The Power of Milk: Breastfeeding as redemption for moms who are survivors of abuse

In the beginning, I was not a fan of nursing, but I patiently kept going to meetings and nursing, hoping that I would attain some kind of strategy, or trick to make this experience more pleasant. I knew nursing was the best thing for my baby, so I kept at it.  This was one of my better decisions in those early days.  It wouldn’t be long before I realized that nursing provided so much more than love for my child. I was soon to discover  I was sitting on a wealth of love and healing for myself as well—and it was more than I ever  than I ever dreamed.

As a teen, and again later as a married woman, I had the misfortune of meeting some very bad men, and was raped multiple times, by partners, bosses, and strangers. This is something that has haunted my days and almost every facet of my life. Through years of counseling I have developed skills for coping, but never felt like my body was a good place to ‘live’. I always felt that it was no good, unattractive, and a target for potential predators to find me with. I never really felt safe in my own skin, and really had some very serious body image issues, as well as issues with my body as a sexual object. It was rare I allowed my husband to touch my breasts during intercourse because the sensations I associated with that tender act were less than loving. I worried how I would cope with this while nursing. In my last trimester I was more frightened of nursing than I was of labor and delivery!

My labor and delivery was a planned, natural home birth, but things didn’t go as I’d hoped and I ended up on a pitocin drip with an ineffective epidural I didn’t need or want, and lots of issues about how my body had failed me. I also had a very difficult pregnancy that at many points, endangered my life. I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarium, and lost 42 pounds in the first weeks of my pregnancy. I had scarcely controlled vomiting for 7 of 9 months, and at delivery time, was still 20 pounds lighter than before I became pregnant. These issues only served to compound my feelings of resentment for my body, and I felt like it didn’t work, and never would– I hated it all the more for these reasons.

It was very difficult for me to surrender control of my body on someone else’s terms, and someone else’s schedule, even if it was a tiny, helpless, perfect, little infant.  I really struggled with my baby’s seemingly constant need for my breasts in the first days. I called my La Leche League Leader for support more than once, and cried to my husband about how difficult it was for me to ‘let go’ of the control I had maintained over my body for so many years in order to feel safe as a result of the violence I’d been through.

But slowly, after a few more weeks of nursing, the soreness and engorgement went away, and I began to treasure the time my baby spend nuzzled and sleeping ‘at the tap’, as my husband would say. The resentments I had harbored against my body for years as a result of violence and mistreatment, and my pregnancy ‘failings’ all began to melt away as I began to realize that my body was doing the most amazing thing… it was nourishing my son with the milk and love he needed to learn, grow, and bond to me in those critical first days. I suddenly stopped resenting the seemingly constant need for him to nurse, and fell in love with my son and my breasts. Surrendering this most feminine part of myself became a source of pride, and strength.  My mind was filled with wonder as my son nursed ‘early and often’, and we established the most intimate connection I have ever felt.  For the first time n my life, I felt safe sharing my body.  I felt powerful, strong, and loved– all from this one act.  I became a milk-maker, a super-hero, and I LOVED my new milk-makers!  This changed my life, and my relationship with my body– something that 10 years of therapy could not do.

My breasts have always been large, and I felt they were a ‘target’ to attract unwanted sexual attention from sexual predators, and when they ballooned out to a 36G as my milk came in, I was appalled, embarrassed, and very nervous. With time, however, I came to know my body in a way I never had, and as my son continued to nurse with vigor, I learned how amazing it is to be a woman, and that my breasts were the most amazing gift I had ever been given. For me, breastfeeding had redeemed every act of violence against me, and taken back every perception on my own failure, and allowed me to love my body and realize it’s power for the first time.

At 14 months I developed a condition that needed medication—or so we thought.  I weaned my son only to find out that I didn’t need to!  So after 2 dry months, I quickly re-lactated and was soon nursing with a full supply, and we were both happy as can be!    I have never felt so powerful!!  What a trick—to make milk where there was once none! I think I earned bragging rights until he’s old enough to tell me I’m embarrassing him! For my son, breastfeeding provided nutrition, love, protection, and the feeling that he was the most important little boy on this earth. For me, breastfeeding provided self-love, acceptance, safety, and a confidence I have never felt. This has truly changed my life, and shaped my future.

Breastfeeding alone, was the single instrument of healing I have been searching for all my life.  Who knew that feeding this tiny baby would be the most profound joy, and sense of accomplishment in my 30 years?  I feel strong, I feel powerful, and I have overcome so much.  Breastfeeding is so much more powerful than I ever imagined—but I sure am glad I stuck with it to find out!

Colleen Curry is a mother, DONA certified labor doula (see her website), certified childbirth educator, and La Leche League leader.  

4 thoughts on “The Power of Milk: Breastfeeding as redemption for moms who are survivors of abuse

  1. To say I agonized over what to do with this piece, is to say that I’m a ‘little’ high strung, or that I ‘have been known’ to talk louder than anyone else in a large group about vaginas.

    But I wrote it… I didn’t know why, but I had to. To keep myself from submitting it for publication , I almost deleted it off my hard drive– twice. Eventually, I sent a copy to DONA International, and to the Illinois Chapter of La Leache Leage. LLL never really commented on the piece, which I find disappointing since this is sort of ‘their area’, so to speak. But I nearly passed out at the mailbox when I open my next copy of International Doula Magazine from DONA… and I was the cover story!!! Now that the shock has worn off, I’ve had more time to think about what I’m willing to share about my life to help others, as well as how I can use my grief to create a more compassionate and aware community of birth enthusiasts. So… when Katrina asked for guest bloggers on her site, I dusted off my barely proofread copy of the article, and held my breath one more time!

    But stepping back to when all this began: I was a new mother with so many struggles, worries, and hormones. The idea to lay myself so bare to an unknown audience was terrifying, but felt important. I am not ashamed of the decisions those people made to hurt me, and I feel sorry for how twisted their own lives must be to cause them to hurt me and others in such an intimate, unending, and cruel ways. I am who I am today by having to answer the existentially impossible questions that this kind of violence inevitably saddles us with. But the thing that REALLY scared me about people reading this, was the commentary of other women– survivors, mothers, and friends. This is a deep part of me– one of the few pieces I don’t wear on my sleeve unapologetically. These are stories my closest friends have not heard, and may never hear. After all, who WANTS to hear about something so terrible happening to someone they love? Personally, I’d just as well skip the details, and move on to the hugs and chocolate.

    But somewhere in me, I knew someone needed to hear this. Despite my misgivings of sharing something so personal to so many, I knew it was right. Statistics continue to reflect that 1 in 3 or 4 females are sexually assaulted in their lives. What I find even more worrisome, is that it’s also consistently agreed upon that less than 10% of sexual cases are reported.

    So if this is true– could it be that half of the women in your life know what a non-consentual sexual interaction feels like? Doulas: What a scary thought– especially if you’re the a person she’s chosen to trusted with her birth or breastfeeding/postpartum care. The prenatal and postnatal period can be an emotional place, and hormones (not to mention lack of sleep) have been known to ‘bring things back’, or trigger old anxieties a mother may have previously thought were dormant, or laid to rest. If these statistics are true ( and they’re easy to check at, or your own state’s crime rates publications by region/year), then it’s time we made folks’ aware that some women who have undergone sexual trauma or violence will need specialized training, or care from their prenatal, educational, labor support, breastfeeding and postpartum advocates.

    When I published this the first time, I was afraid of being judged by those who think these women lie about their experiences out of regret, or ‘just in case they’re pregnant’, or use rape as an excuse for making a bad decision while intoxicated. I’m not sure why the opinion of such a person would bother me in the least, but I suppose we’re all human first, and brave second. The media tells us that if the famous sports player buys his wife a big enough ‘penance diamond’, he will be forgiven, and she will make peace lying in her bed at night with a suspected rapist. The media also questions the validity of a woman’s character based on her looks, her intelligence, her wardrobe, and the price of her meal. My wardrobe is NOT that exciting, I’m not easy, and I don’t sleep around But to be publicly asked these questions: about my integrity, my dignity, or my self-respect–this is something I don’t know how to handle. I’m an educated, driven, passionate woman who used to assistant teach full-contact women’s self-defense courses, who drives a minvan AND HOPES that I can reach someone who wants to stop feeling so alone, or so guilty for not feeling safe having to share her breasts with her baby.

    I was afraid of so much… as if my value was so easily evaluated… as if my personal flaws would make me somehow unworthy of basic human dignity and respect from the people around me. What if being beautiful meant I didn’t have the right to say no, or that ‘it just couldn’t be helped’– like being spectacularly gorgeous (which I am not) puts you at higher risk for violence because your beauty calls out to lure weak-willed-men like the Sirens did to the weary Homer in his legendary journey, or to Gilgamesh on his epic travels, and the countless other sailors deranged with scurvy, malnutrition, and eventually lead poisoning.

    But I am a woman, a WHOLE PERSON, who is now a mother. I couldn’t bear to polish up or make the article pretty, but I needed to give those other women out there a reason to think they weren’t awful mothers to need help with breastfeeding, or to be keenly aware of our inexperience with these mysterious but divine little creatures who can see already that we’re ‘good enough’, even if we’re not feeling this way just yet .

    I sincerely hope that I’m not the kind of woman whose integrity you will ever have reason to question. I was never a call girl, never met Eliot Spitzer, and don’t have implants of any kind. I don’t do botox (spackle is more my speed) or wear makeup, was never in porn, never arrested, and donate almost half of my earnings each year to various global charitable causes—oh, and I own my VERY OWN cordless Milwaukee hammer power drill. Many assaults happened when I underaged, and again once I was married (NO, it was NOT my husband). I was given the date rape drug in a drink from my boss on a business trip (who was a doctor), at an after-hours party so he could leave with someone and not risk me telling his wife. He left me at a bar 2000 miles from home with no cellular service, cash, or the name of our hotel after ‘promising’ me to one of his new friends if he could make suer to have me back to my room before the morning.

    I usually wear my heart on my sleeve, and even though I was not at fault, and am in no way responsible for any of the events that befell me– I am still a person who needs a reminder now and then that I am okay, that it will be okay, and that these boots were made for walking… and I’m not done using them yet! Please pass this along to someone you know whose boots need to get their groove back!

    PLEASE share this article (sloppy as it is), as well as the Breastfeed, Chicago! facebook and blog profiles. As fearful as I am about sharing something so personal , and as nervous as I am that I’ll soon be known as ‘the rape doula’, I know this is information that needs to be shared in order to create compassion, and support for the women that struggle as I a have. PLEASE share this with others, so that we can have a community who can give just as much love and support over residual abuse trauma, as we can create steam over issues like vaccinations and circumcisions.

    So here I am, naked for all to see, and I hope my story reaches you, or someone else you know.

    Breastfeeding mommas need love, too—especially mommas with an abuse history.

  2. This article is awesome colleen and unfortunately hit home in too many ways. Would have loved to have read this about 3 years ago, and I’m glad it’s out there for other new moms. <3 <3 <3

  3. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for sharing.
    I am a survivor as well, and a 36 G homebirth transfer. My OB was… horrible. She belittled me, accused me of being a heroin addict (!) and, I just found out tonight, told my husband that I wasn’t in labor- after more than thirty hours of back labor. Good lord. I’m not sure if I’ll ever resolve the anger I have towards her. She forced my legs apart when she was stitching me. I ended up with a granular polyp because the wound didn’t heal. I would not have torn, most likely, if she didn’t tell me to push so hard- twenty minutes with an epidural from first push to birth.
    I love nursing, although I was surely touched out at times when my boy was tiny. He’s sixteen months now. I, too, marvel at how safe I feel, sharing myself in this way- reading that made me cry with recognition.
    Thank you.

  4. Colleen: Thank you so much for sharing your story. It helps me learn compassion for those Moms affected like you were. I hope to share your story and inspire new Moms who have faced abuse to be empowered and hopefully heal through their breastfeding experiences.

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