by Kerry Round
I became a mother 6 months ago at the age of 38 to a much wanted and loved baby boy, Ellis Rocky. The sunshine is clearly visible in Ellis, his smile is contagious, his joy is evident and his soul is happy and light. As I type he is busy jumping in his Jumperoo, smiling, giggling and singing away at me. He is oblivious to the heart ache and concern that I had in the years before his birth. The worry that one day in the future, I wouldn’t be able to breast feed my own child. I wouldn’t be able to do what was best and what was natural for my son. Or so I thought.
I’m a BRCA 1 carrier which means I have a genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer. Aged 24, I became the then youngest person in the country to have a preventative double mastectomy and reconstruction. Nearly 15 years ago this was quite a controversial course of action but I have had no regrets and having watched my own mother pass away at 35 years old, I was always confident that I had done the right thing and remained committed to that course of action.
The double mastectomy removed all of my breast tissue, my nipples and my milk glands. Cancer can develop in a single cell therefore it was incredibly important to remove every single cell that was there. The decision to breast feed was taken out of my hands. I have no milk glands, it simply is not possible.
Whilst I was confident that my surgery was the right thing to do, the worry that I could not breast feed hung over me like an unwanted guest at a party. When I became pregnant, I grew ever more worried that I would get emotional at the very topic of breast feeding. That I would burst into tears if I saw a mother nursing her child when I could not. My husband, my rock, was always supportive. He assured me that bottle feeding would provide our baby with all he needed, yet I could not shed the guilt that I was not doing right by my child. I had to remind myself, I was alive, and this is and always will be the most important thing. I’m alive to see my child grow.
Anticipating my emotional reaction I advised the midwife of my situation and asked for it to be made clear on my notes that I was not to be asked whether I would breast feed when I had the baby.
In preparation of our babies arrival, my husband and I researched how we could best bottle feed our baby. How to make up the bottles, whether to heat up or cool down, how long to keep the milk for before discarding it, which formula was the best to buy and time and time again we were faced with this statement- “breast is best but if you have to formula feed then ……’. Breast is best. Breast is best. Breast is best. It was everywhere we looked and each time I read those words my heart sank a little more.
Of course, despite this being written all over my notes, it was one of the first things I was asked after Ellis was born “are you breast feeding your baby?” A question that was to be repeated several times during our 7 day stay on the maternity ward. I found myself unable to answer with a simple “No I am not”. I felt I always had to qualify this statement with “I don’t have any milk glands”. I felt I had to justify myself and to explain to total strangers who know nothing about me, that I was unable to breast feed and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to breast feed.
That first night on the maternity ward is a night like no other. The husbands are shepherded out of the ward at 8pm leaving new mums alone behind their own curtains. I was holding a 4lb. 5 week premature baby boy wearing clothes intended for a new born baby of 7lb because we had nothing smaller. I had never changed a nappy of a new born before, never fed a bottle to a new born and now I faced a long 14 hour wait before my husband could return to offer me salvation. The alarm was set for every 3 hours so that I could wake Ellis up to feed him. A feed of just 16ml would take close to an hour to complete before I could snatch 2 hours sleep before the alarm would go off again.
What struck me during the course of that night however was that it wasn’t just me getting up to heat the tiny bottles of ready-made formula, it was every other mother in my room of 4 and many that I could see on the rooms either side. It was this realisation that triggered a reaction in me, why aren’t they breast feeding? They can breast feed so why aren’t they? Their babies deserve their milk, why are they denying them their milk? I became just the kind of person that I was trying to avoid. Ultimately it is non of my business why or how a woman feeds her baby and for whatever the reason that mothers do not breast feed their babies, that is their reason and theirs alone.
Through my pregnancy I met a group of incredible woman through the National Childbirth Trust and since Ellis was 10 weeks old we’ve attended Baby Yoga with Katie and through both these groups I have had my eyes opened on the difficulties of breast feeding and the heroines that are committed to breast feeding despite the irregularity and uncertainty of the feeds; the sore nipples; the leaking nipples; the hard breasts when their babies might have done the unimaginable and slept through the night; the extra stays in hospital when their babies were born just so the midwife could be happy that the baby was latching on and feeding properly; the time spent being hooked up to machines to express milk; being unable to go out to celebrate birthdays because their babies refuse to take a bottle and only take comfort and solace from the boob; being unable to travel very far in the car in case their babies needed to feed; having to do each and every night feed as the fathers, whilst willing, were simply unable to help. All these things I took for granted. Bottle feeding every 3 hours gives you certainty and it gives you flexibility. It also means that daddy can help and enjoy the closeness that feeding brings with the baby.
With formula feeding I think of the hours lost to washing bottles; to the fear that you have used your last bottle and have forgotten to sterilise the next batch; the worry that the formula is causing the colic and the reflux; the allergies to different formulas or to a lactose or cows protein intolerance; the worry about using the right teet size and bottle type; how to sterilise; how to sterilise on the move; how to cool down the formula before your baby has a massive melt down in the middle of a coffee shop and how to spend the weekend with friends without all your feeding paraphernalia taking up their entire kitchen!
I’m not sure what happened or why it happened but I certainly had a shift in my own feelings I had been so consumed with feeling sorry for myself and thinking that I ‘couldn’t do what was best for my baby’, but in the days and weeks that followed the birth of my son I started to appreciate all of the difficulties with feeding for both breast and formula fed babies and I kept coming back to the single most important fact that ‘Fed is Best’.
To all those women who are committed to breast feeding their babies I think you are wonderful. I think you are brave and wonderful and courageous. To those of you who have decided the time is right to formula feed or to mix feed I think you are brave and wonderful and courageous. I think you and your babies are beautiful.
Being a mum is hard and it is incredible. As I feed my baby his bottle and he looks up at me with his big eyes and smiles so that the milk dribbles down either side of his face, I know that I am doing the best for my baby with no guilt, no shame and no judgement. He is wonderful and I hope one day he will think that so am I!
[Authors note: Ellis is still jumping up and down, smiling, laughing and singing. I am blessed]