The Sisterhood

Something happened yesterday to remind me how motherhood, as soon as you enter the trenches, goes from concept to sisterhood: suddenly you are tapped into a network of other women who are dealing – or have have had to deal – with much of the same hopes, fears, anxieties, challenges etc.

But where is the line between personal experience and empathy for those having a different, sometimes more challenging, journey? Should those experiencing the latter, with additional challenges, ‘man up’, or should the former make more effort to don the other’s shoes and have empathy? Or both?

The incident in question that got me mulling on this was small, but it did get me thinking: someone in a local group shared an amusing picture of a toddler mistaking a mannequin for a real woman, and latching on. The caption was ‘real mamas are best’.

A lot read it as a cute/funny/a joke – can absolutely understand how – but others immediately reacted differently, seeing how the phrasing used could be problematic when considering those who are struggling right now to breastfeed, don’t feel like a ‘proper’ mum, or – as my experience goes – have people around them commenting negatively on the fact they’re formula feeding.

Being affected by others’ comments was never an issue for me personally, I’m relieved to say, though I’ve seen people really hit hard by others’ words. With twins in different locations for a month, and one tube fed who projectile vomited from extreme reflux up to 30 times a day until he was 14 months, breastfeeding would have been, 100%, a logistical impossibility for me. We had a complex pregnancy and knew formula feeding was likely to be our road, and had done the relevant research. Interestingly when I asked in my NCT course for info about up-to-date guidelines I was told, no, we don’t give info like that as we only actively promote breastfeeding. Okaaaaay… not very helpful. What happens when that woman, determined to breastfeed, can’t but has no info and a screaming, hungry child? This approach by them is hugely problematic in my opinion, especially as to formula feed properly there is a really specific method, and – having been trained by Great Ormond Street Hospital about best practice – I so often see parents out and about, mixing up bottles in such a way that won’t kill the bacteria in the formula powder, which can be incredibly dangerous for little ones.

But my own body made that final call anyway: the trauma of my son nearly dying on day 5 meant I lost my letdown, and even though I’d been breastfeeding his healthy sister successfully to that point with mix feeding, as I wasn’t producing enough for her – not to mind feeding a second newborn also who wouldn’t latch so was getting his milk through hand expressing – it just wouldn’t physically come out anymore. It was the least of my worries at that time, though.

For so many, the way you’re treated when you formula feed can be incredibly affecting, and I know some who’ve had postnatal depression triggered by the fact that – despite doing all the research – breastfeeding didn’t work, added to that the fact people feel they can be quite judgemental. If I had a penny for every time someone saw me feeding and decided to tell me about someone with twins who successfully breastfed them… “isn’t that amazing?” Erm, to be honest, right now I’m just about able to keep these two and myself alive, but round of applause to your mate. I’ve even been called lazy when NG-tube feeding my son – maybe 2/3 months old at the time – in public.

What surprised me a little in the online conversation was, despite others having a similar reaction to me, so many came back to say, well, I formula fed and I personally don’t see this post that way, so there’s no problem.

To that I say: does that mean people who feel a bit jolted by this have to, therefore, just “get over” their issue? Is your experience the barometer here?

Or is it not possible to understand people will have different reactions to yourself, and that the best thing all round is to have a bit of empathy and sensitivity.

We’re all on this crazy train together, and need to support each other, and build each other up, and not push down. When I see women not having empathy with others who might be having a difficult time, or feeling a bit smug because things are going more smoothly for them versus the women around them for whatever reason – baby instantly took to the boob… everything just slots into line – it does make me sad. While this parenting journey is one of the best possible, it can be lonely and isolating, and I know I personally feel at my strongest surrounded by people who try to build me up and help. So my pact is to continue as much as I can to do this, and I urge you to do the same!

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