"I’d feel guilty and perverse because it was supposed to be a wondrous bonding experience." Photo: Getty images
Pregnancy and motherhood are full of secrets and lies. There’s that one about how childbirth feels like an orgasm. And that one that if you exercise your pelvic floor twice daily, then you won’t pee yourself in Coles.
And then there’s breastfeeding, which for me at least, was the biggest lie of all.
You hear the constant refrain that ‘Breast is Best’, that breastfeeding makes you magically drop those extra kilos, and that it’s what nature intended.
You see pictures of women blissed out of their minds with happy hormones while feeding their beautifully contented child.
Then there’s the convenience of being able to whip out a boob and provide your child with the optimum mix of nutrients, a small halo made up of the words ‘GOOD MOTHER’ glowing softly above your head, knowing that you’re giving your child ‘the best start in life’.
And then there’s reality.
I breastfed my daughter for a year and I hated it. No really, I HATED IT. Nothing in my life has caused me to cry as much as breastfeeding. I probably produced more tears in that time than I did breast milk.
I would regularly look at my watch and feel sick because I knew it would soon be time to breastfeed again. Then I’d feel guilty and perverse because it was supposed to be a wondrous bonding experience.
Admittedly, breastfeeding and I didn’t hit it off.
I struggled to produce enough breast milk, which meant I spent eight hours a day, every day, for the first two months connected to a breast pump stimulating supply. Frequently my husband had to squeeze my boobs to force the milk down.
And yes, milking yourself, and being milked like a cow is as degrading as it sounds.
To add to the fun, I also got a yeast infection in my nipples, which lasted for weeks. Give me the pain of labour any day over having thrush in your nipples. Labour is excruciating, but it ends. The pain of breastfeeding is the pain that just keeps on giving.
And then came the hospitalisation from mastitis, an infection from a blocked milk duct.
My experience was an extreme case, but the pain and anguish associated with breastfeeding is not uncommon. Yes, some people find it easy and love it, but many people don’t.
Conversation in mothers’ groups will attest to this. In the early days, discussion is almost solely devoted to cracked nipples, engorged breasts, sleep deprivation from night feeds, concern about babies not gaining weight due to inadequate milk supply, and boobs leaking milk in public. Repeat ad infinitum.
One friend was so uncomfortable breastfeeding in public she could barely leave her house. The social isolation soon turned to depression. Her psychologist suggested she use formula, at least part of the time, but she said the guilt and sense of failure from not breastfeeding would have made her even more depressed.
Like her, I was so guilt-ridden at the thought of giving up breastfeeding that even people’s support and compliments felt like a kick in the guts.
When people said that they were proud of me for persisting with breastfeeding despite all my problems, I interpreted that to mean that they would be ashamed of me if I stopped.
Our culture reinforces this fear. How many times do we hear people say, ‘Well it’s okay if the mother can’t breastfeed but….’
The second, and often unspoken, part of this sentence goes something like, ‘if the mother chooses not to breastfeed then she’s the scum of the earth who’s setting her kid up for a lifetime of allergies and illiteracy. Now where did I put the number for DOCS? ’
I have always rejected the logic of this argument because it’s absurd to suggest that children will turn out okay if their mothers can’t breastfeed but they wont be okay if the mothers won’t breastfeed.
Nonetheless, as a sleep-deprived, anxious and inexperienced first-time mother I didn’t have the strength to stand up against all the mother-bashing that goes on when people don’t breastfeed.
Hearing about the experiences of other mothers didn’t help.
‘I will never understand women’s selfish reasons behind their decision not to breastfeed, even though I understand it is their decision to make,’ wrote one mother in a parenting magazine. With ‘understanding’ like that, who needs people to judge you?
The pressure to breastfeed is an enormous burden for many women, but the expectation of enjoying it makes the burden that much greater.
The best breastfeeding advice I ever got was from a midwife with kids of her own and a lifetime of experience.
When my milk just wouldn’t come in the geyser-quantities that nature supposedly intended, she said ‘Breast is best, but sometimes bottle is even better.’
There is a special place in heaven reserved for that woman.