The Motherhood Diaries: Why Are We So Weird (And Judgemental!) About Breastfeeding?

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The pressure in NZ to breastfeed your newborn is immense – and quite frankly, completely unnecessary (and distressing). But oddly, while there is so much pressure to breastfeed your newborn, the judgement seems to swing the other way when it’s deemed you’re breastfeeding for ‘too long’. Alice takes a look at why we’re so weird about breastfeeding, including a look back at THAT Time magazine cover…

Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertilitytrying to conceivepregnancythe fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, children’s mental health and teenagers, fertility issues and everything in between! 

While there were a fair few surprises that came with motherhood, there was one aspect I thankfully felt quite prepared for: the rather intense pressure to breastfeed.

Friends, colleagues – even random strangers stopped me on the street to talk about how, from day dot (or potentially still while I was pregnant), I should prepare myself for the onslaught that would come my way from the – as one stranger called it – “breastfeeding propaganda machine”.

Women told me their horror stories of being shamed by midwives for stopping breastfeeding or moving straight to formula (for a myriad of very good reasons, even though, really, it’s reason enough that you just don’t want to). Another told of how her husband had to smuggle formula into their birthcare facility when her milk simply never came in, but the midwives at the unit “didn’t believe” in formula.

One friend started doing a bottle of formula every night, because it meant her son slept for more than two hours at a time. Her GP said it was a selfish decision.

Another friend switched exclusively to formula at four weeks when her mental health took a dive. The anxiety of worrying whether her baby was actually getting enough milk (exacerbated by the fact that she was just a small baby and wasn’t putting on much weight), was only adding fuel to the fire (if not entirely causing the anxiety!), but rather than her midwife getting onboard with supporting her mental health, she instead scolded her, while she was at her lowest.

In the face of these stories, I was a little afraid, but also keen to give breastfeeding a go (if I could!) so in the run-up I did an online course and read up as best I could do see if there was anything I could do to prepare. Obviously, I soon discovered that nothing can prepare you and it’s really only a skill you can learn on the job.

And at first, lordy, it was hard.

For something that you’d assume would just come naturally, it took a few days, weeks – maybe even a good month or so? – to really get the hang of it.

And even when you’re doing it right, holy hell, it could be uncomfortable.

In that first week, I worked out that I was able to feel when we were doing it exactly right because I’d get contractions in my uterus (apparently breastfeeding does help your uterus to contract back down to its original size? Cool trick, body!), which was obviously no walk in the park after just giving birth and having a delicate wee belly thanks to a c-section wound that was somehow simultaneously both completely numb and completely painful. Even when my latch was “perfect” the let-down still felt like glass breaking inside me – which I was told was entirely normal.

Over the four days I was in hospital every single midwife or nurse on every single new shift had a different technique or approach to breastfeeding. Some even told me outright that the last nurse was wrong and I was wrong for doing it their way and I must do it the way they said or else something catastrophic would happen (like I’d make too little/too much milk or it’d somehow harm by baby, or my boobs might explode – ok, ok, no one said those last couple, but it felt like it was implied?)

“Don’t even think about pumping,” said one midwife. “You must pump for 10 mins after every feed this week,” said the lactation consultant. By the end of the week, at least a dozen people had given me different instructions, or just gone ahead and grabbed a boob and shown me ‘their way’. It was at best, bizarre. At worst? It was anxiety-inducing.

At one point, while I was really feeling the pressure, my partner took down all the giant laminated posters in our room that detailed why ‘breast is best’.

Then, when we got home, one of the best things we did was buy a big tub of formula that sat at the bottom of the pantry, waiting like an insurance policy, should I ever need or want to use it.

It felt like this continued pressure hung around for quite some time. Every Plunket or health appointment included the question ‘Are you exclusively breastfeeding?’ and when I said yes and got a congratulatory gold star from the nurse, I really felt for anyone who had to say no, for whatever reason they were unable or choosing not to breastfeed for.

Because I wanted to leave the house occasionally, I ended up breastfeeding a lot in public (which also land you some weird looks) – but on one of the times when I instead took a bottle of expressed milk, I found myself having to explain myself to a busybody older woman.

She stopped me afterwards and said that at his age (he was eight months) he should still be breastfed. Of course now, (or as soon as I left the conversation, actually) I’m kicking myself that I didn’t tell her to just butt out and mind her own business – but instead I defensively told her that it was expressed milk, to which she apologized (which she should have done regardless).

I did tell her though that it was tricky, because when you’re in a café, you’re apparently either going to have someone tell you that you should be breastfeeding, not bottle-feeding your child, OR, if you do breastfeed, you’ll likely have someone shoot you a horrified look or tell you that you shouldn’t be doing that in public.

YAY Motherhood! There’s so many fun things to navigate!

But over the months that followed, it only seemed to get easier and faster to breastfeed – and once he was on solids, the feeds became further apart and more manageable.

But it was around then, after so many months of pressure, that something curious happened.

Instead of the ‘please tell me you’re still breastfeeding?!?’ questions, I began to get more of the surprised, ‘Oh, you’re still breastfeeding?’ remarks.

Yip, it seems there’s a heck of a lot of pressure to breastfeed, but to only do it for an amount of time that society is comfortable with.

My son has just turned 14 months, and apparently, I’m now more on the side of time where we’re uncomfortable with it.

I never actually intended to breastfeed for this long – I assumed one of us would have needed/wanted to stop by now – but, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s the wrong thing to be doing. It’s not really even something I’ve reflected on until recently, when I’ve thought about having a bit more freedom if we stopped. I mean, I don’t imagine doing it for a whole lot longer, but I also don’t want to stop just because some people think it’s a bit weird.

Manatu Hauora, The Ministry of Health, recommends that you “try to breastfeed your baby exclusively until they are around six months old” – at which time, you can introduce solid food. “You should start your baby on solid food and also continue breastfeeding until they’re at least one-year-old,” their guidelines say.

WHO – the World Health Organisation – changed their guidelines in 2003 to state that women, worldwide, should try to breastfeed their babies until they up to two years of age or beyond. When it was questioned as to whether this was due to access to clean water for formula in developing countries, WHO said the guidelines were for all women, worldwide.

Now, I know this isn’t even in the realm of possibilities for most women – I know I’m in a particularly privileged position in that I work from home and was able to continue breastfeeding through the day when I started back up working. It’s a lot more difficult if you have an office to go to – even though, by law, employers must give unpaid breaks to women to breastfeed their baby or express milk at work and provide the facilities to do so (including a clean, quiet, warm and private room, plus a refrigerator).

When I talked to a few women I know who breastfed, most had actually continued feeding for longer than I realised. One fed her sons until they were 18-months – it was just a feed before work and then at bedtime by that stage. Another fed her kids until they were two-and-a-half, and 20-months. One continued until her daughter was two, without even telling her husband, because she knew that he’d started finding it a bit weird once she could walk and talk well. All of them said they got some weird comments from family members, friends or strangers. One even said that she was one of those judgey people until she had a baby herself and found it completely natural to keep breastfeeding beyond the one-year mark.

So… why is it that we are we often so uncomfortable with the idea?

“People get weird about it, because we’ve sexualised breasts to such a taboo degree, that when we see them being used for the pure function they’re designed for, it’s too foreign to digest,” says my friend Sarah, who breastfed both her children until they were two.

“When you have a baby, you realise that this is what all these body parts we have were actually designed for and it all becomes very mechanical,” she says. “The rest of the world isn’t in that space though and still see breasts as sexual. It’s sad, really.”

One of the most talked about magazine covers this century was a 2012 Time Magazine cover, depicting an American woman, Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her three-year-old son, next to the headline, screaming: ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?

Jamie herself was breastfed until she was six, and since having her own children, became an advocate of the attachment theories of Dr Bill Sears, including his views on allowing children to set their own weaning timelines.

But the image – and headline – caused an immediate uproar (added to by the fact that Jamie’s son Aram, was tall for his age and looked even older than three). Twelve years later, Jamie has reflected on that cover and remembers how shocked she was by the attention that followed. “I saw it in the media before I got to see it on the cover,” she remembers. “People who were awake before I was were sending videos of all the news outlets that were covering it.”

Many women said the image and headline accurately depicted the intense kind of pressure modern women were under, while others deeply criticised the image and Jamie’s decision to continue to breastfeed her son. (An interesting side note here – Alanis Morrisette (yes, Alanis!) was one of the women firmly in Jamie’s corner. So firmly, she ended up writing the introduction and foreword for an attachment-parenting book Jamie wrote in 2019!).

One of the biggest concerns that those who wrote into the magazine had though, was for the ramifications for Aram. They worried about what would happen when that little boy grew up, and his friends saw the cover and then, no doubt, teased him mercilessly about it.

So, what did happen? When Time caught up with Jamie and Aram – who is now 14 – they found that Aram has seen the image. In fact, it’s hanging in his room – his 15-minutes of fame. He says his friends have seen it, and never even asked about it. But should they, he’d be happy to explain, he says.

“I’m proud of it, I like it,” he told Time. I just see myself and my mom. It makes me feel happy that my mom helped people, like, nurse their children in public, so they didn’t feel awkward or nervous.”

Do you have an opinion on breastfeeding, or any aspect of motherhood that you’d like to discuss? Please email us at [email protected]

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