**Please note this article may trigger certain emotions and thoughts if you have experienced any of the following challenges. Do not read it if you feel you may be affected by the content of this mother's personal story. She wishes to remain anonymous but there are links and signposts for further support and information at the end of the article, should anyone need it. These topics are also discussed openly and supported in the aversion support group on Facebook, where any and all emotions and thoughts breastfeeding women have are able to be shared in a safe space with the understanding that secrecy makes nothing better and that you are not alone in your experiences as a mother. **
Growing up I felt ashamed of my body. It betrayed me over and over again. I developed eating disorders and depression. I am skilled at self-harm especially cutting. I have attempted suicide on a number of occasions. Planned it on more. I think we need to talk more about what breastfeeding is like for women who fear their bodies and ultimately how redemptive and healing breastfeeding can be.
I grew up in poverty. My mother is a Catholic and I went to convent schools. My father is an atheist and a dirty pervert. There were posters of page 3 girls on the walls of my house and a woman’s value lay in how sexually arousing she was. Unsurprisingly my parents hated each other. At best they didn’t communicate for months on end. Let’s not go into what it looked like at worst. My father wasn’t interested in being a father but that was ok because my mother and my aunts were loving. Inevitably though when I look back I realise that I felt somewhat lacking, somewhat faulty because my father by his own admission didn’t love me ‘that much’. I remember him very clearly telling me so. I also remember feeling in no way surprised.
When I was 11 my mother told me about periods. She said they were a secret and that men didn’t know about them. So we couldn’t talk about periods with other people. She meant well. When my period came at the age of 12 I was frightened. I cried. I didn’t want to go out. I was uncomfortable in the looped bulky Dr Whites sanitary towel that my mother gave me. I was nervous about going to school and where I could change it. How I would do PE and change into my PE kit in the communal changing area without other girls noticing it. Not a great start. My husband is Sri Lankan. He told me recently about his cousin’s daughter having a party with family members and friends. Because her periods had started. Her journey into womanhood had begun and this was to be celebrated. Oh how I wish we could incorporate this attitude into our culture.
Predictably when my breasts began developing I was horrified. I was self conscious and wished they would go away. At this time I had no concept of breasts existing for the purpose of lactation. My developing breasts drew appraising looks from my father and I hated them for it.
The eating disorders developed in my late teens. It started when I went to university. I was the first one in my family to attend a university and my mother disapproved. I was floundering and lost. Feeling the punishment of hunger felt good. Not eating more than I absolutely needed felt good. Vomiting after the weakness of succumbing to hunger felt good. I felt in control. Able to manipulate things other people couldn’t. I felt somewhat of a superhero. This is when things become a little hazy due to severe weight loss. I do remember feeling pleased when my periods stopped. When I continued to lose weight I would think pleasantly about how perfectly skinny my corpse would be. The less of me the better. Existing was painful. Being alive was painful. It was suffering. Cutting helped as a release especially when I managed to get the slashes of the blade perfectly symmetrical to each other on my forearm or my thigh.
So I obviously got better. I wasn’t perfectly healed but who is?!? I married my best friend. After dropping out of university I went back and finished my degree. I am so proud of that. I trained as a children’s nurse. My husband and I decided to start a family. From my years of nursing I had seen many families struggling with breastfeeding. Many mothers crying with sadness because of feeding challenges. I received three hours of infant feeding education during my nurse training course and I was no help to these women.
So during my pregnancy I decided that I would give breastfeeding a go but if it didn’t work out I wasn’t going to do a number on myself. I wasn’t going to be one of those women crying because of breastfeeding. I knew a bit about the value of breastmilk but knew no breastfeeding friends or family members. I knew I wasn’t breastfed. It wasn’t that big a deal. Right? I didn’t do any breastfeeding education classes and didn’t even consider anything like NCT. It wasn’t something that women like me did. In late pregnancy I found Colostrum leaking from my breasts. I was actually repulsed. I hated that I had no control over my breasts. I felt betrayed. I told no one and pretended that I hadn’t seen anything. Must. Maintain. Control.
So my son was born. Not the birth I planned. I thought he was kind of a bit cute but there was no rush of love. In Recovery I offered him my breast and he latched. He liked being at the breast. The first night in hospital I spent the entire night with him in bed with me and he was latched on. I had no idea of normal baby behaviour or anything like building a supply. I just thought he was a weirdo but went with it. When a Midwife popped her head round the door in the middle of the night I thought she would tell me off for having the baby in bed with me but she just smiled warmly and left. I felt safe. She didn’t even say anything. She just smiled at me and it was a massive comfort.
The next day I began to doubt my milk supply and a different Midwife suggested offering a bottle of formula. So I did. Or rather I tried. My 1 day old son was extremely insistent that he did not want to drink from a bottle. I couldn’t believe it. How many newborn babies turn their nose up at a bottle? How could he be so certain that he wanted to breastfeed? It seems I had been blessed with the smartest baby in the world. I had no choice. I had to breastfeed. And I did. I was uncertain about it. There were many doubts. But I did it. When my nipples were sore my mother brought me nipple cream and never once suggested formula. I remain perplexed by how out of character this really was. But pleased. I developed a mummy friendship with an amazing woman. She was breastfeeding her daughter and we shared a similar bitter sense of humour. She kept me going. She tells me now that I kept her going.
It wasn’t all rosy. Unsurprisingly there was some Post Natal depression but my mother is Irish and I have inherited the luck of the Irish. I had an amazing Health Visitor and she supported me with some CBT: the depression was mild and transient. She encouraged me to train as a Peer Supporter.
I am still incredulous that I was able to provide my beautiful son with the sole source of his nutrition. For six months. And I continued to breastfed him until he was 19 months old. My body did that. My breasts did that. It’s incredible. It’s somewhat unbelievable at times but it’s incredible. I can’t fathom why we don’t talk about anything other the wonder of breasts. I feel sorry for the people who will never get to transfer this life sustaining fluid to someone they love. I feel blessed and privileged and extremely lucky. And grateful. Being able to breastfeed was the most influential factor on how I felt about my body. It was more effective than years of counselling and medications. I know it’s not going to be that simple for everyone but I strongly believe that we need to talk more about this. How do we reach those women who doubt their bodies and who don’t have babies who refuse bottles of formula? How often do we talk to women about how they felt about their body growing up? Isn’t that the beginning of the process that will determine a woman’s chances of breastfeeding success?
Resources which may help others struggling with anxiety or low mood:
The Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org
Mental Health Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
Perinatal Mental Heath Partnership: https://www.facebook.com/PerinatalMHPartnershipUK/
Resources which may help others struggling with eating disorders:
Beat Eating Disorders https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk