It was my dad's tone that did it.
“Guilty? Why would you feel guilty?”
He was holding his first grandchild in his arms, looking at me – his eldest child, almost crazed with exhaustion, trying to explain why I felt guilty just days after creating new life. I was sobbing about the pain of trying to breastfeed.
My sobbing turned quickly to laughter. My father’s hilarious and touching incredulity said so much – about generational differences, about gender differences, about how different our lives were. He had just turned 24 when I was born, the first of the five kids he and my mother went on to have. When I ask them how they coped with four children under five in a leaky bungalow in 1980s Ireland, their faces take on a shaken expression and they quickly change the subject in a manner reminiscent of war veterans. When I ask my mother about breastfeeding us, she struggles to remember who got the boob and who didn't. They were young and bewildered. Everything was hard. Guilt was a luxury and they didn’t have time for it.
So, I let myself off the hook. I stopped trying to breastfeed my son. He was about four days old. And I didn’t waste a moment feeling guilty about it again.
I loved formula feeding. My son, greedy little thing that he was and continues to be, thrived. He slept like a baby – which is to say, not like an actual baby at all. I lied to my new-parent friends about how well he slept, because I didn’t want them all to despise me, which they would have been well within their rights to. My husband and I shared the feeding right from the beginning of our son’s life, meaning that genuine co-parenting was foundational to our new dynamic, a huge continuing advantage that no NCT class, midwife or parenting book mentioned. I left my baby alone for the first time overnight when he was about six weeks old to go and stay with a friend. I didn’t have to worry about expressing, or about whether the baby would accept a bottle, or whether my husband could “cope”. I packed a bag and got on a train. Just like a regular person.
I feel both amused and enraged by the way the advantages of formula feeding are so entirely overlooked. It gives women two main things – freedom (to leave the house, to get on the train) and equality (men, God love them, can hold a bottle and boil a kettle just as well as a woman). Let me say that again: FREEDOM and EQUALITY. No big deal, like.
Becoming a mother is like learning misogyny – something with which you thought you were familiar – in a whole new language
This is not an anti-breastfeeding piece. I would defend to my death the right of women to breastfeed their babies whenever they want, for however long they want. I feel nothing but scorn for those people (and there are many) who say things like, “I can understand breastfeeding a newborn, but ew, it’s so gross when the baby is bigger than that.” This comment says so much about society’s attitude to women’s bodies: be nourishing, but don’t let it interfere with your sexiness. Be sexy, but don’t let it interfere with your mothering. Once women become mothers they must use their breasts – which they were previously encouraged to sexualise as much as possible – to nourish their babies, in public, on demand, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how shamed they might be for it. And shamed for it they are: need I remind you that Jeremy Clarkson compared it to pissing in public not too long ago.
It is enough to make anyone crazy – and it does. Becoming a mother is like learning misogyny – something with which you thought you were familiar – in a whole new language.
So, what do you do about it? About the conflicting advice, the confusion, the terror of getting it wrong? I feel nothing but empathy and love for my fellow mothers who had a much harder time than I did – whether they breastfed or not. We all want the best for our babies and that’s why so many women suffer the most horrendous agonies of guilt when they find they cannot breastfeed. The well-meaning NHS advice, the posters you see on every single antenatal visit and the lack of information about formula-feeding (I asked for a leaflet to help me figure out bottle sterilisation and when I finally got one – after asking about six times – it contained advice so impossible to follow that I just called my mother and did what she said instead) mean that, for many women, a bottle of formula takes on the aspect of something akin to poison. That is why I cheered out loud when I read the Royal College of Midwives’ new position, in a statement that says women should be supported if they choose, after considering all of the information available, to use formula. I was lucky enough to have the support of my family in my choice not to breastfeed. I had happy memories of my dad scooping formula into my baby brother’s bottles and a mother to talk sense when I feared using tap water might destroy my baby’s “delicate gut health”. Not everyone is so lucky.
Breast is best, there is no doubt. But that doesn’t mean formula is bad. It’s just not quite as good. Not quite as good is still a hard thing to say you’re settling for when it comes to your baby, but when you look at the statistics, it’s the reality. Most women do not breastfeed. So, shouldn’t we be honest with women about the realities of both approaches? Acknowledge that there are advantages to formula. Tell us that feeding is but one aspect of our baby’s lives and that other things – like a happy mother, a confident, involved father – could also be beneficial? Talk to women about feeding as if they were – I don’t know – intelligent adults capable of making up their own minds, instead of infants who need to be scolded and nagged into doing motherhood right? We’ve just created life itself; give us a bit of respect.