My mind is still reeling from the news that a 4-week-old infant was unable to be resuscitated after the baby stopped breathing on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Kuwait. The plane made an emergency landing in London, but the child could not be revived.
"Mom smothers baby breastfeeding on jet," the headline blared when I went to check my e-mail last Thursday. I quickly closed my laptop before my daughter could wander over and start reading over my shoulder. But I went back online later to read more, driven by the same compulsion that makes us slow our cars and look out the window when we pass an accident. All morning the headlines stuck in my brain as I cleaned the house, played with my children, and nursed my own baby.
Breastfeeding isn't the culprit, experts were quick to state (to my relief) when the news hit the press. Dr. Ruth Lawrence, past president and founder of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, was very clear in her interview with ABC News: "Breastfeeding doesn't smother babies." Instead, Lawrence pointed to the fact that the mother fell asleep while nursing.
Janet Fyle of the Royal College of Midwives agrees that breastfeeding shouldn't be blamed. The true culprit, she says, are the airplane seats itself, because they make it so easy to fall asleep. "It's not breastfeeding that's the problem," Fyle stated. "It's the chair.''
Pardon me for quarreling with the experts, but this mother is being blamed for falling asleep? On a transatlantic flight? With a 4-week-old?
What nursing mother hasn't fallen asleep while nursing her child? Back before the days of studies and guidelines and research and panels, back when the experts were primarily mothers, most women probably fell asleep every night while nursing their children. Many still do. But we're not supposed to, because sleeping while holding a baby is taboo right now, along with letting babies sleep on their stomachs, or using forward-facing car seats, or feeding babies honey before age one.
We have expert-approved guidelines for every possible aspect of child-rearing, and I appreciate the insight afforded by such guidelines. But I wonder if they make it easier to blame parents when the unthinkable happens. The recommendations are ever-increasing and ever-changing, and that's not even getting into the fact that on most issues, experts disagree. Parents are stumbling under the weight of all these "shoulds," and when tragedy strikes, these recommendations morph into pointing fingers of accusation.
A mother was nursing her baby on an airplane and fell asleep. When she woke up, the child wasn't breathing. Now she's facing inquiries and investigations, in addition to suffering a tragedy that my brain will short-circuit on before it even tries to imagine.
Bloggers have been positing theories of their own. Maybe the baby was covered by a blanket. Or the baby was too young to be flying in the first place. The mother shouldn't have taken that trip/fallen asleep/nursed her child. The passengers around her should have noticed sooner/woken her up/been able to save the baby. All these opinions hold a common thread: someone, something, has to be blamed.
But is it possible there's no blame to be had? Sometimes people die when they are very, very tiny—and sometimes no one is to blame. If you can't handle that, it's because you weren't supposed to. Human beings were created to live eternally; our minds and our hearts were never designed to handle the unspeakable loss that is death. It goes against the very fabric of who we are, and who we were created to be.
Reeling from this pain that we were never intended to know, we look for a source of blame—as if having a cause, a culprit, could somehow make it better. And when a baby dies, the person who carries the brunt of that blame, deservedly or not, is the mother.
Somewhere, right now, a woman is mourning the loss of her child. Several women, actually, facing the pain of cancer or SIDS or a tragic accident. I pray for each and every one of these women, that our God of mercy would be their comfort and source of hope. And I pray that they will be surrounded by people who will hold them, love them, and grieve with them, people whose first thoughts will be to help the mothers, before assuming they are to blame.
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