My third child, like my first two, is being exclusively breastfed. I don’t particularly enjoy it.
Breastfeeding, in my opinion, is one of ‘those’ things. You know the ones… Those things as mothers we secretly feel we should be doing, even whilst we verbalise every mum’s right to choose. Those things that when we say we do it, other women try to justify to us why they don’t (even if we never suggest they should). Those things that when I don’t do them and I hear another woman talk about them, I feel judged and get defensive. Like carrying my child in a sling, or purée-ing organic home cooked food, using reusable nappies, home-schooling, co-sleeping. ‘Those’ things.
For example, I was chatting about slings with a friend the other day. (I have a sling. I find it hard to use). I had composed a whole spiel in my head about my problems using it when our conversation was interrupted by our toddlers falling off a log, and by the time I returned to the conversation I realised that I was being defensive even though she wasn’t attacking. No-one was. No-one cares if I use a sling except me. It was one of ‘those’ things again.
Back to breastfeeding. I really really wanted to breastfeed my first. I was totally convinced by the research literature
, my close friends all breastfed (or at least gave it a darn good try) and isn’t it just what middle class UK mums do?
And it hurt. It really hurt. My nipples cracked and bled and I had to express entirely from one side for the first month. My overriding memory from that time is my husband casually saying “It’s going alright isn’t it?” whilst driving us to our two week midwife appointment, and turning to see silent tears dripping down my face because I didn’t think I could keep going with breastfeeding anymore, and to stop would mean I had failed.
I didn’t stop. I got help. I found things to motivate me. I struggled through. I had my first pain-free feed at 3 weeks and by 3 months it didn’t hurt at all. In the end she self-weaned at 11 months and we went straight on to cows milk as part of her normal diet.
With my second, an amazing lady from Barnardos
helped me to understand what had gone wrong before and showed me some tips to make it better. We stopped earlier though: by the time I retired to work at 7 months we were down to just morning and evening feeds. As this baby wouldn’t take a bottle at all we went straight to a cup and a normal diet for those evenings I was working and she was fine – we dropped all evening feeds soon after. I decided to stop feeding her in the mornings a couple of months later: firstly, I needed to run for the sake of my mental health and I couldn’t do that in the mornings if I also had to feed. Secondly, I had developed gallstones, and I couldn’t take the pain killers I needed to whilst breastfeeding.
I felt agonisingly guilty about stopping feeding, as I knew it was a decision I was making for my sake, rather than hers. I rationalised it: she needed a healthy and happy mummy more than she needed breast milk. Again, we went straight to a normal diet – I had still never fed either child formula milk.
And here is baby number three. Another baby with a small mouth and a difficult latch. More support needed from Barnardos. More painful feeds, sore blistered nipples, difficult positioning. We got down to ‘uncomfortable’ fairly quickly: nothing that a good dose of facebook/novel escapism can’t deal with. Since his birth I’ve read all the Swallows and Amazon books, my entire collection of Dick Francis novels, a few more here and there I can’t remember and now I’m working my way back through the entire Sharpe series.
As you can tell from this, I’m spending a lot of my time feeding, perhaps up to 9 hours a day spent with my baby attached to me between waking up at 7 and midnight. I haven’t timed it. It would be too depressing. That much facebook is frankly just miserable. Watching tv is a no-go too, as my older children inevitably walk in if there’s anything on I don’t want them to see. So novels it is, and daydreaming about plants and day by day we are getting through.
But this one is different – maybe because he is my last, maybe because he is visibly growing with all that milk and I can see his newbornness slipping away, maybe because by your third you know how precious this time is and how quickly it disappears, maybe because life with two other children is so busy and full-on that to slip away and feed, just me and him, is special time. Maybe because it’s the one role in our family that I and only I can do, or because having my husband at home and no school runs means I have the freedom to just be and to feed for as long as it takes.
But for the first time, I’m enjoying my child during the baby stage and treasuring these quiet, uncomfortable times of feeding, with its peculiar ache of letting down milk and scratchy pinch of suckling. I know the whorls of hair on his head, the way his breathing changes when he wants a feed, the cheeky grins he gives me as he catches my eye mid-feed, his outraged expression when he needs a burp.
And for the first time, I genuinely don’t mind if I have formula ‘as a back up’ in the cupboard, or if we end up using it full time. Accepting the feeding for what it is to me – an uncomfortable and slightly painful way of having lots of time to read books and be on my own with the baby – has freed me from both my earth mother idealism and my pigheaded refusals to quit. Maybe I will feed till 7 weeks, maybe I’ll keep going till he self weans. Either is fine by me.
And whatever I decide to do, I’m going to try my hardest to not get defensive about it. Firstly it’s not actually a moral issue: there’s no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to feeding my baby, only us making the best choices we can. And secondly, when other mums tell me about their decisions to breast feed or formula feed, to wean or to keep feeding, I’m going to try and remember that as with all ‘those’ other things they aren’t actually attacking me, judging me nor telling me what I should do: they are simply making conversation.