This is going to be my first parenting post on my all-new-slightly-kicked-up-the-bum, posting-every-few-days/weeks blog and I’m slightly nervous about writing it because a) its about extended breastfeeding and weaning, which I feel is a little bit socially unacceptable and b) because its about parenting and this just seems to be an area where people can easily feel that someone is judging them for their parenting choices. One of the reasons I feel a bit wary of posting about extended breastfeeding is that I’m worried it will be seen as braggy – there is so much guilt and pressure around breastfeeding that I really don’t want to add to that. I had a really really horrendous time feeding Etta at around the 4-6 month mark, and although I do feel pleased that I got through that phase and carried on breastfeeding, it was such a hellish time that I don’t think any mum should feel that they HAVE to put themselves through that in order to feel like a good parent. Sometimes taking the decision to stop doing something that is stressing you out, or affecting your ability to relate to your child is a really good parenting choice. I do also think that mothers should have the right to celebrate their parenting victories. So whether that was deciding not to breastfeed because you knew that was the right choice for you, or giving yourself a pat on the back because you survived a year of being kicked in the face by a nursing toddler, then allow yourself a ‘Hell yeah! I did it!’ moment for your baby feeding journey. This is mine.
When I made the choice to breastfeed, and to try to exclusively breastfeed up until 6 months, I thought I would probably be feeding Etta at 6 months, that there was a slim but very unlikely chance I’d still be feeding her by 1 year, and really I would have definitely have fully weaned her before she was able to ask for milk in public by yelling “I EAT MUMMY BOOBY!” on the bus. As you may be able to guess I did not manage to wean before the cringe inducing bus incident happened, just before her 2nd birthday. That incident was however a bit of a catalyst for finally making the move to stop breastfeeding. I realised that I was no longer really comfortable feeding her in public, and desperately needed more personal space.
I loosely subscribe to the ethos of Attachment Parenting, as we cosleep, babywear etc and I believe the research around how babies and young children form attachments shows that being emotionally and physically available for your child is important. However in many ways I am a slightly reluctant practitioner of it due to needing absolutely immense amounts of personal space in order to feel even moderately normal. I hugely buy into the ethos behind AP but I think that the reality of it can be quite guilt-inducing (at least for me!) because you are constantly having to balance the ideal of being available to your child with the reality of sometimes being too stressed out, grumpy or tired to do that.
When Etta was super tiny, from 0-3.5 months-ish I remember thinking how incredibly easy and hassle free breastfeeding was. In hindsight this seems so smug, but I also think I was lucky to have this lovely calm time right at the start of our breastfeeding journey, or I might never have stuck it out! I was also very lucky to have a mother who was also a breastfeeding counselor, and who was pretty much on hand 24/7 with all the support I could ask for. I often wonder if everyone had this kind of access to a breastfeeding counselor how much smoother things might go in those first few months.
When Etta was around 4 months old she went through a 2 month phase of not feeding unless we were at home, lying down in a darkened room. Because she was still needing to be fed every couple of hours, this made going out anywhere (or even having people round) immensely stressful. I also suspect that it changed her from a baby who could just drop off to sleep if I left her alone on the living room floor without toys nearby when I spotted her sleepy signs to a child that HAD to be fed to sleep – because she would always end up having her nap while we fed. Although it seems like a long way away now, I remember being obsessed with sleep, and obsessed with whether I was feeding her enough. I can even remember worrying that I had given her an eating disorder – yes I was going completely insane! I ended up doing a lot of expressing and giving bottles of expressed milk, which was also hugely stressful (respect to anyone who does this for any length of time). At this point I started seriously considering quitting breastfeeding. I actually wonder if I should just have been less hard on myself and given some formula in place of expressing. It was at this point that having a mum who was a breastfeeding counselor took on a different dimension. Although she was still an immense source of support to me, in my head was the constant pressure to continue breastfeeding because how bad would it look if I, child of a well known local breastfeeding counselor stopped breastfeeding BEFORE my child turned 6 months?
When I look back on this period of my life, I don’t think I was really thinking rationally at all because I was just SO stressed out. Luckily I confided to my mum about the guilt I was experiencing and she said “You should make the decision that is right for you, not based on the fact that I am a breastfeeding counselor. I will support your decision whether you decide to stop breastfeeding altogether, supplement with formula, or carry on breastfeeding exclusively.” She also advised me to ring the NCT breastfeeding line and speak to a breastfeeding counselor who was not her, so I would be free to talk about all the issues affecting me, without worrying about her feelings in the matter. I can’t tell you how much this changed things! I felt really released from a lot of guilt about my own choices, AND speaking to the helpline resolved many of my issues within about a week. I almost felt a bit silly for not ringing them sooner, but it felt like a huge psychological hurdle to accept that I was having enough difficulties that I actually needed help.
Although we came out the other side of this phase, I do feel like my relationship with Etta was quite affected by it. I got into a mindset of obsessively worrying about sleep and milk intake, AND even better, worrying that my worrying was having an effect on her – yay, I love my brain! I also to some extent tried to hide my worries from friends and other mothers because I perceived these thoughts as neurotic, so I think I was probably putting out a very ‘yes I am super relaxed about all these things’ image, while actually worrying about them a lot. Maybe some of it was an attempt to NOT worry about these things as much, by saying that I wasn’t really that worried about them. Anyway, whatever it was, I don’t think it was particularly healthy , and it created a bit of a disconnect between my experience and the way others perceived me. I found being a new mother a bit like starting at a new school, where I wasn’t sure if anyone liked me and I wondered if I should try to fit or just go with it and be the massive weirdo that I know I am! So basically I now realise I was probably experiencing massive anxiety alongside the whole tiny baby craziness.
Luckily when Etta was about a year old I came across a group called Mothers Uncovered which runs creative discussion groups in Brighton and decided to go along and try it. I’m not really quite sure what I thought the group would be like, but I am so glad that I went. It is described as ‘a support service to new mothers through workshops and arts projects’ but somehow to me that doesn’t quite cover it. It was really quite life changing for me! Through lots of discussions and activities mothers were able to tell their stories and share their experiences of motherhood, in a way that didn’t really happen when I went to parent and baby groups. I realised that I had really lost touch with that ability to live in the present and enjoy tiny beautiful moments with my little girl. I think this is still something that I struggle with, so I wouldn’t say that I just went to the group and then left, instantly ‘cured’ of all the strange thought patterns I’d got into. But it gave me a chance to notice what was going on with ME rather than with my baby, and to start discussions with other people in my life about how I was feeling.
I think one of the things that made me realise it was time to stop breastfeeding Etta was that I started to let my worries about how stopping would affect her get in the way of really listening to how I was feeling about continuing to nurse. I eventually burst into tears after she requested to feed and then suddenly had this realisation that I didn’t want to be feeding her anymore and that I DIDN’T HAVE TO! Sometimes I wish that my relationship with feeding my child wasn’t so fraught with emotion, but I suppose that inevitably our decisions about how we nourish our children will be difficult because they are linked to our love for them.