Four weeks after my son was born, I was walking down the high street when a friend of a friend stopped me to admire my little man sleeping soundly in his pram. ‘Are you feeding him yourself’ she asked.
My husband stared in disbelief at this ridiculous question. However I was well used to this enquiry and merely sighed and nodded yes I am.
Despite his incredulity I was growing accustomed to this loaded question. Because let’s face it, let’s for once be honest about the breast/bottle divide that has begun to ferment and rot at the core of being a new mother in the 21st century. As a new mother, bewildered and riddled with insecurities, you are not just being asked how you nourish your child, you are being assessed, judged, and graded along some fictitious yet vicious scale of mothering merit.
Breast is best’, after ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is probably the most oft cited mantra of the advice that circulates incessantly around new mothers.
And of course there’s no denying it, breast milk is the optimum source of nutrition for any child.
But is it best for mother, is it the sole marker of whether you are making it work as a mother?
I have perhaps a more problematic relationship with my breasts than most first-time mothers. I am a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed at 29, not sure if I’d ever be a mom, if I’d ever get to feel the fluttering kicks of an infant in my womb, nestle him against my breast and kiss every sweet, delicious finger & toe. And breast feeding seemed even more remote a possibility.
So to find myself pregnant six years after my diagnosis was as euphoric a moment as I’ve ever experienced. Breastfeeding was always something I’d held out hope of trying, even though I knew that only the unaffected breast would probably produce milk.
And try I surely did.
I spent hours during my week in hospital after having my son, just perfecting the latch, calling the midwives every time I wanted to feed to make sure I was doing it right. I even met with a lactation consultant a week before he was born to discuss hand expressing colostrum to give him the best start possible.
However after three days the hospitals lactation consultant told me that although he was a fantastic little feeder, my one breast would not produce enough to sustain him & his blood sugar levels had dropped lower than they were happy with. All of a sudden the confidence & assuredness I’d felt as a breastfeeding mom became a house of cards & I began to think I was being selfish for wanting to pursue breastfeeding if I couldn’t nourish him. Long story short & after lots of tears, confusion & anxiety, we agreed on a plan to combination feed him. I’d breastfeed him first & then give him a small top up with formula.
It seemed to work & he thrived.
However I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only a fraud, masquerading as a breastfeeding mother, when really the formula was what was keeping him going.
I questioned whether he was getting any goodness at all from me. Looking back now, four months down the road & having breastfed my son topped up with formula for three months, I wish I’d been kinder to myself. I wish I’d patted myself on the back more often for trying so hard to give him the best start in life. I wish I’d thanked my body more, especially my breast for giving him whatever sustenance it could.
Because it was only when I stopped breastfeeding that I realized how much milk he had actually been getting & how I had underestimated my amazing body.
My guilt at giving him formula was overwhelming at the beginning, I felt I’d let him down, that in some way his health & future happiness were being compromised because I had to supplement my milk with formula. I wish I had savoured the moments a lot more, when he latched gratefully & lovingly onto my breast & gazed up at me with his adoring blue eyes. But all around me, other mothers, society in general chastise any woman who has to use formula, and on some level that had seeped into my very core & so instead of rejoicing in whatever milk I could provide for him, all I saw was the inadequacies of my breast & the reluctant reliance on formula to ‘really’ feed him.
And that’s wrong.
Loving your child & being a good mother is about so much more than breast or formula feeding.
A new mother I know actually said ‘you know breast milk is like giving them a healthy salad, and formula is like burgers & chips’.
How did she think that would make me feel?
But a lot of successful breastfeeders don’t think about how it feels when breastfeeding can’t or won’t work. And what about the poor new mothers who persist with breastfeeding even though their mental health is frayed and dangerously close to breaking point. In my relatively short journey thus far as a new mother I’ve talked to numerous girls who want someone to just tell them ‘it’s okay to stop if you’re not happy…it’s okay to just give them a bottle of formula’. For various reasons breastfeeding isn’t satisfying their child & the mother, broken from lack of sleep & shattered confidence is too fearful to bottle feed & instead sacrifices her experience of motherhood and any shred of sanity it may leave.
This is wrong too.
Breastfeeding is wonderful in so many ways, but it’s also incredibly difficult and the more we shun that aspect of it, the more we isolate and ignore so many women who struggle to make it work or who choose to go down another path. As new mothers, life is hard enough without ridiculing how a woman chooses to feed her child. Why can’t we be kinder to ourselves, we are all doing our very best, and surely that should be good enough