There are many things in life which are, as the saying goes, like Marmite. The Smiths, Ann Widdecombe, gerbils … you either love them or you hate them, and there’s no in-between. That’s just how they are. Other things, however, are not like Marmite. Take Marmite itself, for instance. I can take it or leave it. I might fancy a bit on my toast but hey, if there’s none left to scrape out of the pot, no worries; I’ll just have a bit of marg on its own. Everyone talks about the great Marmite divide, but let’s be honest – marmalade’s the real deal breaker in all of this.
I’m inclined to think this way about breastfeeding too. Just as you can’t eat a Marmite soldier without being told you love it, women who breastfeed are all encouraged to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that they’ve decided breast is best. This doesn’t mean that they can’t talk about the difficulties. It doesn’t mean they have to pretend it’s easy. But once you breastfeed, it tends to be assumed that you most definitely “heart” having a baby on the tit.
I breastfed both my children. I also trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter. But do you know what I think? I think breastfeeding’s okay. Just that: okay. It has its pros and its cons, and I don’t mind whether you do it or you don’t. There are specific health benefits, but there can also be personal, social and economic disadvantages to doing it. In places with access to a clean water supply, it’s not as though formula will poison your baby. Do what’s best for you.
Of course, it’s not always possible to know what’s best for you in a world where women’s breasts are treated as the property of the male gaze, and breastfeeding in public is still not accepted as a normal, healthy activity. I look back on my first year with my eldest child and badly wish I’d felt more comfortable feeding him anywhere and everywhere. The anxiety I felt about doing this made life so difficult for the both of us. It was only when I had two children under two that I no longer had time to worry what others thought, and just whacked my tits out at the slightest wail. Surely that’s what any mother should be able to do, without fear of criticism or even attack?
But even without the prejudices faced by breastfeeding mothers (ones which, in any case, only match those faced by those who bottle-feed), I still think there are significant disadvantages to breastfeeding, ones which aren’t always fully acknowledged. The first one, obviously, is that unless you express milk, only you can feed your baby. And while one might argue that that’s okay, it needs to be recognised that to say so is to be highly prescriptive not just about the nutrients that go into an infant’s body, but about how all mothers should organise their lives, regardless of their very individual needs. Being permanently on call for feeding can have a massive impact on a woman’s ability to care for others, or to earn money, or just, fundamentally, to do what she needs to do to function as a happy human being with a new person to look after. It can be argued that if someone cannot breastfeed and be happy, external forces are the problem. But I don’t think that’s always true. People are different. New mothers are different. You find your own way of doing your best.
There are lots of things I didn’t like about breastfeeding. Waking up with rock-hard tits the size of rugby balls if my baby happened to fancy a lie-in. Not being able to drink as much as alcohol as I might have liked. Losing masses and masses of weight. Oh, no, hang on, I liked that last one. I lost pounds and pounds through breastfeeding, even though I was stuffing my face on cupcakes and cookie dough ice-cream. It was bloody brilliant! Except it wasn’t. I liked the weight loss far too much. It seriously messed with my head, and my relationship with food, and brought back issues which I’d thought were long buried. Was breastfeeding totally to blame? Of course not. But if, for whatever reason, you are a person who has felt that her body is not her own, and suffered due to the need to regain control over it, breastfeeding can cause serious discomfort. You can feel like you are an object, there only for someone else, and you can find strange ways of fighting back. I’d express milk and think of it only as pumping the fat – the badness – out of me. Seriously, I’d have been better off just mixing up some Cow and Gate for the little one and getting myself a sodding cream cake.
This is perhaps an extreme example. A counter-argument might be “well, you just needed help with your own feelings about your body, in order to enable you to breastfeed”. But my question is this: just how much is breastfeeding worth? If the instant way to live a manageable life with a new baby is to not breastfeed, that seems to me the obvious answer. Sure, we could and should deal with any underlying problems. But in the meantime, actually, I don’t want help if it’s only to enable me to breastfeed. I’m not just a potential breastfeeder; I’m a whole person and my value as a mother is inextricably linked to this.
I did enjoy the closeness of breastfeeding and I often miss it. I’m glad I did it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m “proud”; I dislike the value judgment attached to that. I volunteered at breastfeeding support sessions and even attended a regional seminar for peer supporters. But there I couldn’t help feeling there was something almost cultish about the passion for breastfeeding and the unbridled hatred of all alternatives. I couldn’t fathom the sheer outrage at formula milk being available at Boots! I mean, for god’s sake, you can buy all sorts of damaging rubbish in Boots! If I was going to have a rant about that place, the fact that they sell something which nourishes a baby isn’t where I’d start. What about Slimfast, for instance, which encourages grown adults to feed themselves like babies? Or the beauty products, which make women of all ages feel they’re not good enough? Is it just me, or is all that not far worse?
Anyhow, this has been my post, not exactly in support of National Breastfeeding Week, but in support of women who feed their babies in the way that’s best for them, and for their offspring. Good for them. I hope they are proud of themselves, and I hope none of them feel judged.