Given that my last post detailed the great lengths I went to to keep breastfeeding Bailey as long as I have, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m passionately pro-breastfeeding. It would be odd for me to put myself through such trauma if I wasn’t an advocate, right? Well, yes actually, it would. The truth is, I AM an advocate of breastfeeding and would do everything in my power to encourage and support someone who was choosing to do so. But there lies the key word – choosing. To me – and I’m all the more passionate about this since going through the experience myself – the way you feed your child should 100% be a choice and not an obligation. Breastfeeding was the right choice for me and for Bailey, but not everyone has the same experiences, and in this day and age, and certainly in the modern world where we have clean water and access to other options, I just don’t see why anyone should be shamed for choosing not to do it. And yet, that is exactly what we do.
Now lets get one thing out of the way. Some women simply can’t breastfeed. Maybe it’s because of their own health issues, maybe it’s because of their baby’s, either way, they just can’t, and the idea that these women can be left feeling helpless, defective, useless, through no fault of their own, is just heartbreaking. I cannot imagine how it must feel to get a raised eyebrow or a snarky comment from someone who hasn’t even bothered to find out why it is you are bottle feeding your newborn, especially if you genuinely wanted to breastfeed. But honestly, this post isn’t really about that. This post is for the women who simply didn’t want to. The women who gave it a go but then decided it wasn’t for them. This post is for the women who have been made to feel like they are somehow a lesser person or a failure simply because they chose formula over breast milk. This one is for you – I applaud your decision, and here is why…
There are an awful lot of myths that float around about motherhood, and the one that I despise the most is this – we love to pretend that when you become a mother you magically stop having needs. You exist now for the sole purpose of nurturing your child, and will put them first no matter what. We pretend that the fact our life has changed beyond recognition, that we can’t remember the last time we had a good nights sleep, that our bodies no longer function like they used to and we’ve never before been so anxious, is no biggie, because we’re just so darn #humbleandblessed. Well, I call bulls***! Giving birth definitely has many life changing effects on you as a person, but it doesn’t stop you from being human. You will definitely find yourself having to forgo the things that you used to think of as a necessity for the good of your child. Regular sleep for one. Sensible mealtimes. ‘Me’ time goes out of the window. You may lose your body, your career, even your sense of who you really are. You will sacrifice many things, and do it without question. But that doesn’t mean you feel great about it. You will still mourn these things. You will feel resentful at times that you can’t have them as often as you’d like. You will miss what life used to be like, sometimes desperately. That isn’t to say you aren’t grateful, that you don’t love your baby more than anything, that you wouldn’t do it all again in a heartbeat. It just means that change this big is tough, and it’s perfectly normal to struggle with it sometimes.
How does this relate to breastfeeding? So, of course we want to put our little ones first. I’m pretty sure I speak for most Mums when I say I’d happily walk through fire if it meant saving Bailey. But here’s the thing – breastfeeding, for the majority of us, is not a life and death situation. Sure, there are benefits to breast milk. Studies appear to show that breastfed babies have less allergies, have stronger immune systems and may even grow up to be fitter, healthier and smarter (marginally, and only possibly, because there has also been proven to be an obvious economic divide between those more likely to breastfeed and those more likely to bottle feed which will undoubtedly contribute to those statistics) But this doesn’t mean that the alternative is automatically a bad choice. Bottle fed babies also grow up to be perfectly healthy, and let’s face it, once you become an adult it isn’t as though anyone knows which start you had in life, is it? It isn’t like it’s an entry requirement to university or a pre-requisite for specific jobs! There are health benefits to many things – not drinking, vegan diets, high intensity workouts – but plenty of us choose not to do them everyday and still maintain happy, healthy lifestyles. We aren’t talking about the choice between your child suffering vs thriving. We’re talking about your child thriving vs possibly thriving a little bit more.
But why WOULDN’T you want your child to thrive that little bit more, right? Well, because for many women, it’s freaking hard. And I don’t mean hard as in it’s hard work (though just to be clear, it’s bloody hard work, at least in the beginning…) I mean hard as in excruciatingly painful, exhausting, incredibly stressful and, ultimately, restrictive. The thing people need to understand about breastfeeding is that it isn’t just a thing you do a few times a day. It is a lifestyle. It dictates your activity for the entirety of the time you do it, and once you start it takes work if you want to keep it up. You have to dress correctly for it. You have to eat and drink accordingly. You can’t take a large amount of medications – I even had to stop using an expensive foot cream once because of the ingredients! Cluster feeding can be constant, meaning at times you can’t be doing anything else for longer than an hour or so – even through the night. If you aren’t feeling confident about it it can mean you don’t leave your house for weeks on end. Not all breastfed babies will accept expressed milk, so you could find yourself being the one person in the entire world that can feed your baby, and that can be a very heavy weight of responsibility for a person to bear. Sitting in a darkened room on your own while listening to your loved ones down the hall enjoying Christmas, birthdays or other special occasions will be something most breastfeeding Mums will have experienced at some point and it can feel very isolating. And once you’re in the swing of things you can’t just take a break or skip feeds without prior planning – you have to think ahead about whether you have enough milk in reserve or where and when you will be able to pump (and believe me, you have to pump, engorged boobs are no fun to deal with!) On top of all that you have the stresses I spoke of when I described our journey – anxiety about your supply, worry about nourishing them enough, concern over aches and pains, weird lumps and blocked ducts… It can also have a huge effect on how you feel about your body and your intimate relationship with your partner – it certainly did for me and we’re still working through that now. It can feel never ending. And I just don’t think anyone should feel bad about deciding they would rather not take all of that on when there are already so many things to worry about and feel guilt about when you become a parent, especially for the first time.
Now here’s the real kicker. Certainly in the UK our health services push breastfeeding as the norm – which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it weren’t for the healthy dose of mum guilt that can be dealt to those who don’t comply – but it isn’t even as though society is readily set up to welcome women who do!! We have sexualised women’s bodies to such an extent that many still struggle to see breasts as anything other than an object of desire, making feeding in public a divisive subject – yes, even in 2020! Just the other day I got embroiled in a debate on a Facebook thread where plenty of people – all of whom claimed not to have a ‘problem’ with breastfeeding – insisted there were simply places where it wasn’t appropriate. Poolside on holiday was a notable one, despite the fact there will be oodles of people sauntering around in close to nothing! Breastfeeding support groups regularly complain of their content being removed from social media pages for being deemed ‘inappropriate’. And while under UK law it is illegal to restrict women from breastfeeding in most establishments or public spaces, that doesn’t save them from the staring, tutting or possibly even remarks that they should cover up. Thankfully I never experienced the latter, but knowing it happened was enough to leave me feeling very cautious about where I chose to do it and at the beginning forgetting to take my cover would have left me in such a tizzy I’d have likely left and headed home! Then of course there is a the flip side. A lot of the support available seems to make assumptions about how you feel about breastfeeding and can often lead to women feeling patronised and inadequate. I came across more than a few women that made me feel silly for feeling self-conscious as though a lifetime of being told to keep my breasts under wraps at all costs was simply erased over night. And don’t even get me started on how many of those people thought nothing of just touching your boobs without checking to see if I was comfortable first! In fact, in 12 months of breastfeeding I was only asked once by a professional if I was ok with them touching me and that was the young (male) GP who was examining me when I had Mastitis! In every other case it was assumed I was – and I’m generally not too shy in this kind of setting so for me it wasn’t much of an issue, but plenty of women feel differently for various reasons and I can completely see that this would contribute to them not wanting to pursue breastfeeding long term. It seems highly ironic to me that we claim to want more women to breastfeed yet do little to support and encourage them, and I’m not at all surprise that so few women (less than half according to Public Health England) are still breastfeeding after 6 weeks.
I came to love breastfeeding in the end, and I’m thankful I pushed through the challenges thanks to the lovely moments and the sense of accomplishment I’ve felt. It can be a truly wonderful and rewarding experience, and I’d highly recommend to anyone who was thinking of it, trying it out at least for the first few weeks. It will definitely be hard, but for most it does get easier in the end. That is easy for me to say because I had a relatively smooth journey and copious amounts of support from both my loved ones and the professionals caring for me, but despite that it still almost broke me psychologically. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t plenty of times when I was in incredible pain, sick with worry about his next weigh in, or being scratched, bitten and slapped by Bailey where I didn’t question if it was all really worth it. In truth I think the only thing that kept me going was the fear of getting Mastitis again if I didn’t phase it out properly! For me it was all worth it, but for plenty of others, it just isn’t, and it’s no-ones place to tell them otherwise. Perhaps if the support out there was more accessible, more empathetic and if society was more accepting we’d see more women choosing to give it a try. Even then though, I still firmly believe that women must do what they need to in order to get through the early months of motherhood with their mental health intact, and often that will mean not breastfeeding. The decision not to do it, or to stop doing it, is rarely a quick or easy one and we need to start giving women the benefit of doubt that they have weighed up all the options and made the right choice for their baby – but most importantly for them. We talk a lot about doing THE VERY BEST for our children, but I’m not sure that is a healthy or realistic approach. Constantly striving for perfection is not sustainable, and ‘the best, for your child shouldn’t have to mean sacrificing your own well being. We need to start normalising the idea that sometimes we can only do what we can, and that is ok. The ‘best thing’ for your child more often than not is ensuring that you feel safe, comfortable and in control as you navigate this crazy new life experience – surely being the best version of yourself is far more beneficial to your child’s development than anything else? And for that reason alone I will, and always will, remain convinced that Fed is Best. And just for balance, because I’m aware I’ve included lots of nicely lit, soft focus images of us feeding now we’re pros at it, here is a candid shot from our first week – not nearly as pretty!
Sending love and encouragement to all the Mums out there whether you breastfeed or not!