Dear Reader, I would like to relate to you a conversation I had with another mother, last Sunday morning after Church.
She had an older child, probably around four years old, and a six week old baby, so of course I chatted with her a bit. She seemed very nice (I am sure she is very nice!). Then we got onto the subject of breast-feeding. She mentioned that the health visitors in her area were quite clueless about breast fed babies because almost all of the women in her area formula fed. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Me: Wow, I would’ve thought they’d absolutely adore you, if you’re one of the only breastfeeding women. I had the opposite experience, especially with midwives, I felt like I couldn’t put my son on formula, thought I’d be drugging him or something mad! He was under his birth weight at four weeks so I ended up having to.
Her: Yeah, well it’s what works for you isn’t it… *trails off*
Me: Well no, it was that I just didn’t have enough milk, there was an issue with my supply and it was actually the health visitor who told me to put him on it.
Her: Yeah, well, they say if you keep going it will eventually come in. But if it’s too much for you… *trails off again*
*awkward momentary silence*
(During the silence I wanted to say this: ‘Well, they say a lot things don’t they but they are bloody wrong! OK!? I tried really hard and, yes, it was too much for me because I had a hungry baby who I couldn’t feed and who screamed all the bloody time!’)
(What I did say) Me: hmm, yeah, well, I mean, I did give him some breast milk until he was 3 months but, you know… Well I’m going to get a cup of tea. Nice to meet you. *fake smile*
Now, some of you less familiar with the subtle language of judgement may think I have overreacted to her comments. But, oooh, it was her tone. Her tone I tells ya! Just ever so slightly patronising and, even worse, sympathetic. Like ‘we can’t all do what’s best, but never mind.’
Most breast-feeding mothers I know have absolutely no judgement of us who bottle feed our babies. We do what works and most understand that sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work. However, there are some who think they know why women stop breast-feeding. They think it just got a bit too hard so they gave up. That’s partly because almost everyone who breast feeds finds it really tough at first so there’s an assumption that you either grit your teeth and stick with it or you give up. This assumption implies that all women find it equally hard. But we don’t.
At one of the breast-feeding workshops I’ve written/ranted about previously (here) the workshop leader began by telling us a bit about herself, naturally.
“I first gave birth in the 1970s.” She declared. “I was the only woman on a ward of 26 who breast fed” *pause for nods of approval* “and I found it easy, I mean, I wondered why more people weren’t doing it. So I became a breast-feeding coach.”
Well, I don’t know about you but I think that is one of the worst reasons I have ever heard for teaching something. I’m teaching this because it’s easy. But it does neatly encapsulate the whole ‘if I can do it I don’t see any reason why anyone else can’t’ attitude that those few evangelical breast-feeders put out there. And why wouldn’t they think that? They went to the workshops. They listened whilst the healthcare professionals made it very clear that everyone can breastfeed; you just need the right support and technique. Right? Wrong!
I know this mum just believed what she’d been told. Not only about breast milk but also all the implied bad stuff about formula. And I know she meant no harm because, as a successful breast-feeder, she doesn’t know the crippling middle-class guilt that comes with not being able to lactate sufficiently. She has no idea that there is still a small part of me, for all my brazen ranting, that feels like a failure. If there wasn’t her ever-so-slightly-condescending attitude wouldn’t have bother me quite so much. And perhaps I should have shared that with her. I wonder what would have happened if in that moment I hadn’t reacted by making evasive manoeuvres towards the tea and biscuits but instead offered an honest account of my feelings. Ooh, but that’s a bit scary.
Next time someone put my hackles up by making a casual anti-formula remark maybe I’ll respond differently. Instead of staring at my shoes and mumbling something apologetic; or making a swift exit; or giving a lengthy and impassioned speech on why I believe formula was the best choice for my baby, thank you very much; I might just talk about how it felt when I realised my son had been hungry for 4 weeks. I’ll just be honest and share how hard it is not to feel like a failure. I’ll be vulnerable.
Yeah, that’ll shut ’em up!