When I became pregnant with the one I now know to be my son, I had all sorts of ideas and ideals about parenthood and little interest in breastfeeding or responsive parenting. This has changed a lot over the last two years: who would have thought that a simple thing like mother’s milk could cause such a divergence from the popular ways of parenting these days.
It always starts with a couple and a pregnancy, a team of people concerned about safety and outcomes, and a mother who usually feels a little bamboozled with birth. I remember thinking that my pregnancy was normal and that everything was going well, but I now realise it was nevertheless a time full of decisions being made and unmade; as the pregnancy progressed, I heard more and more about mothers having instincts surrounding birth that for many reasons were not given enough weight.
My own birthing experience was the first bubbling of my desire to follow my instincts, which told me I could give birth to this bottom-first baby. I could do it without medication and it would be all ok. I was prepared to take the path less travelled even at this early stage, because I knew that choosing another route could well have an impact on my chances of breastfeeding success, as well as my own mental health.
I was concerned that being stuck at home with a demanding newborn would send me up the wall. My baby was hungry all the time and I found myself developing that feeding interval obsession that many new mums grapple with. Without my sling and my car I would have felt trapped by the constant feeding, but with them I had much more freedom than the rest of the mums from my antenatal classes.
Already at this point, I found myself making different choices from my friends, whose breastfeeding days had faltered before they had really started and whose preoccupation with how much and how often their little ones had formula was causing a great amount of stress and was really limiting their daily plans. Although I worried about feeding intervals and how much milk my baby was getting for months too, my primal urge to breastfeed at any cost was strong and I revelled in the freedom of going out with just a few nappies, a sling and a purse, being able to spend the day wherever our whims took us with lunch and dinner tucked neatly under my clothes.
My friend and I would both religiously time and record breastfeeds on a phone app, but one day we decided enough was enough. We stopped comparing our, we now know, incredibly different babies and WOW! The illusion that we had any control over when and how much our babies breastfed had tied us down for many months. To suddenly be without it liberated us. I started the journey of trusting my own son to lead the way in breastfeeding and, eventually, the rest of our daily lives. I remember thinking about control. If we really could control our small children like puppets, set their feeding clocks and so on, would we still revel in them the same way? Would we even want to nurture them at all? And what kind of adults would they become as a result?
The next time I realised I was not following the crowd, was when all the babies stopped sleeping ‘well’. I was already part-time co-sleeping at that point, and the discussions about sleep training only drove me further down that road. We moved our room around, bought a twin co-sleeping bed and dug in for the long haul. We still have a similar arrangement. It confuses me how I often feel criticised for my parenting choices when many parents I know let their children spend some of the early morning in bed with them. On the other hand, I love the sigh of relief I often see when a breastfeeding mother realises her ‘secret’ co-sleeping is actually done by many other parents!
When the introduction to solids came along, I seemed to be following the popular route at first. My friends and I all waited for our children to sit up unaided, grab food off of our plates and be able to swallow it. We found ourselves having great fun with food on some days, and not so much fun on other days of stressed out mess, but surrounding it all was breastmilk. I have never spent too long worrying about malnutrition knowing that my milk is available. Around this time, I began to notice my son’s growing communication abilities, and I noticed them in other children too. However, what started as a way of letting me know when food time was finished grew into patches of autonomy for my son that I sadly saw denied to other babies around me.
My instincts were growing and, bit by bit, so was my self confidence, although I did feel increasingly out of step with some of my newly made mum friends. I found solace in my LLL friends and whether or not someone was breastfeeding their children tended to become a filter for future friendships.
All too soon, maternity leave came to an end and I fought against my instincts whilst negotiating a part-time contract. At the same time, mothers around me were complaining and becoming exhausted in their new found freedom whilst working again. I didn’t feel the same. I felt mocked at work for making different choices and singled out by my need to express milk for my growing baby. In the end, I worked very little and quit. My son wasn’t coping and neither was I. It just wasn’t right for us, when our need to be together and nurse was so strong. I still battle with the need to work: I know I will have too, but only when we are ready.
My son still loves breastmilk and I am amazed every day that my walking, talking toddler can be so independent, charming, sweet and gentle. Nursing these days is often about touching base; it’s about reconnecting and placating our emotions. I am strong enough to carry on, but often not strong enough to nurse in public. It is sad that the act of continuing to meet my child’s needs in the way nature intended has such an impact on the opinions others might have of me. However, I shall always put my child’s needs first as, at the end of the day, he is the person I am accountable to when we are snuggling to sleep. I am grateful every day that I found LLL, I only wish I had found it sooner. I shall continue to spread the LLLove.
Tessa Clark, LLL Chilterns
This story was originally published in Breastfeeding Matters