I stopped breastfeeding because it felt awful. Beyond awful. It my skin crawl.
It really wasn't supposed to be like that.
Of all the parenting clichés that ran through my hormone-soaked mind, breastfeeding was the ultimate. I was so certain I would breastfeed. I had images of being full-breasted with a baby on my skin, blissing from an indelible connection spun from nurturing. Free from plastics and paraphernalia, intricate measurements and preparation, I would be able to quickly feed my child without fuss and claim my status as Mother with a capital M.
Instead, breastfeeding was a revulsion I could not bear.
The minute the nurse handed my daughter to me, the first feed felt right. Mind you, most things feel right just after labour, by virtue of the fact it isn't the threat of more actual labour. But it was more than right: feeding my daughter felt perfect.
A few days later and the fog and hormones began to clear when I realised I wasn't making enough milk and my daughter’s weight was plummeting. Thankfully, there are many resources on hand to help breastfeeding mothers, as well as patient nurses who provide myriad ideas to boost milk supply.
Their favourite idea was to tie a small bottle of formula to me, a milky millstone literally tied around my neck. Two thin feeding tubes that draped from the bottle were taped over my nipples so my daughter could still get nourishment. I looked like a cyborg wet nurse fashioned from the arts and craft shop.
I would sit in the feeding lounge, a room without windows and frequented by other lactating losers, the tubes visual proof I had failed at femininity. After the visceral nature of pregnancy and many days of labour, the bottle and tubes felt like another level of intrusion and humiliation extracted from the business of mothering.
By the time we got home I was still working to produce milk, pumping between feeds to try to boost supply. Little by little the pump would flow, the canister would fill and the creamy, soft palest of yellow colostrum would gather. I was beginning to win the fight; I could still achieve Mothering with a capital M.
Yet every pull, every tug, the very act of feeding – the accomplishment I had chased for both of us – felt physically abhorrent.
It was a confusing and terrifying sensation, a test of will to sit still and not pull her off me immediately. I resented my body being dragged into further labour and that its work would never end, the physical cringe fermenting with anger.
We switched to formula immediately and my breasts immediately dried up in relief.
This isn’t the normal response. Real mothers with a capital M share stories of how they struggled through bleeding nipples and infected breasts to bring in milk. Few share the failures, and even fewer divulge that they found the sensation horrible. They share the gory and the joyful but the stories almost always have a happy ending.
It’s possibly because our performance as mothers is placed on an extreme spectrum. It’s an express train service between success and failure, good and bad, with no stops in between. Admit to failure or, even worse, opt out of the spectrum and you risk social rejection.
My revulsion and refusal to breastfeed would be construed as a most peculiar failure - a failure to enjoy the maternal experience, a failure to embrace feminine labour or the cultural or physical duties taxed from my body.
While it’s true I rejected all those things, I don’t view my choice to stop breastfeeding as a failure. Breastfeeding was one option I hated and rejected. That ‘failure’ didn’t pierce at me.
But I feared judgement from others and quickly learnt to tell people I couldn't, instead of wouldn't, feed. I’d tell them I just didn't have the fuel in my breasts to make milk. I almost believed it, too, until I realised my nipples still twinge whenever I hear an upset baby.
It was easier to tell these people “I can’t” instead of “I won’t”. Tell people you dislike breastfeeding’s sensation and you will be called immature, stupid, selfish, irresponsible and uncaring, or just looked at damned strangely. Tell people you physically can’t breastfeed and you face the slightly less insulting barrage of advice on how you can change, how you can still achieve Mothering.
There will always be armchair experts who will softly cluck they could have saved someone with their wisdom; they know just the strategy or technique to help. That happy ending could theirs if they just tried harder.
But not for me. No expert advice was going to overcome the cloying revulsion I felt for breastfeeding. There is no secret herb or supplement, no fantastic feminine reprieve that would make me clamp a child to my bosom in joy.
Despite the best of intentions, when we jump in to diagnose or resolve ‘what’s wrong’ with a mother’s body or choices, we erase her individuality. It’s advice that anchors itself around the assumption that a mother’s body exists either for her child or the new community eager to direct her every movement and decision. Now part of the collective of mothers, we are meant to sit passively while our breasts are grabbed (or taped) and accept it as the price of membership. Fail to pay that price and you’re often labelled as selfish, lazy or uncommitted.
I can admit my hatred of breastfeeding happily now, albeit guardedly. When I realised no one was going to be in our bedroom at 2am to calm the hungry child or traumatised mother, there was little point in making decisions to please them.
There’s one certainty with parenting: we all will fail eventually. Not every choice will be enlightened or best for both of us. Some will be made from bitter compromise, some will fail the mother, father or child. But when we make our parenting choices, we need to include ourselves as a factor.
The business of mothering includes the mother. It’s about time we recognise her needs.