I have been writing and rewriting this in my mind since my toddler was born. It might never feel complete because I have so many things to say about breastfeeding – an experience that can be both so feminine and intuitive, and so fucking hard and alien.
Like having a baby, breastfeeding is something only women can do, it’s part of our club. So when I struggled, it felt like I was shut out of an essential part of womanhood, femininity, my own lineage.
My friend just had a beautiful baby girl and texted me: “I can’t believe how hard breastfeeding is. No one told me – or maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Did I keep quiet too?
While I was pregnant with Theo, I was certain: I would breastfeed him, exclusively, for one year. I didn’t have to go back to work, I didn’t have anyone to share the childcare with, so why wouldn’t I?
Breastfeeding looked like a cinch. I was aware that some women couldn’t do it, but I thought that was rare, I sympathised, but that wouldn’t be me.
When Theo was born, I decided to “just pop him on” and feed him.
It felt like a punishment after a strange, medicalised birth.
I asked the hospital for help feeding. They seemed confused, blinking oddly at me, wondering why I couldn’t just get on with it.
My husband went home to get some sleep and I spent my first night alone on the ward with my hungry, small boy. I cried with him and sent my husband aggressive texts: “You’ve abandoned us!” I felt terrified. The staff didn’t help and I just couldn’t seem do it.
We went home. My nipples were swollen, blistered and bleeding. I got mastitis and thrush and I pushed on anyway. My GP winced when she saw my nipples. “You’re not the worst I’ve seen,” she said. “But you’re not far off. You know you don’t have to do this.” I wasn’t ready to hear that.
I wanted to breastfeed. I can’t explain it. Intellectually, I didn’t – and absolutely don’t – believe all the nonsense about formula being bad. I was – and am – aware that formula is actually wonderful stuff and that we’re so lucky to have it. But breastfeeding Theo felt so tied up in mothering him. It felt LIKE mothering him. I realise now, in hindsight, that in these early days of his life, I was so emotionally exhausted that I couldn’t make a rational decision. My foggy brain wasn’t capable of it.
“I’m afraid that you’re missing it,” my sister told me. “You have a lovely baby, and you’re missing it.” She was right.
I cried for weeks. I dreaded my child being awake and hungry. I went to breastfeeding clinics and saw expensive consultants, hoping someone would tell me what I was doing wrong and fix it for me.
I bemoaned the irony that so much money is spent on the breastfeeding message, but not nearly as much on breastfeeding help.
When Theo was three-weeks-old, I saw a final, new, breastfeeding consultant. I broke. “Just tell me I can’t do it.” I said. “Tell me and I’ll stop.”
The consultant considered the same things as everyone else – tongue-tie, thrush, bad latch – and decided it was none of those. She said that my baby’s mouth and my nipple just weren’t a great fit for each other. His mouth arch was too high and he was dragging my nipple across the rough part of his mouth because that’s all he could physically do. She handed me a nipple shield. I was a little hesitant, because the hospital had told me they were bad. But it was worth a try. After all the breast-pumping and the pain and the dread, I would take anything. The nipple shields WORKED. I felt no pain.
I was supposed to wean the shields off after 6 more weeks, but I never did. I went on to breastfeed Theo for 11 months with nipple shields and it was lovely, truly. Otherwise I would have stopped, I was finally ready to.
This seems like a such a negative story. And, as I recount it, it seems odd that I would have carried on. But once I could feed without pain, I fell in love with it. Theo and I would sit on the sofa for hours, he would feed and nap, I would nap and read or watch telly. It was bliss.
It’s so sad that I thought my struggle was a failure. It wasn’t, but that feeling was confirmed by every doctor who asked: “Still breastfeeding?” Yes (tick in box). “Exclusively?” No (cross in box). That sense of failure was confirmed by every article listing the benefits of breastmilk, every other mother who found it easy and couldn’t understand the fuss I was making.
I am a great fan of breastfeeding because it’s free and lovely. I’m a great fan of formula because it’s freeING and lovely. But I’m a bigger fan of enjoying and loving your children. Breastmilk… formula milk… neither is proof of the greater love. Both are nurturing. Both are wonderful. The pressure and the stress and the judgement, that’s what’s bad for your child. Not the milk you choose to give them.