It’s a shame how often the above words are spoken without creating the desired result. Most likely because they fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the emotion leading someone to beat themselves up. I spent a lot of time beating myself up, putting myself under pressure, giving myself a hard time. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone could have said at the time to stop me. I have only recently started to make peace with my own breastfeeding journey and wanted to share my story in the hope it helps others to find peace, acceptance and perhaps some camaraderie.
After a heavy stint of near-constant nausea in pregnancy, I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at just over 32 weeks pregnant. I was admitted to hospital (somewhat dramatically after receiving a 4am call from the hospital telling me to come straight in with a bag) and after four days on the antenatal ward my condition worsened. The vomiting became more relentless, I puffed up like a balloon and I saw the faces of the midwives I’d become friendly with, strained with concern. I’ll save The Birth Story for another post, but jumping to the good bit: my identical twin boys were born at 33 weeks and 2 days gestation and whisked promptly to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and given oxygen.
I pumped regularly for 3.5 weeks while the boys were in hospital before they were strong enough to attempt nursing. I now know that waking every 4hrs to pump overnight wasn’t enough and I should have woken every three. My milk didn’t come in for 5 days which was agonising - not least because after 3 days one doctor unhelpfully repeatedly told me “It should have come in by now!” (resulting in me breaking down sobbing in NICU).
I so fervently wanted to exclusively breastfeed that I couldn’t let myself off the hook for my boys needing formula top ups. The following 4 months were fraught with pumping, feeding, waking sleeping babies in the night to get them to feed and feeling infuriated at them drowsing off back to sleep when I needed them to feed to build up my supply so they could put on the weight that our health visitor kept telling me that they needed.
Twice I managed to get to a position of exclusively breastfeeding, only to be told I had to top up with formula. When my heart was so set on breastfeeding every top up felt like a personal failure. My body was failing me. Or I was failing through not having read up enough, or not being prepared enough, not pumping regularly enough. As a new mum the agony of feeling like you aren’t doing enough for your baby/babies is just The Worst (as no doubt many of you will have experienced yourselves, whether about breastfeeding or something else that’s important to you).
I’m not going to delve too deeply into those feelings because it doesn’t do any good for me or anyone else to wallow in it. I channel what I learned from my experiences into supporting other breastfeeding and pumping mums. Crucially (and I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to do the same for whatever The Thing is that you beat yourself up about) I remind myself this: I did the best that I possibly could at the time with the information that was available to me.
About 4 months in I stopped fighting top ups with formula. I plundered as much of the stuff into them as they could manage! And guess what?! They were just fine! I kept breastfeeding as much as I could, before every bottle feed. I breastfed or bottle fee expressed milk exclusively overnight until around 6 months. Gradually, despite paced bottle feeding the boys got bored of the breast and switched to bottles at just over 13 months old. I had imagined that I’d keep breastfeeding until they were 2, so it was a strange feeling when it ended. One twin gave up the day after the other. But I’m very grateful not to have had to go through a painful or stressful process of refusing my boys something that they wanted - far better for them that they rejected my boob of their own volition!
As I write this, I realise that feeling good about all of the other ways that I’m able to be a great mum now, has helped me to let myself off the hook for not exclusively breastfeeding them. So that, I suppose is the “lesson” for me to share: focus on the bits that you are absolutely rocking! Each cuddle, each smile, each giggle, each revolting nappy that you efficiently deal with without a grimace (or with a grimace!). Each bottle that you feed your baby whilst giving them your warmth and love. Give yourself a huge-ass pat on the back, because you know what? Being a parent is seriously tough. Don’t focus on the things that didn’t go as you’d hoped. Virtually nobody is ready for all that motherhood entails and the learning curve is like no other.
So here’s to supporting each other without judgment. Empathising without trying to fix the issue. Accepting that everyone has a different way of doing things. Only giving advice if asked. Not telling someone that the thing that’s important to them doesn’t matter. But being there, listening, pouring out the tea and dishing out the biscuits. Giving each other a hug. Knowing we’re all in this together and trying our best.