The aim of this series is to get beyond the mother-blaming which goes with the abstract way breastfeeding is pitted against bottle feeding to show that, in reality, it is a lot more complex. Mothers usually use whatever methods seem right at the time to do their best to feed their babies, often in the face of a tremendous lack of support and an absence of shared wisdom, or even interventions from health professionals which are experienced as unhelpful.
If you would like to contribute to this series, please send in 200-700 words about your own experience feeding your baby to email@example.com. Submissions can be published anonymously.
As a new mother, the bar was set quite low for me where breastfeeding was concerned. My mother was of a generation of Irish women who were told that the bottle, not the breast, was best. My husband was not breastfed, my sisters had not breastfed their children and I was among the first of my friends to have a child. I'd had such little exposure to breastfeeding, I don't think that I'd actually ever seen a child being breastfed. So when I had a baby of my own, the prospect of breastfeeding offered a completely new experience and one where those who I normally turn to for help could offer little advice.
In contrast to the experiences of many modern mothers, there was probably an inverse pressure on me not to breastfeed, or at least, not to waste too much energy bothering. From very early on in my pregnancy, however, I knew I wanted to breastfeed, not just because we're 'supposed' to but because it felt right for me. After a fairly traumatic emergency c-section, I was more determined than ever to breastfeed my baby girl. In my mind, I had failed the very first test of motherhood: I hadn't even managed to give birth properly. I could at least try to breastfeed her.
Living abroad had a big impact on my experiences of parenthood and breastfeeding. When we came out of the hospital, I was terrified of returning alone to our apartment, weak and still in pain from the c-section, with this tiny new person in tow. Trying to breastfeed was just one of many worrying prospects that awaited; how to manage her sleeping, bathing, nappy-changing and ensuring she stayed safe in the heatwave we endured that summer. Of all of these, breastfeeding was my sole responsibility. And it was a struggle. Our baby was a grazer, who wanted to guzzle at the breast for hours on end. Days after returning home I developed a hacking cough, which kept knocking the baby off my breast and caused the delicate stitches in my stomach to ache alarmingly. I was constantly tired and anxious. We had a couple of visits from a perky midwife who said baby was doing fine, which greatly cheered me, and then that I needed to colour my roots, which had the opposite effect.
I was delighted when my mum and sister came over to help, but they were bewildered when they realized I couldn't pass them a bottle to feed the baby (I hated the breast pump), to allow me a nap or to pop out for a walk. They felt redundant. I knew they were tempted to tell me to take a break, unleash myself from the baby and give her a bottle of formula, but to their credit they resisted. And I´m glad of it, because I think my resolve to breastfeed would have buckled had I started to bottle-feed at that, my most vulnerable point.
When baby was maybe a month old, the family visits dried up and I was reliant on a small group of new mothers (who were also foreigners) for company and support. We met regularly to exchange horror stories and surreptitiously watch each other trying to breastfeed publicly without exposing a boob. Public breastfeeding is not discouraged in Geneva, but it's not a common sight either. I always felt self-conscious and keen not to draw attention to myself, although I was much more at ease when I wasn't alone. The coffees and chats were fun but afterwards, we would return to our apartments, our little cells, alone with our babies. I often wondered if this was how we were supposed to raise our children. Becoming a mother here opened doors to close friendships, but it also heightened my sense of isolation from the family and friends who would normally be around when a baby arrives.
Over the summer, my baby and I eventually settled in to a pattern of eating, playing and sleeping. She remained a grazer, but I felt secure that this could help prevent dehydration and the grazing allowed me to read to least in peace while she fed. Eventually, I also came to terms with the physical and emotional effects of the c-section and no longer felt the need to explain and justify my experience. Looking back, it was so full-on and we had so much to contend with at once, but in the end it was completely worthwhile.
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