Ah, the breastfeeding debate! No, not that one, which for the record, ends thus: yes, you can whip out a lactating boob anywhere and feed your baby with it; kill anyone who tries to stop you.
I mean the other breastfeeding debate, the humdinger of ‘breast versus bottle’. The most divisive battle since Oliver Cromwell decided royalty wasn’t all that. The new ‘civil war’ amongst mothers and others who stick their oars in for fun and/or profit. (Really, it’s a good comparison: Cromwell wasn’t content to just pummel Charlie into the ground militarily and leave it at that; no, he had to chop his head off as well. Nothing says ‘I think you’re worthless and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever’ like decapitating somebody.)
Here at Boogieville, we have already signed off on all interest in ‘scientific’ studies about the relatives benefits of breast v. bottle unless, and I quote:
”…they suddenly discover that breast milk is actually poisonous, or formula makes people vote Tory...’
Because failing such momentous impact:
‘…these studies are only useful for one thing: being rolled up and used to beat mothers around the head.’
No, ma’am, we do not like breast v. bottle ‘studies’. Just put them down and back away.
Possibly something we don’t like even more however (though we allow love into our hearts while we’re not liking it), is the way women allow themselves to be sucked into this whole bag of crap that making a single choice about a single aspect of raising a child can somehow define you not only as a mother but as an evil she-whore hell-bag. Or not.
The Guardian has a small piece every Saturday called ‘What I’m Really Thinking’, featuring a different ‘type’ person every week – you know, ‘the house cleaner’ (I don’t mind cleaning shit-filled toilets but I hate ironing), ‘the dinner party host’ (I have in the past shot guests who cut the nose off the brie), the ‘shy person’ (I’d really like to be less shy but, well, I’m not, really). That type of thing. Clearly, you can see it’s a ‘fluff’ piece at best.
This week’s is What I’m Really Thinking: the bottle feeding mother. I knew I’d regret reading it, but a Saturday bath means The Guardian magazine cover-to-cover (especially after early dinner family Yo! Sushi, when I’m lying in the water so replete with raw fish the ‘beached whale’ analogy is entirely apt), so I read it. It’s short, so you can read it, too:
‘I see the breastfeeding mothers watching me as I rummage in my changing bag for the ready-made carton of formula. Those looks speak a thousand words, most of which boil down to, “How could you? We’re doing the best for our baby, why aren’t you?”
I feel as if they’re judging me, looking at me as a lesser mother than they are just because I’m giving my baby formula. Do they feel superior to me? Certainly I feel that I have to defend my decision to bottle-feed, justify my choices so they’ll accept me.
They sit…with their beady eyes peeking over their breastfeeding aprons as my son gulps down his 5fl oz. But I can’t help noticing how their looks change – a bit of envy maybe? – when I start to bottle-feed. My guess is they’re thinking,”That looks a lot more efficient than breastfeeding.” You’re right, I want to tell them.
I can almost hear the deafening mental processing in those staid church halls: “She won’t have cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or leaking milk. And her partner probably helps with the night feeds.”
But I don’t want to fall into the trap of judging them too harshly, either. I’d like to have tried breastfeeding, but medical complications took the choice out of my hands. Now that I bottle-feed, I see the advantages. I’d even choose it again next time. It’s really not so bad, I want to tell them, you should try it some time.’
Now, first off, I’m inclined to be sceptical of the piece because it seems simply to be an example of a person’s own feelings of inadequacy being transferred onto others. The other mothers are firstly looking saying “How could you? We’re doing the best for our baby, why aren’t you?”, then miraculously, they look envious? Really? Wow, these women can really work a look or two, can’t they? Transference, much? Not that I judge her for that: what mother is unaware – in this country at least – of the pressure now put on women to breast-feed? And if you can’t, it can make you feel like shit.
But christ alive, if I had a pound for every time, in those early baby days, when I heard a bottle-feeding mother explain to me or to an assembled throng of breast feeders (at least half of whom at any given time would have a baby on the boob – I live in middle class North London* where breast feeding is positively viral) why she was bottle feeding I would be in for free flat whites for life. And I have a serious coffee habit. Anonymous does it here; despite attesting to a high level of satisfaction with bottle feeding, she still feels the need to tell you why she didn’t breast feed.
And to every, single mother who explained to often virtual strangers why she was picking up a bottle rather than exposing a breast I just wanted to say: stop it. Stop explaining to me why. You have no obligation to tell me that your milk didn’t come in, that you got mastitis so bad you considered chopping your breast off, that your baby couldn’t latch on, that your boobs were too small, or too big, or too lop-sided, or that you suffer from tubular breasts, that you’re taking medication for mental illness, or your cat died and you were too sad to produce milk.
You do not owe me an explanation.
I’m of the view that, all things being equal, breast milk is probably superior to formula. Knowing what I know (and trust me, I know more than I’d like to), that’s where I stand on the dividing line. But when the fuck are all things equal? When are any of our choices made in a vacuum? This is feminism 101, people, so it shouldn’t really need explaining, but it seems as if it does.
We make all kinds of choices as mothers that represent compromises between what we view as ‘perfect’ and what we recognise as ‘achievable’ and trust me when I say that you will make far more compromised decisions about your children as they grow than whether to feed breast or formula.
Fortunately for the confused amongst you, I can settle the whole Bottle-feeding: does it make you evil? debate with a few simple questions:
1. Do you love your baby?
2. Do you provide your baby with enough nutrition so that the scale needle goes up with time instead of down?
3. Is your feeding method of choice – discounting any feelings of inadequacy you may feel coerced into having – working for you?
If you answer yes to all three, then you have Bingo. Collect your prize money and go out and celebrate. Which of course, you can do in far more style if you’re not breast feeding.
Personally? I breast fed both mine for two equally simple reasons: 1. neither of the little bastards would take a bottle, and 2. breast feeding – which I hadn’t seriously considered doing but was willing to give it a go – really worked for me; being naturally haphazard and a bit forgetful, I found it a real bonus that I could never go out and forget to take my breasts. Rest assured, however, that if it hadn’t worked for me – for any reason whatsoever – I’d have dropped it like a hot one. I know, I have no shame.
And, so we arrive back at ‘scientific studies’. Yes, they’ll try and guilt trip a bottle feeder. They’ll tell you useless stuff like your child will have one less ear infection a year which, sure, is good, but is in no way better for your baby than having a happy mother. Or they’ll tell you a breast fed baby will perform marginally better on IQ tests than bottlers, which will sound important until you score yourself some Stephen J. Gould, and realise IQ tests are for shit anyway.
And to round it all off (thank christ I hear you mutter), this came along sometime after I’d weaned L’il Boo:
‘Six months of breastmilk alone is too long and could harm babies, scientists now say‘
Six months was the recommended time when L’il Boo was a babba. I had the what were then new-ish guidelines in mind when I was thinking about weaning him. Did I worry when the new study came out? Of course not: I said I had them in mind; I didn’t follow them slavishly. I responded to my baby according to his needs. As long as breast milk seemed to satisfy him, I didn’t introduce solids. When it started to look like he needed something more, I gave him more.
In the event, he actually went 5.5 months before gnashing down on broccoli florets (we followed baby-led weaning principles). And is he showing signs of food allergies or iron deficiency (both cited by the study as possible effects of delayed introduction of solids)? Nope, not so far but you know if he does? I will be satisfied that I did the best I could given what I knew at the time.
What more can you ask for?
*I don’t really, but near enough.