To Soothe the Savage Breast

PL said to me, “someone should write about the reality of breastfeeding”.

She had exclusively breastfed Z for over 3 months, and was now switching over to a mix of breast and formula milk.

Eventually, Z would be off breast milk.

What did she mean, I asked.

PL would like to see more balance in the views on breastfeeding. Instead of the rah-rah, all-good, “breastfeeding is the best and only way” message that most new mothers get.

It was misleading.

For example, the message that ALL women CAN breastfeed. This invariably reduces to: all women MUST breastfeed. Or if any recognition is given to exceptions (some women – 2% – can’t at all), they are simply acknowledged as existing somewhere out there… and would be very rare and exceptional circumstances… that CERTAINLY DOES NOT APPLY to you.

PL’s point (as someone who has breastfed her baby exclusively for 3 months and a bit), is that even if you CAN breastfeed, it is a commitment, and it is an adjustment, and there ARE difficulties, and it is not helpful to gloss over the difficulties, or make it seem like the easiest thing in the world to do, or to downplay the sacrifices needed for this commitment.

(And, if I may add, it does not help to demonise women who either cannot or will not breastfeed).

A whole lot of things have to align to make it possible. Yes, most of the time things align, or are aligned enough that with some effort, it is possible.

Babies can be impatient, or lacking in persistence, or fail to suck strong enough or hard enough or long enough. Milk production may be too little or not at all, or may flow too slowly, or may be the wrong type (apparently, there are two types of milk produced, and one is the richer, more filling one, and the other is more of “snack”. Some mothers may produce more of the “fore” milk that the baby is full before they get to drink the “high” milk).

A friend persisted for 6 weeks and switch over to formula completely after that. Her baby was impatient and when one breast was “empty” would cry so much that he won’t suckle when she switch him over to the other breast. And he would have a preferred breast – the one with the stronger, faster flow. My friend said she felt lopsided because of the way he fed.

And that’s another thing – your boobs don’t work exactly the same. Nobody tells you that, eh?

There’re a hundred and one little things. And they are LITTLE things. None of the little things by themselves, alone will derail your breastfeeding if you are so determined.

But they do take their toll, and when they come one after another, the “death by a thousand cuts” can wear you down, sap your strength, will, and determination, and make you question why.

And yes, of course with all these biological and physiological hurdles, women who breastfeed should not also have to face sociological burdens like idiots who object to women trying to breastfeed discreetly in public.

But we should have known that breastfeeding is not as simple as the propaganda makes it out to be. After all, there are breastfeeding support groups.

If it were easy, why do you need support groups? Do men have “Pee Standing Up support groups”?

There are forums where women talk about their challenges and difficulties, and they share their experience. There are Nursing bras, and nursing pads, and breast pumps, and even lactation cookies. Yes, there are cookies that are advertised as helpful to increase lactation.

I don’t think there are any forums for men on peeing standing up, for men to share their challenges and difficulties in peeing standing up. There are no urination briefs, or pads, or penis pump or urination cookies.

Oh wait, there are penis pumps, but that’s another story.

(And for improved urine flow, there’s beer…)

The point is, it is not easy, it is not simple, it is a commitment, and it is an adjustment. And anyone who tells you differently, who assumes you MUST breastfeed, and that if you don’t you are a MONSTER MUM, is a breastfeeding fascist, and you have every right to ignore her (usually a “her”, but in the rare case, him).

But shouldn’t every mother who can breastfeed try their best to breastfeed, after all mother’s milk is the best for children right? Yes, it is best, but the advantage isn’t THAT great. (Most of the effects of breastfeeding were confounded by Social-economic status. Higher income women were more likely to be able to afford to breastfeed.)

PL has/had 4 months of maternity leave, allowing her to be a full-time cow, while being paid. A daily-rated employee may not have that luxury.

Babies who are formula-fed are NOT going to end up fat imbeciles who will die early from hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.

The point is NOT that breastfeeding is wrong. The point we want to make is that breastfeeding is a choice and a commitment and people have to choose based on their ability to commit, their personal circumstances, and the trade-offs. And the trade-off (breast milk vs formula) isn’t that great, isn’t that terrible, isn’t that horrible, and if you decide to choose formula over breastmilk for WHATEVER reasons, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

As a parent, you will have enough to feel guilty about in the years to come.

So save your guilt for something that REALLY matters (like not sending your kid to Montessori pre-school!)

[Just kidding about Montessori, of course. Really! Everyone knows it is the Suzuki method that is the bees knees!)

[Afrernote: A friend shared this article: “I bullied myself into breastfeeding” with the comment: “speaks to what I feel/felt”.]

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