The young couple at the table next to me at the restaurant confessed that this was their last supper – at least their last as a carefree couple.
Their first baby was due the following Tuesday, the young mother-to-be said, as she instinctively caressed her stretched belly. We chatted amiably about baby names, genders and their hopes and dreams.
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked.
“Breastfeeding,” she said, without hesitation.
It made me wonder what we – the older generation – had done to create such fear.
Why is it that the very things that should unite women seem to divide them?
There is the obvious problem of breasts having been so sexualized that their natural function now appears unnatural.
Then there is the modern world’s tendency to segregate generations so that young women seldom have strong role models for breastfeeding.
Many women do not hold a baby in their arms until they birth their own, and if they do chance to see a baby being breastfed in public, it is likely to be discreetly shielded by a blanket.
I was no different. The only person I ever saw breastfeed was my aunty Connie, my father’s sister-in law.
I was about 12 when Aunty Connie’s fourth child, Angela, was born but it wasn’t until Angela was about 14 months old that my parents managed to make the long trip from Mentone to Leongatha to see the new baby.
I distinctly remember the shocked look on my parents’ faces as they watched Angela, with her full head of curly hair and toddler shoes, hanging off Aunty Connie’s nipple as if it was a piece of old chewing gum, as she regarded her visitors with one knowing brown eye.
My parents rarely agreed on anything, so it was with great interest that I listened to their mutual tut-tutting on the way home about “primitive” behavior and “peasants”.
However, this failed to deter me when I had my own children. Aunty Connie became my role model, so much so that I feared that I would outstrip her and be breastfeeding my children when they visited me in the nursing home.
What made it easy for me? It was not just the large impression left by that day, it was the expert advice that I received in the hospital when my son was born.
Like all new mothers, I was terrified that there would be no milk and that my son would starve to death.
And like all new mothers I didn’t know what to do with this ferocious infant that was rooting around at my front with primal determination.
I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten the name of the kind lactation nurse who fetched a pillow and laid it on my lap and then laid the baby on his side and firmly positioned him so that he faced my breast. She then expertly guided the baby’s mouth to the breast, encompassing the whole areola, so that he latched on correctly.
Of course I didn’t get it right when she left and I tried to do the next feed alone. But she came back and fixed it, again and again, and later visited me at home, a kindness that I will always remember.
She also told me how breastfeeding worked – that you didn’t need any special type of breasts, and that it was demand and supply. The more you fed, the more milk you had. The less you fed, the less milk you had. This was especially important in the early days, she said.
Luckily, newborn babies insist on feeding a lot, which stimulates the supply, so the more you listen to your baby, the more likely you are to succeed.
As a result of correct latching on, I rarely got sore or cracked nipples and breastfeeding soon became so natural that I could do it while shelling peas and organising a dinner party for eight.
The other thing that made a huge difference was having a healthy full-term baby with a strong sucking instinct, who was only occasionally colicky and had no reflux or other digestive issues. And being able to stay in hospital for five days – until my milk came in and I had gotten the hang of things.
Add to that, good tough olive skin, time off work with no other children’s demands to exhaust me, and a supportive partner, and it was a recipe for success.
Of course, there were one or two occasions when I got mastitis from engorgement, and there were times when my breasts seemed empty and I worried that the milk had gone, but thanks to the support I received, I was encouraged to persevere.
So if you didn’t receive this type of support, and your baby was sick or you were sick, you had no support at home, were exhausted, confused and in pain, and it just seemed easier to give up, please don’t blame yourself. Blame society.
And if you are expecting your first child now and are terrified of breastfeeding, remember to demand support, or if you are not up to it, have an advocate who can demand it on your behalf.
It takes a village to raise a child, but only if the village is helping and not judging.
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