At 39 weeks and 2 days pregnant, I went into a labour. A few days before this, I’d had my final appointment with my OBGYN and my doula and we’d confirmed the plan we’d all agreed to. I would check myself into hospital on the morning of the 39 weeks and 4 days mark, be booked into a calm, scheduled C-section, and begin my journey into motherhood.
Someone forgot to invite my son to the meeting, or share minutes with him, because he decided he was ready to emerge. He was getting really hungry and the condensed, filtered-through-mom diet was no longer enough. He was tiny when he emerged, weighing a mere 3 kilograms. Once out, he latched like a pro and fed. And fed and fed and fed and fed and fed. He remained attached to my breast for the next 3 or so years. While I found breastfeeding a major adjustment in those early days, once we all got used to it, and reckoned with my son’s determined latch, it worked out well.
I am under no illusion as to the relative success of our breastfeeding journey. From the word go, I had the support and wisdom of my and my husband’s mothers, my doula, and easy, immediate access to my local chapter of La Leche League. I gave birth in a private facility where I was offered – and took up – the services of a physiotherapist who administered laser therapy to my ragged and torn nipples. My nipples healed much faster than they would have without the laser therapy, making it easier to stick with the breastfeeding. I also had the benefit of a fully paid 16 weeks of maternity leave during which I could sleep when the baby slept, inbetween days of demand feeding. I am not exaggerating when I tell you there were days on which I sat on the couch, breastfeeding and binge-watching episodes of Gilmore Girls for twelve straight hours. When it was time to go back to work, I pressed my hospital-grade pump – that I was able to pay for, out-of-pocket – into service, and took full advantage of the sixty minute pumping break my employer mandated. I was also able to negotiate a steady return to work, and spent most afternoons at home with my baby attached to my breast.
I tell you all this to explain all of the intricate, complex factors of socioeconomics, history, biology, chance and luck that came together to ensure that I breastfed exclusively for six months, and continued to supplement my son’s diet with breastmilk well into toddlerhood. I love my son, and I worked hard at feeding him, but I am under no illusion that my success was because I worked harder than any other mother in my position. My hard work and effort was enabled by my class identity, and everything that it facilitated: the paid leave, the health insurance to pay for additional therapies and lactation support. I was also lucky to be surrounded by a supportive community made up of my partner, my family and other mothers who never made me feel ashamed about any part of breastfeeding my baby.
When we talk about breastfeeding in the public (health) realm, we are too often obsessed with the particularities of individual mothers. Their bodies, their birth experiences, their will. We speak of breastfeeding as if it is a matter of mothers’ ability to internalise and act on the ubiquitous ‘breast is best’ messaging. This is only a small part of the equation.
My son’s first latch was unlike any experience I’d ever had. Here was this impossibly tiny being with jaws of steel, desperately sucking but never seeming to get enough. I did not anticipate how I would need to renegotiate my relationship with my body, making several trade-offs about what I was asking for it, and the relief it desperately needed after a string of fertility treatments, and the vagaries of pregnancy and birth. Breastfeeding isn’t innate to women. The first time we feed is…the first time we feed. We have to learn this new process, as our babies guide us, clumsily and hungrily.
Knowing all this, I consider it a miracle that mothers breastfeed at all. Like everything else women do, this is another way in which we hold up half the sky, without fanfare or reward. Without the benefit of paid leave, the appropriate care of a lactation expert, the vocal support of the people closest to her, the money to buy food (a hungry mother can’t breastfeed successfully), and – if needed – a breast pump, breastfeeding becomes one more thing we heap onto the long list of things women must do without support. And when they understandably give up, we beat them over the head with tone deaf messaging about the evils of formula and the magic of breastmilk. It is unconscionable.
If I, a proud breastfeeding veteran, could have anything this week in which we put on our annual show of acknowledging breastfeeding, it would be the admission that breastfeeding takes a village. Our village is not nearly as equipped as it needs to be to make sure every mother who chooses to has the best chance possible at successfully breastfeeding. We need to face those facts. If we don’t, we are fooling ourselves, and wasting a great deal of time and resources preaching to the choir of mothers who want to breastfeed. This week should be about listening to moms. Ask us what we found difficult. Ask us what made the difference in those moments when, nipples raw, energy flagging, newly-emptied uterus throbbing, we wanted to quit. Assume that we know that breastmilk is wonderful. We don’t need you to tell that to us. We need you to offer to hold the baby so we can shower or sleep. We need you to cook us a healthful meal, served with a giant side of water. We need you to encourage us to breastfeed in front of you, and anyone else in sight. We need you to yell at anyone who tries to make us ‘cover up’ or feed our babies in back rooms and public toilets. Make breastfeeding a global mission, rather than an individual imperative.
Behind every breastfeeding mother must be a village of support. Can we count on you?