Tuesday 30 December 2014

Is breast always best?

Photograph: Justin Paget/Corbis, The Guardian
I'm currently sat breastfeeding my six week old baby. This comes somewhat of a surprise to me because I fully intended to formula feed him from day one, and would have done so had he not fed well from the offset. The first skin to skin in the hospital was like something out of an NHS 'how to breastfeed' DVD, all that was missing was the new age pan pipe music playing in the background. If this had been my first ever attempt at breastfeeding I would perhaps have been ignorantly less understanding of mothers who chose to formula feed.

My firstborn, however, had the feeding instinct of a baby seal eating breakfast at The Ritz. He was a far cry from what the health professionals told me I could expect – I was in pain from day one and my baby screamed at my breast every feeding time but I was told that was simply part of the 'learning curve'. After weeks of pain and bleeding, a breastfeeding support worker, two midwives, a health visitor and a call to the doctors later, all that could be concluded was that my baby was just extra hungry. They seemed happy that he was putting on weight and therefore my pain was secondary – insignificant, even. Looking back maybe I didn't emphasise just how much pain I was in, but I was a first time mum and what did I know? This was the first revelation that mothers were expected to put their needs on the back burner to do what was 'best' for their baby at literally all costs. 

The next couple of months were tough and the night feeds, unbearable. I would meet up with other mothers who seemed to be enjoying breastfeeding and it made me feel hard done by. Why couldn't I enjoy it too? On top of this, the pressure to carry on breastfeeding was high, with every health professional telling me not to give him any formula whatsoever. They patted me on the back for persevering, telling me what a good job I was doing, while I wallowed in self pity and resented feeding times. This was not the bonding experience I was promised. I carried on for nearly four months until I couldn't take any more and I sobbed as I gave him his first bottle of formula, led to believe it was on a par with feeding him arsenic. He guzzled it back happily and he seemed contented for the first time ever but this did not stop me feeling guilty or judged by a huge percentage of mothers and health professionals. 

I had many reasons for not wanting to go through the anguish of having another child but breastfeeding was high up on my list. It sounded a pathetic reason not to have another baby – 'you can always bottle feed,' they would say. Of course I could, but I was all too aware of the connotations of that decision once my darling baby had arrived. Deciding to bottle feed baby number two, however, was something that I felt I had to do for my own sanity, knowing how reluctant I am to quit anything once I start. I drip fed my decision to close friends and relatives early so that they were prepared for my 'reckless' parenting choice. I even spent a whole afternoon researching medical papers on breastfeeding and formula feeding and was surprised by how manipulated the facts are by health professionals. I concluded that formula, although secondary, was still a pretty healthy alternative to breast milk and I didn't have a problem with feeding it to my baby because, for me, the pros outweighed the cons.

When my second baby was born I realised that my experience the first time around was far from normal. I now understood what it meant for breastfeeding to be a bonding experience – I had no pain whatsoever and he fed like a dream. This time around couldn't have been more different from my first experience but those dreadful memories of feeding my firstborn came to the forefront of my mind all too soon. On my first night in the hospital I could hear the sobs of a lady in the bed opposite me as she attempted to feed her baby. He screamed unless he was at her breast and so she called out for help from the midwives because she was exhausted and in pain. They told her there was nothing she could do except to feed him formula. By the second night this poor woman was beyond herself and a midwife took the baby and fed him to give her a break. "I've failed my baby!" she cried. This lady was already feeling bad enough as it was, but the next morning a midwife came to me and reeled off the 'facts' about breastfeeding, one being that giving ANY formula would destroy all the good work the breast milk had done. The lady in the bed opposite overheard and burst into tears.

I'm not sure why women are presented with such an 'all or nothing' attitude to feeding. Sure, exclusively breastfeeding means that the baby has more protection against illnesses, but any breastmilk still passes on antibodies to the baby. No one will tell you that for fear of the unquestionable NHS guidelines. I have no idea why formula has become such a taboo when it is so readily available in hospitals and has had years of medical research to improve it. The pressure on women to breastfeed is unfair. I was led to believe that formula feeding was the selfish option, as though women were solely thinking of their own convenience and not giving the 'best' to their babies, but this is a totally unfair conclusion that leaves already vulnerable women feeling hopeless. We are expected to put our physical health over our mental health, as though we should be perfectly able to function on three hours sleep a day and take any pain and difficulties on the head. 

My experience of breastfeeding this time around has not come without it's difficulties, but because of my first experience I was not prepared to go through that again. After a week or so my baby had oral thrush and I was in excruciating pain feeding but I was quick to get help when I had problems and had no issues with introducing formula when the pain got too intense. I felt like I was coping really well and was pleased I had manage to breastfeed against the odds, yet when I told health professionals I was combination feeding I was met with disapproval. Despite me telling them it was working really well for me and my family I still received a list of reasons why combination feeding is a no-no. 

Now let me tell you what that disapproving attitude does to mothers – it makes us feel like failures. It makes us either 'give up' or carry on with breastfeeding out of duty and not love. When I exclusively breastfed my firstborn I was told I was doing 'ever so well' but I would like to suggest that this phrase is highly unhelpful for both breast and bottle feeders. I was not doing well at all, my mental health was at an all time low and reeling off NHS guidelines was doing nothing to appease me. What was insinuated was that I was doing well to suffer; well to give up on sleep; well to squash my relationships; well to forget about my own wellbeing; well to become a martyr. Clearly, I was not doing well at all. Of course, no medic will ever tell you to go give your baby formula to give yourself a break, but once a mother has made a decision to do so this should be respected. If a woman feels supported, she is more likely to listen to advice and try again if she feels able. What I am saying is that mental health needs to be more carefully considered when new mothers are fed information.

This time round I am told it is a 'shame' I've had to introduce formula. Well let me tell you it is neither a shame nor something that I had to do; it came out of a place of freedom and self respect; one that has enabled me to carry on breastfeeding where I would otherwise have stopped; one that has enabled me to spend time with my other child so I am not constantly stuck in a chair feeding, prioritising my baby over him. It's ironic that now I've upped the breastfeeds again because it's easy and convenient (both entirely selfish reasons) I get a pat on the back for it. Well, I deserved more of a pat on the back the first time around when I introduced formula in order to restore my mental health and relationships. Don't let anyone fool you that formula feeding is always the easy option – a decision that goes against the grain takes a lot of guts and no woman would ever make that choice if she felt her baby was at harm.

So I'm here to tell you that you're doing well whether you formula feed or breastfeed because no doubt your choices have been deeply considered. Neither should have to jump to their defence but instead be encouraged to support one another. What is 'best' is not only about physical health but mental and emotional health too. Only you will know what is best for your family.

Sunday 21 December 2014

You know you have a child at Christmas when...

It's that time of the year again where we long for peace on earth... or in our own homes at least. Christmas is all about family, but no Christmas will ever be the same again once you have little ones to share it with. Here's how you know you have a child around at Christmas time:

Your Christmas tree looks like it's been vomited on by a tinsel monster
Gone are the days of a beautiful pine tree with baubles that are colour coordinated with your Farrow and Ball feature wall. No, you now have a practical plastic tree to avoid unwanted pine needles spread around the entire house – or worse, being eaten by small children. Not only this, but try telling your little one that, no, they can't have their misshaped, glittery Santa decoration they made at nursery on the tree. Have a heart. The trouble is they've made several of them, and you don't think they will forget about last year's efforts do you? It's okay, you think, I'll just place them neatly behind the more tasteful ones, but now you have a handy helper whose distribution skills are on a par with a drunken postman. Before you know it, your tree is looking rather lopsided and full of multicoloured tinsel that is more suited to one of dame Edna's dresses than your Farrow and Ball paint.  

Your children resemble Duracell bunnies
In the weeks up to christmas it's like they have been gradually wound up until they are more hyperactive than a puppy on sherbert. So much for peace on earth. And whose idea was advent calendars?! As if kids need any more reminders of how many days they have left to go completely and utterly bonkers. A countdown to Christmas is one thing, but then some evil manufacturer decided to add chocolate into the mix too: that little bit of extra sugar to just tip them right over the edge. Thanks a million. 

You consider a less traditional Christmas dinner
Imagine how many hours a year parents spend trying to get their kids to eat vegetables. Now imagine a day when they are expected to eat a whole meal full of every variety possible. Not only this, but some smartass decided to introduce a one-off extra just to piss kids and parents off everywhere: sprouts. Geez, why not just make them eat Grandma's ear wax, that'd probably go down better. I don't know about you but whenever I plan a family meal out I go for the meal with the lowest risk of tantrums: pizza. Is pizza express open on Christmas Day?

You hope to God for gift receipts
Every family with have that one relative who gets your kids the most annoying presents known to mankind. Such relatives have no concern for how much space you have in your living room for a plastic slide, or how much mental capacity you have for a toy that plays jingle bells on repeat. It's all very well on Christmas Day but this relative has no idea how irritating it is to hear jingle bells in the middle of March. Still, at least their all-singing, all-dancing toys will save you a trip to Vegas. 

There are tears before 3pm
Christmas is a day of heightened emotions and all that excitement is sure to land with a crash- usually at 3pm when grandma is trying to listen to the queen's speech. You try to keep your cool but you realise that you have nothing left to bribe them with because they've already had more treats than a circus chimp. Instead you have to resort to distracting them with uncle Brian's jingle bell toy until you eventually have a melt down yourself. 

You secretly like resorting to a little kid at Christmas
Not only do you have a legitimate excuse to watch Polar express on repeat, you get to play with the scalextric you never had as a child. Deep down you have to admit that Christmas has never been better. Go on, admit it, there's nothing quite like seeing a child's excitement on Christmas morning. 

Friday 5 December 2014

Post Natal Bodies: Does my bump look big in this?

I was told on several occasions how much pregnancy suited me; that I was 'blooming' or 'glowing'. There is something about a baby bump that makes people see a woman's body differently; she is beautiful because of the life she is creating. Her body reflects the awe we see in nature; the miracle of life (that and the lovely skin, hair and the temporary boob job, of course).

But what if I told you this photo was taken one week after the birth of my second baby? Would it change your opinion of how I look? Does my bump become less beautiful?

As soon as I'd had my first baby, eyes would wander to my waistline. It seemed almost instinctive for people to assess my post-natal figure, even when I felt at my most vulnerable. A few months down the line I got a few "You've done well to lose the baby weight" lines, as though I then merited some sort of validation for what merely time had done on it's own; as though losing my bump was as much of an achievement as growing a life itself.

I remember going to the theatre soon after I'd had my first baby and watching some young dancers wearing crop tops, flaunting their flat little midriffs. A friend turned to me and said "do you remember when your belly looked like that?" Short of bursting into a bout of hormonal tears, I accepted that my friend, along with most people who have not had children, had no idea how a post natal belly should look – nor how long it would take to go down, if at all. In fact, I had no real clue myself because I'd never known anyone open enough to tell me. I felt a little bit disappointed with the way that I looked.

You see, the media would have you believe that when a celebrity gives birth, her belly shrinks back to the flat, toned stomach she had pre-pregnancy. The true nature of a post natal belly has become a taboo subject, making women ashamed of their rotund midriffs. Women who give birth for the first time look down in shock when they see their little paunch with now no 'miracle of life' inside to validate it, rushing to the H&M sales to stock up on oversized jumpers.

But why do we feel the need the need to hide our bumps? Mine is still the same one that worked a miracle, why should I disguise it with control pants and baggy jumpers? Why should I add to the taboo and make more women feel less comfortable about their bodies, when they should be proud of what their bodies have been through? Let's not believe the celebrity tripe that we're fed with. I'm sure their bellies are bound look a lot flatter than mine with a personal trainer on hand, a full-time nanny and money for all the cosmetic surgery they want.

Actually, a year or so after I'd had my first baby my stomach looked better than it ever had because I worked hard at getting my figure back, but we need to give ourselves a realistic expectation as to how long it takes for our bodies to adjust. I'll update you on my blog how long it takes for my bump to go down this time (all be it with less time and energy to exercise!) but in the process I need to respect what nature has put me through. We need to give ourselves credit for the body changes bestowed upon us, not be ashamed of them. This is just part of life and the sooner we, as individuals, are ready to accept that, the more accepted women will feel about themselves on the whole.

So yes, my bump does look big in this but I refuse to be told I am less beautiful because of it. I'm learning to accept myself and what life throws at me, and this is just one of those things. Sure, I'd rather have my flat tummy back, but it's not unachievable, it will just take time. Lets give ourselves a break and learn to be proud of what we've gone through and the miracle of life we have created.

Monday 1 December 2014

Get Your Baps Out: Feminism and Breastfeeding

I remember walking home from school, aged fourteen, and being shouted at from across the road by two lads telling me to "get my baps out" - and no, they weren't enquiring about what I had in my packed lunch box. Of course when you're younger and boys say things like this to you you shake it off as immaturity, until you reach adulthood and realise that some men still have no problem with these inappropriate requests. 

I grew up in a home where sex was rarely spoken off; where anything remotely sexual on TV was turned off with tuts before I'd had chance to question anything. I remember asking what a condom was, aged seven, and my mum told me I was too young to know. I went to school the next day and asked a boy in class, whilst gluing and sticking, and he informed me that it was "what a man puts on his willy when having sex." "Oh," I said, carrying on with my collage, satisfied with his answer. I've no idea how I knew what sex was but no doubt this education was also from the school playground.

Growing up i had two contrasting views about sex; one extreme was liberal and crude, the other was conservative and prudish. I never knew quite which camp I was in or how I should see my body. Was it something to hide or expose? On top of this, the media told me that I needed to look a certain way and make myself more attractive. Women's magazines criticised female celebrities for putting on too much weight; men's magazines were plastered with women with ample bosoms, flaunting their curvaceous figures. My body became subject to scrutiny from others and I started to feel very self conscious about the way that I looked. 

There have been plenty of challenging situations for me concerning my identity and self-worth as a women but none more so than when I became a mother. Everyone was telling me to get my baps out and now it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Not only was it acceptable, it was expected of me. Before I knew it I had every midwife under the sun grabbing my boobs and showing me how to shove them in my baby's mouth. I was told to feed on demand, to get them out whenever was asked of me, I had no control over it, or where this happened. I would go out in public and try to be discrete about feeding but my little boy was hardly that, fussing and pulling away from me every five minutes and exposing me to the world. I would visit my work office and the same men who freely commented on women's chests before I'd had children were now telling me it was fine to feed in front of them if I needed to. 

Suddenly I was being asked to ignore everything I was told in life - both that my body was sexual and that it should be hidden. It didn't quite compute with me. I was told that breastfeeding was the most natural thing in the world but it certainly didn't feel that way. It felt weird that my parents were such advocates for breastfeeding and expected me to do so too, despite my father acting very awkward around me when I did. I would go out of the room instead and feed in isolation which wasn't much fun either.

To make things worse, celebrities were catching on to the breast is best bandwagon and flaunting themselves doing so, wearing flirtatious outfits and half exposing a breast. They give the message that breastfeeding is now somehow both nurturing and sexual which somehow doesn't sit right with me. Maybe they're right to portray such an image to bridge the gap mothers feel when we breastfeed, but I'd like to know if there really are any women who find breastfeeding sexy because I certainly don't. Is this how we want mothers to be portrayed? 

Tamara Ecclestone breastfeeding
When did breastfeeding become such a controversial issue anyway? You only have to write a facebook post about it to know that everyone has an opinion on it. One woman will tell you it's her right to feed in public, another that it's her right to formula feed. Another will ask what about the right of the child to have natural milk from her mother? Another will question whether breast milk is actually best for her contented formula-fed baby and rested family. 

You will notice that all of the above are about the women making choices. I am all about independent women, but it seems slightly unfair that when myself and my husband decided to formula feed our firstborn after four months of agony that any judgement was directed solely at me. It seems that there is too much placed on women to be the sole provider and decision maker for their child. What about the right of the father and his responsibility to support and encourage his wife and family? 

Our society is one that tells me I am a sexual object to be looked at by men; the same society that tells me how my post natal body should look; how I should raise my children; how I should apply myself at work. This is the same society that pays women less than men; that often portrays that my influence is far less important than a male 'equivalent'. So why are my feeding decisions so important to you and why should you care? Or is it because I'm raising boys and I need to teach them that women should get their baps out anytime they demand? 

I've no idea how you tackle an issue that has unnecessarily come under the scrutiny of such public opinion. It is no one's business how a family chooses to feed their child. If you ask my opinion, women need to feel supported no matter what method of feeding they (and their partners) choose. It's a shame that society focusses so much on the physical and not on the mental and emotional transition that motherhood involves.