What is a good mother?
I am a good mother. Sadly, that is a controversial thing to say in today’s world. Women are expected to doubt and second guess every move they make in motherhood. But, my journey has taught me that whenever I put my children’s health and happiness first, I am doing a good job. Today, I want to share my story with you. So many mothers suffer with guilt and confusion when it comes to feeding. They are told by well-meaning family, friends and medical professionals that ‘breast is best’. Then, they find they can’t breastfeed. It is painful and exhausting and impacts their day-to-day life. It is easy to see where the uncertainty stems from. But, in reality, neither breast or bottle is ‘best’. Fed is best. This is what my son, Levi, has taught me.
I had always planned to breastfeed. I knew the statistics about brain development and bonding. My mum told me early on that I may not be able to breast feed. She herself had struggled to feed me. Instead of taking on this advice, it made me even more determined to prove her wrong and breast feed successfully. But everything changed the moment my son was born.
Levi was an Intrauterine growth restriction baby. This means he didn’t grow properly in the womb. Low resistance to infection, low blood sugar, low birth weight and low oxygen levels, all equal a high risk baby. Because of this, I was induced at 37 weeks and three days. He was born with the expected issues. He refused to feed which meant getting his dangerously low blood sugars up, seemed impossible.
My milk did come, but not how I expected it to. I didn’t look, or feel like Pamela Anderson — if you know what I mean! I began pumping as it became clear Levi was struggling. I was only able to get 20–30ml per breast when I pumped. I was trying to feed him every three hours and it would take me two and a half hours each time. It consumed my everyday reality. I felt as if I had no milk and as if I would never feed him properly. I was failing. I was alone in this situation, or so I thought.
The paediatrician was worried and requested for Levi to be topped up with formula. He had lost 10% of his birth weight and required phototherapy light treatment for serious jaundice. He was so drowsy that I often had to strip his clothes off and use a wet flannel just to wake him for feedings. He was diagnosed with severe reflux at six weeks old.
Despite all of this, I was stubborn and refused to give up. I wanted so badly for it to work. I wanted to feel like a ‘proper’ mum. The stress impacted my whole life. Constantly moving Levi from breast to pumped milk to formula and back again, was causing him stress. It strained my relationship with my husband. He advocated for feeding Levi formula but I took this as an insult and became defensive. My husband now says that supporting me while I was breastfeeding was one of the most difficult times in his life.
I was breastfeeding for thirty minutes, then topping him up with expressed milk and formula for thirty minutes. Then I would pump for twenty minutes either side. I was expressing milk seven times a day. I was doing this every three hours, for five months. Is it any wonder that I was feeling the strain? I don’t look back on those days fondly. Of course, I loved every minute I could spent with my new baby. But, perhaps if I wasn’t constantly attached to a pump, straining to get a tiny bit of milk, then I would have had more moments of bonding and joy. Cuddling is much more fun than pumping!
Finally, it had a huge impact on my self perception. I felt trapped in an endless cycle of trying and failing to breastfeed. Medical professionals made me feel like I was a disappointment. Lactation specialists told us ‘we would get there, eventually’. I felt like no one was worried about me or my baby. They were just worried about whether or not I was breastfeeding him.
I felt jealous of other mums who found it easy. Every other mother in my friendship group could breastfeed — so what was I doing wrong? This question plagued me for months. My anxiety became unmanageable. I wasn’t enjoying the bliss of everyday life with a new-born. I was emotionally exhausted. One day, I hit rock bottom. I stood in the shower and sobbed. I cried and wailed — I couldn’t handle it anymore. My husband couldn’t calm me down and ended up calling my mum. She raced home from work and took the time off to look after me. Everyone saw how broken I was.
The moment we began fully feeding formula, life got better. Things continued to get better as my beautiful son grew. I absolutely love being a mother, but I didn’t love every minute of the journey. I always felt that there was something missing. I felt like something was unexplained. Why couldn’t I breastfeed? Until recently, I lived with this constant weight of uncertainty on my shoulders. Then, I took myself and my children to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. The ENT discovered that Levi had severe tongue and lip-tie which had gone undiagnosed. For years, I listened to people tell me that he was just a ‘difficult’ or ‘temperamental’ feeder. Now, I know that in fact, his mouth was physically preventing him from feeding properly. Not one doctor or health professional had checked this. I never even considered the possibility. I always thought I was the problem. I was a bad mother, who couldn’t feed. I know now, that I am (and always have been) a good mother. I have always put my son first. I wish someone had told me their story before I became a mother. I wish someone had reassured me that ‘bottle or breast, fed is best’.