But wait, sure how can you even talk about gender equality in parenting when… breastfeeding? Breastfeeding Liz! Ok, ok. It’s a spikey one, but let’s do it. Let’s talk about breastfeeding. (Deep breath).
First of all, isn’t it absolutely insane how little women are informed and educated about their own bodies? Andrew and I went to a group class about breastfeeding. There, the lot of us, all well educated, professional, well off adults in our 30s (or there about), were amazed by what we learned. There were diagrams and scientific explanations and it was incredible. Incredible to really think about the fact that a woman’s body can do this thing, can create food for her infant. Absolutely amazing.
But hang about because I studied biology at school, I learned about the human body and the basic things that it does. The production of food for an infant feels like a pretty basic and foundational bodily function, when you think about it, so why has that been left off any school curriculum?
While it was great to learn about the science, having been able to afford to go on the course, it was a bit startling to think about how little we knew otherwise. It’s the same of course with pregnancy, birth, and even just our hormonal cycles. Women are very poorly informed.
For all that we learned on the course, and through the subsequent reading and research that I did, nothing could have prepared me for how difficult learning to breastfeed was going to be. In my naivety, before having my babies, I still imagined that on some level breastfeeding would come naturally. It’s a natural bodily process, I imagined that something would click and I’d get it. Like taking a wee. It would just happen.
Breastfeeding is natural, but I have become so far removed from the nature of my physical body that it did not come naturally to me. The babies had a slightly better idea of what was going on, but trying to understand what I needed to do, what the babies meant with their movements and noises, what they needed me to do was totally maddening. I felt like a complete oaf, now responsible for the most precious things I’d ever seen in my life, and fumbling.
We were in the hospital with the girls for 5 days, the longest 5 days of my life. Over that time, the team of midwifes, nurses and doctors would be continually doing their rounds. I couldn’t keep track of who was who during this highly charged and crazed time. So for me it was different people popping in in a constant stream, doing their poking and their prodding, and asking their questions.
They would give me advice, of course, on breastfeeding. One after another of these busy professionals would pass on a piece of their wisdom. Hold her this way, or that way. Her mouth should look like this, my boob should look like that. I just couldn’t make sense of all these piecemeal bits of advice. I was trying to do this crucial, life providing task, in order, I felt, to keep my babies alive, and I was so confused and frustrated.
If it was learning to drive a car, it felt like being put behind the wheel on day one and out onto a busy motorway, with only the hollered advice of drivers in passing cars for support. “Hold the wheel like this!”. “Tap the breaks gently – that’s it!!”. I needed an instructor by my side.
There are supports available. You can hire a lactation consultant who will be that guide and coach and help you to learn this new mechanical skill, and help you with what to eat and drink to prepare your body better. It hadn’t occurred to me to hire one. Women are having babies all the time, I reasoned. In my naivety I imagined that the system, surely by now, would be in place to help us to succeed.
Our babies were tiny and we started using formula very early on. It’s difficult to refuse, when you’re advised that it is needed in order to sustain them. Especially difficult when you’re so brand new to everything, and the medics so much experienced. And anyway, why not?
While pregnant I had decided to give breastfeeding a go. I was sold on the benefits. They say that a woman’s breastmilk has nutrients that are not matched by anything else. Once you’re up and running, it can be easier in a practical way. Environmentally thinking it is definitely better than processed milk, packaged and shipped across the world. But I was prepared for it to fail, and to use formula should I need to, as I knew so many do.
But in the moment? Man oh man. It was a different thing. We quickly established a routine of combination feeding. I would directly breastfeed one baby, express for the other, and we would top up their feeds with formula. It all sounds perfectly fine. But in the moment, I felt like such a failure. I was embarrassed to be seen with bottles by other new parents. One time I overslept and woke up to find the girls had been brought downstairs by their daddy who was feeding them with formula. So great of him to take charge and to let me have the rest that I probably was in need of. I bawled in, crying, screaming and raging at him that I needed to keep up my milk supply.
I tried to increase my milk, to solely breastfeed for an entire weekend, to see if we could shift the balance. I gave the good latcher full access to my boobs, for feeding, for comfort, for whatever, in order to try to build it up. I learned in doing so that this was not the way for me.
Having twins your time is a bit more compromised. You can’t really give one baby full anything, as you need constantly to look after the other, too. So you have to, by rote, quickly learn when she is feeding and when she is comforting. It’s something I was very glad to have learned. A lot of the time people don’t know the difference, and it can mean that the boob becomes a pacifier to the child. Fine, of course, for anyone who that works for. Not so great for someone like me, someone who’s generally a bit less tactile and a bit more introverted, who might take umbrage to feeling like a human chew toy.
Breastfeeding is wonderful. Rates in the UK and Ireland are some of the lowest in the world and it would be great to see that improve, and with better knowledge and better support that could certainly happen. Formula is also great. It’s been developed by scientists to be the next best thing, and I feel very glad to be alive in a time when it is readily available.
Deciding to exclusively breastfeed is a big deal. When making the decision to do so, or finding themselves somehow on that path, there is so much to be considered. It means that the job of feeding, and sometimes comforting too, falls entirely to one person (unless both parents are in the lucky position to be able to do it). What would that mean for their mental health? How important is a full night’s sleep to that person, and their ability to function positively? And what might it mean for the dynamics of that family?
I didn’t exactly choose the method that we landed on of feeding. For one thing I had never even heard of combination feeding, no health professionals or breastfeeding advocates ever mentioned it to me. It’s one of those things that women just get to know about, and somehow I never had before. One thing that I was really glad of in the end was that Andrew was able to partake in feeding his babies. We had the option of him taking charge, while I got some sleep. And we benefitted from the bonding time that he managed to have.
If I had managed to exclusively breastfeed we would have needed to think about ways to mitigate for that family dynamic. We would have wanted to think about how we could get good balance, ensure that Andrew had good bonding time, when I would look after every feed. In our naivety we had never thought to do that either.
Someone who knows how to manage a blog would have likely shared this post during #worldbreastfeedingweek. As that’s clearly not me, it’s good that it’s still #nationalbreastfeedingmonth in the US, so that’s something, right? If you enjoyed this little read, please remember to like, share and follow!