The Virgin Mary breastfeeding: no pressure.
Two months and a day ago I became a mum. My daughter barged her way into the world at 8 pounds 14 ounces after a 32 hour labour, a compound birth, forceps, a suction cup and an episiotomy (where they cut you ‘to avoid tearing’). It felt like the battle for Middle Earth had taken place between my legs. No one told me I would wet myself, that all the periods I hadn’t had for the last 9 months would come along at once and that I would walk like I had a saucepan between my legs. No one also shared the information that breastfeeding starts immediately, that you don’t have a chance to catch your breath before this beautiful bundle of bones and skin is placed on your chest and a woman that you didn’t even see enter the room suddenly has your nipple between her forefinger and thumb and is manoeuvring it towards your baby’s mouth. There is no respite, no down time, before you’ve had time to truly understand what’s happened: motherhood begins.
But I’m moving too fast. Let’s start with my breasts. They’ve always been big; since they started growing they’ve been of substance. My mother who has sported no more than a pair of double As (except when she was breastfeeding when they, in her words, ‘ballooned to a C cup’) couldn’t figure out where I had got them from and used to put my bra cups over her head in amusement and wonder. I loved my breasts. They were great, they settled at a 34 DD much to my delight and until now there’d never been anything but positive feelings about them. My body was appreciated and loved.
Returning to motherhood; I had to spend 4 days in hospital. My husband had to go home each night, so my first night with my little girl was on my own and she was hungry. The trauma of the birth meant my body was a little behind in giving up its colostrum and milk so I had nothing to give her. A wonderful woman answered my frantic buzzing and gave her a bottle to tide her over until the morning when, she told me, breastfeeding would begin in earnest. I felt enthused, I would join this club where women were bathed in a golden light as they gazed adoringly at their child, who sucked contentedly getting everything they needed from calories to antibodies. It’s what would make me a fully qualified mother.
That didn’t happen. Not even slightly. My breasts were enormous, they went up to a G. They were heavy and almost impossible to hold in one hand. They were unwieldy and my daughter’s little mouth couldn’t take it all in; she would tug and fret as she tried to gulp the milk that poured from them. She couldn’t latch properly as the forceps had dislocated her jaw so my nipple was cracked and bleeding. I got through tubes of lanolin. To make things worse, my left breast had a totally flat nipple. How had I never noticed this before? How was it never pointed out? She couldn’t feed from it and as a result they became two completely different sizes. I looked like a sideshow. A nurse said I had “porn star boob and third world boob”, a sentence that becomes more bonkers every time I think of it. Milk leaked all the time and my life became a whirlwind of feeding and pumping trying to maximise the milk that my little one could access. I cried. All the time.
The trauma of the birth coupled with the total dread of her hungry cry, meant that pain was relentless be it physical or emotional. I hated my body. It hurt! Everything hurt! I couldn’t sit down or stand up for long periods. I was having to feed every two hours or so day and night, going through the ridiculous ritual of trying to latch her on then almost immediately sticking my finger in her mouth to break the vacuum as the searing pain shot straight through me. My body didn’t feel like mine at all. I was a stranger in it.
Every two hours I had to steel myself for the pain and more so, the crippling disappointment as yet again the feed wasn’t successful. I was a shit mother. I had shit tits. And I was reminded of this approximately 10 times a day, every day for a month. I cried as I held her, my daughter’s hair constantly damp. I felt I wasn’t bonding, that I was thinking only of myself and what kind of person did that make me? I had to put my daughter first and so I kept feeding. I developed mastitis 3 times and on one occasion went to bed shaking uncontrollably as my breasts felt like cartoon bombs, red and swollen and about to explode. I couldn’t pick her up but still I put her to the breast again, desperate for her to drain them, to suck the poison out.
I couldn’t handle it. My mental health deteriorated I looked at my beautiful little girl and simply felt I was letting her down before we’d even begun. Feeding was all I could talk about, it dominated everything I did. I went to milk spot classes where I was told to persevere, and retold everything I already knew. I paid for a woman to come to my house and take me through the psychology as well as the physics. I read every forum and even went on YouTube. At this point my daughter is just over a month old.
What makes me really angry is the relentless pressure to breastfeed. I was given no other option. At no point did someone look at me and say, “you know what? Maybe persevering at this isn’t the best idea.” I even woke up to Radio 4 repeating every half an hour the latest discovery that breastfeeding your child increases financial and personal success, that they are more emotionally stable, less likely to suffer from depression and generally just more likely to win at life. I felt I was trapped in this Bermuda triangle of loving my daughter and hating feeding her: the result of which swallowed me up.
And then I stopped. I bought a box of powder and made up a bottle, she guzzled it. Then she slept and when she woke she guzzled another, my nipples stopped hurting and bleeding, I felt as though I was a human not a milking machine. I stopped crying, her hair dried out and I started smiling when I looked at her rather than wincing and gurning with pain. Our eyes locked when we fed and the look of total trust from her as she held my gaze was one I never got from the boob. I stopped hating my breasts. I started to heal in every sense, in every way.
I wish I’d got breastfeeding, I wish I’d been one of those women who sit in cafés with an artfully draped scarf over themselves and a contended baby as they wolf down a slice of carrot cake and a decaf cappuccino. For those of you who find it easy and who enjoy it and whose babies are thriving with it I salute you unreservedly.
However, what I wish more than anything else is that someone, just someone: the GP, the health visitor, the midwife, the lactation consultant, the milk spot ladies, anyone really, had said “this is a skill, it must be learned and is something that may never be mastered, the fact that you have tried this hard for this long is totally admirable, now give yourself a mental, physical and emotional break and make up a bottle of formula. Antibodies? You live in a clean flat in South London she’s got them, move on.”
So I’m saying it. I’m shouting it to anyone and everyone who has ever struggled and felt the overwhelming pressure and guilt to persevere at something that just makes them miserable. You’re a fab mum to a fab baby. Enjoy every minute.
- Georgia Gillies