Let’s be honest. In terms of nourishment, breast milk is best for babies. Any mammal offspring is best nourished by the milk of its mother. Second to the milk of its mother, the best nourishment is probably the milk of another lactating mammal of the same species. In saying that, it’s important to consider the whole picture. For some babies, breast is not best when mental health is taken into consideration. Among other things no doubt; I’m not an expert. I have experienced the highs and the lows of breast feeding. Having breast fed four babies for varying lengths of time from six months to fifteen months; having experienced breast feeding as something soul destroying that I loathed and rejoiced when it was over, as well as something inexplicably beautiful that I adored and ached when it was over; I wholeheartedly believe that sometimes, for some women and their babies, breast is not best. I struggle to understand the choice to not attempt or even consider breast feeding as a first and most desired option. I assume this choice is likely to be a result of societal influence and a general lack of acceptance of breastfeeding. There is enough parent guilt around and the last thing I want to do is contribute to that. Let it be clear there’s no doubt in my mind that formula is more than sufficient and I’m not here to change people’s minds or to make anyone feel inadequate. As usual, I’m just here to tell my story.
With my first baby, there seemed to be an endless chorus of support that was often perceived as pressure. Lots of, ‘It’s beautiful and just so natural, you’ll love it’ and ‘there’s nothing like nourishing your own child.’ However, no one spoke aloud of the painful engorgement; the cracked, bleeding and almost detached nipples; the sometimes searing pain of the unbelievably powerful suck of a new born; or the shame and guilt experienced because this didn’t feel easy or natural and least of all beautiful. I persevered with breast feeding for six months with this baby and rarely enjoyed it. One time of enjoyment I can pinpoint was when I was sitting on the beach with my sister feeding my baby when an elderly man wandered past. He stopped a short distance from the three of us and watched. Such a warm expression of admiration. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but something along the lines of us being a beautiful sight. I was so proud of myself. I think I enjoyed that feeling of pride more than the actual feeding. I question if my son would have been better off had I ceased breast feeding and saved myself the associated stress and anxiety, and had been a calmer, happier, more confident, less resentful parent. First born children are like any other first-time thing. They are often a lot of trial and error before experiencing success. Breast feeding my first born was a lot of trial and a lot of error, and very little success. My success was making it to six months and feeling like I hadn’t let anyone down by giving up earlier. Giving up. I don’t feel like that’s what I did. I’m sure it is what some mothers feel when they are deciding when to stop breast feeding. Like if they decide to switch to formula they have failed. However, I’m sure some mothers feel like they have won. Like any parenting decision, once made, you must believe it’s the right one.
With my second, third and fourth children breast feeding was all of those fabulous things. Beautiful, natural, easy, convenient. An uncanny contrast. I went about my business and the only inconvenient thing about it was my having to be mindful of my choice of outfit and expressing if we were going to be apart. Oh, and how many Grey Geese or Pinots I’d had! The outfit thing though… going out in a dress not realising you can’t feed in it is a bummer. I only made that mistake once. Having to go into a bathroom to remove your entire outfit and feed in a cubicle in a bra and undies will make you a little more mindful in future! With two of my boys I returned to full time work at 5 months (another cause for judgement) and expressed twice daily to have enough to feed them while I was away. I would also have an extra stash in the freezer if I was leaving the baby with someone when I was having a day/night out. In some ways breast feeding is more work. I worked tirelessly to keep breastfeeding despite working full time and attending baby free events. To maintain milk supply, both in the freezer and in my breasts, was time consuming and exhausting. In many ways breast feeding is so easy because you don’t have to take anything with you – no bottles, formula, boiled water. There isn’t any washing up or sterilising. It’s literally on demand. With one of my babies I even climbed a mountain with him at 8 months old and fed him along the way. At the time I liked to call it extreme breast feeding! With each baby I cared less and less about what other people thought and went about my business feeding wherever and whenever it suited my baby. The happiness I feel when I see first time mothers radiating confidence makes my skin tingle. I wish all first-time mothers could feel as comfortable and confident in their parenting decisions as I feel now. My little sister just had a daughter. I’m yet to meet her other than on FaceTime. But I will get to see her in the flesh this afternoon. I will get to smell her and kiss her and squeeze her, and I cannot wait. I am also so ridiculously excited to see my sister. I probably won’t smell her, but I will kiss her and squeeze her. She is the new mother whose confidence and comfort in her new role is currently making my skin tingle.