I received a lovely email from a reader yesterday thanking me for my advice about weddings, which has inspired me to come back to writing this blog. Things have moved on a little since I wrote that post and I’m now the mum of a beautiful boy called Albert.
Since having Albert I’ve thought a lot about the crossroads of where motherhood meets feminism. One issue has stood out: breastfeeding, which is why it’s the subject of my first post on this new intersection in my life.
When I was pregnant a few people asked me if I was planning to breastfeed. After 15 years of feeling uncomfortable about my breasts I finally saw motherhood as a chance to put them to good use. After more than a decade of going to specialist bra shops, struggling into ill-fitting shirts and trying to find tops that were modest but not matronly, I thought breastfeeding would finally be a time when I would be grateful for my ample bosom.
During pregnancy I trotted off to a breastfeeding class feeling smug that I would be doing the ‘best’ for my baby.
I learnt in the class that a new born baby’s tummy is about the size of a marble, so I didn’t worry in the hospital when Albert took a few sucks and then went back to sleep. The two hospital lactation consultants that visited came when my babe was snoozing and took my word for it that ‘breastfeeding was going fine’, instead of coming to witness for themselves what was happening.
I was discharged from hospital less than two days after giving birth with no inkling that any problems would arise. On day three a nurse came to visit and delivered the bombshell that Albert had lost more than 10 per cent of his body weight and needed to see a pediatrician within hours. She marched my husband off to buy formula and left me in a heaving mess, feeling that less than 72 hours after bringing him into this world I had already failed my son.
What followed was a whirlwind of pumping, tears, supplementing, more tears, doctors appointments, lactation consultant appointments, a few more tears, a tongue tie diagnosis (a deluge of tears), a nipple shield (don’t ask), and… you guessed it, more tears.
When I look back with hindsight there’s no doubt this period coincided with the baby blues, but not one of the practitioners I saw mentioned the hormonal roller coaster I was riding, amplifying my feelings of loneliness and desolation.
So, what does all this have to do with feminism or politics? Well, firstly it’s a comment on how postpartum care in the US is a patchwork of services that you have to sew together (and often pay for) yourself. But secondly, it’s about the messages we send to pregnant women and new mums.
During those early days and weeks one motto played like a tape in my head: ‘breast is best’. I felt like a failure for supplementing with formula and I think it’s a phrase that haunts many new mums that are struggling with breastfeeding.
And there are a lot of mums that don’t find it easy. In fact, once I started meeting other new mums, the MAJORITY of them said they’d found breastfeeding an unexpected struggle.
The problem is we never talk about this aspect of motherhood so women aren’t prepared for challenges when they arise. We don’t speak about low supply, oversupply, chapped and bleeding nipples, pain, engorged breasts, mastitis, flat and inverted nipples, tongue tie, posterior tongue tie, poor latch, feeding after a mastectomy, or any of the other issues women face as they try to do the ‘best’ for their baby.
We don’t speak about how these problems often coincide with the baby blues, which are a confusing phenomena when you’re meant to be feeling ecstatic about your bundle of joy. We continue to spread the lie that ‘breast is best’ creating a sense of judgment for bottle-feeding mums.
The reality is breast isn’t best. Fed is best. Feeding your baby (whether with a bottle or the breast or a mix of the two) is hard and often a deeply emotional process and we need to recognise that and give new parents a high five for keeping these little people alive. Because while having children is fascinating and beautiful and awe-inspiring, it can also be very, very tough. And while breast is good for baby it’s not always physically possible or good for mum’s mental health.
With a lot of help, support and money (I’ve lost hope that my insurance company will reimburse me) we were able to tackle our breastfeeding issues one by one and by six weeks Albert and I had figured out the whole feeding thing. I consider myself very lucky: not everyone can access so much support and for many parents bottle feeding (whether with formula or pumped milk) is either the right or only decision.
Funnily enough, when Albert was six-weeks old was when Jamie Oliver was criticised by Adele for saying: “It’s (breastfeeding) easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free.”
Only a man, right?!
While most of us don’t have the fame of Adele we can all create a better society for new parents. Next time you see someone with a new baby tell them they’re doing a great job and that their little one is the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. And if someone says ‘breast is best’, challenge him or her. Tell them that ‘breast is good, but fed is what’s best’, because that’s the truth, for both parents and baby.