Friday 10 August 2012

The Tale of the Bad Bottle-Feeding Mama

~by Emi

(Pre post note, I'm about to pour my heart out. This is difficult for me at the best of times with people I know well. For me to do it for strangers is pretty much unheard of. So be kind. Be gentle. Bear with me. Emi, x)

To celebrate Global Breastfeeding Week, I felt like I should share my somewhat different breastfeeding story...

Here goes...

There was a time, pre having my own children, when I thought I knew how to be a good mother. It was in my bones. I truly felt like my calling in life was Be A Mother. So strong, was this calling, that I actually ended up working as a nanny for a few families before I had my own children.

Up until this point, I had been adamant that I would breast-feed. I mean, it was best for the baby, full of goodness and a special way to bond with your child, right?

I am all for breast-feeding, truly I am. But it is touted to us not only as this natural, beautiful way of nurturing your child (true) but also as this natural, beautiful way of nurturing your child that is easy and you *should* be able to do and if you can't, you're a failure. (False).

Whilst the breastfeeding journey with my daughter Pixie has been fraught with five bouts of mastitis, it is still going strong at 11 months. I am very proud of this fact, and myself, but it's not this journey I want to share with you.

The one I want to share is my journey with my son, Ru.

This is Ru.

He is smart, so smart. He is funny, and joyful, and emotional, and a pain-in-the-ass, and frustrating, and amazing, and sweet, and kind, and I Love Him.

Guess what?

Bottle fed.

I am not about to defend a mother's right to choose to bottle over breast. Yes, you have that right and no one should judge you for it. What I am going to broach is the massive amount of guilt you as a mother feel if, for whatever reason, you can't breastfeed.

I breastfed Ru for nearly three months. It was awful. No one told me that it can take up 6 arduous weeks to establish a breast-feeding routine. No one told me I would be reduced to being a dairy cow. No one told me that I would be feeding 10-12 times in 24 hours. All I was told was 'This is best. You should know how to do it.'

I would spend hours every day, EVERY day, crying, feeling like a failure. Ru would take forever to latch on and then when he did, he would feed for hours at a time, only to cry when he came off, awful cries that hurt my new-Mama heart as I somehow *knew* he was telling me he was hungry. He would be in tears, I would be in tears, Steve would be in tears watching this struggle, feeling useless that he couldn't fix it.

And then, to top it all off... I got mastitis. The Mother of All Mastitis. Having had mastitis a lot with Pixie, I can safely tell you that nothing was as painful as that first time.

I spoke to 2 different health visitors, both of whom were effectively useless, giving pointless nuggets of 'wisdom', 'You'll get it eventually.' and 'Just keep going.'

I began to loathe feeding time. I loved my son undeniably, but I HATED feeding him. I would hear his little 'I'm-getting-kinda-hungry' noises and I would start to get tense, every muscle in my body tight and uncomfortable. I would have a sinking feeling in my stomach, and get awful headaches. And Ru, poor Ru. Children are so receptive to the energies of others. He would be sat in my lap, attempting to feed, unhappy because for whatever reason, I couldn't breastfeed him.

Long story short, I battled for as long as I could, but the mastitis was the beginning of the end. I couldn't share how difficult it was with anyone, after all, breastfeeding was this natural, easy, amazing thing that I as a mother should just be able to Do. I felt like the world's worst mother. I felt resentful that my precious first weeks with my precious first child were being tainted because I couldn't breastfeed.

And then Ru started biting. *sigh*

It got to the point where Ru didn't even really want to be held by me, so great were the waves of unhappiness and resentment seeping out of me.

I was gently told by a doctor, after telling him the whole story, mastitis, cracked, bleeding nipples and all, that there was no shame in bottle-feeding. Maybe, I hear you say, he should have told me about La Leche League, put me in contact with someone who knew what they were doing. Well, maybe.

Or maybe he was gently releasing me from the pressure I had put myself under. Maybe he could see that I didn't want to breastfeed any more, that my heart was no longer in it. I couldn't do it any longer.

I remember him telling me the one most important thing though.

'You tried your best'

And I did.

And with that realisation, we bought formula and Ru became a bottle-fed baby.

He transformed from that very first feed. He became an easy-going, relaxed, happy baby, the one he was supposed to be.

I battled and tried and struggled for as long as I could. But I had to stop when my failure began affecting, tainting, my relationship with my child.

I felt guilty though. I NEVER got over it. It was there in the back of my mind that I had failed. I was a terrible mother. I was a failure as a woman.

I was judged by other mothers in public, how could I bottle feed
when I KNEW breastfeeding was better for my baby?! How could I possibly BOND with him when using a bottle?! I would silently seethe 'How DARE you judge me?! You don't know me and you certainly have NO idea what I've been through!'I hated that part.

I felt like I was being judged. Ellie Lee got it right when writing an opinion piece for the BBC, "
Information about breastfeeding is replete with truly beautiful imagery of mothers and their babies, indicating love and communication. But that about bottle-feeding only shows technicalities; it is all images about hygiene, showing bottles, bleach and bottle brushes, but no mothers feeding their babies with love in their eyes."

Why should I be judged as loving less because his milk came from a bottle and not breast?

But Ru and I, we bonded. I would spend HOURS reading to him, cuddled him endlessly, as well as making feeding times something special, and finally, feeding time was something Steve could be a part of too.

Months passed and Pixie arrived. Arrived with a joyful smile and blessedly easy breastfeeding. Whilst I was so happy about this, I couldn't help but feel guilty that Ru hadn't had this experience.

I later discovered, after being lent a breastfeeding textbook from a friend doing her bf-ing peer supporter training, that Ru had had an undiagnosed tongue-tie.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. A little over 2 years of gut-wrenching guilt just vanished. I hadn't been a crappy mother. There had been A Reason. A tongue-tie. Something so little had meant that he couldn't latch on properly, couldn't feed effectively, starting the downward spiral we had been on.

I was most emphatically NOT a Crappy Mother.

There is a strong case here for midwives and health visitors to be better trained in supporting breastfeeding in the early weeks, and recognising tongue-ties, and for them to share support networks like La Leche League and our local support group, Treasure Chest. But that is for a different post.

So what do I want you to take away from this?

1. Breastfeeding is hard.

2. Failing at breastfeeding is even harder.

If, for whatever reason, you can't breastfeed, I hate to say it, but you ARE going to feel guilty. I can't stop that. It's as inevitable as the tide coming in. What I *can* do, is offer you a cup of tea and a cookie whilst my BOTTLE-FED son, my intelligent, creative, bright, shining light of a child plays in front of you... maybe reassuring you that actually, you can have both a 'normal' child, and a strong relationship with that child if you have to bottle-feed.

I would encourage all new mothers to try every means at their disposal to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship. But sometimes, sometimes, it doesn't happen and bottles are the only way.

There is a horrible pressure on women to breastfeed, a horrible pressure that pushes that breast is best, and that it is easy, and you are a shitty mother if you can't, and that you are less of a woman.

But that's ok. I take your hand and tell you, It Is Ok. You Are Not A Failure. You Are Not Less Of A Woman, Nor A Crappy Mother.

Ru doesn't resent me or make me feel guilty that I didn't have a successful breastfeeding journey with him.

Your child won't do it to you.

I am pro-breastfeeding. I am not anti or pro-bottle-feeding. I am, however, VERY pro-Mamas-not-being-judged-for-their-feeding-choices.

You *CAN* have a close, strong bond with your child if you end up being unable to breastfeed.

My son is proof of that.

Emi, x

"You don't raise heroes, you raise sons.
And if you treat them like sons, they'll turn out to be heroes,
even if it's just in your own eyes."
~Walter M. Schirra, Sr.


  1. You are awesome. And, guess what, you are GOOD ENOUGH - and your journey was and is GOOD ENOUGH just as it is.

    It saddens me to realise over time that although offering suggestions may help a mama when she comes to breastfeed a subsequent baby, at the time it may be only validating the idea that she needs a big enough "excuse" to be approved of in not breastfeeding. I don't want to make anyone feel they need a good excuse for the choices they made. How I talk to mamas about breastfeeding is changing. Slowly.

    And (hugs).

  2. What a beautiful post. Thank you for the story.

    Growing up, we all knew we'd been bottle-fed (by the time my youngest sib was born, we older ones were able to "get" what was going on). And hey? I turned out okay. It wasn't until I had my own Little that I had a proper conversation about it with my mother. She tried, she tried so hard, for months, consulting La Leche and the doctor and everything. We just. would. not. nurse. She tried for all five of us, even expressing for a couple months for us first two. She called OUR failure to nurse her personal tragedy.

    I'm so lucky and blessed that the nurses in SCBU worked so hard with us and Nommers. We basically had help and advice every feed I was there for for two weeks. And she still needed a bottle every night for a few months, my poor exhausted boo. And yeah, we used formula a few times. I really try, especially knowing now what I do, to support mums who want to breastfeed, not judge them.

    Thanks again for the story and the courage to share it!

  3. I took me 5 weeks of hell to get Alex breast feeding and I had help, then it hurt for a month, but I did keep going because I was pretty sure that if I 'failed' I would spiral into depression as that is how my brain works.
    Sometimes though there is a point at which what is best for the mother is best for the child too, and I say that as a breast feeding peer supporter!
    Great post Emi, and I am sure we can all appreciate how very hard it was to write. There may come a day when I have to direct a mother I'm trying to help to this as she just can't do it, but I really hope not!

  4. It is wonderful to read all about how amazing a breastfeeding relationship can be, but I also think it's really important to share when it doesn't go right. I tend to fear failure in every aspect of my life, so I can imagine when I have my own children that I will be fearful of failing at anything with them... It's fantastic that you were able to share your experience, however bad you may feel that you were unable to breastfeed,for whatever reason. It certainly gives me hope that it isn't the be-all and end-all of your children being wonderful creatures. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for sharing. I too, for very different reasons had to stop breastfeeding my eldest. I was distraught for months afterwards and mulled over the what ifs. I could not bring myself to bottle feed him in public for ages as I felt a failure. But I found a way to hold my head high, my eldest would thrive on formula and I could find other ways to bond that were just as special. I am still breastfeeding my youngest at over 3 years so know that I can do it.

  6. Thanks for this. I'm having a hard time right now and this has really helped.

  7. Oh. I could have sooooo wrote every single word of that post-you summed it up sooooo beautifully-especially the bit about NEVER forgiving yourself-and as I sit here here next to my beautiful healthy almost eight year old son I realise that I still feel the pain like it was yesterday and have tears dripping. As a healthcare professional I had to attend an eight hour teaching on breast feeding earlier this year-I had to leave the room as I was crying too hard and was excused the rest of the day (I can quote most websites to them anyway-I spent soo much time trying to find support and solutions). I too had to wait for someone to give me permission to give up and also had the dilemma of either loving OR feeding my son.
    I have also suffered the comments of people- you just have to persevere or yes you have to work at it.......... Sometimes you also just have to give up