This post is a little different to my others because it is personal. I want to share more of my momlife journey with you so where better to start than at the beginning, with one of the first challenges I had to deal with when becoming a mom.
No one tells you before having kids how difficult breastfeeding really is. The phrase “breast is best” is one I have constantly heard over the years and one that I myself have drummed into my patients. My breastfeeding journey was a time in my life when I have never felt more incompetent. I have spent so much time over the years ‘lecturing’ expectant parents and new moms about the benefits of breastfeeding and even shown some moms how to latch correctly. I would have thought that with all my knowledge I would grasp this breastfeeding skill from the beginning, but I did not.
It took two midwives and three lactation specialists to finally tell me I had flat nipples. Clearly, I have never looked at my breasts properly. With this newfound information I went out to buy a range of different nipple shields thinking this would solve my problem. After 2 weeks of becoming obsessed with breastfeeding I realised my daughter was not gaining any weight and was in fact losing it. So I decided to scrap the shields and embrace my breastpump.
I exclusively pumped for three very long months. I sometimes think that this required even more effort than the breastfeeding. I had to pump at regular intervals throughout the day and night to ensure a good milk supply, since the suction from a pump is not as efficient as the suction from a baby in stimulating milk production. After three months, I went back to work. The pumping was going to be even more difficult and to be honest I was a bit over constantly having to sterilise the parts. And so began my quest to find the best formula.
I remember staring at that formula aisle for a really long time feeling overwhelmed by all the options available. Of course I knew some names like NAN, Isomil and S-26, but there were so many more. I had no idea what the difference between all of them was (they don’t teach us this at med school) so I asked someone for help. You know what I was told? “I am not allowed to tell you anything about formula”. I was now really confused and very angry.
Before the 80’s, women were encouraged to formula feed (obviously to the benefit of the big pharmas). Unfortunately such messages were exploited in underprivaledged communities. This had devastating consequences with rising infant mortality rates in these areas. I won’t go into any detail about the Nestlé formula scandal but it did cause a global uproar and now there is a code in place which restricts the marketing of breast-milk substitutes worldwide in order to protect breastfeeding. South Africa has incorporated this code into legislation and this is why it is so damn hard to get any information about formula. Our former health minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, even suggested formula be banned throughout the world stating it is “no different from skin lightening creams”. Yes, seriously, this comparison was made.
As if being a mother isn’t hard enough, we now have to find time to do our own research or pay to get this information by going to see our Paediatricians (and I don’t even think they know everything there is to know about formula). If breast is best and if this code is so effective then why are we constantly being bombarded with confusing messages. On one end breastfeeding in public is still very much taboo yet everyone tells us we need to breastfeed. On the other end we should not formula feed our babies yet bottle feeding is easier on the eye and we all need to go out and buy those new self-warming bottles.
Shortly after I stopped pumping I took Eryn to a birthday party. Most of the moms there were successfully breastfeeding either their infants or toddlers. All these women spoke about the entire morning was breastfeeding. I never said a word because I felt ashamed and excluded. In hindsight, I am angry at myself for having felt that way. I was sitting there with a very healthy baby girl on my lap and so what if she was being formula-fed.
I’m sure we can all agree that breast is best but I think we are taking things a little too far. I would like to see the narrative change to “fed is best”. I don’t deny the benefits of breastmilk but this may not work for everyone. The success of breastfeeding is a complex combination of many factors. All it takes is for one wheel to come off and then the whole ride can become very bumpy.
We live in a society where freedom of choice is celebrated. Why then are mothers judged so harshly for the feeding methods they choose? Since becoming a mom I have learnt that mothers are the harshest critics and supreme court judges. We really need to take a step back and start to create a safer all-inclusive space for mothers to exist. A space where single, divorced and widowed moms, breast and formula feeding moms, moms with post-partum depression and anxiety, adoptive and foster moms, working and stay at home moms, biological and stepmoms can all be celebrated as the real mothers they are.