I Support You

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Since I started my blog back in January I’ve been planning a post on breastfeeding. It’s been floating around in my head all year, but until now it didn’t seem to be the right time.

My journey with breastfeeding was, I think, quite a big factor in my eventual post-natal depression. Or, more importantly, it wasn’t the feeding itself, but my attitude towards it, that contributed to a significant and steep decline towards a very dark place. Even sitting here and re-visiting some of the memories is causing me to breathe a bit faster and my heart to race.

I’d like to explain why I’m choosing now to share my experience with you. A few days ago one of my readers asked me whether I’d heard of the “I Support You” movement. In researching it I came across three amazing American blogs. Three women with very different stances and opinions on breast vs bottle-feeding are standing together to remind us that we all deserve support, no matter how we choose to feed our babies. It seems the stars have aligned and now is the time for me to get this off my chest (pun intended).

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I felt like whooping for joy when I read this:

From http://www.fearlessformulafeeder.com
“The I Support You movement is a respectful, empathetic, compassionate exchange between parents. We all feed our children differently, but we are all feeding with love, and in ways that work for our individual circumstances and family dynamics. I Support You is the first step in helping formula-feeding, breast-feeding, and combo-feeding parents to come together and lift each other up with kindness and understanding. We have chosen to announce this movement during World Breastfeeding Week, to honor the commitment of those who fight for better support for breastfeeding moms; we are inspired by this, but believe that by changing the focus to supporting all parents, we can truly provoke positive change without putting the needs of some mothers above the needs of others. The “I Support You” movement aims:

1) To bridge the gap between formula-feeding and breastfeeding parents by fostering friendships and interactions.

2) To dispel common myths and misperceptions about formula feeding and breastfeeding, by asking parents to share their stories, and really listening to the truth of their experiences.

3) To provide information and support to parents as they make decisions about how to feed their children.

4) To connect parents with local resources, mentors, and friends who are feeding their children in similar ways.”

Suzanne Barston, the author behind Fearless Formula Feeder is asking women to share their pictures and stories to encourage us to stand together in solidarity.

Read about the three amazing women behind this campaign here:

Fearless Formula Feeder
Mama By The Bay
I Am Not The Babysitter

My Story

My son was born two weeks late, by emergency c-section and weighed almost ten pounds. I was in hospital for several days afterwards, where he managed to latch on quite successfully but screamed pretty much all. the. time. Eventually, just before I went home, a midwife persuaded me to give him a bottle of formula. He calmed down immediately. Of course this made me feel incredibly guilty and like I’d traumatised my poor newborn by starving him in his early days. I felt my colostrum was not enough for such a large baby. I’ve since been told this is nonsense, but we all know there’s no reasoning with a hormonal woman who has just given birth.

I didn’t let this stop me from breastfeeding, though.

A day later I woke up with boobs like footballs, and over the next few weeks I managed to drop all but one of his formula feeds. I endured two horrific bouts of mastitis, which to this day is the worst illness I’ve ever suffered. The only real way out is to feed through the pain, so that’s what I did. I felt proud of myself. I felt that although I hadn’t managed a “normal” birth, there was still something that only I could do for my baby and that was to breastfeed him. Despite suffering through the agonies of mastitis I had persevered.

I can remember going to baby groups and clinics and feeding my son when he cried. When breastfeeding is successful, it is so wonderful. The closeness to your baby, even when it’s the middle of the night is so special.

When Monkey was four months old, he started losing interest. I couldn’t make him concentrate on breastfeeding and he wouldn’t feed from me anymore. He would inhale his late-night bottle of formula but ignore the breast. It seemed he has decided to stop and over the course of about ten days we made the switch to formula. I felt pangs of sadness, but they were lessened by the fact that almost as soon as he became a bottle-fed baby he started sleeping through the night. I felt I’d given breastfeeding my best shot but I wished I’d been able to continue it for a longer period.

All of the friends I’d made in my NCT ante-natal class continued to breastfeed for at least a year and I did feel disappointed with myself when I saw them, still nursing their babies as I bottle fed. So I resolved that when baby number two came along, I’d try harder.

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Two weeks under two years later, my daughter was born. This time I was prepared. I knew I’d be undergoing a c-section this time around and I knew this could mean difficulty in establishing breastfeeding. I made sure that the nurses knew that I wanted my daughter on my skin as soon as she was delivered. I even bought several feeding dresses, as I knew I’d be unable to wear trousers post-surgery so my feeding tops would be useless. I bought boxes of breast pads and nipple cream. I was ready.

I remember a nurse checking on me that first night. Madam was latched to my breast, albeit uncomfortably so all seemed well. The nurse ticked a box and disappeared. Sadly, I hadn’t realised (and no medical professional had pointed out) that all babies latch differently. It only takes a few feeds with an incorrectly positioned baby to cause horrible damage to your nipples. Once this happens it’s incredibly difficult to heal.

By the time I got home, both my nipples were horrifically damaged with gaping cuts on each side. Every time my daughter fed from me we would both be covered in blood. I can’t articulate how painful it was for me. I remember agonising shooting pains from my breasts to my armpits. I remember sweating, with every muscle in my body tensed. I used to sob whilst frantically kicking my legs in an attempt not to scream out in pain. I didn’t always succeed and used to feed her with tears streaming down my face.

My husband would help me to position the baby and then quickly disappear. I couldn’t understand it and felt like he was abandoning me when I needed him most. Turns out, he couldn’t bear to watch me suffer.

I enlisted the help of a lactation consultant who came to visit me at home. By the time she arrived, when my daughter was a week old, I’d corrected the latch and she was positioned perfectly. But it was too late. The damage was done. It’s impossible for nipples to heal when a baby is feeding from them for hours a day. I couldn’t express milk as that was so painful for me, too. Nipple shields offered no respite.

I endured ten days of unspeakable agony. I used to dread my baby crying, as I knew I’d have to feed her. I found it hard to look at her, as I felt that she was causing me such pain. Reading these words back, I feel sick. But that’s how it was for me. On day ten, my doctor called. He told me that it was okay to stop, really. He pointed out that he was not breastfed and managed to do pretty well for himself. He said that a happy mum is far more important than how much breast milk her baby gets.

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I was crushed, but I knew I had no option but to give up breast feeding. I felt such a failure and was utterly devastated. There began a quick decline in to what turned out to be a severe case of PND.

I realise now that I placed far, far too much emphasis on breast feeding. I’d imagined a wonderful, nurturing bond with my daughter, when in fact, my attempt to breastfeed her caused the opposite. It made me feel resentful towards her and that is something I still struggle to forgive myself for, two years on.

Whenever I saw a mother breastfeeding, I felt immense pangs of guilt. Bottle feeding such a small baby in public caused me more embarrassment than I used to feel breastfeeding my son in restaurants. I felt the need to explain what I’d been through to random strangers, to justify my decision to bottle feed her. I felt like I wasn’t good enough for my baby. Like a failure from the word-go.

Even at the time, I remember thinking that had one of my friends been through the same thing, I’d tell her not to be ridiculous. That she shouldn’t give herself such a hard time and that she should treat herself with more kindness. But sadly I wasn’t able to listen to my own advice.

This is why the second point in my Mummy Kindness Manifesto is:

‘I will feed my baby however suits me, my baby and my family. I will never judge another mother for how she chooses to feed her baby’

I think this is so incredibly important. We are our own harshest critics and we really need to pull together. Judgement helps nobody and we are all just doing our best, finding our way as we go.

“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” ~Jesse Jackson

So I’m sharing this with you today, because I have been on both sides. I admit to have been slightly smug and judgey as a breastfeeder four years ago. I suppose I felt I’d earned the right. I also know the crushing disappointment at being unable to breastfeed a baby when you want to.

So I’d like to say this;
To the breastfeeding mums: I Support You
To the bottle feeding mums: I Support You
To the combo-feeding mums: I Support You

If you decide from the beginning that breastfeeding isn’t for you, I Support You.
If you want to stop breastfeeding, I Support You
If you breastfeed a three year old, I Support You
If you breastfeed in public, I Support You
If you pump, I Support You

If you feed your baby differently to me, I Support You
If you parent differently to me, I Support You.

Motherhood is hard. So hard. There need not be a divide between breast and bottle feeders. There need not be a divide between any of us. We can learn so much from each other’s stories. Let’s remember that what is right for you may not be right for someone else and respect one another’s choices.

You can follow the I Support You campaign via the Twitter hashtag #ISupportYou and also read lots more posts on this topic on the Fearless Formula Feeder’s Blog Hop here,

Our worth as mothers is not and should not be defined by whether or not we choose to breastfeed.

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Expectant Expectations

I recently asked an online group of mums what advice they would give if they could send a letter back in time to their first-time pregnant selves;

“I’d tell myself to ignore the midwife who told me I’d be unable to breastfeed my baby because I’d had a caesarean. I bitterly regret listening to her advice, which I now know was totally inaccurate.”

“Please don’t bother with the colour-coded, detailed birth plan. What a waste of time. I felt such a sense of failure when I eventually had an epidural. I so wanted to have a natural birth and ended up with an emergency c-section. I still blame myself for not being able to do it without drugs”.

“I wish I’d had the confidence to ignore the pressure to breastfeed. I had so many strangers hands all over my poor boobs in those early days. The health visitor put so much pressure on me to breastfeed that I literally felt like I was being ‘milked’. It really affected how I bonded with my baby as I felt so resentful. I’d tell myself to listen to my instincts and trust my gut”.

How different our expectations are from the reality of pregnancy, birth and the early years.

What saddens me is that the feelings of disappointment and failure by these women (and myself) could have been diminished, if not avoided, if only we were more realistic in our expectations.

Of course I’m not suggesting that every birth is difficult and horrible, but let’s face it, very few births play out exactly as expected. Friends who planned beautiful drug-free water births had emergency c-sections, and a dear friend of mine who had planned on taking every drug available to her ended up suddenly delivering her daughter on the floor at home.

Ante-natal advice on breastfeeding is plentiful, but far less support is available for mums who bottle feed. Those unable to breastfeed can be left feeling inferior and inadequate against their lactating counterparts. Many women expect breastfeeding to be a beautiful and nurturing experience but sadly find the reality very different indeed.

Dr. K is a new mum who has kindly shared her story with me.

“I did not enjoy my pregnancy at all. Far from the blossoming, glowing, Mother Earth person I expected to be, I had significant health problems throughout, high blood pressure, a number of pre eclampsia scares, carpal tunnel syndrome and feet that became so oedematous I had to wear special shoes for the last 3 months of pregnancy. Then there was the weight gain. Society places huge pressure on women to look slim. I felt I should resemble a waif with an egg attached to my abdomen, not the whale I became.
I accept that it was my own expectations of myself to breastfeed that caused me to get incredibly emotional in those early days. I felt like a failure. Being unable to breastfeed made me feel utterly ashamed until a senior midwife pointed out that whether breast or bottle-fed my baby would gain weight and grow”.

It’s not just over-thinkers like me who feel like failures if things don’t go to plan. (Watch this space for my own breastfeeding story). Dr. K had a very difficult pregnancy, birth and feeding experience. Even extensive knowledge and medical training didn’t align her expectations with what eventually came to pass. Even doctors feel frightened and often disappointed with themselves in their first days as mothers.

Another doctor, Dr M also shared her experiences with me;
” Those first few months of having a newborn baby were the most difficult of my life, but at the same time, you adore this new baby and all you want to give it is the best. If someone had told me how hard it would be, I’m sure I’d never have done it.”

I don’t think I know one mother who could honestly say the newborn days were what she expected and I think we underestimate how formative the early days are on how we view ourselves as mummies.

My theory is that even from as early on as pregnancy, we set expectations that are altogether too high. Detailed birth plans, for example, are setting us up to feel like failures from the moment we give birth. Perhaps strong pressure to breastfeed when it simply may not work for us only serves to make us feel inadequate from the off.

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My view is that if we were all a bit more realistic with our expectations from the very beginning, we may realise and believe that our worth as a parent is not determined or measured by whether we managed to deliver a baby naturally or breastfeed exclusively for the first year (or countless other factors).

I think that there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to ante-natal care. Women need more information on what to expect in those tough early days as a new mum. Some organisations are fantastic and some aren’t. Similarly it can be a bit of a lottery as to whether you get a supportive Midwife or Health Visitor who will look at your situation in isolation and not just tow the party-line.

Dr. M further illustrates this point; “NCT and antenatal classes are partly to blame because they don’t tell you how hard the reality of having a newborn baby is. They focus on the delivery but what we really need to hear is ‘what do I do with this baby once I get it home?!’ Maybe they don’t want to scare us but I definitely believe there should be much more realistic ante-natal advice.”

There are also some fantastic postnatal groups out there, and I truly believe that they are equally important as ante-natal classes. I think so many of us could benefit from postnatal groups in which mums are encouraged to be really truthful with one another and where competition is actively discouraged. Two groups who have contacted me can be found here and here. If you run a postnatal group and you’d like to tell us about it, please feel free to leave a comment below with a link to your website.

A bit more honestly with our fellow new mums can go so very far. Admitting that those early days are tough, that breastfeeding can be both beautiful and excrutiating, that sometimes you wonder what-on-earth you’ve got yourself in to goes such a long way.

Now I’m not for a second suggesting that we accost every pregnant woman we see, terrify her with birth horror stories and bombard her with unsolicited advice. I don’t think this will help anyone.

However, sharing our experiences with truthful sensitivity can help new mums feel less like failures and more like true, authentic women who can only only do their best each day.

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My letter to my thirty year old, newly pregnant self four years ago would say something like this:

Dear You

Mazeltov on your wonderful news!
You won’t enjoy pregnancy very much, but that’s OK. Lots of women feel like this too.
Several people will say you’re the biggest pregnant woman they’ve ever seen. Try not to be offended. It’s true.
Please do try to rest. You can’t stock-pile sleep as easily as you can lay down fat stores (sadly), but it will be several years before you feel properly rested again.
Keep an open mind about your birth. I don’t want to scare you, but when the midwife tries to send your husband home on the night that they induce you. Please don’t let him go.
Also, don’t bother buying any newborn clothes, there’s a very big boy in there.
Another thing… disposable knickers come up really small. Buy the biggest size you can find and avoid a very embarrassing shopping trip to Mothercare for your father-in-law.
It’s OK to sometimes feel a bit envious of friends who don’t have children yet and how they will sleep uninterrupted tonight. Everyone feels like this sometimes, but no-one talks about it.
If the house is too full of people sometimes, please politely ask them to leave. Allow your new family some private bonding time.
Oh, and you don’t know this, but there is such a thing as an over-stimulated baby. This is why he will sometimes scream for no obvious reason when there have been too many visitors.
Keep an open mind when it comes to feeding your baby boy and hold on to that for the next few years. The most important thing is that he and you are happy.
Please don’t compare yourself with other new mums. Do what works for you and let them do the same.
You will be the best mummy for your children and you will know them better than anyone else. Please remember this and have faith in yourself.
Love
You

I’ll leave you with these fabulous words from Dr M:
“What I’ve learnt having had two children is that it doesn’t matter how they are born, only that they are healthy. It doesn’t matter how they are fed, only that they are loved and looked after to the best of our abilities. Our worth as a parent is determined by how much we love and nurture our children, however we may do that”.

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I’d be so grateful if you’d please “like” Mummy Kindness on Facebook to help spread the kindness far and wide.
I’m also on Twitter @mummykindness and I’d love to hear from you.
As always, please leave me a comment below with your thoughts.

All images are credited to the Brave Girls Club
An enormous thank you to the two brave and fabulous doctors who told their honest truths to a total stranger for the benefit of others.