Why I lie about breastfeeding

I lie to everyone about breastfeeding. I tell people that I tried, but I didn’t really. I mean, I did try, but not very hard. The first time I fell asleep and nearly keeled over sideways while breastfeeding Kitty at 3am was also the last time. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is fucking barbaric.’Plus, my evil plan to get Kitty sleeping as much as possible as quickly as possible was based on the theory that babies need to take on the majority of their calories during the day so that they can sleep at night. If I was breastfeeding the paltry amount that expressing told me I was, then this plan was never going to work. Kitty would simply be too hungry. As it was, by the time she was three or four days old, she started crying after an hour’s breastfeeding and wouldn’t go back to sleep. I saw everything she did through the prism of this eat/sleep ratio, so I instantly concluded that she was hungry, gave her two ounces of formula and she passed out until it was time for her next feed.

The thought of having to breastfeed for hours a day, for months, was horrifying, terrifying.

On top of this sleeping obsession I just felt so fucking trapped. The physical constraints of pregnancy, being so heavy and confined to the house, had sent me partly bonkers before I even had Kitty, so the thought of having to breastfeed for hours a day, for months, was horrifying, terrifying. It was like getting to the top of a mountain and feeling like you were so exhausted and pushed to the physical brink that you were going to die but at least it was all over, and then being told that behind that cloud, over there – two days’ walk away – is the actual, real top of the mountain.

I just wanted to get out, get away. I wanted to leave Kitty with my husband for an hour or two hours. I wanted him to be able to feed her, too, and not just with a pathetic dribble of breast milk, which she would suck down in eight seconds and then scream for more.

I, personally, had no problem giving up breastfeeding. Now that I have some perspective on the matter, I know it was a decision I made for my whole family, not just for me. I wanted Kitty to be full. I wanted all of us to sleep. I wanted to not go mad and kill everyone. Plus, I have enough anecdotal evidence (and also some scientific evidence) to convince me that exclusive breastfeeding is not essential.

I am quite unusual in that I was breastfed, exclusively, for six months. My husband was never given a drop of breast milk. Not one drop. One of us is a poorly motivated, under-achieving, anxiety-riddled physical coward with a range of stomach-related problems, weak veins, a permanent cough, hay fever and chronic heartburn. And it’s not the formula baby. And this was formula manufactured in the Seventies! Formula manufactured now is like platinum space dust in comparison.

Even within my own family – my two elder sisters were only partly breastfed and they are far more physically pulled-together, mentally stronger and better adjusted than I am. They eat well, have beautiful skin, strong teeth, firm handshakes, quick wits and fine friends. Do I want my children to be like Giles and my sisters? Or do I want them to be like me?

I wasn’t just breastfed until I was six months old; I was still breastfeeding until I was about three or four.

I do not, now, believe it’s a conspiracy. I don’t think La Leche League are evil tyrants. I would never, ever tell anyone how to feed their children. I can only tell you what I did and how it worked out for me. I partly breastfed both my children for about six weeks and then switched them to formula. Kitty is now three and a half and she is strong, rarely ill, reasonably bright and mostly obliging. She was a complete fucking nightmare to potty-train, but can that really be down to breastfeeding?

There’s something else, too. I wasn’t just breastfed until I was six months old; I was still breastfeeding until I was about three or four. I vaguely remember it. I don’t know why my mother chose to carry on breastfeeding for so long, but I suspect it had something to do with it being difficult to stop after a certain point. She wasn’t really bothered about continuing to do it, and I didn’t know any different, so it carried on.

This worked out fine for my mother. She was 41 when she had me, and not especially interested in going out on the town, or for dinner or to the movies. She stayed at home with us, with my dad, night after night. Having to breastfeed me to sleep every night wasn’t an issue.

But I did not want this life for me. I have grown up to be an independent, brisk, un-tactile, un-expressive and in many ways quite cold person. I really don’t like being touched by people I don’t know, not even a handshake. It’s not a germ thing, it’s just a … I don’t know – I just don’t like it. A benevolent hug from even a good-looking, fragrant stranger would be a major low point in my day. Most of the time when I greet people I put up a hand and wave at them firmly, do not approach for a hug or a kiss. I never, ever hug or kiss my sisters or my father in a greeting – only my children, my husband and my mother.

I love my mother unquestioningly, I am devoted to her. I would take a bullet for her, will be a nurse to her day and night when the time comes – happily! I will howl like a maimed animal when she dies; I will shriek and gibber and tear at my hair at her funeral; I will sit on her grave and waste away. But the fact that I was, once upon a time, so desperately attached to someone else, another person, makes me feel a bit queasy. The idea that someone else would be so desperately attached to me – needing me there at all times of day and night, unable to be put to bed by a father or babysitter – made me feel equally ill.

And I had no other model of breastfeeding to regard. As far as I was concerned, if you had your baby in bed with you even once, even for ten minutes, it would be there until it was eight years old, like I was. If you breastfed beyond six months you would be doing it until the kid went to school. A lot of people think that is a nice thing; I just hear doors slamming shut.

 I know that if he were a woman he would have stayed up all night, breastfed round the clock, made this huge enormous deal out of the whole thing.

My husband did not regard the issue of breastfeeding this way. He believes that life ought to be lived as naturally as possible and he is fanatical about food. If he could grow all his food himself, he would. He eats nothing processed – not crisps, not sliced bread, not cream cheese, nothing – except occasionally for a tin of baked beans. I know that if he were a woman he would have stayed up all night, breastfed round the clock, made this huge enormous deal out of the whole thing. He would have devoted his life to breastfeeding exclusively and been crazed about it. I, the husband in this situation, would have been left to fend for myself, rushing about fetching him things, cooking, clearing up. ‘It’s the only way!’ he would tell people. ‘Those who do not breastfeed exclusively are killing their children! Formula is poison!’

But he was forced to climb down from this position, as I was not going to be that sort of mother and he was not going to be that sort of husband. He saw the benefits, to all of us, of formula feeding. Kitty rarely cried and she slept well. The formula did not make her constipated or ill.

And Giles could get right in there, doing her dream feed at 11pm for weeks, just him and her tucked up in the dimly-lit nursery together. He would breathe in her milky burps and rub his nose against her fat cheeks with no-one else to see, no-one else to interfere, just him and this baby he had longed for.

I was happy, he was happy, Kitty was asleep. I turned away from any breast-versus-formula debate in disgust. ‘It’s a choice,’ everyone whined. ‘It’s your choice.’

No, sometimes it’s not a choice. Don’t speak to me, I would think. Don’t you even dare look at me.

  • This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book The Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here

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