Before I had a baby, I rarely thought about breastfeeding. When a friend was upset her newborn baby was losing weight and had to switch to formula, I was confused yet supportive. What did it matter how her baby was fed, I told her. The important thing is that he is fed at all, and how dare anyone make her feel bad.
I’d hear about the ‘breastfeeding bullies’ and I’d think to myself how could anyone call themselves a feminist whilst insisting women force themselves to feed a baby in a way which shackled them, or made them feel uncomfortable. Women have a right to feed their children however they want! I would declare, standing firm in my knowledge I was a true feminist. I won’t be one of those women, I would tell my pregnant self. I hoped I would breastfeed, but I was determined I would NOT feel guilty if I wasn’t able to.
I wish for a world where women aren’t repeatedly told breast is best, or the benefits of breastfeeding aren’t pushed onto them by every health expert around. Where pregnant women aren’t anxious over whether they will be able to nurse their babies, or worried about how the public will greet them unbuttoning their tops. Where formula feeding mothers aren’t examined by strangers, exchanging ‘knowing’ looks or questioned by the professionals who should be providing them with understanding.
I wish for a world where the topic of breastfeeding v formula is boring, where there is no anger or guilt or sadness regarding how a mother fed her own baby.
This world can only exist when breastfeeding is normalised. Breastfeeding is largely tolerated but not entirely supported. I’m sure mothers who don’t breastfeed believe the opposite. They are surrounded by posters, news reports and judgement, reminding them they are the reason why their baby didn’t receive the optimum nutrition they deserved.
I urge these mums to pause. The breastfeeding propaganda isn’t aimed at making you feel bad. It doesn’t exist to trap you in an inescapable cycle of guilt. If you weren’t able to breastfeed your baby, you did not fail. Successful breastfeeding takes a village.
It takes a supportive partner to ensure mum is hydrated and well fed when she is held hostage on the sofa all day. To encourage her to keep going or start at all, in the face of adversity. It takes a supportive family to make sure mum doesn’t have to worry about earning money and can simply relax and enjoy her baby. It takes a supportive community not to pressure mum back to work before she is ready, to accept families may need to survive on one income alone.
It takes informed medical professionals to advise mum how to breastfeed properly, how to check for signs of dehydration, how to prevent difficulties before they occur. It takes every single person around that mum to make sure she feels confident and able to be the source of her baby’s nutritional requirements for a six month period and beyond. It takes an entire cultural shift away from the view that breasts are primarily sexual objects. It takes kindness from a difficult world where women suffer emotional and physical abuse, altering how they feel about their bodies forever.
I was lucky. I have had a straightforward breastfeeding relationship with my son who is now a toddler. As he grew older the questions started pouring in. When am I going to stop breastfeeding? How am I planning on weaning? Don’t I know he doesn’t need it anymore? Don’t I know I’m never going to stop feeding him to sleep? Don’t I realise I’ve made a rod for my own back? Breastfeeding comes with so many conditions and demands from the outside world.
I don’t see mums carrying around bags of bottles and formula as taking an easy way out. I see mums who are doing their very best. I think back to my earlier comment encouraging my friend to continue with formula. What would I say now?
There are many people, as I did, who believe that a woman has the right to choose not to breastfeed if she doesn’t want to. Are there really mothers out there who choose not to give their baby the best nutrition available to them because they don’t ‘want’ to? I haven’t met a single one. There are women who have no choice because they’re going back to work and pumping is a problem. There are women who don’t benefit from the experience of their families and friends to understand the common pitfalls of breastfeeding. There are women who don’t have access to informed medical professionals to make their breastfeeding journey as easy as possible. There are women who do not have the emotional support and guidance to devote themselves and their bodies for the gruelling dedication that breastfeeding and establishing a proper supply requires.
We can put as many posters up as we like but until the real psychological implications of having a baby and the physical demands of nursing are addressed there will continue to be women who believe they are making a choice not to breastfeed and suffer the consequences of that guilt, when that choice was never theirs to begin with.
Do non-breastfeeding mums realise how important they are? How vital their stories and experiences in feeding their children are?
I wish for a world where women know how to breastfeed without being told. Where they grew up watching their mothers and sisters and friends breastfeed. Where it’s understood and celebrated that she doesn’t have to return to work until she wants to. Where her body is sacred. Where we know, that the mother making up a bottle of formula for her baby is not lacking in information or support. Where women asking for help and direction in how to prepare formula aren’t patronised or dismissed by those very people she needs to listen to her.
This has been a very long, convoluted way to congratulate all mums for doing a wonderful job. We’re pretty fucking amazing.