The tragic death of Florence Leung, a young mother suffering from postpartum depression, could, at least in part, have been due to pressure to breastfeed. When her husband, Kim Chen, talked to the media about her suicide, he spoke out against the massive pressure on mothers to breastfeed. It’s a pressure he recalls starting for his wife in prenatal classes and maternity wards—it’s one I’m sure a lot of mothers are familiar with. When breastfeeding doesn’t go smoothly or just isn’t possible for whatever reason, we’re made to feel inadequate or as if we’ve failed in some way.
As I waited for my midwife appointments, I was certainly surrounded by the same “Breast is best” posters and leaflets Chen describes—the ones that not-so subtly suggest that a drop of formula would not be as health-giving as my own milk for my baby. Logically, I knew there was no way to be sure I would be able to breastfeed, let alone want to when the time came. But those posters made it look like formula was not an option. Plus, there were all those countless articles telling me I would risk my child’s health, happiness, IQ as well as mother-baby bonding by not breastfeeding exclusively for six months. It can feel as though there is only one right way to feed a baby.
Luckily, I had a role model to prove that formula raises healthy, happy children—my sister had exclusively formula-fed my nieces. Thanks to her, I didn't buy into everything we’re told about breast milk. My research told me that breast milk only gives slight protection against stomach bugs, it’s not miracle food. I made a conscious decision that breastfeeding was simply something I wanted to do, not something I had to do. That distinction was, I believe, the most vital step in my mental preparation for breastfeeding—I was prepared not to breastfeed. And that, it turned out, was very freeing.
“If I can, I will. If I can’t, or in the end don’t want to, that’s fine too,” I repeated to myself and anyone else who broached the topic, which, when you’re pregnant is a lot of people. One of the reasons I didn’t go to antenatal classes was to avoid the barrage of pro-breastfeeding information. A male friend who’d attended with his wife had told me how the teacher bristled when he suggested bottle-feeding was a way of sharing the night feeds. “That’s no reason to break the mother-baby bond,” she admonished.
I knew that was just pure propaganda. My sister has no lack of bond with my bright, healthy bottle-fed nieces. I have many fond memories of my own of getting up in the middle of the night to bottle-feed my eldest niece, completely besotted with her. In fact, it was when putting the youngest to bed with her bottle that I knew for sure I wanted to have my own baby one day.
So the next step in my preparation-for-breastfeeding-by-preparing-for-not-breastfeeding-plan was shopping. I bought a sterilizer and different bottles and teat sizes, bibs, sterilizing solution and a manual breast pump. I also bought a maternity bra and breast pads but I told myself that, whichever kit I ended up needing, it wasn’t a big deal and I wouldn’t be “failing” at anything, least of all being a good mother. I even took two bottles of ready-made formula to the hospital with me so I had backup from the first day if the nurses weren’t supportive of both options. Before my milk came in, I decided that, though I'd be disappointed not to breastfeed, “fed is best” and feeding my son whichever way worked was all that mattered.
I was lucky and breastfeeding came relatively easy. But even once breastfeeding was well underway, I made efforts to keep a balanced perspective. I know some women experience a lack of support and shaming for breastfeeding in public but I’ve had nothing but praise and congratulations. I ignored all of that, too. I knew all too well that the admiration would all dry up if my milk did, and that getting a bottle out might bring judgment from those very same people. Part of not giving a damn what anyone else thinks about breastfeeding is also not getting hung up on the praise. I was simply feeding a baby with one of the options available and I didn’t need praise for the luck that my first choice was working out.
By refusing to give any mental space to the relentless pressure to breastfeed, I gave myself the best possible chance to do it. Funnily enough, now my son is approaching his second birthday, I’m hearing the beginnings of the opposite social pressure with “You’re still breastfeeding?” I guess two years of not paying attention to what anyone thinks about breastfeeding has been good training because it turns out I don’t care what anyone says about that either. I’ll do what feels best, just like I have been doing.
We need to give all mothers that opportunity to figure out what works best for them and their babies. Of course, postpartum depression happens for myriad reasons but we can remove at least that one factor. It’s time to stop the formula shaming and start supporting mothers.