Wednesday 29 October 2014

Breastfeeding & Birth: Two Separate Stories

To me, breastfeeding and birth are two different chapters of the same book. Each filled with barriers to overcome, personal triumphs, raw emotions and more than a few gory details. They are wonderful stories, and I love being given the chance to tell them. But I tell them separately, because I see them as two very different tales.

My daughter’s birth story ends at the moment I felt I became a mother. I could waffle on about how amazing she was, how terrified I was, and how much it hurt to sit down, but I don’t. When that beautiful baby and I locked eyes, and I spent a few minutes falling in love/trying not to drown her (however terrifying holding your newborn for the first time was, believe me it’s more terrifying when you’re in water), the story comes to a natural conclusion. The child is born. The End.

My birth story ends on a high - the wonder of birth, the fact I felt like a superhero, and the glory of my newborn baby. The next chapter in the book of my daughter is breastfeeding, and I’m happy to tell you about that, but it’s another story. I would never think to end my birth story with a subchapter on breastfeeding, and yet I’ve noticed that mothers who struggle to establish breastfeeding do feel the urge to include this in their birth stories.

For many mothers who wanted to breastfeed, but who struggled and eventually accepted bottle-feeding as their future, birth stories don’t end with the birth. I’ve noticed at groups, from friends and online, that for these women, an explanation of why they aren’t breastfeeding is the epilogue to the tale of their birth. Instead of ending their story on a high, some women immediately transcend into their struggles with breastfeeding, and instead end their stories with the circumstances surrounding that first bottle.

Of course, your birth story is your own, and you should tell it however you want. Feel free to add in swear words, leave out the gruesome details, and gesture wildly throughout, but here’s why I wish women didn’t feel the need to include their breastfeeding struggles in their birth stories:

  • you’re not being judged - all new mothers feel judged, about pretty much everything. The type of nappies you use, how often you hold your baby, where your baby sleeps, and how you feed your baby - everyone feels like they’re being judged. And, truth be told, you probably are being judged sometimes, but not as often as you think. New parents strive to do their best, and I think the paranoia is a part of that. You worry that others will think you are parenting wrong, so you do plenty of research and make sure you are parenting right. I think it’s this defensive - the fear that others are judging you for not breastfeeding - that leaves women feeling that they must explain as soon as possible why they’ll be whipped out a bottle the next time their baby cries. In reality, I doubt that many breastfeeding mothers are judging you. Most breastfeeding mothers have faced struggled, cried about having sore nipples, and driven halfway to the supermarket for formula before calming down. More than anyone, they understand and can emphasise with the breastfeeding barriers you faced.
  • it’s your business - you don’t owe anybody an explanation, about anything. From the moment you found out you were pregnant, you have been making parenting decisions, and you will continue to do so for the rest of your life. Don’t include information simply because you feel you owe people an explanation, you don’t. Tell the story however you want, and include only the information you want people to know.
  • it ends the story on a negative - I’m not saying that bottle-feeding is negative, but the mothers who choose bottle-feeding with open arms are not usually the ones who feel the need to explain their choices in their birth stories.. The mothers who end the tales of their birth with “so I gave up,” are usually the ones who feel, perhaps not guilt, but a slight bit of disappointment about not breastfeeding, at least at first. Perhaps they are the mothers who planned to, and wanted to, but, for whatever reason, didn’t end up breastfeeding. For some of these women, for the first few weeks at least, using formula milk may be seen as a personal failing, and when they end their stories here, they do so with a sigh and a look of disappointment. Not all births go to plan, and not everybody is happy with the way their births turned out, but all mothers should be able to end their birth stories on a proud moment.

I’m not saying that breastfeeding isn’t a part of birth, for many it is. Lots of babies latch on within the first hour of life, in fact, nature pretty much designated the first hour of life to a baby finding and having their first feed. And if breastfeeding is a part of your story, then of course you should be free to tell it. It’s your story after all.

But for the women who associate breastfeeding with failure and disappointment, let’s take breastfeeding out of the birth story. Women should be able to tell their birth stories however they want, but ideally with as much pride as they can muster.

* I just want to state again that I in no way see formula as failure, please don't think that. I just wish women would stop feeling that they need to explain their choices, when they don't. 

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