Why mothers subtly bully each other

From my lofty position of having two children both past the recommended breastfeeding stage and both getting on as well as I could hope, I can say, happily, that I don’t care what you do with your kids. Feed them breast milk, or formula, or a McFlurry! It’s nothing to do with me.

But initially, although I was bullish about switching to formula, I wanted other people to agree with me. I wanted my own choices validated. I gobbled up any piece in the newspaper about women who nearly killed themselves trying to breastfeed exclusively, and then they switched to formula and it was all fine and tra la la and they wished they’d done it sooner.

I wanted other people to agree with me. I wanted my own choices validated.

I huddled with other mothers who used formula and we said relieved things about it.

And quietly and subtly, though you could never accuse me outright of doing it, I made the case for formula to any new mother I met. If they complained to me that they seemed to be breastfeeding for hours and yet the child still cried afterwards and wouldn’t sleep, I would say, ‘Maybe s/he is hungry?’ meaningfully. ‘But s/he breastfeeds for hours!’ the new mother would say. ‘Maybe s/he is still hungry, though,’ I would repeat. My final word, if she was too baffled and exhausted to get my point, was always, ‘Formula is not poison, you know. Maybe s/he is having a growth spurt. You could use formula to get him/her through it and then go back to exclusive breastfeeding.’

A friend had to exclusively breastfeed her child for four months in order to prevent passing on some severe genetic allergies. Not a drop of formula must pass its lips. It was very hard for her. The child was big, hungry and screamed after insufficient feeds. She was confined to the house and on a strict feed-pump-feed-pump plan. It was exhausting but she did it. But far from zooming off into the stratosphere with evangelism, she told me, later, that with her second child she would not hesitate to give an additional bottle of formula at night. ‘It was insanity not to,’ she said.

I punched the air. She is my most competitive and over-achieving friend and she agreed with me. I was right! Formula was not poison!

I am a reasonably rational, normal person and yet I found myself doing that awful, unforgivable thing that mothers often do, which is to subtly or not subtly bully other, newer mothers into doing things the same way that they did, so as to assuage fears about their choices. There is safety in numbers, we unconsciously think – if we all do this, it will make it okay.

If I had decided to breastfeed exclusively, and it had been inconvenient for me and difficult and painful and exhausting but I had persevered and done it, I would feel the same way about that. I would have needed to believe that the sacrifices I had made – time, pain, suffering – had been worth something. It can’t all have been pointless! It must have been essential to my child’s wellbeing! I would definitely have tried to suggest quietly to other new mothers that if they didn’t do what I had done, they were doing their child harm.

It’s dreadful, really – and I am extremely relieved that I can leave that instinct far behind me and be a normal person again.

If you tell me that you want to exclusively breastfeed your child and it is very hard and tiring, the baby screams all the time – which once upon a time would have been a red rag to a bull – I will now say, ‘Mmm, yes. You are being very brave. You can only do what you think is best! Would you like some tea?’

This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book 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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