I have a confession to make: I didn’t like breastfeeding.
Somehow, that bold statement feels like a shameful admission, and some of the old guilt has returned. I have always known that ‘breast is best’ and so I should have breastfed all my children and presumably should have enjoyed it, right? The reality was somewhat different.
I found that breastfeeding did not always work and even when it did, it did not bring me joy.
I never really understood my lack of enjoyment and therefore can’t tell you how it came about. Perhaps it arose from the feeding problems I had with my first child. I just don’t know. But I can tell you about my range of experiences.
Breastfeeding seemed to go well for a few days after my firstborn arrived. Then my milk came in, although ‘flooded in’ may be a better description. The midwives said my breasts were engorged; my somewhat stunned husband said I had ‘the Dolly Parton look’. My breasts were so full that everything was stretched tight and my little girl could not attach. We seemed to spend endless, frustrating hours trying to feed, with my hungry daughter getting very upset.
A few times, she lay at my breast screaming - which brought me to tears. (Almost ten years have since passed, but I vividly remember how that felt.) The midwives did their best to help and I called upon them often – they got to know my swollen breasts and I quite well.
It was a midwife who ultimately delivered my salvation, in the form of nipple shields. All of a sudden, my daughter was getting my breastmilk and we soon went home - a happy mother and baby.
As the days passed at home, I gradually decreased my reliance on the shields, as I had been advised to do, and everything seemed fine. My happiness was short-lived, though, for despite my best efforts, my daughter lost weight. At two weeks of age, she was 130 grams below her birth weight and I was referred to a council-run Day Stay program.
The verdict? My milk supply had dropped too low! I was to continue breastfeeding, but for the next week I had to ‘pump’ after each feed in an effort to boost my supply (of course, I was also to give my daughter the expressed milk). I could scarcely believe I had gone from a huge oversupply to an undersupply in such a short time. How could this have happened?
I hired a mechanical pump and used it faithfully for a whole week, feeling like a cow and hating every minute of it.
My daughter’s next weigh-in showed only a negligible weight gain. Our local nurse, Marg, suggested I do supplementary feeds of formula for the next week. For each feed, I had to breastfeed first and then do a bottlefeed of formula afterwards. Again, I faithfully stuck to the plan, and…bingo...there was a much more respectable weight gain. It was then that I realised my breastfeeding efforts were futile.
When I told Marg that I might wean my daughter, she said it was “a fabulous idea”. It was as if she’d been waiting for me to say it all along! And so, at the age of 4-6 weeks, my skinny, underfed baby was weaned onto bottles and we never looked back. Seeing her thriving was such a relief!
Within 18 months, baby number two arrived. What a different story! She took to breastfeeding like the proverbial duck to water. I gave her all the credit. One night in hospital, a midwife jokingly said I could show some other mothers how to breastfeed. “It’s not me,” I said and nodded to my daughter, “it’s her!”
At home, bubs and I were happy enough with the breastfeeding arrangement. It was all working perfectly well, surprisingly enough, and for that I was thankful. Yet for some reason, I still had no special feelings about breastfeeding. To me, it was just a form of feeding - as simple as that.
After a few months, I wanted to wean my daughter – I’d had enough of ‘flopping them out’ all the time. But she thought otherwise. She would not accept a bottle. We tried for a very long time. We tried different teat types, different positions, we tried getting different people to feed her. All to no avail.
Friends said, “She’ll take a bottle if she’s hungry enough” but …no. By the time she was six months old, I was very frustrated – I was breastfeeding her because I had to, not because I wanted to. (I guess it was the polar opposite of the experience with my first child!) My frustration led to annoyance, which in turn led to guilt, then on to resignation. The battle for the bottle was lost. In the end, my very determined second child was weaned at nine-ten months of age…onto a cup!
Thus when I was pregnant with baby number three, I was feeling very ambivalent about breastfeeding. I decided before the big day that I would give it a go and just see how it went. After my son’s birth, it was an hour or two before the issue of feeding arose. But then when the midwife asked whether I wanted to feed the baby or have a shower, I realised I was in no hurry.
“I’ll have a shower first.” Eventually, the time came for his first feed and as he lay there attached, I thought, “I don’t think I want to do this.” However, I did not want to give up so early – I wanted to ensure he received my colostrum and at least some breastmilk.
As for how the feeding went during the hospital stay, the experience was probably somewhere between the other two. By the time we left, I was using shields again. Within a week of arriving home, my nipples were cracked, bleeding and painful. The nurse who came to visit, Trish, said I should rest them for a few days. So off we went to buy bottles and formula.
The first time I saw my husband giving our son a bottle, I felt relieved – and happy. And I knew that was it for me. So it came to be that my son was weaned within his first two weeks. I had dreaded telling Trish my decision. But thankfully she was wonderfully supportive. “Whatever is right for you,” she said, “you have a whole family to think of. Better for you to be relaxed and happy – and then the family is happier.”
That pearl of wisdom brought me so much peace, and I appreciate it to this day. Support and reassurance is what we, as parents, need. And a lot less self-imposed guilt!
And so there you have my breastfeeding story. Or should I say bottlefeeding story? I know which one made me happier. Breast is best – it just wasn’t best for me.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem