I had no idea when I had my son that I’d carry on breastfeeding for 2.5 years. Sometimes, especially when I say it out loud, like that – two and a half years – I can’t believe we’ve lasted that long.
Like a lot of things related to motherhood, I was quite naive about the realities of breastfeeding. My sole knowledge about it, from some friends who had done it, was that it could be hard. Other than that, I didn’t really know much about it. You had your baby, plonked them on your boob, and they fed. Ta dah!
I had never heard of “latching on”. I didn’t know about positioning. I had no real idea that part of the difficulty in getting feeding established was that it could be painful; couldn’t have appreciated what impact it can have on your feelings of personal boundaries, or intimacy, or body image.
Despite my lack of understanding, I knew I wanted to give it a shot. When my son was born, he didn’t latch on – or feed at all – straight away. It turned out he had a tongue tie, so our breastfeeding journey began with a 10 weeks of (at times) excruciatingly painful (for me) feeding, until I took the decision to have his tongue tie cut.
This wasn’t an easy decision: he was gaining weight well and the tongue tie didn’t seem very serious, according to the healthcare professionals that saw him. He was windy and cried a lot but neither of those things are unusual for young babies. Having it done made a huge difference, though. Feeding was no longer painful and gradually it all seemed to get a lot easier, and now, somehow, it’s two and a half years later.
In that time breastfeeding has been my saviour – soothing grizzly moods, bumps and fears; and my downfall – waking me multiple times a night, causing awkward top-grabs and whines for milk at slightly inappropriate (i.e. public, or busy) times. It’s formed the foundations of my bond with my son and helped me feel able to cope at times when everything else – anything else – has felt just that bit too difficult.
My relationship with my body has gone through as many changes as the physical appearance of my breasts have: sometimes I have felt full of love for what my body was doing, proud and at ease; at other times I’ve missed the autonomy of having a body that is just a body, not a snack-buffet open to prodding and pinching at any given moment.
Breastfeeding is such a personal choice. I’m not even going to begin to talk about why you should or shouldn’t do it – it’s none of my business what anyone chooses to do with their boobs, and their child, and there are myriad reasons someone might choose to breastfeed, or not.
But it does bother me that there’s so much about motherhood that feels censored, and breastfeeding is usually included in those things. I suppose parts of it are pretty irrelevant to anyone who isn’t a parent, but it shouldn’t be the case that we live in a society where these things are, for the most part, secret, until you have to experience them.
I shouldn’t feel “lucky” that I was never tutted at for feeding in a public place, or told to cover up. I know these are the realities for many women trying to carry out that most basic of task of feeding their child, and that this occurs in 2018, when so much about the health benefits of feeding are known and women are so apparently free to make their own choices, baffles me.
Days after my son was born, one of the ward nurses told me she had been discouraged from telling women that breastfeeding might hurt because it might put them off trying. I don’t think the reality would have put me off any more than thinking there was something really wrong with me because I was in so much pain. And no, it shouldn’t hurt, if all is going well, but – to begin with especially – it can be really sore. And that’s normal.
We need to talk about the realities of motherhood more, the mundane and the miraculous; the utter normal drudgery of it as well as the joy and the cute photo friendly monthly milestones. Giving women – and men – impartial information of what exactly is about to go down, pre-baby, can surely only be a good thing. (And by impartial I mean judgement free: conspiratorial eye rolls/sniggers/just-you-waits need not apply).
I don’t really have much of a point to this post, other than to say, if you’re breastfeeding, you’re a star. If you’re bottle feeding, you’re a star. There is no “right” way to do things, but whatever way you are doing them, don’t be afraid to talk about the reality of it.
Oh, and if anyone has any advice on how to stop breastfeeding a wilful toddler, that’d be great. Asking for a friend.
*Bottom two photos by the wonderfully talented Siobhan Watts.