The stranger in the lift, a lady of about 50, peered into the pram. Her questions were the usual suspects: “How old?” “What’s his name?” “Is he your first?” I answered them all obligingly before she dropped the big one: “Are you breastfeeding?”
For a second I was lost for words. With a blush rising up my face, I faltered, uttering unintelligible sounds before I found the courage to give my answer. “No.”
“That’s a shame,” she responded, lips pursed.
Then she turned her back on me. Literally, she swivelled her body so it now faced the other direction. Clearly she didn’t wish to waste any more of her time talking to an unworthy subject: a non-breastfeeding mother.
After what felt like an eternity, the lift door opened. Once out of sight I dissolved into sobs. My only thought? “Here is another person who thinks I’m a failure.”
Her prejudice was nothing new to me. At my local community centre, the health professionals were very insistent that I’d given up breastfeeding far too soon. It didn’t matter that I was in agony each time my son latched on, that he took 30 minutes to properly attach, and that a typical feed-burp-settle session was taking two hours, before he’d catnap for 40 minutes and demand the process start again.
They felt I wasn’t trying hard enough to boost my low milk supply but, ironically, the stress of trying to do just that only seemed to make it diminish further. Eventually my GP advised to ‘comp’ my son with formula – so he would not starve – so I attempted to juggle breastfeeding, expressing and comping, until eventually my son’s little stomach got so confused that he screamed for days.
I’d been on the verge of tumbling into the abyss of postnatal depression when I’d made a difficult decision that weighed terribly on my conscience. I stopped fighting the seemingly unwinnable fight and started to exclusively formula feed.
Yet while my son became far more content, I still had to face my own demons of failure – amplified by the actions of strangers, like the one in the lift and the community centre nurses. They didn’t know how many hours each day I’d shed tears laced with shame because I couldn’t seem to get right something that was meant to be the most natural thing in the world: breastfeeding.
If only then I’d known of the sensible solution Robin Barker, author of parenting bible Baby Love, has for managing a new mother’s expectations of breastfeeding. To her, it’s all about being realistic before the baby is born, by discussing the honest statistics in antenatal classes.
Robin simply sees it as logic. Just as you’ll be told in an antenatal class that two out of every 10 women who want a natural birth will end up having a forceps or caesarean delivery, so too should those running the classes be more truthful about the statistics of breastfeeding.
“[They] should make the point that if there are 10 women in the antenatal class, two of you who want to breastfeed probably won’t,” Robin explains. “They won’t do this because they then think this is setting people up for breastfeeding failure.”
As well as this, she also advocates finding a qualified, unbiased support person to work through the new mum’s feelings with her, and alleviate any shame.
“It’s silly to say to them ‘just use the formula, what does it matter’. The question then is, ‘well, if it doesn’t really matter what’s the big push to breastfeed?’” Robin asks.
“This is where a lot of people in breastfeeding make a big mistake, because they push it and push it and push it, and then when the mother weans and is distressed, the lactation consultant or whoever it is, many of them (not all of them) don’t then know how to talk to that mother to help her through that. They really don’t have the language and they don’t have the skill. They tend to brush it aside. And if it’s someone who only deals in breastfeeding they then tend not to see them again.”
She’s also quick to point out there shouldn’t be blame assigned to anyone who experiences breastfeeding breakdown.
“A lot of women are so angry and guilty, their first reaction is to blame the people who promote breastfeeding for making them feel bad. The fact is there are people in the breastfeeding group who are very good, with people skills, while there are others who aren’t, who say the most inappropriate things,” Robin says.
“It’s really tricky,” she admits, having witnessed many complex situations like this is her 30 year career as a registered nurse, midwife and parentcraft nurse.
“It comes down to people skills and the woman who is grief stricken having somebody who she feels comfortable with who can help her through it.”
It’s been five years now since that encounter in the elevator, and I’ve had both another child and another breastfeeding breakdown since. The difference this time? Like Robin Barker recommended, I approached it with more realism and less idealism. I still had the best breastfeeding intentions, but I also knew the statistics, and the simple truth that it won’t be a successful endeavour for every mum. And if you can find empathy instead of antipathy, it can make all the difference to a new mum’s sanity.