This piece was originally published in the LLLGB Members’ Magazine, Breastfeeding Matters, for which I have been writing a bi-monthly column since 2008. To find out more about how to receive this magazine, click here.
“So how long are you going to breastfeed her?”
After having three children, I can’t count the number of times a friend, family member or even a perfect stranger has asked me this question. With my first child, I’d had so many struggles—oversupply, poor latch, blocked ducts and mastitis—it took us several months to get breastfeeding right. It seemed that I’d only just relaxed into breastfeeding, and when I eventually lifted my eyes from my baby everyone wanted to know when I’d be stopping.
As time went on, my inquisitors grew more insistent: why carry on when I didn’t have to? Didn’t I want a night out, or to let my husband get involved with the feeding? After all, I’d done my bit—why carry on? Some friends even alleged that I was only carrying on breastfeeding for my own pleasure or vindication. Some said my baby would sleep better if I gave up.
But weaning had never crossed my mind. I’d say, “Oh, probably around a year.” As my daughter’s first birthday approached my answers became less specific: “Well, she seems to enjoy it so much and it’s easy for me now, so I’m not sure.” My baby enjoyed breastfeeding so much—smiling, laughing excitedly if she was about to have milk, dropping off to milk-dreamy sleeps—and she was often feverish and ill with teething—it didn’t seem to make much sense to take away something that was evidently doing her so much good.
Gradually, I grew less comfortable answering questions about our breastfeeding relationship. When people asked when we’d be stopping, I’d look at my daughter and say, “Oh who knows? I’m sure she’ll decide to stop soon. I know she won’t be doing it when she’s at University!” and I’d laugh and bounce her on my knee. I didn’t know how to answer their questions except through avoidance, and I dreaded being put on the spot about it.
Eleven years (and the weaning of two children) later I have come to the simple realisation that I do not have to satisfy anybody’s curiosity about matters that are personal to me. Sure, they might ask. But I am free to give whatever answers I like: vague or specific.
Unexpectedly, I have also developed some sympathy for my former inquisitors. Not because I want to know when you’re going to stop breastfeeding, but because I’m a fellow mother and I want to find out about you, engage you in conversation, connect with you somehow, and I’m not sure how to do it. Perhaps, I now wonder, their questions were about something else entirely.
Recently my children stared at a mother and her crying baby sitting next to us in a café. She tried to soothe her baby as he lay in his pushchair. She rocked the pushchair handle back and forth and she shushed him. She looked around nervously as his cries became louder. Eventually she picked him up, lifted her top and fed him. She made eye contact with me as his cries disappeared and my inquisitive children lost interest.
To her I was just another person in a coffee shop. She might have registered that there were three children with me, but she probably hadn’t considered that they were once babies too. Like me at that stage, she was wrapped up in her life, her sleepless nights, her baby’s cries and needs. I wanted to connect with her somehow. I wanted her to know that I’ve been there too, that I know the dark and lonely nights. I know the desperation of just wishing I could go back to sleep. I lived through those piercing cries that I could not soothe. I recall the helplessness of not knowing how to mother my baby, surrounded by criticisers, commentators, well-meaners. I too know the surprise of seeing my baby’s face for the first time, the heart-burst of holding his warm skin against my chest, the choked throat when I saw his first smile and felt his fat hand caress my cheek. I know the trials and ultimate satisfaction of being a mother.
I smiled at her, wanting her to feel comfortable about meeting her baby’s needs. “Your baby is gorgeous. How old is he?” I asked. But I might have asked, “how are your nights?” or “how are you finding things?” And a similarly well-meaning person (probably of another generation) might ask, “Is he in a routine yet?” or “Is he good?”
Of course there are some people who have an agenda when they ask questions. But there are also people who simply want to talk about babies and motherhood and the connection we share by being parents of children in this world. Sadly we lack a language for talking of these matters, and though we are mothers in public, the experience is so internally meaningful and personal that talking about motherhood is like revealing the dark inner reaches of the soul. Instead we fall to the nuts and bolts of childcare and ask silly questions about sleep and nappies.
I used to get so cross when someone asked me whether my baby was good. But now I wonder what they hoped to achieve by engaging me in conversation. Lately I’ve wondered how different my outlook might have been if I’d assumed that they were kind people who were simply seeking connection with me; maybe they just wanted to hear me talk about my experience of being a mother. Maybe they wanted to talk about theirs. Maybe they just wanted me to know that they too had walked the path of the mother.
©Lisa Hassan Scott 2014.