I’ve never really spoken about breastfeeding, because it can be such an emotive topic. However, I now also realise that this may be because of my own complicated emotions towards it.
I breastfed exclusively for about 7 months before shifting to mixed feeding after E started weaning, stopping completely at 10 months. I said I loved breastfeeding at the time, but I’m not sure that this was in fact my whole truth. I think I loved the idea of it, the theory and the meaning of it. And yes, I was proud that I was able to do it for so long, particularly after I rocky start: tongue tie, lactation consultant support, high supply and fast let down and flow, always having to use shields – it wasn’t easy, but I persisted. And we were incredibly lucky that we could buy in the support we needed early on, which I know places me in a very privileged position. But it was a complicated journey.
Of course, the closeness it provides, the bond that it can allow you to build and the knowledge that you are physically providing something that is nurturing is wonderful. Living somewhere where you are surrounded by other breastfeeding mums and having access to support groups and lactation professionals meant that there was also solidarity – but maybe also a sense of pressure. Everyone else looked as though they had it nailed. Everyone else seemed to be loving it and didn’t feel the need to cover up. But I just could never really relax into it.
I am an extremely self-conscious person in many ways, but particularly in relation to my body, and no matter how much I tired, I could never relax into the whole ‘just get them out – no one cares!’ mentality. Because someone did care – and that was me. In the early days, I would desperately try to feed before and after any visits or groups I attended. I would move to another room or cover up. The only person I felt completely relaxed with was Andy, so when we had others around, I would often sneak off to a quiet space to be alone. And whilst that was often a nice thing to do, there were occasions where I felt desperately lonely. Yet my anxiety just would not allow me to ‘let go’.
My confidence did grow as time went on and I became more relaxed in certain situations. Once my flow settled and I no longer had to change my whole outfit after every feed (think Niagara Falls); once I didn’t have so many muslins to juggle and spillages to manage, my skills at managing the whole process increased. I continued to use shields throughout, because they worked for us both, yet there was always an underlying sense of failure in doing so. A feeling that I needed to somehow hide what I was doing because others would have some sort of opinion on it or advice to give. But they saved our breastfeeding journey and I wouldn’t have managed for so long without them.
But when I look back at that time, I can see how much I struggled mentally and emotionally with breastfeeding. I think there was a pressure that I had placed on myself to do everything ‘right’. To give my baby every single ounce of me because I was so sograteful to have her here alive. I didn’t even have the choice of feeding options with Orla, so of course I would breastfeed any babies I would be lucky enough to take home. I had so much to make up for. So much failure to repent.
And therein lay the problem. Breastfeeding was not about choice for me, it was another way in which to manage my own sense of guilt, of shame and failure. My first baby had died inside of me. I had taken medication to stop my milk from arriving. My body was a completely and utterly useless. But suddenly it wasn’t and I had an opportunity to prove to myself, and the world, that I could do this mothering thing. I could be worthy of this title.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful thing, but it takes support to be able to do it. And not just from professionals and breastfeeding cafes and timely tongue tie identification. Breastfeeding also needs to be viewed in context, because it doesn’t exist on its own: maybe you have a baby that hates to be put down, or hates the car, or hates the buggy (or all three) and needs to be carried every waking hour. Maybe you have a baby with a particularly sensitive temperament who won’t be held by anyone else or who hates loud and busy places. Maybe you are a mum who doesn’t have support close by to call upon, who spends a lot of time alone with her baby, but who so desperately needs some time alone with herself to know where her baby ends and where she starts. Maybe you are a mum who is giving everything of yourself to your baby because you do not believe that you, your needs or your emotions matter. Maybe you are a mum who is depleted with nothing else to give.
Breastfeeding is a small part of a much bigger picture.
Switching to mixed feeding was a huge turning point for me – and for our family. I had some space, physically and emotionally. I no longer had to worry about breastfeeding in public, because I would just do the morning and evening feeds. But importantly for us, I got to see Andy grow in confidence in his relationship with E. He could make up bottles and feed her. He could comfort her and give her what she needed when she needed it. And I could learn to step back and allow him to do this and know that it was okay to, which gave me the space to start to work on my grief.
I see people and research talk about the impact of not being able to breastfeed on women’s mental health, but I wonder about those who can, who do, but who still struggle. The emotional impact of breastfeeding is complex and confusing. Sometimes I felt angry and resentful at how owned and controlled I felt, which quickly switched to guilt and shame that I even allowed myself to feel this way. Other times I felt overwhelming gratitude and then overwhelming sadness that I hadn’t even had this option with Orla. Grief, trauma and breastfeeding is a whole other ball game and certainly thesis worthy.
The dichotomy that exists between breast and bottle baffles me, when there is actually a middle ground. Mixed feeding was never proposed as an option, yet doing so was a huge factor in helping my mental health turn a corner. Continuing to occupy such polarized positions in so many aspects of motherhood is neither realistic or helpful and we need to know that there are options. There are always options.