Yesterday I overheard two mums in the park talking about how someone in their mothers’ group had her ten-week old baby on formula. Cue: gasps of horror. The tone of this discussion (read: bitch session) was condescending and judgmental. Their blatant lack of support for this woman was appalling. Their sense of superiority made me mad. Breastfeeding is neither heroic nor, mandatory. Mothers should not be shamed for feeding their baby, from nipple or teat.
Sadly, such criticism is nothing new. No other role in life is as scrutinised and criticised as motherhood. And new mums are easy targets. Every mother has a story about the unwanted “advice” from a relative, friend or even a stranger in the park. I remember my first trip to the shops as a first-time mum. A passerby stopped to admire my new born. But her admiration was quickly replaced by a series of rude questions. “Did you delivery vaginally?” she enquired. Stunned, I murmured I had. “Good,” she said, “much better for the baby.” I realised then I would need a tough skin as a mum.
I can now handle intrusive questioning from strangers now, but when the criticism comes from mums I really feel irate. Who knows why the woman from mothers’ group stopped breastfeeding. Perhaps she wasn’t producing enough milk and her baby was losing weight; perhaps her nipples were so blistered, bloody and grazed that another nose-to-nipple latch was too agonising for the new mum; perhaps the baby couldn’t latch efficiently; or perhaps this woman felt 10 weeks was sufficient and her circumstances meant that bottle feeding was the most appropriate choice. Who knows, who cares?
Breastfeeding, when it works, is a lovely experience. It’s intimate, facilitates bonding and everyone knows the health benefits are unmatched. I enjoyed breastfeeding my firstborn enormously. My experience with my second-born was the polar opposite. My nipples were consistently blistered and my baby suffered silent reflux. She thrashed about at my breast, screamed her little lungs out and the experience was terribly stressful and tiring for both of us. I felt anxious before, during and after each feed. It was horrible. I had support, and we persevered for six months but it was never easy.
The chorus of “breast is best” is echoed everywhere. No one would dispute the innumerable benefits of breast-feeding, and breast is certainly the best “first choice” but formula is a fine second choice.
There are very damaging consequences when women are made to feel how they feed their baby is the single most important part of mothering. It can have a devastating affect on a mother’s mental health if they are unable to do so. Enjoyment of new motherhood is too often eclipsed by pressure and expectation. No mother should feel guilt and shame for formula feeding. Guilt is unhelpful and unnecessary, and shame is as unjustified as it is uncivilised.
Conversely, I know mothers who have been made to feel like there is something wrong with them for feeding a baby past the age of one. This is equally as ridiculous as shaming a mother for deciding if and when she chooses to formula feed. And of course, it is not just breastfeeding that divides mother. It’s how you birth your baby, whether it’s vaginal or caesarean, whether you accept pain relief or do it “naturally, as intended”. And it goes on and on and on.
There isn’t one way to do anything let alone parenting. Comparisons are fruitless and the competitiveness needs to stop. A woman who bottle-feeds her baby is not inferior to a mother who breastfeeds her baby. To each their own. It is no one else’s business.
So much of a mother’s self worth is tied up in her performance as a mother. How a mother chooses to feed her baby is not a measure of her performance. It’s so much more than that, and most importantly, it’s how she loves. The one-upmanship that some women feel compelled to indulge in is outrageous.
Had it not been for my daughter falling off the monkey bars while I eavesdropped on their conversation, I would have interrupted their gossip session to remind them that being part of the sisterhood means supporting one another, not condemning someone for doing something differently.
More support, less judgment ladies, please!
Have you ever felt condemned or judged in your experience as a mother? How did you handle it?
*First published on iVillage