I’m all for women breast-feeding…or bottle feeding…or a combination of both. Yet I feel like I’m in the minority. I know this is a charged topic and I have waited posting this hoping somehow the right words would come through the heavenly blogosphere and onto the page — and it hasn’t happened. So I’ll make an attempt.
I haven’t posted for two weeks because I have been attending to a girlfriend who nearly bled-out giving birth to her premature twin boys. Fortunately after spending time in an incubator, the boys and their mum have finally been released home.
Since then her friends, family and husband have been taking shifts as she is having difficulty feeding and settling the babies; as well as feeding, resting and healing herself. Two nurses have come to her house to instruct her in how to feed, answer any questions and generally assess how she is coping. We are fortunate in Australia to have this sort of free service as my American friends do not.
But this is not the only difference. In the US, given that most women do not have paid maternity leave and/or have circumstances in which they need to return to work as soon as possible. Statistically American women return to work after 6 weeks leave. (I am not going to go into the political side of this issue.) My experience is that public breast feeding is generally frowned upon. Consequently women who do attempt to breast feed find it untenable. The bottle usually ends up being the norm, perhaps with breast-milk or more likely, formula.
In Australia we have 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and 52 weeks unpaid parental leave, with the employer obligated to keep that job open until they return. Most of my friends and clients take at least a year off work. We also have a very strong push from midwives, nurses and the Australian Breastfeeding Association to educate women on how to breast-feed. There seems to be popular understanding (maybe not support) of public breast-feeding as well as well-publicized information on the benefits of breast-milk over formula. So breast-feeding ends up being the norm…seemingly the only choice.
In the 60’s my Aussie mother-in-law was blasted under icy cold showers by the nuns when she could not breast-feed any of her 8 children. Last week my girlfriend was told by one of the nurses that she was a “bad mum” for not being able to breast-feed (though her body is struggling to heal an infection from the surgery that saved her life and is unable to produce).
Both women are scarred from this experience 50 years apart from each other. Like my mother-in-law, my girlfriend is finding it hard to accept that her body is letting her down and that somehow if she tries hard enough that she will be able to produce this elixir of life. She will be a “good mum”. The pressure on both women (and many others around the world) as new mothers is unbelievable and unnecessary.
I know that breast-milk and the experience of breast-feeding is scientifically proven to be better for both mother and baby. Not everyone has this option and I’m supportive of those that do. Instead of judging those who bottle-feed I try to look at a broader landscape:
- First and foremost I look at fostering self-care and self-belief in women — we then support healthy moms and babies.
- I look at the reality that babies need comfort and food from relaxed mothers, regardless of the method.
- I look at the fact that stress limits milk production.
- I look at babies whose mothers died giving birth, who have survived breast cancer or are drug addicts and cannot breast-feed them.
- I look at the fact that we have clean drinking water, sterilization methods and safe bottles in the countries I’m comparing.
- I look at my husband’s Aussie family and generations of Americans like myself who were fed formula — another generation later we are healthy.
- I look at the possibility of quiet clean feeding and pumping rooms.
- I look at the practicalities of bottle feeding and see the opportunity for dads to be gratified by feeding their babies as well.
- I look at shared parental responsibility which can begin at infancy.
And I think maybe there is an upside to bottle feeding too.
In my opinion my friend and her husband will be great parents. Their commitment to family, the love they share and have shown these boys and the sacrifices they have already made is evidence. They are not alone. There are many, many great parents struggling with what is the right approach to caring for and rearing their children. There is no one-size-fits-all to parenting.
Before you give well-intentioned advice, please remember: Even if we’re part of their extended family, we are not this family. Even if we are medical practitioners, parenting experts, mothers or grandmothers we are not that new mother. It is not our job or our right to put our beliefs on the “right way” for that family. It is their right to make choices that best suit their family. For those of us supporting that family it is our job to do just that – listen to their wishes and support them.