Not a mother figure

“I’m scared,” my sister-in-law sobbed into the phone.

I stopped myself before I said something unhelpful or asinine like, “Don’t be scared.”

Instead I replied, “I imagine you are. I wish I knew what to say or do.”

Peter’s youngest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks ago. On Monday, the surgeon scheduled her mastectomy for the end of the week. She called Tuesday morning as I was getting ready for work with a request.

“Do you think you could have your mom call me?” she asked. “I need a mom to talk to. I wish my mom was here.”

Her plea almost incapacitated me. My husband’s mother was gone before I even met him. I know if I were in the same situation, the first person I would call after Peter would be my mom.

“I’ll call her today and ask her to speak with you,” I promised.

“They’re taking my breast,” she said. “And I need a mom to talk to. No offense to you, but I need someone like my own mom,” she apologized.

My sister-in-law is older than me. Even though I am a mom, there is no way that I am a mother figure for her.

“Don’t apologize. I understand,” I assured her.

I was secretly relieved that she wanted to talk to someone else. I can understand her fear about the breast removal since any surgery has risks, but I can’t say that I would be able to relate to her sense of impending loss.

That evening after work, I decided to confide this to Peter.

I tried making light of it. “If I were in your sister’s place, I think you would miss my breast more than me.”

He smiled, but looked at me quizzically.

“You know, the whole purpose of a breast is to provide milk.” I stopped. I was no longer joking.

When I was pregnant, I had decided to breastfeed. It took Philip’s near dehydration when he was a few days old to realize that my body was not producing milk and never would.

Through tears I continued. “I feel like my breasts betrayed me.” My voice barely a whisper I concluded, “I wouldn’t care if they were gone.”

I cried, the pain, the feeling of personal failure and the sense of loss still lingering almost five years later.

“You didn’t hurt him,” Peter said quietly. “He is okay.”

I know he is right. I know I should forgive my body.

I just resent that I didn’t get to be a complete mother figure.


38 thoughts on “Not a mother figure

  1. 😦 your poor SIL and you. 😦
    my breasts failed me and my baby too so I feel you on that loud and clear. truthfully I’m not a fan of my boobs (they’re huge) but… still… so sorry for your SIL.


  2. Let me start by telling you that you should forgive your body, as soon as possible, please. While breasts, yes, are made for breastfeeding, not everyone is prolific in this department; also, there are those who choose not to breastfeed. The quality of mothering doesn’t diminish because of the breasts’ inability to produce milk or the woman’s decision to not breastfeed.

    I breastfed J for four years. You read right: four years. He had TEETH and MOLARS by the time he stopped. I felt like he was taking my life in his full set of teeth whenever I fed him. It was a survival thing; I couldn’t get him to make eye contact unless he had a nipple in his mouth, and he wouldn’t even drink water… I don’t think it makes me a better mother to have done this. TGG never wanted to breastfeed; to this day we make fun of him because he likes his girls with ample bosoms, and I chide him for having flatly refused a pair that could’ve saved me a goodly amount of money on formula. The fact that he didn’t want my breast milk doesn’t make our relationship any less significant.

    Rest assured, there are worse parts of your body that could betray you.

    Your sister in-law is going through a moment that no one wants to go through. When something like what she is experiencing happens, we all need our mother. There are things for which you can rely on your spouse, your sister, your best friend…this is a “mommy” type of thing, and she can’t help it…she is responding with the child that lost her mom and now is losing a breast.

    It is normal that you are feeling this way. It is good that you voiced your concern, your frustration, your sadness to Peter. The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself; what you do need to do is realize that your sister in-law (perhaps subconsciously) is aware that you are mothering proactively, intensely, intensively all the time, and she doesn’t want to add to that process.

    You are a great mom. I read this every single day…I can see it.


    1. Lola: Rationally, I know you are right. I worried that this might come across as if I am judgmental toward women who don’t breastfeed. I respect their choice, but I was angered when the choice was taken from me.
      My mom talked with my SIL yesterday. I hope it was helpful.


      1. Well, I wanted to remind you, my dear, of what a truly amazing mom you are, and reassure you that your dedication to Philip shines through every single day.

        I don’t think you came across as judgmental, but your pain is evident and understandable and I want you to know that your body might have “failed” you, but you have not (in any way, shape or form) failed Philip.

        I value you…I admire you. I just wanted you to know that…


  3. It’s strangely comforting to know that these losses continue to haunt us…letting us deal with them little by little with each turn in life. I still mourn not “being able” to give birth without being sliced open (see the “making light”?), and I haven’t been able to write about it or discuss it honestly in over six years. Still won’t.

    Like any kind of forgiveness, forgiveness of ourselves has to be complete to be able to move on. You’ll forgive* yourself when you’re ready, and then you’ll love your breasts again. Can’t say I’ll ever love my c-section kangaroo pouch, but maybe I’ll learn to be friends with it. 🙂

    *I’m not saying you need forgiveness, just that it sounds like it’s what you want from yourself.


    1. Thanks for your comment. This was the first time I wrote about this issue. I cut out all the details of the discovery-it was making me bawl to write it down. I can understand why you don’t want to write about your experience.


  4. It wasn’t your fault. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I’m sure you have given your son so much in so many other ways. I’m so sorry for what your SIL is going through. What a timely post in light of yesterday’s news about Angelina Jolie. I have a close friend who recently made the same decision.


  5. I felt that way about my breasts for a long time, too. The guilt and loss you feel from not being able to breastfeed is hard to explain, especially to supportive partners who just want to be there and to help but have no idea what you’re going through.

    Prayers and love to your sister-in-law. I wish her all the best and I hope she is able to come back healthier and stronger than ever before.


  6. There is something so personal about breasts and breastfeeding and breast cancer. What a brave and honest post about your experience with this. Hope that your sister-in-law was comforted by your mom and that you have peace about your inability to breastfeed. I know that is so hard!


  7. i think we all have a part of our bodies that we feel have failed us in some way, but there are so many other parts. we are not defined by just our pieces but by our whole. you are so good.


    1. I appreciate your understanding. At the time, there were some health professionals that implied that I was doing something wrong. As an exhausted, hormonal mess, I believed them.


  8. I cried for weeks when my daughter refused to breast feed. She was really sick when she was born and by the time she was well enough to try, she wanted nothing to do with me. Finally giving up was actually a relief, but I know how you feel. There’s such a push to be “everything” for your baby, and I felt guilty forever. Hugs to you, and your sister-in-law… ❤


  9. Don’t feel so bad about not being able to breastfeed. I had a few friends who had the same problems. Just remember you did the best you could and your son is healthy. And that’s all you can ask for.

    I made it to a little over 3 months and by then, I had enough. And now my boobs have lost their perk and are in race to see who can reach my knees the fastest. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my body if I didn’t do the breastfeeding thing.

    So sorry to hear about your sister-in-law – hope her surgery goes well.


  10. I know so many people who couldn’t produce enough milk to feed their babies. We as women take these things so personally, don’t we? Even when it’s not our fault?
    I felt your pain in this post.


    1. Unfortunately, some health professionals imply that it is our fault, which happened to me at first. Fortunately, my son’s pediatrician and his nurse eventually explained that these things just happen.


  11. I felt that same pain with my first born — we failed miserably at breastfeeding. Then I nursed my second for 29 months and pumped/bottle fed/formula fed the twins. The moment I let the guilt about failing so profoundly with my first? When my milk came in with my second — I never felt anything remotely like that with my first, was never engorged or leaking or anything. I knew then, that though I had given it my all the first time around, my body didn’t work right for him — something which I could do little or nothing about.

    I’ve fed my kids almost every way possible and all four are perfect, despite my ineptitude as a mother.

    I hope your sister-in-law heals quickly and kicks the cancer’s butt.


  12. You wrote such a beautiful, honest post. Breastfeeding is such a complicated issue. I tried breastfeeding in the hospital, but a nurse convinced me that my son was hungry, and I gave him formula. I promised myself I wouldn’t feel awful about it, but I did. Eventually, I was able to breastfeed him – the nurse wasn’t very helpful – and then I felt terrible about my reaction to “failing.” It’s just crazy!

    You’re an amazing woman and, no doubt, a wonderful mother. Forgive your body! (I’m still trying to forgive them for being so damn small.)


  13. I’m slow with comments this week! This piece is searing. I have similar feelings about my body around my C section. I can’t talk about it without crying. This is a searing piece.


  14. When I read this post a few weeks ago I was stunned by your courage and raw honesty to talk about this. I also had to take a step back and think about what to write….’cause I had to say something my friend. First you are a good mother and your looked after your sweet baby boy and he’s happy and healthy. Second….you have nothing to forgive your body for because your body did not fail you….the medical profession did. Breast feeding is often not easy and the correct support from nurses in the hospital is crucial but also nurses who understand the modern approach. Sadly this is not always the case and moms are left feeling guilty that they were not able to produce enough milk (my mom felt that way). Skin to skin contact often between newborn and mom, newborn in mom’s hospital room all the time, lactation nurse hands on teaching mom and helping her do the latch, absolutely no formula, do not nurse to clock….breast feed on demand and wake newborn up in middle of night to nurse. The first 5 days babies are not getting milk from mothers but colostrum and the frequent sips stimulate the milk production. What I’m trying to say in my long response is the medical profession needs to completely commit to breast feeding because no one should feel like you did. Hugs.


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