I’ve written this post because it’s national breastfeeding week and I know that for many, the pictures people are sharing will be stirring up feelings of guilt, sadness and loss. You may not think I have any understanding of how you feel because I managed to breastfeed my daughter. But, I think I do a little.
My story with breastfeeding starts in pregnancy. You see, I had a pregnancy rife with stress, worry and illness. My expectations were crushed by a reality I was not prepared for. The lifelong dreams of caressing my perfect bump whilst floating around on a cloud of joy, positively glowing were not realised. I felt robbed. I felt like I had lost out. I felt guilty that I didn’t enjoy it. I felt guilty that I wasn’t giving my baby the best in-utero experience. I had planned on eating organic meals packed full of nourishing vitamins. Fish for brain development. Classical music. Plenty of rest to promote calmness and mental well-being in my baby. I had planned on being anxiety free to ensure my baby wasn’t exposed to stress hormones.
None of that happened. I felt like a failure as a parent before my daughter was even born. I felt as though I had failed at a right of passage. Most of all, I felt as though I had missed out. And let my daughter down.
In my mind, I felt that a positive birth would somehow fix this. As long as the birth was what I wanted, I would give my baby the positive start in life she deserved. Then I was told I would be induced. At 37 weeks. I would not be allowed a water birth. I would need a hormone drip to artificially stimulate contractions. I would be constantly monitored so would need to stay in bed on my back. The only positive in this news was I was told at 18 weeks. I think if I’d been told the week before it would have been devastating. But, as it was, I had time to manage my expectations. I had time to plan ways that I could have a positive birth experience. I practised hypnotherapy (well I put the CD on and tried to get to the end without falling asleep). I wrote out the most flexible plan. I discussed pain medication with my husband. We knew that inductions can be longer and more painful so I came to terms with not having a med free birth. I felt in control. And actually, after all was said and done, I did love giving birth. Most painful and intense experience of my life, but powerful and exhilarating.
But I still had a sense of loss. My birth ended up being so fast, I barely knew what was happening. My primal instincts took over and I roared my child into the world. I didn’t feel present in the birth. It wasn’t me in that room; it was a primitive version of me. My body took over and my mind hid away refusing to acknowledge the encompassing pain. I wasn’t calm. I wasn’t naked ready to welcome my child to my chest, skin to skin. I wasn’t even in a normal position. I was half sat up, half off the bed and point blank refusing to move. I still felt robbed. It wasn’t what I wanted. And it wasn’t what I wanted for my daughter.
And so came my final chance at redemption: breastfeeding. This was my final chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a total failure as a mother. My chance to get the experience I wanted. And give my daughter the start in life she deserved. The moment she was born (well after I frantically ripped my clothes off) she latched on and pretty much stayed on my boob for the next 21 months. Did I have any control over this outcome? Not really. It just happened that way. My daughter and my body were in charge. I wasn’t in control. It wasn’t me who was ‘succeeding’. I actually really struggled with weaning because I had no control over the situation – by that stage Boo was definitely in charge. I was not the one who decided I would find breastfeeding easy. It’s just the hand I was dealt. Like so much of life! You have to work with what you are given.
Was it redemption? No – there was nothing to redeem. I was neither a failure or success – I was simply a parent dealing with each situation I faced.
Did my ‘success’ at breastfeeding change how I felt about my journey to motherhood? Not at all. I still felt the sting of loss and perceived failure. I still felt guilt and sadness. I still worried that my body had let my daughter down.
I’ve written about mum-guilt before and I think for many, breastfeeding is the baptism of fire into that arena. It is the first time many women feel that they haven’t achieved something that they should as a parent. The first time they feel they haven’t done the best for their babies. My first dose of mum guilt just happened to come a little earlier.
Parenting is so hard and unpredictable. It’s one giant lesson in managing your expectations, being flexible and things not going to plan. So why is there so much guilt around breastfeeding? Surely, it’s just another aspect of parenting that you have to find what works for your family. Maybe it’s because many people feel like they had no control over the outcome. Maybe you felt forced to stop? Unsupported? Unable to continue? The same kind of feelings I had during my pregnancy – negative emotions born out of a lack of control.
So, if your breastfeeding journey wasn’t what you hoped …
Is it a failure? Absolutely not.
Have you let your child down? Absolutely not.
Have you let yourself down? Absolutely not.
Should you feel guilty? Absolutely not.
That’s just the reality of parenting. Sometimes we have to make brave choices for the good of our family. They may not be choices we want to make but we know that we have to. To keep us sane. To keep us safe. To keep us happy. Sometimes we have no choice at all but have to make the best of it. We have to adapt and find a way to muddle through.
So if you still feel bad about your experience with breastfeeding I ask you this: was your baby fed? Because that is all that matters in the long run. You made choices to ensure your baby was fed and you were capable of feeding them. Well done! Be proud of yourself! It’s your first success as a parent – you made the choice that worked for your family.
Do I still a sense of loss about my experiences with pregnancy and birth? No. It took a long time to get my head around but if my recent miscarriages have taught me anything, it’s that I am so very very grateful for Boo. I don’t care how she got here, just that she is here. She is healthy and thriving. And I do my best for her and that is good enough.
It’s national breastfeeding week. If you want to breastfeed and are struggling please join a support group online or local to you. You can even email me and I will be someone to listen and support you. But, most of all, do what works for your family.