Great Breastpectations

Alice Osborne was determined to breastfeed her newborn son, but both he, and a wayward truck, had other plans.

“I’d much rather have a happy mum who can put all her energy into enjoying my company and loving me,” concluded William, my three-month-old son, in a letter he wrote (via my husband) trying to persuade me once again that it was okay to stop our breastfeeding struggle. His letter, entitled ‘Reasons why my mummy shouldn’t feel guilty about breastfeeding’, was written about one week before we were hit by a truck, and my outlook on the importance of breastmilk was put into perspective.

Ever since I can remember, I had assumed I would be a breastfeeding mother. During my first pregnancy, I sought as much breastfeeding knowledge as I could lay my hands on. I joined the Breastfeeding Association, attended classes, read books and questioned friends and family. I heard horror stories of mastitis, abscesses, thrush and cracked nipples, but overall, the information I gained led me to believe that no matter what difficulties I might face, it would happen eventually with the right help, some general persistence and tolerance for excruciating pain. It never occurred to me that my baby might have other plans.

I’d had quite a difficult pregnancy, and a number of complications led to a caesarean delivery at 36 weeks. Due to his prematurity, Will was born without a sucking reflex and was initially not interested in breastfeeding at all. But eventually my milk came in through expressing, his sucking reflex kicked in, and I could get on with my plan – or so I thought.

After eight exhausting and painful weeks of trying to help, beg and persuade Will (who was eventually diagnosed with a tongue tie) to attach properly and feed, I gave up breastfeeding and concentrated on providing him with all the expressed breastmilk he required.

Although I grieved for the breastfeeding relationship that never developed, I knew expressed was next-best. Supply was not a problem, but expressing seven to eight times a day was starting to take its toll on me emotionally. Being tied to the breast pump made us mostly housebound. We had precious little time for playing and getting to know each other, and I was utterly miserable.

Everywhere I turned there were women breastfeeding their babies, and I envied every one of them. When they ventured out of the house, they didn’t need to pack a breast pump, esky and ice packs, nor did they need to lock themselves and their newborns in grotty public toilets to express their baby’s next meal. But, despite the difficulties, I was totally obsessed with providing breastmilk to my boy. I literally had to be hit by a truck to put the whole situation into perspective.

After the accident, I spent six hours flat on my back in a neck brace, waiting for the results of X-rays and scans. As I lay there staring up at the old stained ceiling of the emergency department, waiting to find out if my neck was fractured, all I could think about were the ‘what ifs’. What if Will had been hurt (or worse)? What if I had been killed and left my son without a mother? What if, what if, what if?

I couldn’t ignore my breasts – it had been more than 12 hours since I had expressed, and I was in agony. Yet it was their undeniable urgency to be emptied that led me to an epiphany; there are more important things in life than breastmilk. What my baby desperately needed was me, not just my milk. Right then and there, I decided enough was enough, and finally gave myself permission to stop. The ‘what ifs’ and nightmares following the accident, the grief and guilt of not being able to breastfeed, were all pushed aside and slowly faded away.

Will is nearly four now. No-one asks me (or presumably even cares) whether I breastfed him as a baby. There are no telltale signs that he has a poor immune system or that he will be of below-average intelligence. In fact, we have a wonderful bond that was enhanced by the extra time we had together when I stopped using the breast pump.

As my belly began to swell with my second child, I found myself re-living that time as if it were yesterday, falling right back to the same dark emotional place. So raw was the pain that I saw a counsellor to overcome these issues before my second baby was born. I now know, in hindsight, that the counselling was well overdue.

There is a clear message out there, one with which I agree: breastmilk is best for babies. But I’m not sure at what price. For me, this message seemed like a personal attack and fed my feelings of inadequacy, guilt and grief. I believe the message needs to be backed by supportive information and advice that clearly says breastmilk is only best if the physical and emotional wellbeing of the mother and/or baby are not in jeopardy.

We need to draw a line between useful education and the emotional blackmail of vulnerable mothers. Difficulty in breastfeeding is a risk factor for postnatal depression, yet the ‘breast is best’ message remains loud and clear, black and white. The message ignores the spectrum of women who fall helplessly into the grey void.

When pregnant with my second child, I was asked countless times if I was going to ‘try’ breastfeeding again. And the answer to that question was, “Yes, of course!” However, I also vowed to be easier on myself the second time around, not only with breastfeeding, but in many other aspects of parenting and motherhood. I’ve learnt many hard lessons during the past few years as a new mother, and I now have a better perspective on more important things for my family: health, happiness, fun and love.

Despite some initial difficulties, Lucy and I have enjoyed nearly 12 months of a happy breastfeeding relationship. But, more importantly, we have also had a more relaxed family environment; doing things our own way rather than the way we are ‘supposed’ to. It has really been a fabulously challenging time for the whole family.

I believe there are countless important things we can do for our children, only one of which is to breastfeed them – if we are able to.

Illustrations by Penny Lovelock