Whose Boobs Are They Anyway?
This is not a funny post. If you came here looking for a giggle, please rest assured that normal service will resume next week, unless it transpires that we did in fact leave Makka Pakka in that service station car park just outside Edinburgh, in which case the next post may be altogether more sombre…
I’d never planned to wade into the breast or bottle debate. Articles on this topic tend to provoke strong, polarised opinions. They can often upset, anger and frustrate and that’s not something I would ever want to do. I prefer just to (try to) give people a laugh.
However, recently, I’ve stumbled upon a lot of posts and articles on breastfeeding, and many have made me reflect on both my own experience, and the issue of a woman’s right to choose how to feed her baby.
I’m not going to debate whether breast milk has health benefits for a baby and its mother. I can’t. There’s a wealth of scientific proof and I’d look a bit silly. Neither am I going to deny that women should be encouraged to breast feed, or that more support is desperately needed to enable those who wish to breast feed to do so.
My issue is not with breastfeeding, but rather with the often simplified nature of the debate surrounding it, namely the idea that ‘breast is best’ and therefore women who bottle feed are not giving their babies the best possible start in life. Nowhere are these views more evident than in NCT antenatal classes*, where bottle feeding is simply glossed over – ironic, given the NCT’s emphasis on women being in control of their own bodies and having choices.
Yes, the content of breast milk has more health benefits than formula. Yes, breast milk is more natural than formula. Yes, breastfeeding also has health benefits for the mother. And yes, in an ideal world, breast would be best. But we don’t live in an ideal world. And breast is not best for everyone.
I struggled to breastfeed my daughter and I’m sure that in many people’s minds (and in my own for a while), I gave up far too early. A fact I was reminded of everywhere I went with her for the first 6 months of her life. As other women were whipping out their boobs at baby groups, I was unzipping the bottle bag, opening the bottle and pouring in the milk. I could sense the breastfeeding mothers looking away, embarrassed by the poor mum who had to bottle feed her baby. Perhaps this was my paranoia, but I felt as if I almost needed an excuse as to why I was not breastfeeding. On many occasions I would witter something along the lines of, ‘Oh, difficult birth….painful caesarean…general anaesthetic……should have persevered…..wish I had….’. All the time, apologising for how I’d chosen to feed my own baby.
The truth was that having been wheeled onto a ward a couple of hours after my category 1 emergency c-section and still groggy from the general anaesthetic, I’d fallen into a deep sleep, only to wake at some point during the early hours to the sound of my baby crying. I first had to register that the baby lying in the cot next to me was mine. I then had to establish how I was hooked up to the various machines, that I’d had a catheter fitted, and that I had a button on one side of me for morphine and a button on the other side for ‘Help’.
I pressed the help button and a nurse arrived. I had to explain that my baby was crying and I couldn’t pick her up because I was confined by wires and tubes to the bed. I told her I had no idea if she’d ever been fed since her birth and I didn’t know how I was supposed to do it. The nurse said that they would get me up in the morning and I could feed my baby then.
They did get me up and I tried to feed her but it didn’t go well, not least because I couldn’t sit in one position for long due to the pain from the prolonged labour and caesarean. My little girl couldn’t latch on properly and by the end of that first day, my nipples had begun to bleed. I had no idea if my daughter was feeding from me or not. She would not settle and in the middle of the following night, my 4th consecutive night with hardly any sleep, I broke down and told one of the nurses on duty that I was contemplating bottle feeding as breast feeding was just not working for me.
The following day I was moved to a private room with a team of healthcare assistants at my beck and call in case I was further tempted by the bottle. My daughter did finally manage to latch on properly, but only after having been repeatedly forced onto me by a healthcare assistant, which had caused her to become very distressed. I found the whole experience incredibly upsetting and I couldn’t help feeling guilty for putting my baby through it. I couldn’t shake the thought of her difficult birth and what might have happened if the doctors and midwives hadn’t acted as quickly as they did during my labour. While I knew there was a greater good in getting her to breastfeed, I had an overwhelming urge to protect my daughter from any further suffering, however it may be caused.
I persevered with feeding until after we got home a few days later. Then, during the night, I gave up. I just gave up. It’s very cathartic to write this as I’ve never been as honest about my decision. The fact is, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. It was excruciatingly painful. My baby wasn’t happy. I was tired and frustrated with myself and was also becoming frustrated with my little girl and that wasn’t fair on her. I’d missed the joy of seeing her come into the world and felt cheated. And now the joy of being at home as a family of three just wasn’t there because I was so focused on why I couldn’t feed her properly. I wanted to enjoy my little girl and I hated and feared the way I was beginning to feel.
We cracked open the emergency formula milk that night and my baby finally settled. On seeing her so content for the first time, I became racked with the guilt that would stay with me for the first year of her life. I was letting her down, I was letting my husband down, and I had no idea how I was going to tell our friends and our NCT group, where breastfeeding was a given and no one in their right mind would bottle feed unless it was a last resort. I had failed at giving birth ‘naturally’ and now I was failing at nurturing her.
What’s more, I was failing at breastfeeding through choice.
No doubt some may read this and consider me selfish for putting my own needs and wants before my baby’s health, perhaps referencing other women who had even more traumatic births than mine but still persevered and breastfed their babies successfully. They will have little sympathy for the guilt I felt because, simply put, I could have tried harder.
But here’s the thing. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m asking for understanding. Understanding that for some mothers, for all kinds of reasons, breastfeeding may not be right. Understanding that all the antibodies in the world can’t outweigh the benefit of a baby having a healthy, stable and happy mum. Understanding that women have the right to make educated choices for the benefit of their families, whether or not these choices are universally popular.
Looking back, I’m confident that I made the right choice, not just for me, but for my family. I have a healthy little girl, and we couldn’t possibly have a stronger bond. Maybe I’m not as mentally strong as other women, maybe there was an element of selfishness to my decision, and yes, maybe I could have persevered a bit more. But in choosing not to persevere, and in recognising that the benefits of breastfeeding were less important than having a mentally and emotionally healthy mum, I chose to do what I now know was right for our family at the time. And I will never, and should never, be made to feel guilty for that.
*This was my personal experience from the classes I attended.