Breastfeeding is meant to be the most natural thing in the world, yet the topic can reduce intelligent adult women to little more than schoolgirl cliques.
I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while but get a little bit upset every time I try to start. It might seem self indulgent or making mountains out of molehills to be so affected by my inability to breastfeed but I am not alone. How to feed a baby is massively political, it’s a multi million pound industry, and in the case of Joanne Bingley literally life and death.
I was told at prenatal classes that “no matter how tired you are in the night time, remember that ONE BOTTLE can start your child on the path to diabetes” and walked home from the class – which deliberately didn’t tell you how to wash and store bottles, how to prepare the powdered milk, or anything about safe temperatures and time limits – feeling that in order to be a good mum I would definitely have to breastfeed.
I didn’t have myself down as an overly impressionable type, but I’d taken the breastfeeding talk very very seriously. I later decided to be a bit more realistic and gentler on myself and planned to give breastfeeding a really good go and if it didn’t work out, I’d either combi-feed or bottle feed entirely, and most importantly: not get too cut up about it. How very naive of me…
Fifteen days after my due date, my big baby still hadn’t arrived. Four attempts at induction, and my big baby still hadn’t arrived. I’d had IVF and now with an emergency c-section on the cards I was beginning to feel a real failure as a woman as I sent my maternity tankini and plinky plonky windchime hypnosis soundtrack packing, along with any hopes of a relaxing water birth.
My big baby arrived bonny and healthy, while I shook like I was possessed on the operating table, haemorrhaging all over the show. I declined a transfusion and instead worked on my iron levels with diet and medication until I was able to be discharged three days later. My body wasn’t ready for breastfeeding. The hormones that announce you’ve given birth and need to produce milk still hadn’t kicked in on the famous “day 3” that I’d read about in all the baby books. I was exhausted and still recovering from the anaesthetic and could barely hold my baby comfortably away from my sore tummy for more than five minutes.
Hospital midwives wouldn’t give me any advice about bottle feeding and insisted I persevere through my tears of exhaustion. They also pointed out that the baby had a mild-moderate tongue tie and this might hinder breastfeeding but this wouldn’t or couldn’t be treated for some weeks. I was too tired to think straight and couldn’t come up with a suitable solution myself. They didn’t seem arsed.
Back at home, the visiting midwife urged me to keep on trying because “women in the third world can do it, so there’s no reason why you can’t”. Of course, if I was in the third world, my son wouldn’t even have existed. But the damage was done. What was meant to be encouraging only served to make me feel more of a failure. The third world analogy doesn’t help. It’s emotionally damaging and upsetting as well as unhelpful.
As well as the third world comment, I was also told “I breastfed all my children and they breastfed theirs so I can’t help you there” from a hospital midwife who I asked for advice about the best formula to use; an actual “tut” from a midwife on a home visit; and a roll of the eyes when I complained that leaving my bleeding rotten nipples to air dry in the middle of winter after applying thrush ointment following each feed was actually quite painful. That’s right: a woman whose paid profession is to support women and their babies rolled her eyes at me.
Other mums at the local children’s centre were all breastfeeding and whether it was my misinterpretation or the actual faces they pulled, I felt like an imposter. Not a real mum. I’ve been on the receiving end of all the looks and comments going: pitying, judgmental, smug, incredulous. In turn I became self deprecating, defensive, embarrassed, and ashamed of my body.
Anyone who’s a parent will hopefully join me in admitting how hilariously naive we could be before the new miniature addition arrived in our lives. I swore blind I was going to breastfeed, use cloth nappies, and never let the baby watch television. But my body had other plans on the breastfeeding front, I soon realised that cloth nappies don’t suit my lifestyle at all, I know all the characters in the Night Garden and have now graduated to Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.
But unlike the nappies and television, I didn’t have much choice over the breastfeeding and I was surrounded by people who insisted I tried just that little bit harder. My own mum tried her hardest to bite her tongue as my tears splashed on my newborn’s head at my breast, as half of my left nipple fell off, and as I couldn’t satisfy my big hungry baby because of my dwindling milk supply. Exhausted and desperate, what I really wanted was for someone to tell me to stop trying, but they all thought they were doing the right thing by keeping quiet.
I was offered “support” in breastfeeding but in reality this was either young women without children of their own who couldn’t deviate from their script, or brusque midwives who didn’t know or care about the effect of their harsh words.
I wish I could go back and tell ‘New Mum Me’ that it would all be ok. That there was no need to cry and that bottle feeding wouldn’t make me a bad mum. Thankfully my mum finally spoke up and asked if I wanted to stop. The relief was immediate and immeasurable.
More than that, I wish I could tell all those midwives what a negative impact they made on me. They won’t remember me. But I remember each of them, and how they made me feel… in fact on bad days, how they still make me feel.