Sunday was Mothers’ Day. Historically, Mum has taken care of my presents and cards from Tom. The first time she did this was when he was just a few days old. I was sitting in her living room, trying to breastfeed, and she handed me a card that said “To Mummy from Your Little Boy” and I didn’t really feel worthy of it, because if I couldn’t feed my baby the natural way how the hell was I going to be able to do everything else?
I had no idea about babies. Not the foggiest. I had never changed a nappy or attempted to bath a slippery, screaming thing whilst being terrified of drowning it and feeling like my insides were about to fall out through the deep slit that had recently been cut across my abdomen. One thing was for sure though: I would be able to feed my baby, because that’s nature. I would put the baby in front of my breast and it would know how to suckle and I would be giving it all the nutrition it needed. Everything else could be learnt, but at least I would be able to give my baby The Best Start in Life.
But I couldn’t.
The first time I tried to feed Tom, he just ignored me. Later that night, the ward staff told me I should probably give him a bottle, just so we all knew he had eaten. I was knackered, clueless, in shock, off my face. I said yes.
After that, Tom wasn’t interested in breastfeeding. Bottles were easier and once he’d tried one he didn’t want anything else.
I had to breastfeed though, I had to. As a young, single mother, I was statistically unlikely to do it, but I really, really wanted to. Midwives handed me leaflets explaining the benefits of breastfeeding, but I already knew. It was free and supposedly easy and, most importantly of all, best for my baby.
I tried everything: pumping, syringes, teaspoons, contorting into various agonising positions. He’d do it for a bit, then get frustrated if there was a break in supply and stop, screaming. There were all-nighters, lots of crying, lashings of guilt, a psychiatric assessment and an exhaustion diagnosis.
It wouldn’t work.
That first Mothers’ Day, I felt like I had failed. Everyone knows breastfeeding is best. Eventually, I succumbed, feeding Tom partly with formula, partly with my own milk, until he was four months old. At mother and baby groups, I could feel the glare and judgement from those who were breastfeeding when I gingerly took a bottle out. I was a statistic, a stereotype, and I couldn’t even manage the most basic elements of motherhood. I couldn’t give my baby The Best Start in Life.
Mum carried on buying the Mothers’ Day presents over the years. I got ‘Best Mum’ mugs, pens, teddy bears, even a pair of frilly rubber gloves, all of them emblazoned with that phrase. It was sweet but I wasn’t sure about that title; at every stage, I was just making it up as I went along.
Guilt is a big part of motherhood. It arrives with your baby and stays forever. Last week, I went to Tom’s new high school to order his uniform and PE kit and my card got declined when I tried to pay. There it was again, the guilt. And afterwards, when I thought about my panicked reaction to the episode, more guilt for ruining what should have been a momentous trip.
On Sunday, I was upstairs, spring-cleaning my bedroom. As far as I knew, Tom was downstairs, either on his trampoline or binge-watching Fresh Prince. Suddenly, he walked into my room and said, “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mum.” I looked up from the impossible knot of tights I was trying to untangle and there he was, holding two primrose plants, one in each hand, grinning.
Earlier, he’d asked my boyfriend if he thought it would be OK to venture out to the local florist on his own to buy me something. He used his own money (after his recent birthday, he literally has more than me) and chose the plants himself. I had been planning to buy some just like it to put in the front yard when I got paid.
The pressure to breastfeed when I was a new mum was heavy. Now, it is even more so, with most hospitals not providing formula anymore. Maybe I would have been able to breastfeed if Tom hadn’t had that bottle in the hospital, maybe I wouldn’t. We’ll never know. As it happens, bottle feeding gave me and Tom both much-needed independence from each other, such was the potential for interdependence, with it being just the two of us. Mum could help me, I could go out, Tom settled happily and slept whether I was there or not. Of course I knew that breast was best, but it didn’t work out for us, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
As well as pressure from the NHS, there are also a growing number of women who call themselves ‘lactivists’, believing that it is their job to tell other women how to feed their babies, wearing t-shirts that say things like “I make milk, what’s your superpower?”
I get the importance of removing any stigma from breastfeeding, especially in public, but sometimes people just can’t do it. And when they can’t, the last thing they need is a guilt trip from sanctimonious, patronising slogans. When I was in a postnatal bubble, my failure at breastfeeding felt like a crime. Eleven years later, I wish I had gone easier on myself.
I thanked Tom for the plants and the card with the silly thing written in it (see below). He was really pleased with himself, for going to the florist on his own and for getting it so right. And I was pleased with myself too, also for getting it right. I mean, I might have been crap at breastfeeding, but I reckon I did alright at the other stuff.
If you’re reading this and you’re trying to breastfeed and struggling, don’t beat yourself up and just do your best, everything will be OK.
The Mother of an 11-year-old Who Was Mostly Bottle Fed and Turned Out Just Fine x