By Saraswati Datar
One often has very wrong perceptions of oneself. I used to believe that I would be a great mom, after all I loved little babies and was excellent at handling my little nephews and nieces. I could change diapers, sing songs, make them smile and get approving nods from senior women in the family about my maternal instincts.
Like most women, I had been told that breastfeeding was as natural as growing hair on my upper lip. It just happened, just like that, instinctively. I had these pink visions of me and my cute baby cuddled together whispering sweet nothings. I had never even considered a backup plan.
Then reality hit me like train that missed its signal and left me feeling completely derailed. My daughter was born 25 days too early and weighed just 1.9 kilos when we brought her home. Women in the family and any ladies visiting made it their business to question me about whether I had enough supply. “You are getting na, milk?” was a constant refrain. Their tone of questioning often implied passive outrage and sympathy at any alternative.
The first three months were a nightmare. My daughter went through feeding frenzies where she would feed non-stop for hours, she would want to scream and feed at the same time for 45 minutes each time. Often I felt I should start giving her a top feed, of introducing formula, just to give myself a break from this relentless cycle of feeding and burping that had become my life.
However the twin forces of guilt and shame shook their heads disapprovingly at me. What was the matter with me? Why did it not come easily to me? Why was I running around clinics of lactation consultants feeling convinced that I wasn’t doing it right? Why would I even think of offering my child anything but breastmilk? Didn’t I love my child enough?
I realised much later that there is so much subliminal propaganda around breastfeeding. Websites, pamphlets, commercials, social media groups, and self-professed lactation consultants sprouting up around every corner. All breathing down your neck ever so gently, whispering in your ear… breast is best, breast is best. That and more crucially, where there is a will to feed, there is a way. Once again putting the ball of guilt and shame passively in the woman’s court.
Rather late in the day, I decided to join a breastfeeding support group for women on a social media website. I think it was less because I needed support, but more because I felt I had this responsibility to tell women what to really expect. What I read and saw posted left me feeling annoyed and suffocated. But mostly it left me feeling sad. Women sending out SOS messages of despair that they were not able to feed, those finding it too damn hard were being told that they should try harder, that it was possible if they had the will. Then there were the little-miss-know-it-alls who gloated about they had managed to feed their child without as much as mentioning the F word for over a year.
I made a couple of comments about how it’s ok to look for alternatives and asked about how I could get my daughter to stop waking up frequently for feeds overnight. The reactions I got from what I can only the breast bullies was shocking. They wanted to know why I would even think of weaning a nine-month-old child. It was my duty to feed her when she wanted it and for however long. No one actually bothered to ask me my reasons, or offer support to what my concerns were. That I would think about my own happiness or peace of mind or exhaustion levels was just unacceptable.
After being verbally bashed around for a couple of days I decided I had heard enough. While I am sure there are some women who may have received genuine support or help from such groups, I realised that if my sense of self was being reduced to my breasts then we really hadn’t come very far on along on feminism.
Today, a year after my daughter’s birth I can look back and see that we as women are caught in this vicious web of impossible standards of perfection that we want to achieve: A natural conception, a ‘normal’ delivery, and an effortless ability to breastfeed.
We set ourselves up for feeling like failures by constantly comparing ourselves with other women and by allowing ourselves to be judged by those who don’t know our story.
Every mother has her feeding story. An incredibly hard journey that she has taken to nurture her child. It’s time to stop passive-aggressively bullying women into doing something that may not work out for them. It’s a bottle of formula, not whiskey for crying out loud.
Should breast or bottle really be a Sophie’s Choice question? If breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, why do women need to be bullied and shamed into doing it?
Yes, there is no denying that breastmilk is nourishing and natural, but what’s really best for a child is a happy set of parents, especially in the initial months a happy, relaxed mother. The child needs nutrition to survive. A mother feeding her child formula, is doing what a mom is supposed to do. She is helping her child flourish and grow well on a full tummy.
Motherhood is not just about your body and how it deals with this screaming little miracle you have made. It’s about growing a place in your heart, and most importantly, developing a confidence in your ‘formula’ of parenting choices that are only going to get harder in the years to come.