Monthly Archives: March 2017

On Not Breastfeeding

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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 an 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.

Love,

The Mother of an 11-year-old Who Was Mostly Bottle Fed and Turned Out Just Fine x

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Absent Fathers and Single Mothers and International Women’s Day.

Hello. This blog is dormant, but today I am resurrecting it because it is International Women’s Day and I tried to tweet about what I want to say but 140 characters just wasn’t enough.

We still have a problem with the phrases “single mum” and “single mothers” because they still come loaded with negative connotations.

When was the last time you saw a crime headline telling you what an absent father had done wrong? You know, Absent Dad Commits Benefit Fraud or Absent Dad Assaulted Someone, that sort of thing.

Hang on, is ‘absent dad’ even a phrase that’s in our vocabulary? I mean, are there websites telling us that horny absent dads are desperate for no-strings sex? Because there are ones that say that about single mums.

I’m not talking about the dads who desperately want to see and love their children (and this is the bit I couldn’t fit on Twitter), because I know there are many like that. I’m talking about the ones who act irresponsibly and then act even more irresponsibly and are total cowards and just do a runner. Because there are also lots like that.

What those absent dads leave behind is a single mum and all she can do is her very best. In most cases, she goes out to work, juggling shifts with parenting and having to miss stuff like school plays and sports day. She teaches her child(ren) about the world, the bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and helps them navigate it. She cleans up sick, removes nits, scrubs dog shit from between the ridges of tiny shoes. She hosts birthday parties with scores of screaming, sugar-high, snotty kids. She finds herself surrounded by married, wealthy women who say things like, “my hubby’s away until Monday – I’m a single parent all weekend!” She buys birthday presents, she often gets very little sleep, she helps with bloody difficult homework. She sticks surreal paintings and achievement certificates and reminders about milk money to the fridge door. And at the end of every tiring day, there is no one to talk to about how hard / magnificent / both it was.

Of course, there are single dads, but the nature of the beast means they’re rarer, and society (and the right-wing press) has them down as heroes. I mean, they are, obviously, but no more so than the women. Oh but hang on –  a woman’s job is to change nappies and clean up bodily fluids, so hurray for the blokes who’ve got a strong enough stomach to do that!

Single mums are still vilified, objectified and worse. This government charges them to try to get the maintenance they need to feed their family and then takes a cut, when in many cases, the mums would much rather they could have an amicable arrangement with the father and that he’d actually want to meet his child. Single mums are often single mums because someone legged it, but if the father in the scenario chooses to be absent, he’s invisible, which is very convenient.

On International Women’s Day, remember that single mums aren’t criminals, benefits sponges or horny sex objects looking for no-strings fun. They’re cracking on with a difficult job and doing their very best. Single mums are selfless, loving and badass.

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