I have to confess – I’ve been dabbling elsewhere: I’ve had a blog posted on a site which is collating breastfeeding stories of mums who, like me, have used the Lambeth and Southwark Milkspot cafes, which are now threatened with closure after Kings pulled their funding. (If they do survive, it will likely be as a shadow of their former selves, with the expert clinical staff replaced with health workers who have perhaps had just a few days training in breastfeeding support).
I wouldn’t be breastfeeding at all without their help, so the cause is one very close to my heart, but without the threat of closure hanging over them, I doubt I would ever have written about my experience of breastfeeding on a public platform.
Having been active on parenting forums and Facebook groups since the Big Girl was born, I’m aware that breastfeeding seems to raise heightened emotions and hackles wherever it goes. I follow the threads and read the articles and comment anonymously, but raising my head above the parapet to speak about my own experiences was just a bit too daunting until now.
The ‘Claridges breastfeeding’ story actually began on one of my local Facebook parenting groups, and I remember reading the thread late at night and thinking ‘I bet this will all kick off in the morning’ – and indeed it did. The story took on a life of its own, and the mum originally involved seemed to disappear – I hate to think she was hounded by people who thought she was attention-seeking when clearly she was very upset by the experience.
In my case, I am sure it was my difficult experience of breastfeeding that has influenced my own strong opinions – as a mixed feeder (both my children have had breast milk and formula), I have a foot in both camps.
I am a pro-breastfeeder through and through, and I struggle with those who find the idea of it ‘icky’. I was raised by a biology teacher mother, human bodily functions hold no particular fear or hang-ups for me. It seems completely natural to me that we should feed our babies the way other mammals do – the clue’s in the name. (Incidentally, the thing that really blows my mind is that underwater mammals produce milk and suckle exactly the same as we do – the idea that whales and dolphins produce milk, I just can’t get my head around).
At the same time, I am under no illusions that breastfeeding is easy – and luckily thanks to the advice of a good friend who was a few months ahead of me in the parenting lark, I was prepared for it to be hard, for pain, for the fact I might need to express or use formula.
Once I’d got over the initial disappointment of having to offer formula the first time, and worked out that I could mix feed, I had no problem with there being formula in the Big Girl’s diet, provided I could still breastfeed too. I was not part of the club that is exclusive breastfeeding mums, but I realised that, personally, I didn’t need to be.
I didn’t feel judged or criticised at the breastfeeding cafe as a mix feeding mum; rather I was supported in my goal of trying to reduce formula and sustain breastfeeding, whilst keeping my baby fed and happy. Formula was a safety net which meant I no longer had to worry about her weight – when I had stopped stressing about that, I felt more relaxed, and feeding got easier.
The second time round was much harder, as I discovered giving too much formula too early could lead to a baby losing interest in breastfeeding, and that was a whole different kind of hard. It was only then, when I was days away from having to give up with a baby who refused to feed, that I really realised how much I was judging myself, and how much of my self image as a ‘successful’ mother was predicated on me being a breastfeeding mother.
However – and this is the really important point – the only person I was judging myself against was me. Everyone has their own limits and measures of what constitutes ‘successful’ parenting and to try and rank us against each other is a pointless exercise.
For every mother that makes it to the magic goal of 365 days of breastfeeding and feels good about it, there will be one who makes it to 366 days. She has every right to feel good about it – getting to beyond a year is an amazing achievement – but there is no ranking order of ‘better’ parenting for every day longer you breastfeed. And my early breastfeeding woes are nothing compared to those who’ve had repeated bouts of mastitis – I’m sure I would not have been able to continue through that and I’m lucky never to have experienced it.
In terms of my personal goals, if I had stopped feeding either of my children before six months, I think I would have felt terribly disappointed – but I stopped feeding the Big Girl at 10 months, and there was no huge feeling of let down (pun intended) at that point. It would have been nice to make it to 12 months, when I was so close to it, but I didn’t feel in any way like it was required of me. Our feeding was slowing down gradually and it came to a natural stopping point – there was no regret.
The same applies to Baby Sister, now gloriously six months old and just starting weaning – we carry on, we feed as long as she wants to, but I judge myself by nothing but my own expectations and hopes, I have no fixed goals or rigid rules to stick to.
I am proud to be a breastfeeding mum – because I know how hard I worked to get this far – but I know that for others it’s even harder, even more painful, even more heartbreaking than it was for me. I don’t place myself on any pedestal, I compare myself only with me.
There are no medals or prizes for parenting except those we award ourselves – and if breastfeeding is that for me, great, I can award myself a big invisible rosette and throw myself a tickertape parade. Go me. But I’m not entitled to say that makes me a better parent compared to anyone else. We all have our own mountains to climb, and up them we must go. This just happens to be my personal mountain, my story.