So apparently it’s national breastfeeding week. I can remember after Sam was born, my first national breastfeeding week, the feeling of being part of an online community and sense of solidarity etc – and the awareness that for others national breastfeeding week isn’t that at all. Three years on it’s different, I didn’t notice this one sneak up, I don’t think much about breastfeeding these days in all honesty, I just do it. Don’t have much time to think between two smalls, one pooch, and one preschool run.
I have often wanted to write about breastfeeding but stopped myself because the words are many, the pain is real, and the situation tense. It’s easy to put words out there, but it’s hard to know the right ones.
I lie here feeding my daughter and I think, how do we judge each other over this? I know we do, I used to, before I had my son. I particularly cringe remembering how I used to judge mums who fed “too long”… before I became one of them.
When we love our babies, when we nourish our babies, as we watch them grow, we give them life. We need to be given life ourselves to sustain that; we need to be loved, love comes from love, love breeds love. So many parenting books are written with advice for parents but few with advice for the rest of humanity. What does it matter if a mother follows all the rules set out for her if she has no love surrounding her from which to draw?
I know that when I have been loved enough so that I had more to give out, that felt like being set free to be the person I am, felt like being set free to make my own decisions, felt like being trusted. In my experience, it is so hard to feel that as a new mother. The world comes at you with it’s own agendas, with it’s own set of rules, all the voices seeming so sure and so competent at a time when you feel so totally vulnerable. Everything saying “pick me, pick me, choose me, choose this way”. And you feel so unsure, so unready, and all the voices tell you that the stakes are so high.
All this to say, I breastfed my first baby for 2.5 years, and I’m now feeding my 7 month old. I love feeding my babies. I had help to conceive my babies, I had help to birth my babies, but my babies I am physically able to feed all myself and that has meant a great deal. Breastfeeding helped – still helps – me reconnect with and love my body after IVF, forceps and C-section.
I chose the help to conceive gladly, we jumped at the chance. My translocation granted us access to NHS funding as a first port of call, instead of having to try for a while first as is standard with IVF funding in the UK. With me having a balanced translocation and severe PCOS there didn’t seem much point in waiting to see if we needed IVF, and that decision probably saved us a lot of heartache.
And then there’s birth. I dreamed of natural births. I researched birth for years before my son was conceived. I had tokophobia when I was younger – birth phobia – I used to have nightmares about unexpectedly being 9 months pregnant and going into labour. When having a baby became the most important thing in the world to me, in order to overcome the fear, I researched and researched birth and slowly began to long for the day I would deliver my own baby. I was so proud of myself after the birth of my son (forceps), but I did hope, always, that I would get another chance… and with that my beautiful water birth. Instead, my waters broke and labour didn’t establish, and after 3 days I opted for a C-section instead of an induction. And it WAS beautiful. It is one of my favourite memories. It gave me everything I’d hoped for in a water birth – serenity, connection, joy, a feeling of being totally in the moment. And I remember it, which was what I most wanted, having been too out of it to remembers Sam’s. But at the same time, it wasn’t a water birth – it wasn’t my body doing it alone, it was a team of people working on me, just like with IVF.
In complete contrast, breastfeeding has given me no problems at all – second small’s fairly minor tongue tie notwithstanding. And with my first especially, having felt let down for so long by a body that struggles to bear a baby, there was something magic in that, something so validating.
When I look at the different stages of my journey to parenthood – conception, birth, infant feeding – I think there’s something of life reflected back. Messy, unpredictable, a vivid tapestry of different ingredients. Sometimes we jump straight to accepting intervention as the most obvious course of action, and we might be overjoyed to have that option. Sometimes we try our hardest at something but it doesn’t work out, and hopefully we find peace and joy in the alternative. And sometimes everything works out just as we could have dreamed.
I have found magic in every different stage of this stage of my life, from the operating theatre at my IVF clinic all the way to Sam’s last toddler feed in his bedroom, with fertility drugs already working in my body to make the way for Eleanor.
I have found at every stage that I need to let go, step forward, and trust.
I found that from when I trusted the doctors, to when I trusted my instincts in labour, to when I started taking steps to wean Sam. I found it when I read articles by other Christians, who disagree with IVF PGD, but took that leap of listening to what I believed instead. I found it when I trusted that if I was wrong in that, I would be forgiven. I found it when I continued feeding Sam beyond the age others around me were. I found it when we trusted our newborn Eleanor, wrapped in swaddling, to a doctor with a pair of scissors. I have found it with every ‘first’ – when I gave five months old Eleanor formula, when my babies started solids, the first time I left them. I find it each and every day in new and different ways.
I think in our culture, if you breastfeed for a “long” time, you’re meant to have either really thought it through, and have really good proper scientific reasons that you can defend vigorously; or you have sort of got trapped and don’t know how to stop. But what if you carry on just because you like it? Just because it means something to you? Just because you think women should be able to use their bodies as they see fit and you fancy a quiet act of revolution? And you don’t really care how your friends feed their babies, but you do care that they are heard, that they have choices, that their bodies are their own too, that they don’t feel embarrassed to feed their babies in public.
I often think that breastfeeding made me a feminist but on reflection I don’t think that is true. I think feeding a baby made me a feminist. I imagine that if I had fed my first baby another way – pumping, formula – I would have experienced much of the same that prompted the decision: judgement, corporate ownership of my body, the expectation to conform to someone else’s alien narrative.
I worry about where new mothers are likely to find each other at a time when, in my city, sixty out of seventy children’s centres are being closed. When library hours are being reduced. When antenatal classes are mostly only available to those with a couple of hundred spare quid to pay for them. I look back on my very early motherhood and I think, what kept me sane amongst all those – very well meaning – voices coming at me were the real new mothers I met, face to face. Real women navigating their own way through this strange transition in life. Real women doing things similarly and yet differently to me. Friends I keep in touch with now that those newborns are turning four.
I’m training to be a breastfeeding peer supporter, and the closing of children’s centres means that we will have fewer places to meet with new mothers. When I was pregnant with Sam I went to a breastfeeding class run by peer supporters at a children’s centre. I don’t know if I’d have breastfed without it, and then I might be feeling very differently about the help I had to conceive and birth, I might have entered motherhood feeling differently about myself. I’m training to be a peer supporter so that I am equipped to give other women that same support I had; because I think no mother should have to breastfeed, but that if she wants to, she should have the support to.
I hope that we would all find the support we need in making our new motherhood choices. I hope for a trust to grow between mothers and for mothers. I am grateful that the choice I had to make was how I fed my baby, not whether. And I share my story not because I think my choices are the ones you should make, but as an offering towards a time in which we can all share our motherhood stories without shame. And whatever yours is, I support you in that, too. I believe you are enough.