I've been thinking about this a lot lately [No, really? We'd never have guessed - Ed.] because someone I care about is having trouble feeding her baby the way she hoped to before the birth. This woman is, apart from fabulously intelligent and caring and hard-working and funky, the very first person to ask if I was ok after Linnea was born.
And I wasn't, and she asked, and she cared, and I am still all teary-eyed thinking about that.
And now she's having trouble feeding her baby. She's just like the other three women with babies I'm closest to - they were from my antenatal class. She's just like lots of women. They want to breastfeed and it's hard. So I'm going to talk about all of them as one person.
She is breastfeeding. When her baby was born, she put him or her to her breast, and the baby sucked, or didn't suck, and if he sucked it was excruciatingly painful, and if she didn't it was terrifying. She is pumping every day, sometimes every hour. She is bleeding; she's bleeding lochia, because childbirth is messy and bloody, and she's bleeding from cracked and chapped nipples. Her baby is losing weight, or not gaining weight, which in a newborn amounts to much the same thing - after the initial weight loss, babies are supposed to grow fairly rapidly, really. She's still pumping. She's waking every 90 or 120 minutes during the night to spend 30 to 120 minutes awake trying to feed or pump or both.
A woman I know attached her baby to the breast for four-hour periods, using the breaks at the end of these periods for going to the loo and eating. She did this for weeks. Her baby continued to lose weight. She kept trying every waking hour to do what felt right and natural and what the scientific evidence told her was right.
I am related to someone who kept breastfeeding even when she found her own blood in her baby's nappies; her nipples bled that much. Have you ever found blood in your baby's nappy? It's scary.
And the thing that all of these women also have in common? They all, at some point, gave their babies formula. In a bottle. More than one bottle, even.
And the babies grew, and got fatter, and cried less and smiled more, and started to play with their toes. And on the one hand, the mothers were overjoyed! And on the other, they were -
They were failed breastfeeders. They gave up. And people like me, who had a certain amount of chapping and bleeding and mastitis, but who never seriously thought "My baby is starving to death! My baby is starving to death!" reacted in various ways to these women desperately trying to believe that they were still good mothers, that they hadn't irretrievably damaged their babies, that they shouldn't call a trusted relative RIGHT NOW and have the infant adopted by someone with enough love to relactate using drugs and electric milking machines and barrels of lanolin nipple salve.
"I didn't quit. I bled. I pumped. I kept going as long as my baby wanted to."
"I know someone who never fed from her own breast at all - she pumped for her twins and donated to the milk bank while running a 24-hour trucking business and baking all her own bread from organic wheat she grew on top of her trucks. Which she drove herself. With one leg. Her twins won the Olympic High jump two years ago - joint first."
"I suppose, if you don't really want to breastfeed, it must be pretty hard."
And it doesn't matter if for every one of those responses, she gets five that say "Aw, honey, how sad. You're doing fine. Keep it up." Because she already believes the voices that say she's doing wrong.
This is why the entries on "How to be a bad parent" and so on aren't actually all that funny. Because all the time women need to reinforce their beliefs in their own way of mothering, and the easiest way to do this is to look at how other people's ways don't work so well, and condemn them, preferably without thinking "Well, maybe there was some difficulty I can't see here." Because every formula-feeding woman who tried to breastfeed sees every breastfeeding woman as a slap in the face, a personal reprimand. And every breastfeeding woman sees every bottle of formula as a statement that her contribution is worthless, that she gave up nights of sleep and moments of human dignity (have you ever used a breastpump? You need a well-attached sense of humour and a hot compress) for no really good reason, especially if the breastfed baby has, ooh, conjunctivitis, to pick a random one, and the formula-fed baby is in rude health. Or vice versa.
We need to change the way we work. We need to encourage breastfeeding, sure, but not because it's a heinous evil duty that we owe our babies. Not because they will die if they get formula. But because it's great!
No, really, it is. It's fantastic. I know. I do it. When it works, it's fabulous. Everyone loves it. Mother, father, baby and siblings all go all squooshy. People who've breastfed happily feel a huge rush of hormonal happiness when they see another woman breastfeeding happily. It's cheap, it's lazy, it's got a high learning curve but it's learnable for most people, and, as an added extra bonus, it has some scientifically proven superiorities over formula.
Here's what it's not: It's not a good enough reason to dread every time you may have to feed your baby for six months. It's not a good reason to ruin your health, your baby's health, your relationship, your job. If you can't do it, however hard you try, it's not a good enough reason to feel like a failure for the next 5 or 50 years.
I breastfeed like a pro - I always have. Total walkover. I get to feel like a failure because I had a high-intervention birth experience that left me doubly incontinent [we know, we know - Ed.] and I breastfed while taking non-trivial amounts of codeine. Like 240mg a day for 9 months, more or less.
Later I can feel like a failure because I homeschool, or don't homeschool, or fail to recognise the indicators for Aspergers or ADHD or dyslexia or whatever else might make my baby not quite fit in. Because, you know, by the time I notice them, I will have not noticed them for a while. Check back in 6 years and see.
No-one wants a mother who thinks she's a failure. It can't be good for them. So let's start being nice to each other. Let's start trying to feel good about the way we've ended up doing parenting, without assuming that other people haven't achieved the same things through lack of effort. Let's assume that they all tried really hard. Because, you know, they did.
And if they didn't, you're not going to guilt-trip them into trying harder. You'll just make them defensive and miserable, and they'll talk your methods down until they feel sure they're doing it right again.
If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Your mother told you so. She was right. Mothers usually are.