The best kind of mothering there is...
Almost as soon as I fell pregnant, I planned to breastfeed. I drank in all the pro-boob literature and was convinced that feeding my baby from the breast for the first year was the quickest and easiest way to ensure that she was brighter, smarter, happier and closer to me than she would be without. In order to ensure that my husband got a look in, I planned to express so that he could do the night feed, leaving me fresh as a daisy for my little one to latch onto in the morning.
I had read that some people struggled with breastfeeding but until it happened to me, I genuinely thought force of will would be enough to overcome any difficulties, and that if I really wanted to breastfeed I’d be able to.
I had heard of terms like tongue tie, but presumed that a quick appointment with a lactation consultant could untangle that problem. In my parenting class, I asked whether every woman could breastfeed and the nurse told me yes, there was only about 1% of women who genuinely couldn’t. She said nothing about what might make up that 1%, so I presumed it was just those who weren’t trying hard enough.
Oh, but I tried and I cried. Those first few days in hospital, waiting for my milk to come in, felt like waiting for Father Christmas. And despite being heralded as one of the best hospitals in Australia, all the staff were fairly useless about helping me.
One of them told me that teaching me to hand express made her feel uncomfortable, they were never there when I needed them, and they were very quick to push the formula down my, and my daughter’s throat. It took Julia to tell me that my milk had come in. Before that I thought it was just colostrum.
But although my milk did come in, it never came in particularly well as far as I could see or feel. I never got that comedy moment that other mums talk about where their breast enlarged and engorged to the stuff of male fantasies. Mine got harder but stayed pretty much the same size, a blow to my husband!
I attacked the situation with the best double electric hospital grade breast pump out there. I expressed two hourly for most of the first 8 weeks. After my husband went back to work, it got more difficult as quite often the baby would cry while I was attached to the pump. It was vaguely portable and I invested in a bra that would hold the pumps to my breast allowing me the ability to use both hands. But it still got in the way when I needed to pick my baby up if she was crying while I was pumping.
Watching her burp up the milk that I’d worked so hard for was particularly upsetting. Feeling that I wasn’t giving her enough and fearing that she was hungry was worse. And staying up even after she’d gone to bed, or setting an alarm in the night so that I could express was horrific. I was exhausted.
I still fed my baby formula so she was mixed feeding but I was working all the time to make sure that most of her feeds were breast milk. She genuinely didn’t care one way or another. If it was wet, warm and white, she’d gobble it down. She was growing fine, she even jumped up a few percentile.
It was my pride and my thoughts about what a good mother should do that kept me expressing. I fed my daughter from both breasts every morning for an hour and she would scarcely get more than 10ml so for the rest of the time I had to express.
But I got tired of expressing and when I went home to visit family, I got too busy to devote every two hours to a half hour session. One day I left it 6 hours without expressing and that was it.
My breasts were rock hard and painful but no amount of pumping would alleviate it. From that point on, I never got the same amount of milk. Where I was previously able to get about 60ml per half an hour session, now I was getting 30. And the baby wanted more.
My husband finally told me he thought I should stop, that he wouldn’t think any less of me and that I’d done my best.
I won’t lie and say there weren’t some serious bonuses to stopping. It was nice not to have to wake up, or deal with visitors while pumping. I could devote myself a little better to building up the alcohol tolerance that had waned while I was pregnant and breast feeding!
More than that, on formula my little girl really thrived. We got her into a routine very easily and she’s been a happy, contented little girl. She sleeps well and rarely cries, though never say never. Formula satisfies her, and she’s growing well.
But I still felt devastated. I felt like I’d failed. I worried that my baby wouldn’t be as clever or as happy on formula. That we wouldn’t be as close. And that I’d overfeed her and she’d be sentenced to a lifetime of adult obesity because I hadn’t persevered.
Even now you’ll note that I’ve spent most of this piece talking about how hard I did try to breastfeed, less you think any of me. Which is ridiculous. I still love my daughter just as hard.
I can’t tell you how she would have been if she’d been breastfed. But I can tell you that she’s happy, gorgeous, sweet, contented, close to me and sleeps through the night. We are close, I don’t overfeed her and I’m certain that I’m not developing feeding patterns now that will lead to problems later. That I genuinely believe, and hope, that formula has made no difference.
At the end of the day, she needed nourishment and for whatever reason breastfeeding wasn’t the way to give it to her. It’s not for everyone. My mum didn’t do it and I turned out fine.
Some people struggle, some people fail, some people aren’t interested. We’d all still lay down our lives for our children.
Have I come to terms with formula feeding? In many ways, yes I have. I no longer feel that I’m giving my daughter chemicals and poison and I no longer fear that we’d be closer without the bottle. It gets easier as she gets older as she needs less formula and more solids. I’m certain that me not breast feeding has made her more independent and less needy and my husband’s ability to pitch in and feed her has also fostered an amazingly close bond between him and my darling daughter.
But I still find myself pilloried and punished by the media and all those people who talk with glowing terms about breast feeding. That’s the one thing I’d like to change – formula feeding being accepted more generally and not see as short changing your baby.
Because in the end, I didn’t choose formula, my daughter did. And in turning to it to ensure she was adequately fed, I put her needs over my pride. And that’s the best kind of mothering there is.