eirinie carson on the pressure to breastfeed

Have you ever breastfed?  

It can be a painful experience, one with a lot of trial and error because even if you are one of those lucky people who can afford a lactation consultant, it is still not a skill you can outsource. I took the Breastfeeding for Dummies class at my local hospital when I was 7 months pregnant. I took studious notes. After I gave birth to my daughter I listened to the postpartum nurse, and lucky for me it was relatively easy. My daughter worked with me, we got her mouth in the correct position (wider than you’d think possible) and my boob in the correct position (like a hamburger you’ve mashed between your sleep deprived fingers). Milk begun to flow. I thought — easy! That was easy! What were all those pep talks for?    

And then it hit. Your nipple skin, despite whatever wild and crazy times you had in your early twenties, has never experienced the level of saliva and sucking that a newborn will inflict. The skin will dry out and then crack. It will do what skin does when it is wounded, and it will scab and bleed. And throughout all of this, you will have a baby who wants to eat, who needs to eat.  

Even in the dreamiest scenario, breastfeeding is hard on your body. Add to this a work schedule you cannot get out of, other children, partners who may expect you to be fulfilling your usual obligations (which… DM me, none of us should have partners like THAT), it is too much. And yet, according to a study published in the journal of Maternal and Child Nutrition, many women and primary caregivers feel guilty if they choose to feed their child formula. But formula is foolproof (foolproof when you live somewhere where it isn’t hard to come by, cough cough). It is nutrient rich, it has been perfectly balanced to feed our children and give them everything they need. It can ensure that if we have another caregiver in our lives, the responsibility of feeding a newborn doesn’t fall solely on the person who gave birth. 

Postpartum is so much, and in America we get very little support: 12 weeks parental leave (only 8 of those come with benefits) and our first postpartum visit with our doctor can be 6 weeks out from the birth. Six weeks! With stitches or aches or bleeding or hemorrhoids! I remember that, despite an OBGYN that I adored, those weeks stretched out to a worrying amount of time. I found myself googling any and all symptoms, and I think it is a truth universally acknowledged that the internet is not a substitute for a reliable doctor. And it’s not like this everywhere, no. A better option is possible. In Germany, for example, you can take up to three years parental leave, and you can even split it between parents. Imagine that kind of support! You can even work up to 32 hours a week and do part time leave, ensuring your ability to keep earning. 

Perhaps if here in America, we had a little more support, a little more job security, the task of breastfeeding would feel less breakneck and disorientating. How can you figure out how to formula feed, designate a substitute caregiver, and rush back to work to catch up on what you missed? And then, once you get to work there is the guilt of leaving your children, the pumping in an unsanitary public restroom, the dip in milk production. 

For the parents I know that breastfed, the resounding complaint seemed to be that with breastfeeding there is little freedom. Nights out begin to feel like day release from a minimum-security prison, and often your time will be eaten up by mundane tasks like counting how many freezer bags full of milk you have. The endless pumping and bottling and freezing can feel transactional — if I pump 8 ounces I can go out for 4 hours, if I pump 12 maybe I can even have a drink.  

I stopped breastfeeding my children at one year old

This wasn’t a choice created by anything other than freedom. For me, the stress of a newborn was heightened by the stress of milk production and feeding schedules, and the minute I felt ready to hand that responsibility over to my partner, I did.

One friend is currently breastfeeding her 3-year-old. She described to me the pressure on her from family and friends and even strangers to stop but for no other reason than the feeling her child shouldn’t still be breastfeeding. A judgement call no one should be able to make for you. What is it we find jarring about seeing an older child breastfeed? Why does it bother us? This friend of mine does it at night and naptime for her child. It’s not a meal substitute but a comfort, and why, she posits, should she take that away from her child in a world bereft of comforts? People would caution her not to breastfeed her child at night, citing the need to self soothe. For a while, this guilt worked, until she started thinking of all of the ways her and her partner rely on external things to soothe — noise machines and black out curtains and melatonin… It is ok, she reasoned, not to expect my newborn, my infant, even my small child, to be totally independent.  

I stopped breastfeeding both of my children at one year old. This wasn’t a choice created by anything other than freedom. For me, the stress of a newborn was heightened by the stress of milk production and feeding schedules, and the minute I felt ready to hand that responsibility over to my partner, I did. I began to feel suffocated by the pressure. I was never not touched by another human, either my 5-year-old tugging on my sleeve to wax lyrical about Octonauts, or a mouth on my body quite literally sucking all of my nutrients. I was touched out; it was a mental health choice I made to quit breastfeeding. If I lived somewhere that the act of caring for children was respected and supported, would this have been different? Maybe.  

And yes, the counter argument is that our bodies have been producing enough to raise babies since the dawn of time, before nannies and PTO and breast pumps, why not rely on that? But women and people who could give birth* at the dawn of time didn’t have a boss expecting you back at your desk, medication that you need but know you shouldn’t be taking, not to mention all the people who have deep and LOUD opinions about where and when you should be feeding a starving child with your body. 

The summation of my talks with friends that have breast or bottlefed could retitle this article to: “Guilt." Guilt and Shame. The driving forces of so many of our parental fears. What if I am doing it wrong? What if this messes them up? What will people think? If this resonates with you at all I urge you to look at your child, pay attention to what happens when you feed them, bottle or boob. Maybe they grab your finger. Maybe they look into your eyes. Maybe they snuggle. They are sated, they are cared for, they are loved. What more could this world want? Mix that formula, whack that nipple out, who the f*ck cares. 

Not me.  

*Sure, you need producing mammary glands or breasts to breastfeed, but a lot of people with breasts find this is not something they are capable of. A lot of people who have breasts that are capable do not identify as women. So how do we include them? The plight is our language. And this language should not ostracize, it should seek to be inclusive. We are not the be all and end all — as the Webb telescope shows us, the universe is far more infinite than most of us ever thought possible. Our stay on this planet will be brief, as is a human’s way, and it will not mean much if anything in the grand scheme of our universe's existence, and so who are we to decide the parameters for being a parent? Mind your business.

Eirinie Carsonis a writer, model, former Londoner, and mom of two currently based in California. A regular contributor for MOTHER, she recently landed her first book deal and is already working on her second book covering all things postpartum. Follow @eirinieeee or check out more of her writing over on her website.