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The pressure to breastfeed can be overwhelming and failure can be crippling

Many women are simply unable to breastfeed – and they shouldn’t be made to feel like failures for it.

I DIDN’T REALLY think too much about breastfeeding whilst I was pregnant. For some reason I thought more about the delivery itself, about how this baby was going to miraculously make it out of me, and never really worried too much about how I would manage to sustain it once it actually arrived.

I suppose I assumed that part would be instinctive. Intuitive. Painless. That the transition from sustaining the child in utero, to sustaining it within the outside world, would be seamless. Somehow automatic. Breastfeeding? Sure what could be more natural than that? Wrong…

Turns out, the labour was pretty straightforward, but the whole breastfeeding malarkey was more challenging then I could ever have imagined. And that there has rarely been a task with which I have been presented that has inspired a more dogged determination on my part. Or instilled a greater fear of failure. Because, as it turns out, there was a very palpable, deep-seeded need within me to feed my own child, and that need was, unfortunately, in no way matched by actual ability on my part.

No one was more surprised by this urge than myself. Or indeed less prepared.

Nothing about it felt intuitive or natural

I have a clear recollection of the being asked within minutes of Lucy being delivered whether I wanted to try and feed her. With such a captive and expectant audience, I can’t say I felt like I had much real choice in the matter, so I went along with the ‘Grand Plan’ that said I would leave the hospital a tick on the breastfeeding box, and had a go.

I felt like a fraud. An amateur. An incompetent. Nothing about it felt intuitive or natural. It was as if I was the ‘stand in’ who had no idea what they were doing, and that the real ‘Mum’ would arrive any minute now to take over, and provide the child with some real, properly dispensed sustenance. I was playing at ‘mummies and daddies’ without any real idea what the part entailed, and I don’t mind admitting that I found the whole prospect more than slightly terrifying.

I questioned my latch. I obsessed over timings. I went rigid with worry whenever the clock approached feeding time for fear I wouldn’t manage it. That she’d fuss and flap and refuse the mother who’d just brought her into this world. In short, I made far too much of a deal of it in my own head. Became borderline irrational.

If I couldn’t breastfeed, how could I be a good mother?

Somehow it became my own internal measure as to whether or not I was up to this job. In the absence of any other early indications as to how I was going to cope with motherhood, whether I could successfully feed the child myself or not became pivotal in my own head. And I was damned if I wasn’t going to give it my best shot. Failure was not an option I was even willing to consider.

I limped along for the first couple of days ‘playing’ at feeding my new arrival. At that very early stage my complete incompetence, and utter cluelessness as to what I was doing, was easily masked by the natural sluggishness of my newborn and the absence of any need on my part to provide any real sustenance as yet.

Then day three arrived, my milk came in like a tsunami, and we were both left speechless at the sheer size of these deformed ‘dispensaries’, and the question of what in God’s name we were expected to do with them.

I stressed. I panicked. I tried feeding her in every which way imaginable. I thought about little else, if truth be told. I persevered beyond what any reasonable human being should expect of themselves. Because apparently this was what was ‘best’ for her.

I felt I had failed – I was inconsolable

On my final night in the hospital a particularly determined midwife spent the entire night trying to act as arbiter between Lucy and The Titans. Started off the evening with reassuring words of comfort, which during the course of the night became less and less convincing, until she eventually gave up some time around dawn and brought in the dreaded Medela machine. Planted it there in front of me. The physical embodiment of my own failure. An innocuous, yellow contraption which performed a very straightforward, harmless task, and yet one which carried such significance in my own head.

As she left me alone there in that room, exhausted child collapsed asleep after a night of valiant but fruitless effort, me ‘hooked up’ a la makeshift milking parlour, for the first time since the whole feeding ordeal began, I cried. Hot, stingy, frustrated tears through exhausted eyes. The first test of motherhood was to successfully breastfeed. And I, Claire Micks, mother of one for all of 72 hours had failed. Spectacularly.

That day when I was discharged I was inconsolable. Not to the outside world of course, you understand. I was still aware that this was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, so I put on the front and played the part. But inside, I was heartbroken.

Pumps, mastitis and antibiotics

The next day I tried again. And again. And again. And during the weeks that followed I persevered through pumps and mastitis and more rounds of antibiotics than I care to remember. My husband ferried me in and out of the hospital like a yo-yo and struggled to remain calm and measured as he watched his wife and daughter struggle for weeks on end in the name of a ‘cause’ he could little understand. Watched as I was lauded by health professionals for ‘persevering’, and silently thought we were all a bit mad in the head.

Eventually, after many weeks and rounds of antibiotics my mastitis finally cleared. As did the fog of fear and self doubt that accompanied it. Maybe, just maybe, I would manage to feed her myself after all? Maybe I wouldn’t fall at the first hurdle? For months on end I took lecithin to loosen my milk, and used ice packs day and night to reduce milk production and inflammation. I got at any blocked ducts with the military precision of a trained assassin and I watched those bad boys like a hawk for signs of anything ‘brewing’.

By about the third or fourth month, things finally started to settle. She fed consistently with less fuss, flap and screaming, and we were eventually motoring. But that early setback – that fear that I wouldn’t live up to expectations, wouldn’t manage to do what was ‘right’ for my newborn daughter, would fail at something as basic and fundamental as whether I could manage to sustain her from within my own body – cast a long shadow from which it took me a very long time to step out. It crippled my confidence and made me feel like a failure before I’d even begun.

As the parent of a 10 day old, I lacked perspective and confidence

Now years later, and having met countless other mothers who had similarly struggled, I have the insight and perspective I sorely lacked at the time. I now have the ability to recognise that feeding is just one small part of parenting, and that, as with every other challenge that will get thrown at us parents along the way, perfection is not the object of the whole exercise. Regardless of what the ‘experts’ say.

But as the parent of a 10 day old, I lacked that perspective and confidence. ‘Thou shalt breastfeed. Or thine offspring shall suffer’. That was the message, loud and clear throughout the pregnancy. There was no real recognition or acceptance of the alternative. The message was (not very subtly) rammed down our throats from every available angle.

So there needs to be some recognition amongst the powers that be of the potentially damaging and counterproductive effects of over labouring the benefits of breastfeeding. Out of a sense of respect to, and acceptance of, those many of us who will struggle. Through no fault of our own.

Lots and lots of women want to feed their children themselves and simply can’t. For a myriad of different reasons. Medication. Sudden bereavements. Babies who refuse the breast. Mothers who don’t produce enough milk. Mothers who produce so much their poor newborns are positively drowned by it. All of these are legitimate reasons which are entirely beyond the new mother’s control, but those nuances are entirely lost in the pro-breastfeeding juggernaut that is our public health policies. The pressure to perform is enormous and unrelenting, and in my own case, near crippling.

Breastfeeding is good, but allow some balance 

Please allow a bit of balance, all you health personnel out there. All you hospitals who have your figures to reach. All you policy-makers. All you midwives whose throw-away remarks can leave such a lasting impression on vulnerable minds. Before you launch into your pre-ordained ‘encouraging’ sales pitch, please make some small allowance for all those new mums among us who will valiantly try and fail.

And please be cognisant of the guilt and disappointment we will inevitably carry as a result, whether we choose to broadcast that, or not. Labouring the point does us and our children no good at all. We’re only doing our best, after all. And sometimes, through no fault of our own, that just doesn’t reach the mark you so vocally expect of us.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for here.

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