broke down crying after support group. Her one-month-old hadn’t nursed all day and would cry every time she put him down. Desperate, anxious, and feeling helpless, Victoria felt out of control. “Katie looked me in the eyes and asked me if I wanted to stop [breastfeeding]. I truly felt like time stopped while I sat there and considered it—that option was available to me and I had help and permission to go there if I chose that. But I said no. And we made a plan, which also involved stopping trying to nurse temporarily.”
I remember vividly the moments these women have described. In those moments, I did not give permission; I gave choices. I gave the support each woman needed to give herself permission.
As mothers, there is nobody there to tell us what to do. This is liberating and terrifying. What you do with your body, your baby, and your life is your choice.
When I look into a woman’s eyes as I did with both of these women, I am looking for confidence. Not confidence that says, “I know what I am doing.” First time moms especially don’t—and shouldn’t be expected to—always know what they’re doing. But I look for confidence that says, “I am not a victim.” I can tell when a woman feels victimized, trapped, and helpless.
When I remind a woman that stopping, pumping in place, or using a shield is a choice, I put her back in the seat of power and control. She is no longer a victim; she is a leader.
For that is what every mother must grow into: the role of mother as leader.
A leader is smart enough to ask for help, guidance, wisdom, and education from others.
If I give you permission, I am making the choice for you. I am assuming mothering power for you. If I give you confidence and choices, I give you the mothering power, but I let you know, “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I’m making this decision with you this time.”
If I give you permission, I don’t give you any tools to use for the next 10,000 occasions in the course of parenting that you will need to step up and lead. I am, in fact, teaching you that when there is a tough decision to make, you’d better let someone else make it for you.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to mother. You can make the right decisions yourself.
But, in order to learn how to confidently make parenting decisions, you need and deserve support, education, guidance, wisdom, and love.
To be clear, mother-as-leader is pretty much always accompanied by fear. Most important things in life have fear and doubt as bosom buddies.
It is easier and feels safer to “get someone’s permission” to do something. If I give you permission, I am partially responsible for the outcome, am I not? If I give you permission, the weight of the decision does not sit squarely on your shoulders.
The weight of being the sole decision maker can be crushingly hard. You are perfectly suited for this role and, in time, you will grow into it.
You will rise to the occasion of motherhood without anyone’s permission but your own.