Ten months ago, I stared in the mirror at my reflection. My breasts were painfully engorged like they might explode and I thought to myself 'I'm going to need a sense of humour to get through this'. These days, on the rare occasion I go for a night out baby-free, I joke that my boobs double up as a timepiece. Seeing the funny side has definitely helped. But support in its various forms is the main reason I'm still breastfeeding today.
Three weeks in, I still felt sore, exhausted and I was ready to give up. One of the hardest things was the relentless nature of the feeding. It seemed I hardly had time to catch my breath between one feed and the next and I hated the feeling of being so attached. But gradually, the breast pain disappeared and my son could go for longer between feeds. From that point on, I started to enjoy feeding him and I felt like I was doing something important.
I quickly realised that breastfeeding is a contentious issue. It would be comforting to think all friends and family would support you unconditionally, but I learned that each person brings with them their own world view that is inextricably linked to their attitude towards breastfeeding. Overall, my family was great and even family members that had never been around breastfeeding women were supportive. However, I suspected that some thought it was a lot to put myself through when there was an easier option. Following my lead, my husband learned all about breastfeeding when I was pregnant and he was my biggest supporter when things were hard.
Friends were generally supportive but those with no experience of breastfeeding found it hard to grasp the day-to-day commitment that is required. I also sensed a tension when talking about breastfeeding with mums who haven't breastfed, because society has created a 'them and us' culture between breast and formula-feeding mothers. This division is socially constructed and no-one wins: formula feeding mums can feel blamed and shamed for going against the adage 'breast is best' and breastfeeding mums are often portrayed as holier-than-thou earth mothers or exhibitionists.
One organisation that understands the cultural politics of breastfeeding is the international charity La Leche League. Their ethos is mother to mother support, so over time I've benefitted from advice as well as sharing my own experience. The whole thing relies on reciprocity to make it work. I used to think that once I got the hang of breastfeeding the learning would be done. But feeding a wriggly, distracted ten month old has different challenges to feeding a newborn and it's always good to speak to someone who's been there before you. The structure of the organisation is also such that there are no so-called 'experts'. A new mum sharing her story can help other women just as much as advice from a volunteer with decades of experience. I also received NHS support, but the advice was inconsistent and the support structures seemed more designed to react to problems rather than providing on-going encouragement for what can be a lonely struggle.
When feeding out in public, I've never noticed any negative comments or strange looks. On the one hand, breastfeeding gave me lots of freedom as I could go anywhere without having to think about bottles or sterilising. But on the other hand, I was the only one that could feed my baby and it sometimes felt like a lot of pressure.
Reflecting on my personal experience, I realised that I can't disentangle it from the wider cultural issues around breastfeeding. I now know many women who feel they didn't get the right support to continue breastfeeding. I started by borrowing books from the public library and found out about La Leche League through a birth charity, but I was fortunate that these resources were locally available. Of course, not every mother wants to breastfeed. But of those who do, it's a striking statistic from the Better Births Maternity Review that ninety percent of women say they stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. It's understandable that the support from an over-stretched NHS can fall short of the mark, but it seems to me that the NHS is missing an opportunity to signpost to organisations such as La Leche League. My health visitor didn't even seem to know they existed and something as simple as joining the dots could help other women.