Looking down at my two-month old baby as he nurses hungrily, and then, hours later, collapses on my breast in a stupor, all I feel is gratitude. I am so lucky.
As a culture, I believe we drastically misunderstand the importance of the breastfeeding relationship as simply a delivery system for what is arguably the nutritional "best".
Instead, it’s my profound conviction that the actual food infants receive from their mothers is only a small part of a countless number of aggregate needs that breastfeeding fulfils, including physical warmth, love, care, socialization, relationship, the basis for a healthy sexuality, the origins of language, the foundation of empathy, and on and on.
The nutrition our children receive via the breast is the least of its benefits. Breastfeeding is primarily a vehicle for love and connection.
I know this runs contrary to everything we’re told, which is that pumping is great, and donor milk is great, and formula is fine, and there is no difference whatsoever between the attachment that mums and babies experience when a baby is breast-fed, vs. bottle-fed (whether with formula or breastmilk).
Speaking though, as a mother who has both breast-fed and bottle-fed her babies, I know this isn’t true.
I know from experience that thawing milk, or mixing powder to put into a bottle and popping a silicone teat into my baby’s mouth is not even remotely similar to holding him to my heart, helping him latch on to my nipple, meeting his eyes as the electrical letdown buzz surges through my body and my milk starts to flow, in response to our mutual love.
A bottle is not the same. It’s a world of difference. Does this mean I love our daughter, whom I mostly bottle-fed, less? God no. No. Our nursing journey and its heartache is part of our story. It’s fine for what took place to have taken place. There’s sorrow there, and sadness and regret, and learning, but this aspect of our relationship doesn’t diminish the love, not at all. But still, it’s not the same.
She and I missed out on the full scope of what that stage of her life and mine might have been. And we’re ok.
Yet it’s almost forbidden in this era of validation-and-inclusion above-all-else, to suggest that not all choices are equal—even if it’s our conviction (as it is mine), that women do indeed have every right to choose, and even if those choices make sense, or are correct, in context. I made a lesser choice with my daughter, which also happened to have been the right choice at the time.
The reasons why many women can't or don't breastfeed are myriad, and include terrible obstetric practices, economic instability, lack of support and education, and certainly, physiological issues, to name a few. For women of colour, racism and the intersecting issues that compound oppression are an ongoing barrier. These are not the fault of individuals, but of a social and political structure—patriarchy—that curtails our full range of healthy expressions of motherhood.
I will never begrudge, or judge the individual women who chose to, or have to, pump, and bottle feed, for any reason under the sun.Again, I did it, which is why its so important to me to speak the truth: bottle-feeding is not the same as nourishing a child with our breasts.