Recently, I took my baby daughter to the park. When I pulled out a bottle to feed her, some nursing mothers a couple of picnic blankets away stopped their conversation to gawp. They exchanged derogatory looks and clutched their suckling children closer to their bosoms. The message was clear. The sooner I left, the better.
I have a similar experience in the park almost every day. Breastfeeding mothers see me bottle-feeding, and they disapprove. ‘Isn’t it sad?’ I overhead one woman saying. ‘Some mothers don’t understand the importance of breastfeeding.’ Some go further — they intimate that the connection I have with my bottle-fed daughter could never be as strong as the one they have with their child. ‘That skin-on-skin contact creates such a bond. You just don’t get that with a bottle.’
I beg to differ. In my daughter’s first months, I often held her to my bare chest. Just because she suckles from an artificial nipple rather than my own, she is no less loved. I find this obsession a middle-class fetish. It’s middle-class in that breastfeeding is a time-consuming luxury that others can’t afford. It’s a fetish because it involves breasts and special underwear. (Ever seen an nursing bra?)
The women who breastfeed most avidly tend to be graduates who drink good coffee (not while feeding) and are politically on the left. They may not be card-carrying feminists, but they believe in a woman’s right to choose. I identify with such women. So why am I , the lone formula-feeder in a park full of middle-class mothers, looked down upon for my decision to feed with a bottle? The answer is a mantra, chanted by lactation consultants everywhere: ‘Breast is best.’ Even TV advertisements for formula-milk companies insist that a mother’s milk is superior. Women should switch to the bottle, they say, ‘when it’s time to move on’ — as if they were talking about a death.
Those who can’t breastfeed are to be pitied. Those who, like me, just don’t want to are anathema. When my daughter was born, I received six letters from hospitals and local surgeries about the importance of breastfeeding. Midwives and health visitors dropped in unannounced, asking to see my latch. (The latch, for those who don’t know, is the attachment your child’s mouth forms around your nipple.) As a mother who used breast and bottle but relied more on formula from the start, I found this distressing. Could some anonymous woman have my baby taken away just because I wasn’t breastfeeding exclusively? Or because she didn’t like the look of my latch? Eight months later, I still find myself subjected to the same interrogations and prejudice. Now, it comes from other mothers instead of nosy midwives.
After my daughter was born, I tried to meet other new mothers. I found a group who met so they could nurse together. It’s like a knitting circle: a time for women to gossip and judge and feel better about their choices. I was the odd one out. When I pulled out a bottle, I was bombarded with questions. Didn’t I know breast milk prevents obesity, diabetes, allergies and leukaemia? Didn’t I worry about not knowing how much formula to feed my child? Didn’t I know nursing helps you lose the baby weight?
The women talked at length about the difficulties of breastfeeding. I couldn’t join in. I couldn’t complain about engorged breasts, or the lack of sleep because she needed to feed every hour. Or that romance was now missing in my marriage because I constantly had a baby latched on. For me, life after the first six weeks, which is when I swapped completely from breast to bottle, was pretty good. I was wearing my pre-pregnancy clothes. My daughter slept in her own room and through the night. My husband and I established a weekly date night and I felt like myself again.
Please don’t think that I’m against breastfeeding. I’m not. It can be wonderful. What I object to is the cult of natural nursing that treats bottle-feeders as pariahs. All mothers are meant to be sisters in the same cause — raising our children to the best of our judgment. Judgment involves choice. While breast is best for some, I’ve decided that it’s not for me. If you believe that women should make their own decisions, please respect mine.