Whilst sorting through my paperwork to decide what to recycle, I came across an article I’d written 20 years ago for the LLLGB magazine. It was about breastfeeding my then four-and-a-half-month-old son, Murray. Rereading the article prompted me to reflect on how our breastfeeding relationship developed in the subsequent years and the impact it had on the man who is emerging. Murray recently turned 21 and we have just been through the milestone of him leaving home to live with friends.
At his six-week check, the health visitor recorded in his notes, “Still Fully Breast Fed”. This amused me because after overcoming a number of challenges, I thought, “But I’ve only just started”. At the time of writing the article, I didn’t know how long I was going to breastfeed for, but I did know that I intended to let Murray decide, and he did.
In the article I wrote, “breastfeeding is integral to the dependency phase of our lives” and that our breastfeeding relationship would give Murray “a stable emotional foundation which will serve him as an adult”. This was of great importance to me then and remains so now, because without emotional stability the experience of life is so much more difficult to manage.
We breastfed and co-slept for several years longer than the UK norm. Gradually, Murray stopped needing to feed to sleep, slept through the night and moved to his own bed. Weaning was so gradual that I can’t remember the last actual feed.
I was frequently told by friends, family and strangers that I was making a rod for my own back! In particular that I was making him dependant on me by comforting him when he cried and by continuing to breastfeed and co-sleep well after he needed to do so.
Learning about loving guidance from attending LLL meetings helped enormously to establish a positive way of relating. Murray and I argued quite energetically throughout his childhood when negotiating how to balance our respective needs and when agreeing what he was mature enough to accomplish on his own.
Well, years have passed. He has outgrown the need to be physically close. He no longer needs me to manage his daily activities, his money, his shopping, making food, dental appointments and so on.
I told Murray I was writing this article and asked what he remembered about breastfeeding. When he was younger and asked this question, his usual reply was that he didn’t remember anything. This time, however, he said he remembers feeling peaceful and quiet and a lot of safety. I asked what impact he thought breastfeeding had had on his life. He felt he had the ability to be intimate with others, because he could read another person’s emotions. I would add here that Murray is not fearful of accurately describing how he feels. He trusts that he will be heard.
I braced myself for the emotional turbulence of adolescence, but it never happened. At 15 Murray calmed right down and began to become more thoughtful and reflective about his life. There was a transformation in the feedback I received from others. Instead of being given suggestions about how to best manage Murray’s lively energetic behaviour, I started receiving compliments and was asked what I had done to raise him so well. What I’d done, I reflect now, was to make a commitment towards doing what I thought would help Murray know he was loved unconditionally – the prerequisite for emotional stability.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to breastfeed on demand to raise children who feel loved unconditionally, but the dynamics of breastfeeding are perfectly designed to bring this about. I am grateful that breastfeeding on demand over a number of years required constant physical contact which led overall to positive communication between us. Through this, Murray has built love and trust in the world.
Sadly, attitudes towards breastfeeding don’t appear to have changed much over the years. Now as then, there seem to be as many obstacles to overcome for which there is little help unless you put a great deal of effort into finding where to go for support.
I joined LLL when Murray was eight weeks old. Without the support of my husband, LLL groups and the reading material I found, I would never have got through all the obstacles around breastfeeding. I’m deeply grateful for LLL and have been a Leader offering mother-to-mother support for 17 years. LLL taught me to follow my mothering instincts and to go with what happened in practice rather than what is idealised.
Looking back, I’m left with good memories of breastfeeding. Although it was challenging at the start and there were moments when it all felt too much, there is nothing I would change. I have seen my son grow into a young man and am well pleased with the way he has matured.
Suzanne Cohen, LLL Notting Hill (2020)
First published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 236, March/April 2020.