Emma Mitchell had been planning to recount a string of funny milk-spurting stories in honour of National Breastfeeding Week. But as the mammary memories came flooding back, it wasn’t long before she remembered the struggle too.
Until I had my first baby my décolletage was a non-event. Even girls I classed as friends laughed at the Fenny flatness of my chest when we got changed for PE at school. My upper half was embarrassingly minimal and lacking the ‘eff you’ attitude my 43-year-old self has. I wore loose clothing to disguise it.
Cut to 2005. I’m married (despite my 20-year-old self’s belief that my lack of knockers would deter men) and we discover that I’m pregnant.
I had noticed that my A-cup bras were no longer comfortable, but I had put that down to too much cheese. A midwife called and my barely-there boobs were suddenly a topic of conversation.
Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael
I told her I wanted to breastfeed and I was handed several trees’ worth of leaflets. I attempted to get my head around the prospect of the responsibility laid at my chest’s door. It would be the sole source of nutrition for a person. A PERSON. I reeled. What if my boobs got it wrong?
On 5 December 2005 I gave birth to a girl. The process of getting her out was truly grim but my boobs and I felt prepared.
I had read all the lactation literature and had been told to buy two gargantuan bras and some tit pads to stick in them.
The bras were functional, industrial-looking garments with a separate openable flap for each boob. Underwires, bows and lace were out, as was any hint of sexiness. They reminded me of the enormous utilitarian numbers my gran used to wear.
I eyed them with scepticism. Each cup was the size of an iceberg lettuce. My chest had grown during pregnancy but I refused to believe I would need boulder holders this big.
Then the baby was here. She was real and had limbs and a head and a voice. I struggled to get my head around being responsible for a life but launched myself into each new baby-related task and hoped that the sum of these would be enough to keep her alive.
“Months of screaming (the baby’s), tears (mine), inconsistent advice (from midwives and health visitors) ensued and my daughter and I found ourselves in an inexorable cycle of stress.”
She didn’t seem particularly hungry but we had had our first try at feeding. I discovered that feeding seemed to be something to do with geometry between boob and baby. I also discovered that it hurt.
The hospital midwife’s very first words to me on the subject were: “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.” Then she strode off briskly before I could ask how and why. Another midwife appeared and grabbed one of my boobs unceremoniously and shoved it in the baby’s mouth. Startled, the baby cried. The midwife left. Then I cried.
I was a scientist and I decided that I didn’t need boob-grabbing brusque women to master this process. I would teach myself.
On returning home I found an American website with diagrams of breast tissue, gentle words and a detailed description of how the process worked.
I tried again. The baby seemed to latch on without pain and stayed there, but only for a few minutes. Still, I felt triumphant.
My midwife called. She told me that the baby needed to be feeding for at least 10-15 minutes each time; that four minutes was insufficient for her to sleep/thrive/receive the ‘back milk’ – whatever that was – and stated the daily frequency required. And so it began.
I tried to encourage my baby to stay at the milk parlour for longer. She was resolute. I was told she was “only snacking” and that this “wasn’t enough”.
After three days of offering her my boobs every few minutes we felt pretty wretched. And then my milk ‘came in’. The tiny amounts I was producing suddenly ramped up to what seemed like gallons, which, terrifyingly, wouldn’t emerge.
My breasts were red hot and painful and the discomfort could only be relieved with warm flannels. I had heard horror stories from friends about mastitis developing at this point.
There were whispered instructions about cabbage leaves being placed inside bras and a horror story about a friend’s wife who had to have part of her breast removed.
“There are several lotteries for women when it comes to breastfeeding: the information and teaching they receive; the nature and frequency of support that is offered once the baby is born; and the way in which any problems are handled.”
Eventually everything started functioning again but the amounts of milk I was producing scared both me and the baby. She cried, if not screamed, each time I offered her a feed. I didn’t blame her. She was being faced down by a small milk cannon. Her brief feeds became even more brief. The criticism increased. We were both miserable.
On the plus side the massive bras suddenly fitted. Each boob was the size of my head, but I hardly cared.
Several months of screaming (the baby’s), tears (mine), inconsistent advice (from midwives and health visitors) ensued and my daughter and I found ourselves in an inexorable cycle of stress.
The thing I remember most vividly was the guilt. I wasn’t doing it right. I was failing my baby.
In reality I was doing the best I could whilst being confused and, at times, misinformed by professionals. At one point a nurse told me to “jack it all in and give her a bottle” – all very well, but she would scream even louder at a plastic nipple than she would at mine.
My baby simply preferred a shorter feed, was putting on weight (slowly but steadily) and had a terrible case of colic, a mysterious gastric condition known to test and sometimes crush the mettle of even the most confident new mother. I was only able to see this years later.
Eventually, after around six months, my lass and I settled into a routine of sorts, but in the meantime I suspect I had developed undiagnosed postnatal depression caused by the intense guilt about seemingly not doing breastfeeding correctly, which was accentuated and worsened by sleep deprivation.
This may seem like the story of one woman’s tricky experience of breastfeeding. The worrying part is that I’m by no means alone in my experience. My Twitter feed has been filled with stories like mine.
“They reminded me of the enormous utilitarian numbers my gran used to wear. I eyed them with scepticism. Each cup was the size of an iceberg lettuce.”
It seems there are several lotteries for women when it comes to breastfeeding: the information and teaching they receive; the nature and frequency of support that is offered once the baby is born; and the way in which any problems are handled.
One of the most common themes running through breastfeeding experience threads is the overwhelming guilt mothers were made to feel when things went awry. Breast milk is a wondrous liquid and of course it is designed to nourish babies and give them early immunity, but the process of breastfeeding is not necessarily instinctive and needs to be taught.
Some antenatal groups and midwives cover all of this brilliantly; some don’t, leaving women to rely on trial and error.
Every woman wants to do the best for their baby, and if breastfeeding proves stressful for both mother and child and offering a bottle is the only option, then that woman should not be made to feel like she has let her baby down.
Empathy, understanding and pragmatism are essential. Criticism, prescriptiveness and guilt-inducing pressure can cause breastfeeding women to struggle, self-recriminate and, if these feelings are prolonged, there is a risk that these feelings could lead to mental illness.
I had meant to write a lighthearted piece about the terrifying size of my cowies once my baby had arrived, and how errant jets of milk could travel across our living room and startle our sleeping dog.
I was going to tell of the mysterious business of sticking brassicas in bras and of having a let down reflex at a fellow artist’s Open Studio, narrowly avoiding dripping milk onto her beautiful linocuts.
All these things happened but it would have been wrong to have omitted the difficulties I had, because, it seems, others have had them too.
Many, many women receive excellent help from midwives and health visitors and their breastfeeding experience is trouble-free; but for those who struggle it seems there is much work still to do.
I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.