The Mamafesto: When custody battles make breastfeeding nearly impossible
When Lynn D. first discovered she was pregnant, she just assumed she would most likely breastfeed her new baby but hadn't thought too much about it.
It was only after her son, Brian, was born that she realized how beneficial and important breastfeeding could be for him. It was also then that her relationship with Brian's father fell apart and she found herself in an all-too-familiar situation for nursing moms in a custody battle: She realized how much she would have to fight to continue breastfeeding.
A social worker from Baltimore, Maryland, Lynn became pregnant while in a rocky patch with her boyfriend, "A." A had wanted Lynn to terminate the pregnancy, something she was unwilling to do. However, they managed to work through it and were together for most of the pregnancy before problems arose. "While A had been fairly attentive during the pregnancy in spite of his initial hesitation with going through with it, he was not at all supportive during labor and delivery," Lynn tells SheKnows. "He regularly became frustrated that I wasn’t paying attention to him. That attitude prevailed during Brian’s first few days at home."
Their first big postpartum argument resulted in the police coming when Brian was just a few weeks old. The couple fought a lot, and while most of it related to money and household responsibilities, some of it was about Lynn's breastfeeding. "I experienced some challenges with breastfeeding early on," she says, "but A thought that I should 'just give up and use formula' rather than buying a pump, until I was able to demonstrate the clear savings involved in buying a pump."
Unfortunately a handful of other threatening and dangerous events occurred, and Lynn eventually filed an order of protection and had A removed from her house. Things moved quickly from there. She was surprised with a petition for full physical and legal custody of her son. At that point, Brian was not quite 9 months old, but A and his family were trying to fully remove him from his mother's care.
"He was still nursing," Lynn explains. "But the courts didn’t seem to think that was a valid reason for me to have custody of my son." Lynn spent the rest of her summer working full time, pumping while working, interviewing potential attorneys, going to court and transporting her son to and from day care. During this time, A started having three-hour visits one weekend day a month, which eventually became overnight visits from Friday to Sunday before Brian turned 2.
At one point, Lynn was pumping to provide milk for both day care and visitation. She found little support anywhere. "It's a constant uphill battle when everyone around you is questioning your unwavering commitment to your child and telling you that you should stop doing the most natural thing you've ever done to provide your baby with comfort and nutrition," Lynn laments. She felt that during the whole process, the court system was less than receptive to preserving her breastfeeding relationship with Brian.
"There was a ton of pressure to wean him, from both of our lawyers, and from A and his parents," says Lynn, who also mentioned that even the judge was less than supportive. "It was a constant battle to promote breastfeeding and ensure that A would at least provide Brian with the pumped milk."
When it came to the pumping, Lynn faced a whole new set of challenges. Her milk production slowed down since she wasn't always able to feed Brian when needed. "I don't make enough to send very much with him on visits, but he continues to nurse upon waking, before a nap, at bedtime and in stressful situations when he is with me."
Although she did manage to continue a nursing relationship up until her son was 2, Lynn lost her job due to the stress (she has since found another), and she's speaking out to warn other moms of just how hard it can be.
She isn't the only one: There have been other cases where the courts have intervened when it comes to separations and breastfeeding. In 2013, for example, mother Jessica Moser made national news when she was ordered by the court to stop breastfeeding her 10-month-old daughter so her ex could have an overnight with the baby. In Moser's case, the penalty for not stopping to nurse would be the risk of losing custody of her child. Both Moser and Lynn not only had to deal with the usual challenges that can impact nursing moms, but ones that many of us never foresee or even imagine, and unfortunately they're not alone.
When asked what she has learned from all of this, Lynn is incredibly emphatic: "Go to meetings with lawyers armed with information," she urges. "It would be much more difficult for me to advocate for breastfeeding now with an almost 3-year-old, but my son was 9 months old when court proceedings started — he hadn’t even really tasted solid food yet, so I was his sole source of nutrition."
Lynn also suggests learning about the laws in your state. "Other states limit visitation with young, nursing infants and do not allow overnight visits until a child is 2 to 3 years old, or in some states they don’t go away overnight until they’re school-age, which is not the case in Maryland. I remained firm in my stance that Brian’s routine should not be interrupted until absolutely necessary."