I am (lactating) mom – hear me roar

On any given day, someone cutting me in line at the store would mildly irritate me. Today, however, I went into full-on “mama lion” how-dare-you-almost-knock-over-my-son-back-off-lady mode at a woman in Target. Afterwards, I oscillated between feeling justified for my reaction to feeling a bit guilty that I had perhaps been a bit too aggressive in my response.

I was at the store with my husband and my sister. It was crowded with New Year’s Day shoppers and there was someone in front of us checking out. While we waited, my son kept trying to run away so I pulled down a magazine and was flipping through the pictures with him to keep him occupied. Seemingly out of nowhere, because I was focusing on my 19-month-old, someone rushed by, squeezing through a space much too narrow and knocking my son off balance with her purse. I looked up to see her rush over to the cash register in the next aisle over, which the associate was apparently just opening as she had yet to even switch on the aisle light. I looked at my husband, who gave me a look to say, “Can you believe she just cut us like that?”

As I said, normally I would have let something like that go, especially because the woman had only a couple small items to check out. But then the tidal wave of adrenaline and hormones hit me and I couldn’t stop myself. I marched over to the women and said, “Excuse me.” She didn’t look at me and I repeated myself. As she was still not looking at me, I got more frustrated and blurted out, “That was really rude of you.”

She replied that she was in a rush. I said, “I’m sorry you are in a rush, but we were in line.” She said, “You were reading a magazine.” I retorted that we were reading a magazine because I was standing in line with a toddler. She repeated that she was in a hurry and she left. I told her (not kindly) to have a nice day.

I was fuming. My initial reaction was to continue to be indignant that she was so rude to me and my family and to congratulate myself for having the fortitude to stick up for myself. It’s something I struggle with and I was more than a little surprised at myself for actually speaking up.

But, as the adrenaline waned, I began to wish that I had done it a little bit differently. I don’t regret standing up for myself. This woman was overtly rude and playing against the rules, so I think I was in the right to say something. But, as always, we are models for our children. I want to model to my son to stick up for himself, but I now wish that I had started with kindness. Perhaps this woman really was in a rush or hadn’t really noticed what she had done. For instance, I might have started with, “Excuse me, but I’m not sure if you noticed that you cut us in line?” or “Excuse me, but did you realize that you had knocked my son to the side as you passed us?”

This probably would have been the better approach.

But then as I reflected even further, I feel like I was really in a state a bit out of my own mind. As I said, this was a bit out of character for me, but yet I felt very strong and assured in my right to stand up for my son getting shoved to the side. It was like I became another person. So I Googled it. And it turns out that the field of psychology has studied this exact experience, calling it “lactation aggression” or “maternal defense.”

Noting that this “mama bear” effect has been demonstrated in other mammal studies, in 2011 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University; Colin Holbrook, a postdoctoral fellow and research associate in the UCLA Department of Anthropology; Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life; and Ernest Lawson, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, were interested to study the effect of lactation hormones in human mothers.

The researchers found:

  • Women who breast-feed are far more likely to demonstrate a “mama bear” effect — aggressively protecting their infants and themselves — than women who bottle-feed their babies or non-mothers
  • It actually seemed to have a positive health effect for the moms – Breastfeeding mothers’ systolic blood pressure was found to be approximately 10 points lower than women who were feeding formula to their infants and 12 points lower than non-mothers.

“The results, the researchers say, suggest that breast-feeding can help dampen the body’s typical stress response to fear, giving women the extra courage they need to defend themselves.”

I will be honest in saying that finding this research actually made me feel a little better. Sometimes I think that hormonal roller coaster that I’ve been on since having my son means I’m going a bit crazy, but perhaps it’s really just nature’s design. Species survival and all that.

So to the woman at Target today: I’m not sorry that I stuck up for myself, but I am sorry that you felt the full force of lactating “mama lion” Lisa and all her raging hormones. I’m going to try to do better next time. Maybe a good New Year’s resolution…

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