Beautiful. Natural. Difficult.
Nay. Impossible for some. Definitely a struggle for me.
Breastfeeding did not come naturally at all - it was an 11-month long uphill struggle peppered with supplementing, judgement and self-loathing that my body could not do the one thing it was supposedly built to do - keep my child alive on it's own.
But I have come a long way since then, and have a lot of thoughts about how medical professionals, society and families can do a lot more to help out those of us who find breastfeeding to be a right pain in the buttocks.
Warning: This is a RANT. If you are not pro a woman's right to feed how she chooses, please walk away now.
I was having a conversation with Gretchen from Momformoms about breastfeeding after reading her post about exclusively pumping here, and it got me thinking about my own breastfeeding journey. It was most definitely not the easy, blissful bonding experience that I was lead to believe it would be. I knew going into it that there may latching issues, supply issues etc but I was naive to think that those could easily be fixed and that my body would just kick into gear once it had few pointers. That professionals would kindly guide me towards the light.
Not at all.
Did not happen.
Not one bit.
I did everything "right". Straight after birth my mother held my newborn baby girl to me as she latched on without fuss (while I spaced in and out of consciousness due to exhaustion and the sheer amount of drugs pumping through my body). Three hours later, she began whimpering and I paged a nurse to come and help me latch her- to show me gently how to hold her and make sure that my beautiful baby girl had access to my life-supporting colostrum ready and waiting.
I did not expect what I got instead - a frazzled midwife rushing into the room telling me that they wouldn't latch her on for just whimpering, but would wait until she was crying.
My mama bear instinct kicked in - "no," I firmly said. "She's hungry. She's been quietly staring at me until now. She clearly wants something, and I think it's food."
But the nurse insisted that she would not help me until my baby girl was crying.
"She's had two courses of epidural pumped through her," I exclaim. "Plus anti-biotics and induction drugs and other such things - this kid is too drugged up to cry!"
Finally the nurse relented and latched baby girl on at the speed of light. No instruction. No demonstration. Just on and off she went.
Needless to say my 3-hour old newborn latched off almost instantly. I buzzed again. And waited 40 minutes. By the time the nurse came back in my daughter, still whimpering, was red in the face and clearly distressed but unable to express herself properly (2 epidurals will do that to anyone).
I was distressed too because I just could not get her back on. I had no idea how. No one had shown me. My brain did not automatically download some instruction manual on how to latch a baby on so they don't fall off and actually drink.
Over the 48 hours I spent in hospital, each midwife showed me a different way of latching while berating me for following the instructions of my previous carer. It became so stressful I eventually lost it yelling at the last poor nurse trying to instruct me on her "fool-proof" technique.
To top it all off, due to her small size my daughter was unable to regulate her blood sugars - so she was put on some formula along with my feeding. This was done with syringe by the nurse - once again with no demonstration to this poor mama who would have to go home and figure it out on her own.
Now I'm going to pause here and make one full blown disclaimer - I do not blame the midwives for my breastfeeding struggles. I am simply setting the scene for the chaotic nature in which breastfeeding was introduced, making it more difficult for me to cope with the ensuing struggles my own body threw my way. I know those nurses were understaffed, overworked and probably just needed a break. They did what they could in the time they had but unfortunately it was not the greatest start of what would already be a chaotic journey.
Back to the story. Home I went, sore boobs and formula syringe in hand (why a syringe I do not understand) hoping that somehow my home environment would kick some sort of maternal feeding instinct into drive and we would be able to progress to the beautiful bonding experience breastfeeding had yet to be.
Over time, however, this proved to not be the case. Essentially, to sum up 4 weeks of hell, my daughter began losing weight because my milk supply was not nutritious enough to sustain her. This, we later (and I mean almost 2 years later) learned this was due to my irrational and disordered eating patterns - an eating disorder if you will.
After being told by a stern maternal health nurse that our baby would "die in a few days if we didn't get her to a pediatrician NOW" (an over exaggeration it turns out, as confirmed by said pediatrician) we rushed her to an expert who told us to supplement with formula and all would be well.
To make it all worse, those same maternal health nurses, who insisted she would DIE without intervention, tutted when we went back the next week armed with the formula we had been prescribed to supplement feeding with. SUPPLEMENT. Not stop. SUPPLEMENT.
Now we could have just gone straight to formula and be done with it - looking back I wish that is what I had done. But by now I had been exposed to the "BREAST IS THE ONLY BEST THING" for a good month, along with the shaming that comes with daring to think otherwise and I just could not give it up. I could not handle the idea that I was possibly NOT doing the best thing by giving up something that was doing nothing for my child and harming my mental health. I look back now and I sigh for myself. The harmful messages that were expressed by the maternal health nurses and comments from family and friends caused me to persist in something that I now know had no benefit - my milk had nothing nutritious because I had nothing nutritious in me to give.
Instead of a congratulations for at least trying to persist with breastfeeding as well, while giving the formula she so desperately needed, I was shamed for not being able to do it exclusively. Repeatedly.
I wish one of those many professionals I came in contact with asked me about my diet. Asked me about how I felt through the whole thing. Thought about how the mixed messages they were sending was impacting my own relationship with my body, my baby and my feeding journey. Encouraged me to believe that with the right diet and balance I could sustain my beautiful baby girl and thus be a good mum.
No one could control the fact that my body was not up to the task of producing nutritious milk, but they could have helped instead of judged. They could have asked, instead of tutted. They could have respected that I had made the choice I did because it was best for me and my baby, rather than because I was "lazy" (a mindset I can't stand by the way- a mother choosing to formula feed for no reason other than she wants to is NOT LAZY).
I was given advice by family members and strangers on how to "wean off" the formula, without them realising that the formula was what was sustaining her. I was told by someone (after my daughter had successfully weaned after 11 months) that maybe next time I could "try harder" to exclusively feed.
Little do they know I tried, and I couldn't. And I honestly wish I had just stopped. It would have been better for both of us.
So dear readers - how did you find your breastfeeding journey? Were you one of the lucky ones able to feed exclusively? Did you choose to formula feed? Were you shamed for your choices (regardless of whether it was breastfeeding or formula feeding)? Let me know! I would love to hear from you.
P.S I plan on trying to breastfeed again this time around, but who knows what life will throw at me. All I know is this time I will definitely throw the towel in sooner if I have to. No shame in that.