Frenchitude Lesson #41: Remove The Right and Wrong From Breastfeeding

First of all, I shudder to think of all the weird porn ads I am now going to get on my Google AdSense sidebar because I have written the word “breast”.

Secondly, some men may want to skip this post. If you are neither a New Man nor a French Man, today’s topic may make you a teensy bit squirmy.

My little sister Jayne is due in August and is presently attending a bouquet of pre-natal classes – some definitely more useful than others. Reading her emails about them has given me flashbacks of how it was for me when I had Charlotte, and how different (not to mention a lot less traumatic) that experience probably would have been if she had been born in France instead of Canada.

When I had Charlotte ten years ago, a militant pro-breastfeeding atmosphere reigned on the West Coast of Canada, where she was born. For all I know things may have greatly evolved and improved since then. I dearly hope so.

Just like Jayne is doing now, I attended all the requisite pre-natal classes that drilled home the fact that EVERY woman can breastfeed if they just try hard enough. It was very strongly implied that if you chose not to breastfeed or “could not’ (because clearly you were not invested enough in the whole breastfeeding thing to begin with) you were doing your child an unfathomable disservice. Bottle feeding was depicted as tantamount to child abuse.

I for one was all psyched up to breastfeed. YooHoo! Ready to go!

Admittedly, the unexpected C-section threw me a bit but I was still bound and determined. This was my baby, I loved her, and I was going to do things the RIGHT way.

Small Problem. No matter how hard I tried or how many hours Charlotte spent sucking at my body, I produced no milk. Charlotte cried all the time and began to lose weight. But because breastfeeding was of course the only RIGHT way to feed a baby, the nurses urged me to keep trying, and to keep trying harder.

So I kept trying. Charlotte became skinnier and more sickly with malnutrition-induced jaundice (although I didn’t know it at the time – that’s the problem with the first time – you don’t know anything at the time).

The doctors and nurses sent me home despite the fact that Charlotte, although born extremely healthy, was by now not in good shape, nor heading in the right direction. Don’t give up! the medical staff admonished me as I left the hospital. Breast is best!

Those first few days I spent sitting in my armchair in our apartment in Vancouver with a crying, fretful and STARVING baby gnawing away at my breasts, trying to extract nourishment that just wasn’t there.

I fell apart. I was not only exhausted, but an unfit mother. I must not love my baby enough, because if I was trying hard enough it would work. Charlotte’s weight kept plummeting and she got sicker and sicker. I was watching, horrified, as my baby wasted away before my eyes.

Finally I was sent to a lactation consultant, because if Charlotte lost a few more grams she would have to be hospitalized for “failure to thrive”.

The lactation consultant informed me that the fact that I was “chubby” must be interfering with my milk production. Great. MORE guilt. It WAS my fault.

I was just about ripe to be carried off to a mental institution at this point. However, thanks to what I now believe must be divine intervention, Charlotte’s weight loss and worsening jaundice did spur the lactation-consultant-from-hell to send me to a paediatrician.

The pediatrician took one look at me and one look at Charlotte and said, “Stop This Nonsense!“.

“You have done your best”, he said to me. “But breastfeeding is just not going to work for you. Go and buy your daughter formula and give her as much as she can drink. Repeat as often as you can. And for god’s sake, try to get some sleep.”

He then made a very livid phone call to the maternity ward of the hospital where Charlotte was born, demanding how could they have possibly encouraged me to keep breastfeeding and not supplement with formula when it was abundantly clear that I produced no milk. How could they torture a new mother and let a child slowly starve to death in this way?

So, still weeping at my failure as a mother, I bought the formula and fed it to Charlotte, feeling as guilty as if I was feeding my child crack cocaine.

Charlotte, however, promptly sucked down a bottle and stopped crying for the first time since I had begun to try to breastfeed, then fell into the most contended sleep I had ever witnessed.

The guilt over feeding my child the WRONG way lasted for several months, despite the relief that my formula-fed baby gained weight rapidly, slept well, and was once again the picture of health. Nevertheless, I remember trying to hide her bottle at my first mom / baby group, so deep was my shame.

A year or so later it was discovered that for a myriad of boring medical reasons breastfeeding is a physical impossibility for me. The little switch in my body that signals for milk production to commence is broken, or more accurately probably never functioned to begin with. However, it still galls me that in the minds of some midwives and militant pro-breastfeeders, people like me DO NOT TRULY EXIST.

I did learn from this experience, and had my doctor write on my medical file when I was pregnant with Camille “DO NOT LECTURE MS. BRADBURY ABOUT BREASTFEEDING OR SHE MAY PUNCH YOU!!!” in big red capital letters.

I still feel teary when I think of how hard this right / wrong attitude towards breastfeeding made those first few weeks with Charlotte so riddled with angst and despair. I can’t help but hypothesize how different things would have been had she been born in France.

For one thing, mothers stay a lot longer in the maternity ward here in France: 4-5 days for a regular birth and a strict minimum of a full week post C-section (unlike 3 days in Canada). This gives the nurses and midwives time to observe how things are really going with Mom and baby, and to send them home with many of the initial problems well on the way of being resolved.

In France, mothers are given the facts about breastfeeding, and then are asked, “would you like to try it?”.

If they do want to give it a whirl, they are given the support they need, both at the hospital and at home. If they don’t, this is totally accepted as a legitimate choice.

There is no judgement passed on what is considered to be a personal decision.

Besides, how can a lobby group or anyone else be better equipped than the new mom to make such a decision? Maybe it didn’t go well for a previous baby, or maybe it just doesn’t fit in with a woman’s job and life. Or, maybe as my friend in Paris explained without an iota of guilt, “ça me disait rien.”

The French in general do not see the world in terms of right or wrong, but rather as a series of different, but equally respected, choices. This world-view sure makes life a heck of a lot easier for new Moms.

Also, in France it is deeply felt that the well-being of a baby, a child, and whole families hinges on the well-being of the mother. A mother who is making parenting decisions that are ill-adapted to her life and personality just because they please society at large, will not be “bien dans sa peau” and her children and family will suffer as a result.

It wasn’t until I got here to France that I began to questions the idea that the well-being of a mother must be sacrificed on the alter of the well-being of her children. I began to realize that the French were on to something; once a woman has a baby, her physical and mental well-being is more important than it has ever been before.

In Canada, I was so encouraged to subsume my own needs for those of my child (or rather, what society told me were the needs of my child) that I often felt I had become a non-person the instant that Charlotte was born.

The truth of it is that there are many ways to be a mother; short of abusive or neglectful behaviour (and just for the record, not breastfeeding doesn’t belong in this category), none of them are right and none of them are wrong.

So adopt Frenchitude to breastfeeding and motherhood – the only “right” thing to do is to find the right path for yourself.