Breastfeeding Grief

Over the coming weeks as I battled a serious infection in a caesarean wound, severe pain in the scar, agonising nipples, and sleep deprivation, it became easier and easier to make a bottle than to pump or try feeding my baby directly.

Breastfeeding Grief

I “failed” to breastfeed my eldest child.

I’m all for self responsibility except there’s a problem with the “failed to breastfeed” statement. In many cases it should be the wider community that takes responsibility for women’s “failure”.

How many of the women who “failed” have never seen another woman breastfeed?

Before I had my daughter I hadn’t held a baby since I was about five years old, I only ever saw one baby breast feeding and I felt totally embarrassed. I read a little bit about feeding when I was pregnant but I wrongly assumed it was a natural thing so it would come easily. I forgot to take into account that killer bees are natural too, and in the first fortnight of feeding it felt like there was a swarm of them in my bra!

The lactation consultant who saw me in the hospital was beyond mean. As I sat there crying with dry, cracked, bleeding nipples she abruptly informed me that “there are other women here who are SERIOUS about breast feeding” and then off she went.

I reached for a bottle. Somebody much kinder said to me “As long as she isn’t hungry, that’s the main thing”

Although this person was entirely well meaning, that undermined my breastfeeding relationship. I was a very young woman, I was deeply traumatised by the entire birth experience I’d just had, I’d lost all faith in my body to do what it was biologically created for. Over the coming weeks as I battled a serious infection in a caesarean wound, severe pain in the scar, agonising nipples, and sleep deprivation, it became easier and easier to make a bottle than to pump or try feeding my baby directly.

By five months our breastfeeding journey was over. It ended abruptly one morning when my partner (who is now my ex) announced that the reason my daughter was fussing at the breast was because I wasn’t making enough milk. He took her away from me and gave her a bottle.

I lay in bed and cried. I felt like an unmitigated failure. I hated my body. It couldn’t give birth, it couldn’t breast feed, I was obviously an unfit mother. Postnatal depression became post traumatic stress disorder and I lived a self imposed oppression of guilt and hatred. I felt obligated to hate myself and my body.

Fast forward eight years and I held a newborn over a caesarean scar yet again. But this time something was different. No, it wasn’t less painful it was every bit as painful as it had been with my first, but the people around me were informed. Nobody said “just give him a bottle” they held my hand while I cried through the pain and day by day it eased until we threw away the nipple shields and happily fed for 5 years, through two other pregnancies.

There were times with all my kids when reaching for a bottle would have been the easiest thing to do but it wasn’t what I wanted and I suspect that many other women feel the same way. Women want to nourish their babies from their bodies, all women want what is best for their children. The number of women who are grieving a lost – or never established – breast feeding relationship must be infinite.

There are now several generations of us who have never seen a mother breast feeding. The formula companies have been so successful with their propaganda that feeding a baby is virtually impossible for many women regardless of how much they’d like to, they simply can’t get good information and not even their mothers and sisters can help because they too are from formula generations.

We never see breast feeding in our homes, we never see it in public (unless there’s some elaborate blanket dance covering it) and websites like facebook have declared cyber war on breast feeding mothers and babies, dubbing it “obscene” before removing images and banning users. Even women who never struggle to feed physically, may struggle with the personal aspects of feeding in a place where other people might see them because despite the lip service we give breast feeding, and the completely inane laws to protect a breast feeding woman, society really doesn’t accept that it happens.

We need to stop blaming women for not feeding, we can’t say “read a book, call someone” and act like that’s all there is to it. We need to start feeding our babies in front of friends and family, yes, even in public and without a stupid blanket.

Let’s smile and be friendly to women we see feeding their babies, let’s post pictures of ourselves feeding on blogs, websites, facebook and other “social” networks. Let’s force the people who are uncomfortable with breast feeding to look away rather than hiding ourselves.

We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that feeding will be awkward or painful in the early days. We need to prepare our families and friends to support us through the hard times.

Possibly the most important thing though is that we need to get serious about the advertising and misinformation campaigns that formula companies are saturating our communities in. Vulnerable new mothers and babies deserve the truth.

Wet nurse breastfeeding baby with mother holding toy
A wet nurse feeds whilst a mother watches on.
Credit: Wellcome Images | CC BY 4.0

Thousands of years ago breast feeding was so normal that we made sculptures, carvings, and paintings to honour that part of our mothering journey. I live in hope that one day these relics will not be seen as our primitive past, but celebrated as a sign of how advanced we were before capitalism realised there was money to be made in the misery of new mothers.  Maybe one day we will again celebrate how amazing it is that a woman can grow, birth, and feed her baby all on her own without the need for any invention.

*In the rare event that a woman is genuinely unable to feed her baby we must provide milk banks and normalise the practice of milk sharing. The WHO states that the best way for a baby to eat it firstly from her mother’s breast directly. Failing that, that the baby be given milk from her mother in a cup or a bottle. Next best, they recommend milk provided by another mother, and lastly they say formula.*

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