I maybe coming a bit late to this party, but I’ve been reading a lot about Jamie Oliver’s recent “boob” this week.
Don’t wade into this debate, Molly, I thought to myself. After all, you’re not a health visitor, a midwife, a doctor or a member of the WHO (or the band either…)
I am however, a woman and a Mum, which probably qualifies me just as much as the aforementioned professionals to have a valid opinion on the subject. Also – it’s tough shit if it doesn’t, because here I go…
The thing is, the whole issue is about more than just breastfeeding. As the holder of a couple of boobs, which have been with me since birth, but more noticably since the the residential trip to Stubbington Study Centre circa 1988, where there was a big fuss about them in the mandatory mass showers *shivers at the horror*, I can’t help but get cross about it all.
I can see that he thought he was doing a good thing, using his influence to change our society for the better. After all, it’s worked for him before. The trouble is, boobs are a bit more complicated than Turkey Twizzlers.
For starters, school dinners and making them healthy was all about money and shaming politicians. Nobody disagreed with him that having pizza and chips every day was a bad idea – it was just a case of getting the pennies put in the right pot and making our kids’ health a priority.
The last time I looked, breastfeeding is already the cheap option. There are pretty much no downsides on paper – it’s free, convenient, you don’t need a microwave in your bag (or a thermos flask full of correctly heated water if you are still in the purist phase of bottle feeding) and you can feel like you are being the best parent in the room.
Plus, no good mother would set out NOT to make her child’s health a priority. Of course we all want what is best for our children.
But it’s not as simple as it seems. Buying only organic vegetables, ethically sourced meat and non-processed foods is a wonderful way to feed your family by putting in a bit more time, effort and money. Pat yourself on the back, put your order for your veg box from Abel and Cole and sit back and reap the rewards, Mum.
Or Dad. Because Dad can do that – order the food, cook the dinner, put the bins out, polish the silver, etc. etc. The one thing Dads can’t do however, is breast feed. That’s all on the ladies. What a privilege. What an amazing thing that we can provide for our babies.
And what a complete and utter mind fuck full of pressure. Imagine men, if you will. You are tasked with one job. You don’t need to do anything else – nothing else matters in the world but this incredible responsibility. Making milk. You know how to do that don’t you? No? Oh, shit…
Read up on it – that’s always a good place to start when you need to make sure something gets done properly. What material can you find in the local library?
“Lactation for dummies” or how about the classic, “Breast is best and that’s all you need to know, man”. Who knows, maybe there are YouTube videos, showing you techniques for latching on or how to achieve the perfect rugby ball hold?
This is probably actually a thing now, but back in the day, there was no such channel available to subscribe to. More to the point, even if there was, nobody would have told you about it, because that would be an admission that you might have actually needed some help when it came to it. That breastfeeding wasn’t all “plug and play” as they would have you believe.
Breast is best. For your baby, for you. You know it. Don’t question it. Because if you question it, you might be, you know, One-Of-Them. One-Of-Them is not who you want to be. They are the Bad Mothers.
To be fair, I fell for it. Hook, line and sinker. I wanted nothing but the very best for my baby. I had quit smoking before even trying to get pregnant, hadn’t had a drink since discovering I was up the duff (I had quite a lot of guilt surrounding the pre-discovery drinks though), ate no Brie, sniffed no glue – you know, the standard things.
Of course I was going to breast feed my baby. After all, that’s what boobs are for isn’t it? They are not designed for anything else – just feeding your offspring, because once you’ve had a baby, that’s all you are good for.
My boobs were many things before that point, however. A source of embarrassment in my tweens (see Stubbington shower reference above); a weapon in my feminine arsenal; quite literally a pain – before, during, after, leading up to and when my period was nowhere to be seen; an irritation when running for a bus…the list goes on.
They were however, mine. Not rented like a video on a Saturday afternoon from Boob City on Ash Road. Not borrowed from a mate to go out clubbing with. Not saved up for like Katie Price. They were mine. One larger than the other – like feet (they don’t look like feet), with repelling magnets in the nipples that makes getting a cleavage a thing of near impossibility.
Large enough to warrant the wearing of a bra, but never impressive enough for the sexy Bravissimo catalogue because having a 38 inch ribcage and boobs of less than a D cup is apparently a physically impossible combo. Still mine though.
Never before would I have dreamed of getting them out in public. I’m no prude, but the framework necessary for getting them in the right place in the first place meant there was to be no airing of these puppies outside of my house.
Then. The baby comes. Once everyone in Frimley has seen your vagina, worrying about getting your nipples out in public becomes less important. Less worrying, but you still don’t go from a 25 yr-old who doesn’t show the world (and especially your mates!) her boobs, to immediately and unblushingly unhooking your nursing bra in Sainsbury’s. Let’s be honest – it’s still awkward getting your tits out.
I’d love to be the sort of person who doesn’t actually give a fuck about that sort of thing. I am, instead, the sort of person that everyone thinks doesn’t give a fuck about that sort of thing.
Seasoned breastfeeders and women who fit successfully into the cleverly designed, yet horrifically fashion-free “special tops” designed to keep your dignity safe when feeding in public will probably give less fucks. Especially when they aren’t being harassed by stupid restaurant owners who most likely had to put down their copy of The Sun to go over and complain to the mother about getting her boobs out to feed her baby.
Let’s imagine for a minute that there was an organ that men had which had more than one function. It might not be as tricky as you think. It had a sexual use, but also was used for something else essential – for instance, I don’t know, having a wee. Upon becoming a Dad, that organ had to be exposed in public on a regular basis – in front of friends, family and complete strangers. I wonder if men who champion breastfeeding as the only option might feel differently if that was the case? Food for thought…
All of that awkwardness aside though, you get quite adept at discreetly feeding your baby when out in public. Or so I hear from friends.
You see, I am One-Of-Them. I know. TERRIBLE isn’t it.
One one hand, I feel like not sharing the reasons why I am One-Of-Them. Because it shouldn’t make any difference to you, dear reader what they are. All you really need to know is that I am not ashamed of being One-Of-Them. That and the fact that my kids are happy, healthy, intelligent, well-balanced, thriving young people.
But there is one word in that last paragraph that makes me have to share those reasons. Thriving. It’s such a positive word, isn’t it? Makes you think of ruddy cheeks, grassy knees, healthy glows.
Now. Close your eyes. Not to go to sleep mind you – there has been none of that for 6 days. Imagine you have to heave yourself off the sofa to shuffle off to the toilet, where you have an uncomfortable poo due to your iron tablets bunging you up. Then inject yourself in your thigh – or your tummy, your choice – with Warfarin.
Have some toast – maybe a cup of tea.
Not the wine that people have brought over as presents, because you just can’t face that
yet. Not with all that lack of sleep – look in the mirror to see the full effects of that, together with the slightly yellow tinge you’ve taken on with the blood loss.
Then off to bed with you – your only job now is to make some milk for your beautiful baby. He was a very sleepy this evening when you cuddled him to you. Thank goodness for that – maybe he will give you a chance to get some sleep now. He’s been feeding non-stop since he arrived last week and you’re exhausted.
No such luck – another night of screaming and crying – but that’s babies for you! You have to do whatever they want, when they want it. Don’t forget as well, as your husband watches on, unable to do anything to help apart from be very tired too – breast is best!
Then imagine waking up having had some sleep – finally! You hear voices downstairs and realise the midwife has come for your daily check up. She is so lovely and kind and marvellous and today she has come to weigh your bundle of joy – to prove to you just what an amazing job you’ve been doing with your ONE TASK AS A MOTHER.
Then imagine getting dressed and packing your baby’s changing bag, as if you were going off to a garden centre for the morning for a nice mooch and a cuppa. Except you’re not off to the garden centre. You’re off to the hospital.
Now imagine in the 6 days you have been diligently feeding and caring for your helpless bundle of joy, that he has lost 20% of his bodyweight. Being the fat girl all my life I immediately got the significance of that statistic. He was, quite literally, starving.
As we were preparing to take him, the lovely midwife was there, talking on the phone to the hospital, letting them know we were on our way to them. Her tone was one I recognised. It’s the one that your parent’s use when they wanted not to worry you about something – you know the one. The one that immediately makes you worry about whatever it is they are talking about.
And then she said it.
Failure to thrive.
Never had a heard such a horrible sentence before. It cut through me in one slash to my heart. Failure. Me. Failing to not only keep my child safe, but failing to give him the one thing that he needed to survive. Milk.
So sure of myself was I, so confident in my body’s ability to do what it was supposed to do, that I didn’t even consider this to be an option. In all of my classes, in all of the books, not once did they mention that this might happen. And do you know why? In case I got a few bottles in – just in case. And became…One-Of-Them.
I like to think that I am an intelligent woman. I like to have information given to me about things, so that I can make my own decisions. In this case, I was sure I had been given all of the information – I knew all about colostrum. I knew all about how it might take a few days for my milk to come in. I knew all about the different feeding positions that I could try. Some of the antenatal classes had leaflets that were akin to More magazine’s Position of the Fortnight, I had chuckled to myself. I was in the know.
The trouble was, nobody said to me, “but along with all of that – here is the alternative.”
When I left hospital after my emergency c-section, I was given a bundle of leaflets about caring for myself after giving birth, about taking care of my wound. When asked whether I was breast or bottle feeding, I was given the correct leaflet for my reply.
Now, obviously women with normal births weren’t given the leaflet about c-sections – they were not going to change their minds one morning at 3am and go back to hospital to demand the baby be put back in so they could be wheeled off to theatre to have their section!
But I could have been given a generic “Feeding” leaflet. One that would give me all the options and, more importantly all the information.
Nobody goes to the doctor or the FPC to discuss contraception, only to leave with a leaflet telling you that abstinence or condoms are the only answer. Yes – you are much less likely to get pregnant or get an STI with those methods, but that’s only if they work for YOU. You need the WHOLE PICTURE to make a decision and as intelligent, capable human beings, that is what should be given to us.
As it was, we found ourselves, helpless, watching a doctor trying and failing to get an IV into our baby’s veins because he was so dehydrated they were collapsing. But, you know, breast is totally best for babies…
When we were talked to about the situation, we were given a very basic amount of information by a simpering nurse who asked us gently if we might want to try giving some formula to our baby and could we possibly see our way to coming to terms with that.
WHAT? What the actual fuck? GIVE ME THE BOTTLE BITCH!!! Was what I wanted to shout in her face. Why did they still think that I was that person? How could anyone who watched their baby, floppy and hollow cheeked on a specially raised hospital bed not want to try anything, ANYTHING to make their child well?
They gave us a bottle and he drained it. Literally drained it in an almost cartoon like fashion. You could hear nothing but the constant stream of air bubbles as he guzzled down the amber nectar like his life depended on it. Because, you know, it fucking did.
And then they “popped” me onto the electric breast pump. Where I stayed, on and off for the next day or two, being milked like a dairy cow, whilst we all stayed in hospital, our baby downing formula like there was no tomorrow. They got exactly 2 drops of milk from each breast, mixed with the blood they also sucked from my nipples.
Now, I know that my example is extreme – or maybe it isn’t? Maybe this is the sort of thing that tonnes of us have to go through, for the best for our babies. Everyone has their horror stories.
My point though, regardless of the facts on breastmilk vs formula, regardless of your viewpoint on feeding, regardless of any of that is that I needed to know MORE. I needed to not be treated like a child and worse than that, be made to feel almost criminal for wanting more information on the alternative to boobs.
Two things were telling for me about my hospital stay. The first was the midwife who come to chat and commiserate with me. She told me she knew exactly how I felt when she had to give her son formula – like she was poisoning him. I was incredulous.
As incredulous as I was at the woman in the papers the week before I had had my emergency section, who refused point blank to have a c-section as her birthplan did not allow it. She nearly died, as did her baby before the doctors finally convinced her husband that it was the only way to save them both. How can giving your baby milk that he would surely die without, be poisoning him?
The second was that I left that hospital (for the second time) after a 2 night stay, without a single person telling me how to safely bottle feed my baby. They showed me where the door to the sterilising room was and left me to it. So I diligently put my bottle into the big jar of stinky stuff on the draining board and went and got another bottle of formula the next time I needed it. I didn’t clean it out properly, or use a bottle brush to get the milk out of the teats, meaning our baby could have wound up in hospital all over again.
For a bunch of people so intent on us looking after our baby to the best of our abilities, who show you how to clean your baby’s revolting poo off in the bath, and how to use only water and cotton wool to do it at all other times (wipes are the Devil’s work if you believe Midwife Type A), you would think it would be one of the essential tick list items before returning to your home to go it alone, no?
Instead of assuming that if you tell me that bottle feeding exists (we do know about it!) it will send me skipping off to Asda for some SMA and a packet of Superking Blacks, please credit me, and all other mothers-to-be with the intelligence to make their own decisions based on the facts.
Because the sad truth of the matter is, that I probably would have still breastfed my son had I had all the info. I wouldn’t have had to suffer the immense and crushing weight of failure and guilt, had I known that it wasn’t all or nothing. Had a known that 80/20 would probably have worked out OK for us.
As it was, my milk never came in. I never saw anything but blood at my breast for him. Nobody told me that having a c-section can often mean that your body doesn’t realise it has given birth and that it needs to step up the whole milk making thing. Because they thought I would look for the “easy way out”.
Had I been told that, I might have been more aware of looking for milk in his mouth, might have offered a bottle earlier to watch him suck it inside out before washing it up properly and putting it in the steriliser and trying again with the boobs. I might not have had to wonder if I was going to have been a mother for only 6 days.
Instead, I might have persevered with a mixture of both and given him the best of me – from my breast and from my relaxed, better quality milk.
I also might have persevered with my daughter, had I not had such a traumatic first time experience. Instead, I had to convince myself to give it a go, against all of my fearful instincts, only to be faced with a baby struggling to breathe properly on our first night in hospital due to low blood sugar. The solution from my lovely, wonderful midwife – the same one who saw that we needed to go to hospital with our son? (she is definitely Midwife Type B) Well, the solution was to give her a little bit of formula on a spoon. And that was that for me. The boobs were tucked safely away in a non-feeding friendly bra, never to be used for that again.
Later that week, in a hot shower, my milk did come in. It was too late of course, mentally speaking. I could have gone from 100% bottle, to a mixture of both, but the damage had been done to my fragile state of mind.
Why fragile? Interesting you should ask, person-who-hasn’t-got-a-clue, as that is the only type of person who would dare to ask. Because that is the whole point about this “magical time”. Making milk for our babies is most definitely part of our job, but it is only a tiny piece of the jigsaw that makes a mother and a baby.
A mother who has just started on a lifelong journey to be the best person that they can be for their child. Who has to make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis about what the best thing is for the baby in their arms. Then about the infant crawling around their floors. Followed by the toddler picking up dog poo in the park.
And whatever we decide, the weight of those decisions is squarely with us. Do you even have a clue what that is like? If you did, you would NEVER try to make someone feel bad about their choice for feeding their child. For starters, you don’t know why they made that choice, or even if it was a choice for them at all.
Did Jamie Oliver deserve to be slated for his call for more women to breastfeed? I think even he would say the way in which he did it was slightly ill advised, but he is a kind of act-now-think-later kind of a guy and I have no doubt that his heart was in the right place.
The most important thing about a famous person diving into this debate is that people are having a conversation about it! We need to give our mothers-to-be the confidence to make sensible, informed decisions in the first place and know that whatever their choice, they are going to be supported and not judged for it and we can only get that message across if we are all talking about it.
That is something that I think we need to have oodles more of as women ABOUT EVERYTHING, not just our breastfeeding choices.
So, my request would be – give us the information we need, treat us like grown ups (if we weren’t when we conceived our children, we pretty soon will be!) but don’t ever make a woman go through what I had to, for the sake of only one of the tiny pieces of a million piece jigsaw that make up a baby and a mother.