When I first returned to Guam and began teaching post-secondary students, I applied to a doctorate program and for a position to become a full-time instructor. Shortly after I did this, a male colleague questioned my ability to do either. He felt that because I was a young, married woman, I would want a family (which would eventually interfere and make me less capable of performing up to standards). For some reason, this man didn’t have much faith in me as either an academic or a professor. As a matter of fact, he told me that I “probably wouldn’t get in” to the doctorate program I applied for, because someone he knew, someone who was “better” than me, applied and was rejected. (Never mind that he didn’t really know me enough to judge how good I was or how much “better” someone else might be. I now realize he must have made quite a few assumptions about me because I was young, female, and local). Oh well, what’s new?
He also felt the need to remind me that many marriages slip into divorce within academia. I remember being offended, but a little stunned at the comment. It was only later, after I went home and processed my feelings about his remarks, that I decided they were, most definitely, wrong. After marinating in his words, I actually became enraged with him. Luckily, I was offered a permanent position elsewhere shortly after the conversation, at a place where being a married woman, who might someday have a child was never an issue or distraction. I was also ecstatic to find out that I had been ACCEPTED to the doctorate program I applied for. They simply asked me to revise a minor detail on my statement of purpose, which I did. It felt amazing.
A few months later, I ended up with child. I never ended up enrolling within the program that accepted me. I felt disappointed in myself. With a baby and a husband who traveled often, I couldn’t handle it. When I made the decision not to enroll, my heart pretty much broke. The former colleague’s comments came back to haunt me. They loomed over my head for months. So, when I finally delivered my child, I decided that NOTHING was going to get in the way of me being the very best, most productive young professor I could be. I was already embarrassed to have people hear that I didn’t end up going to the program I was accepted to.
I felt the overwhelming need to prove people like him wrong. Because I was due over the summer, I was not eligible for maternity leave. I had to get back to work two months after my c-section (while my spouse was away for a long period of time). I decided that in order to resume work and power through the long hours of standing up, lecturing five undergraduate classes, and still do all of the extra stuff that is expected of you as a professor (committee work, research, recruiting, community service, etc), I would NOT breastfeed. I got a lot of criticism for not breastfeeding my son. But I also received many comments from people in my field that reminded me committing to breastfeeding would make my performance suffer (or even make it impossible). One man told me that was why academia “was not a good place for young, married woman.” I was starting to wonder if he was right. But all I’ve ever wanted was to teach undergraduates and I didn’t want people who thought that way to “win.”
When I returned to work and people began to learn I wasn’t breastfeeding, some made faces at me; they implied that I was not as good a mother as one who opted to breastfeed. People warned me that my child would fall ill or develop slowly. People called me “lazy.” Some women would even post images on my facebook wall that compared breastfed children to formula-fed children. The drawings of the breast-fed children always had brighter eyes and a more attractive, happier appearance. I’m not going to lie; I felt like shit. I know that there are quite a few mothers out there who still believe that I deserve to feel like shit for not breastfeeding. They’re entitled to their opinions and I respect that. But make no mistake, their mission was accomplished: By the end of my first semester back at work, I was laden with self-loathing and guilt for not doing it and for not staying home with my child to do it longer.
Luckily, my son has grown beautifully. He’s smart; he’s just as smart, bright-eyed, and developed as any breastfed child. He is not, nor has he ever been, obese. He doesn’t have trouble eating his veggies or natural, unprocessed foods. He does not have eczema or asthma (as some insisted he would). He’s taller than most. He’s perfect. I have spent quite a bit of time being ashamed for my decision. I was called me selfish; and I think a part of me was. I guess it was a selfish decision to choose my career (but I worked hard and long in order to get that job. I really wanted it; and I wanted to be good at it). One friend even told me that she just loved her baby more than I must have loved mine. OUCH. I sometimes lied and said I was breastfeeding, just to avoid the hurtful criticism. I figured, my boobs are big, people won’t know I’m making it up! 😛
So, when I heard about the new local bill that would ensure rights for nursing mothers and infants, I was curious to read it and explore my feelings. Would reading it just make me feel worse? I read it and when I put it down, I decided that it was something I would most definitely get behind and support. At the hearing yesterday, I did not offer testimony (though I now plan to). I wasn’t sure if I had a place in the conversation after not breastfeeding my own son. Would people call me a hypocrite if I publicly supported it? But sitting in on the hearing made me realize that passing the bill was crucial for our island, especially because Guam, American Samoa, and West Virgina were the only places on US soil that do not have a local law in place to protect nursing mothers. This bill raises awareness and normalizes breastfeeding, encouraging people, like the individuals who questioned my ability to be both a mother and an employee, to understand that breastfeeding is a natural right, one that should never be questioned, by anybody. It’s a natural process that is good for our children and no woman should ever sit and wonder whether or not doing it in a public place (or at her workplace) will make her seem rude or less capable. Despite having not breast-fed, I was empowered, as a woman, by listening to the testimonies presented by the Director of Public Health, other mothers, and local lactation consultants.
I was listened with interest to the testimony presented by James Gillan, the director of Public Health. He is the father of three beautiful daughters, all of whom were breastfed. He explained that for our island, breastfeeding was the norm up until WWII. In the past, women on Guam breast-fed without a second thought. With the arrival of infant formula and new societal structures on our island, there was a “departure from the natural process.” He even mentioned other Pacific, colonized islands (such as Kiribati) that had once predominantly breastfed, but later shied away from the practice.
The arrival of Western supplies and ideas transformed having access to infant formula and having a bottle to feed your child with into a kind of “status symbol.” Speaker of the Guam Legislature, Judith T. Wonpat, also admitted that Guam, being one of the most “westernized” pacific islands, has moved further and further away from natural ways of operating, such as breastfeeding. The funny thing about Guam is that we have quite a few people in our community who still view having anything from the states, whether it be clothing or a degree, as a status symbol. Just yesterday, I saw a big billboard that advertised homes for sale that were described as “just like that states!” (My personal opinion is that Guam homes are cute and I love them.) Our poor little island is infected by this false notion of Western superiority, even I am guilty of it sometimes. The speaker called on the many different women’s groups on island to help promote and encourage breastfeeding on Guam. So many interesting and thought-provoking topics were brought up during the hearing.
For me, it made me realize that if I were to ever have a child again, I might feel differently or maybe make a different choice. I know that it has always been my body and my choice and that, technically, it was always in my power to have selected breastfeeding. I’m not blaming anyone here. BUT I am saying that when we increase awareness of issues like this, we are doing something good for ALL of our island’s mothers.
We’re letting them know that whatever they choose, there is no shame and no second-guessing. We’re providing a little extra ammunition for women to work with when they meet people who aren’t educated, progressive, or open minded enough to realize that being a mother doesn’t make you less able to do anything, especially if our society starts leaning more heavily toward motherhood’s acceptance.
If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that I have become very motivated to eat more natural and nourish my body with simple foods. Breast milk is the most natural thing I could have given my child. The introduction of this bill has forced me to reflect upon the decision I made. It has encouraged me to sort through some old, unresolved feelings, and figure out where some of my actions were rooted when I made the decision. I think I feel ready to let the guilt die now. I have an amazing, healthy son and no matter what some people may think of me for not having breastfed him, I think I’m doing a decent job of showing him my love and taking care of him. I did what I did; and I have learned some valuable lessons through the experience.
I hope that you will take some time to look at this bill as well. You have nine days to submit written testimony in its support to Speaker Judith T. Wonpat’s office at the Guam Legislature. Testimony may be e-mailed, faxed, or dropped off in person.
Here is a link to read the bill: Nana yan Patgon Act
Thank you to all the mothers and individuals who provided testimony at yesterday’s meeting. I truly appreciated your perspectives and am excited to see that so many of our islanders are eager to make returning to this natural process more comfortable and more accepted in our community.