Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Breastfeeding Rant

This post has been a long time coming.  (It's taken so long partly due to the rather exhausting activity of breastfeeding that has caused most of this post to be written one-handed.)  I had planned a comprehensive list of all that is wrong with the current propaganda, but I will avoid the parental crime of over-universalising my case, and instead share what I know for sure - my personal experiences with my two children.

First there was my little man.  My drama-queening, first-born, soul-mate child who stole my heart the moment I saw him... and refused to feed.  The first two weeks of his life remain the most stressful of mine, all due to my desperate attempts to feed him from my body.  Two weeks doesn't sound like a long time, but they were.  Non-parents could perhaps imagine about three months of that job you loathed, but without the weekends or indeed home-time, or of course much sleep.  And harrowing moments that will stay in memory for life.  The nurses prodding at me, giving me conflicting advice; the night I broke down and forced my husband to admit that this was shit, as I watched him feed our baby my milk from a bottle, while I sat hunched over the breast-pump; and of course my little man's distressed, panicked little expression the few times he did manage to suckle.

That was what ultimately made the decision for me.  The notion that this seemingly hideous activity could possibly be a bonding experience was soon proved false. The first bonding feed I enjoyed with my son was the first time I fed him from a bottle.  And as my milk-supply slowly dwindled (the warning that one would need to feed or pump almost constantly to keep up the precious "supply" not necessarily so), the memory of that unhappy breastfeeding face was what kept me from trying again.

So I refused guilt, at least in theory, and became the most efficient producer of sterile and portable bottles, water and formula the world has ever known.  Narrowly avoiding post-natal-depression we got on with our lives and some pretty damn decent parenting.

Fast-forward a year and a half, and we began baby-wrangling, take two.  And from the moment she was born my hoped-for daughter showed her different nature, not least in the matter of feeding.  My sweet-treat, my pure-smiled youngest who winds her way further into my heart each day, she took to the breast like... well like a baby to a breast.  She came out hungry, found a nipple, latched on, and has barely latched off since.

I was so grateful to avoid those dramas again (and rather pleased not to have to prepare bottles every night) that I barely minded the first nights of almost constant feeding.  I braved weeks of cracked nipples and aching, engorged breasts, not to mention taking the full burden of feeding that had been shared with husband last time; for now I was a proper, natural, breast-feeding Mum.

Okay, maybe once or twice in sleep-deprived angst I've told my poor, innocent child that I prefer her brother - for being less hungry.  And yes, I may still be witnessed getting somewhat irritable during her nightly fussy, biting, feast-a-thon when my nipples become her chewing toy.  And alright, perhaps I remain a trifle resentful that I have become more milk-dispenser than woman, and have been left feeling alienated from my own body.  (And while we're on the subject of body, I must admit to a reasonable level of disappointment that the initial miraculous weight-loss effect has since been more than negated by my new found cake addiction, entirely attributable to motherhood.)

But once again it is my child herself who dictates how I continue.  Just as my son's loathing of the breast made it essential to give up breastfeeding, so my daughter's love of it keeps me persisting now.  The few bottles she has submitted to (of formula, in my opinion only a nutter would express unless they have to) have brought her nourishment, but little pleasure.  So while she's lucky that there's a little oxytocin-hit in it for Mama (and even more lucky my nipples healed), the only reason I'm still breastfeeding is the look of bliss that sweeps across her dear face every time she feeds.

So breastfeeding can be a pain in the, well, breast.  And it can be impossible, or at least horrendously difficult and emotionally destructive to achieve.  Yet while it's only slightly better for a baby than formula (for us in the priviledged West with money and clean water etc), we are bombarded with the message that we must breastfeed, at almost any cost.  And it's this militant, guilt-mongering stance that I cannot forgive.

I remain angry about a lot of attitudes surrounding my breastfeeding experiences.  I still believe that poor nursing care was at least partly to blame for the failure to breastfeed my son.  One particularly insensitive nurse haunted my nightmares for months, but in general I encountered a stubborn belief in forcing breastfeeding, but inconsistent and counter-intuitive advice in attempting to make it happen.  This attitude was itself an echo of the Breastfeeding Association's mantra of 'breast is best', without any real help in how it can be achieved.  I'm afraid I've come to think of the BA as purely a self-fan-club for successful breastfeeders, rather than any sort of advocacy group for struggling mothers.

And then it turns out that even when you avoid the guilt of failing to breastfeed (oh yes, I failed at it), you get hit with a new set of traps for guilt and censor.  In trying to gain advice on healing my poor nipples, for example, I learnt that it was my fault for doing it wrong - apparently "correct" breastfeeding doesn't hurt.  One article even claimed that while most newly feeding mums experience pain, this is not normal.  Apart from needing a dictionary to check the definition of "normal", they could certainly do with a lesson in compassion... and reality.  I promise you, having your nipples suddenly being sucked on for hours and hours a day is painful, no matter how perfect your "attachment" is.

And of course there's the old can of worms of public breastfeeding.  Somehow I hadn't previously twigged just how hideous the attitude is until I was in the situation of having to be one of them - a mother, with boobs.  To be a properly good woman, one should really still become a mother if at all possible.  And as anyone who has become a mother will have been told and told and told, to be a good mother, one must breastfeed.  And yet, this activity should really not be seen in public.  So, women should be breastfeeding, but we should not be seen doing so.  Turns out, women, still, should not be leaving the house.  At least not in ways that are upsetting - doing something as grotesque as using our breasts to feed a baby.  Breasts should be pretty accessories for men to enjoy and potentially be aroused by, and they clearly don't want to think about babies when they're thinking about sex.  The fact that sex and breasts only exist for the continuance of the species is a rather inconveniently real and gruesome fact that people would rather not be reminded of.

So you may have gathered that I'm not much of a fan of breastfeeding.  And I've got a beautifully feeding baby and heaps of milk and I don't much mind getting my tits out.  I simply couldn't carry on without so much in my favour.  I hear some women love it, and that's wonderful.  But the breastfeeding "Nazis" really need to change their attitude towards the rest of us.  It doesn't even promote breastfeeding, in fact it can sabotage genuine efforts, cause unneccesary misery... and in some cases create nearly two years of pent-up rage requiring expression in a ranty blog-post.