As I commented on a post about being A Mum in Hiding – about how we mums try to hide the many things we do that would label us as a Bad Mummy – I was reminded of one of the first times I felt like a Bad Mummy, the first time I had failed my child and proven that I lacked the ability to be a perfect mum. I talk of the very emotive issue of breastfeeding.
Although I have put the whole issue of breastfeeding long behind me and no longer worry that I got it wrong and let my children down in the worst possible way I am aware that this remains a major debate for all mummies. You only need to visit a parenting website or view a forum that mentions the subject and up jump the different sides, ready to argue for their cause.
Generally it comes down to benefits.
We have the side who will argue that breastfeeding is scientifically proven to be better for your child healthwise, that it prevents obesity as they grow older and those children who are breastfed are going to be smarter, fitter, stronger. Basically all round super children. We will call that side Boobs.
In opposition are those who argue that they were not breastfed and they are not couch potatoes wallowing in their own ignorance. They turned out ok. We call them Bottle.
“Look at the children walking down the street and see if you can tell which one was breastfed,” Bottle argues.
“But it is free,” says Boobs. “It is natural. Women were made to breastfeed. That’s why we have boobs.”
“We have evolved,” says Bottle. “My boobs are my own, I will choose who gets to suck on them.”
“It is so convenient. No carrying about of paraphernalia, no large bags and having to look for microwaves. My boob produces the perfect food, nutritionally balanced and full of flavour, pre-heated to the right temperature. It is there on demand, no waiting for the baby.” Boobs says.
Bottle laughs. “I don’t see carrying round a bottle and a bit of powder as hard work. It’s not difficult. I don’t want to get my boobs out in public. I don’t face the embarrassment of strangers unsure where they are allowed to look.”
“You should try it at least. Every mother should try to breastfeed her baby.” said Boobs.
“But it hurts. You get mastitis. The baby chews the skin from your nipples. They are sore and it is painful.” worries Bottle.
Boobs smiles, “The more you do it the easier it becomes. Your nipples harden up. The soreness goes. You are rewarded for your pain by being incredibly close to your baby. As one. There is no deeper connection. If you do not breastfeed you are missing out.”
“I want my partner to be able to help too. He wants to feed his child and feel close to her too. He can do nothing but watch if I breastfeed,” argues Bottle.
“He can bring your towels. He can help in other ways. He can change nappies and connect with the baby that way.” says Boobs.
When I was pregnant with Kid 1 I met my own Boobs. A close friend and a very strong willed person who may not have realised how very forcefully she pushed the notion of breastfeeding at me.
“Thou shalt offer up thine boob, or know that thou hast failed thy child!”
Of course, there were others who were keen that I should breastfeed. The midwife made it clear that I should try. Everyone who had a child, thought of having a child or had ever seen a child seemed to have an opinion. But it was the pressure of Boobs, combined with her ‘I did it till mine were 9 months old’ commentary, that made me feel most obliged to do it. Maybe I am an easily influenced person but I did not want to fail where apparently everyone else had succeeded.
“I must do what is right for my child” was the mantra.
(Interestingly, my own mother was not pushy at all. The opposite in fact. She had not breastfed her children and she was not keen on the idea at all. But she stayed quiet and let me make up my own mind.)
When they handed my daughter to me for the first feed right after she was born, she latched on and sucked away. It was easy. It felt fine. I could do this. Of course, not taking into account that I had been awake for over 24 hours, she was barely 20 minutes old and not up to a full feed and the midwives were actually controlling her body and my boob, I didn’t realise that she and I had not really been in control of the feed, purely the apparatus the midwives used to complete their role.
The second time, a few hours later after we had both been asleep, was very different. She cried, I panicked, a different midwife came to see what was happening. And that is where it began to go wrong.
This midwife was very stern, not so warm and slightly condescending. I asked for help, after all I had never had a child attached to my nipple before and I had no idea what to do. They don’t come with instructions you know. By her very demeanour I could tell the midwife was thinking “Stupid woman. What is so hard? Stick the child on your boob.” I didn’t ask again.
I left the hospital with child and with only a vague idea of how I was meant to feed her. The first day at home was horrendous. In-laws popping in to prod my baby and the moment she whimpered I was told to feed her while they all watched expectantly. Was I being rude leaving the room to breastfeed her, as if implying they were all trying to see my breasts? At the same time I resented having to leave my nice warm sofa and have to plod up to the cold bedroom for privacy because the house was full of invaders.
On day 3 another midwife stopped by. She very casually informed me that she wanted to see the baby feed to be sure it was all going ok, picked up my child and rammed her onto my boob. My daughter choked. Somehow we found ourselves hustling to the car with the midwife telling us that ‘she had stopped breathing for a second and we had to get her checked over’. Cue panicked parents hurtling back to the children’s ward. Of course all was fine, but we were only told that after 24 hours of worry and beeping machinery monitoring her.
The next thing that happened, my milk came in. Oh my, the pain!
Suddenly my boobs stuck out, swollen and solid and as big as the famous bra Madonna once wore. The pressure was incredible, it felt that at any moment they would explode. One touch and milk was gushing out.
From then on trying to feed my baby girl was a nightmare. I would try to get her to latch on. She would arch away from me screaming hysterically. My breasts were agony, a straining balloon that needed release. My baby would not perform her part of the bargain and take the pain away. If I could get her to latch on she chewed my nipples until they were raw and bleeding.
This was not fun. This was not bringing us closer. There was no mummy-baby contentment here. Every time I thought of her next feed I felt resentment, fear of the pain, tense about how much she would scream. I cried because it hurt so much, because she clearly hated me, because I was failing as a mother.
Finally my friend Boobs came to visit me a few days in. She took one look at my baby crying because she couldn’t feed, whilst I tried to make her and she said “Why don’t you try to express it into a bottle?”
What? I was allowed to do this? Why hadn’t this occurred to me? Why had no one told me of this option?
I got my breast pump attached and expressed a good 6 ounces within minutes. Oh my word! The relief. The pain was gone, the pressure released. My boobs were no longer straining, my child was feeding peacefully.
Boobs remarked, “You must have a lot of milk. It used to take me 2 hours to express just an ounce or two.” It was this comment that gave me the clue I needed, although I didn’t realise it until my son was due three years later.
In the meantime I carried on expressing and feeding my child breast milk via a bottle for a week or so, until I had such severe mastitis I couldn’t take anymore. I gave up, I went to formula.
When my son was due I took time to look into the mechanics of breastfeeding before hand. I learnt that if a woman produces a lot of milk the initial release when the baby sucks can be too fast. In other words, when my daughter had tried to suck she had been instantly drowned in milk instead. A simple solution, the book said, was to just gently massage to get the milk flowing first and then latch baby on once the flood had slowed.
So simple. So much clearer. My son was born and after some help in learning how to latch on, he breastfed without issues. I had succeeded.
The irony here was that, having discovered that I could breastfeed, having experienced calm feeds with contented baby, after a week or so I realised that I don’t actually like breastfeeding.
I don’t like the feeling of the child sucking the milk from me. I don’t like feeling like a cow. I find it a little gross.
If that offends you, well I won’t apologise for that. These are my feelings. I don’t object to breastfeeding in general. If you want to, that’s fine. If you enjoy it, great. If you want to carry on having your child sucking on your boob up to the age of 4 (or more) well I guess that is your choice.
I don’t like it.
So, both my children had breast milk for the first two weeks of their lives. Then they had formula. I chose to take my son off the boob and I do not regret that. It was right for us. I do not feel that I missed out on any connection with my child and Mr G enjoyed the time he got to spent in quiet contemplation feeding his children too.
My advice to anyone who is not sure if they want to breastfeed or doesn’t know where to start – go to your midwife and ask her for information on how to do it. Go to a breastfeeding group, they have them at most hospitals, and watch. Ask questions. Know what you are doing before the baby is born. Get all the facts and if unsure, well there is no harm in trying it out.
But don’t feel forced.
And above all, do what suits you, not everyone else.