It’s National Breastfeeding Week and social media is filled with beautiful, artistic photos of mothers all over the world breastfeeding. It’s glorious, it really is. But it’s also heartbreaking, especially as a new mum who absolutely failed on the breastfeeding front. The fact that I’ve even labelled myself a failure is a symptom of the almost fanatical reverence we attach to breastfeeding, and it’s one I am not supportive of. Of course, the rhetoric is that fed, breast or otherwise, is best of all, but, but, you should really be trying to breastfeed.
Since becoming a mum four months ago, I’ve entered a whole new world of values, attitudes, discourse, questions and opinions I didn’t even expect. Like how is your baby sleeping? (People would give you unwanted advice if your baby wasn’t sleeping, or declare you the luckiest parents in the world if your baby did sleep through the night while quietly hating you). Or how are you enjoying motherhood (non-mothers would politely smile if you say you enjoyed it, not understanding why, while if you say you were bored or weren’t overly excited by it, people would judge you as heartless and a bad mum). The worst question was ‘are you breastfeeding?’ (none of your business frankly, unless you’re a female family member, close friend or a new mum yourself).
One thing I was super excited for before I gave birth was breastfeeding. I had imagined myself as this earth mother goddess, lovingly holding my baby as he suckled gracefully at my breast. LOL. Instead, it was five different midwives teaching me again and again how to get the baby to latch and suck, and then long nights of my forcing my baby to my breast, while he was screaming because I barely had any milk. It was a stressful, disheartening and somewhat humiliating process. My images of breastfeeding evaporated as quickly as my breast milk, as I grappled with the realisation breastfeeding was not going to happen for me.
It didn’t help that when I went to the hospital on day three post-birth to ask for formula (it was during red alert, shops were closed), the midwife on duty was adamant I could breastfeed and I had milk, even though I repeatedly told her I didn’t have any. She painfully expressed 3ml (THREE MLS) from one of my breasts and pronounced that I was ok to breastfeed. Even with an electric pump, I could only express 30ml at best over the coming weeks, not enough for my incredibly hungry baby.
Eventually I switched completely to formula, and have never looked back. I know I’m not the only mum who has experienced a similar breastfeeding journey I’ve been through, but the fact that you only hear of these stories after you share your own story is woeful. It is disappointing that mothers are fed only one dogma by medical professionals on feeding your child, that we aren’t told ‘hey you may not be able to breastfeed at all and that’s ok, you’re not alone, here have some formula’ encourages that vicious shaming cycle we women work so hard to break.
I don’t resent the women who can breastfeed, in fact I’m envious of them. Envious that their children are getting more nutritional benefits than my child on formula, of that special bond they build through breastfeeding, the unspoken club they are part of, the club of mothers who can successfully breastfeed and can boast about the leaks they have in public, of how much milk they express. While those mothers assure me I’m the lucky one as I don’t have to go through the torture of sore nipples and night feeds, it doesn’t do much to fill the hole I have from not being able to breastfeed. I know I’m responsible for how I feel, I shouldn’t feel guilt, shame, failure, but the lack of dialogue around the normalcy of exclusively formula-feeding just perpetuates those feelings.
How have we become a society that unknowingly shames mothers who don’t breastfeed? It’s not outright, it’s in the small things like people offering you a room when you say you need to feed your child, making the assumption I’m breastfeeding; or making comments about how my breastmilk must be so nutritious because my child is huge (he’s just under 8kg at four months) and then looking awkward when I say he’s formula fed. It’s not important or necessary to go into the research or history around pro-breastfeeding, as it doesn’t matter how we got here. What’s important is how can we normalise not breastfeeding.
I follow the Facebook page for the Babyology blog, which I am a huge fan of as the articles they post are very inclusive and address all issues, and I was so stoked to see an article about one woman’s decision to not breastfeed at all, for the sake of her mental health. I quietly applauded her, as I knew all too well the mental anguish around breastfeeding. Predictably, there were judgeful comments from those superior breastfeeding mums, but refreshingly there were comments from mums who understood and even encouraged not breastfeeding if it meant you could be more present with your child rather than stressing about the next feed and not appreciating the beautiful baby in front of you. There needs to be more articles like that in prenatal and antenatal literature, and midwives needs to include this dialogue in their conversations with new mums.
The new slogan should be ‘just feed your child, no matter what!’, or ‘let that baby grow!’. There shouldn’t be an emphasis on how we feed them, the focus should be on feeding them well and helping mothers discover what feeding method suits them best.
So if you’re a new mum who has realised your breastfeeding journey isn’t going the way you imagined, I’m here to tell you you’re doing just fine and I will be your champion to defend you against those who are telling you otherwise. Keep listening to your body, and your baby because they are the only ones who should be guiding your foray into motherhood.