A mother knows. (Or does she?)
A few days after my child was born, a doctor was checking up on my recovery.
At the end of his exam, he asked, “Aur, breastfeeding theek chal rahi hai? Bacche ko maa ka doodh hi pilana hai.” (Is breastfeeding going well? You must give the child only mother’s milk.)
I told him that I was not sure if I was producing enough milk for the baby, and asked what I could do about it.
“Vo sab humko nahi pata, vo toh aapko pata hoga.” (I don’t know all that. You must be knowing that stuff.)
I asked if he (with his 20 years of experience birthing babies) does not know, how will I (a two-day-old mother) have any clue?
“Maa ko sab pata hota hai (A mother knows.)”, he said mysteriously with all but a halo around his head.
In movies and ads, you see actors breastfeeding babies with blissful smiles on their faces. I regret to inform you that ‘real-life breastfeeding’ is not nearly as simple, as smooth, or as smiley.
In real-life breastfeeding, there are challenges like milk under-supply, milk over-supply, painful blockages of milk ducts, a wonderful thing called mastitis, and – even when everything else is sorted – there is still the mental agony of being on call every 1-2 hours. A tiny human depends on your body for survival while you are still recovering from the trauma of delivery on no sleep. To top it all, every Aunty-lady and Uncle-dude has a piece of advice on how you could be doing better.
When women are pregnant, nobody – absolutely nobody – prepares us for exactly how difficult it can be.
For all the filminess (and uselessness) of that memorable dialogue my doctor delivered, it is a pretty accurate summary of the world’s take on breastfeeding. A mother is supposed to magically ‘know’ all about it and transform into a picture-perfect Mother Dairy the second her baby is born.
The bahu that stopped feeding her child
Akanksha was let go from her job during her pregnancy and was still applying for new jobs when she delivered her daughter.
“We lived in a small town. I had to travel several times to attend job interviews. In that time, my daughter got used to formula milk. My own supply was limited to begin with. I tried everything – uncomfortable new feeding positions, pumping milk, rubber extensions, dietary changes – everything recommended by everyone. One day, my husband demanded I stop torturing myself. We decided to switch the baby to formula feed for good so both she and I can breathe easy.”
Even as Akanksha was battling an unreasonable feeling of guilt herself, family elders began piling on.
“Since I was a ‘kaam kaaji bahu‘ (a daughter-in-law with a job), I was considered an unfit mother anyway. This became another bullet in the family arsenal. I was introduced at family functions as that bahu who stopped feeding her child so she could go back to work. Everyone looked at my child with pity for having a mother like me.”
The bullets were fired with the most painful timing too.
“Once, my daughter was ill and, while I was worried sick anyway, someone commented that the poor child doesn’t have any immunity because I didn’t breastfeed her. She had a lean body for the first 3 years, so they would say, ‘This poor child didn’t get her mother’s milk. Where will the nutrition come from?’ When I pointed out that she was eating solids and always ate well, the favourite retort would be ‘Maa ka doodh toh maa ka doodh hota hai‘ (Mother’s milk is mother’s milk). How do you respond to that?”
Reminder: You don’t know her story
When Sheetal discovered she was pregnant, her mother became her biggest cheerleader.
“She was on cloud nine at the thought of becoming a naani (grandma). But it was not to be. In the fourth month of my pregnancy, she was diagnosed with cancer. By my eighth month, she had left us.”
When her daughter was born a month later, Sheetal was still grieving the loss of her mother.
“From the very first day of her life, my milk supply was not enough. Maybe grief had a role to play. It was the most difficult phase of my life. My baby would be constantly crying because she was hungry. I tried everything – I saw a Lactation Consultant, I took supplements – none of it helped.”
Ultimately, Sheetal spoke to her sister, who is a pediatrician.
“She told me to forget what the world was saying, and do whatever made the most sense to me. She said what I fed my daughter was less important than how I felt and behaved around her. If I was constantly unhappy and stressed, my baby would pick up on that stress – and it would harm her far more than what I fed her.”
Following her sister’s advice, Sheetal switched to formula milk.
“It felt like a weight had lifted. I became a much happier mother, almost immediately, and my daughter became a healthier child as well. People who judge ‘formula moms’ need to realize that they don’t know what we are going through, and can probably never fully understand it. So at least stop making it harder for us than it has to be.”
The Child Abandoner
Like all new mothers, Ekta was extremely overwhelmed, sleepless, and exhausted after the birth of her child.
“The nurses just handed me my baby and said, ‘lo, ab isko doodh pilao’ (Here’s the baby, now feed him). It looks simple, but it isn’t. My baby wasn’t able to latch properly. My mother-in-law, who was standing nearby, took the baby from my arms and commented, ‘Bechara baccha! Kaisi maa hai iski, jise doodh pilana bhi nahi aata’. (Poor kid, his mother doesn’t even know how to feed him.) I was shattered. This became the start of a long and arduous journey into postpartum depression.”
Ekta doubled down her efforts to feed her baby. Eventually, her milk came in, and the baby latched.
“But that led to the next round of horrors. Nobody had warned me about the baby gnawing on the nipples. It hurts like hell, and moms are expected to brave it several times a day, without complaint. I was still getting used to the biting when I started experiencing stiffening of breasts and intense pain. I was told by family elders, ‘Ye sab toh hota hi hai. Maa banna koi aasaan baat thode hi hai.’ (All this is to be expected. Who said being a mother would be easy!)”
“They called a maid to help me express milk manually, which was extremely painful. I cried and cried. Finally, my husband stepped in, and said that this much pain can’t be normal. We decided to see a doctor the next day. But that night, I developed 104°F fever, and had to be taken to the emergency room, screaming in pain. They diagnosed me with severe mastitis, and I was rushed into surgery.”
The surgery was performed under general anesthesia. The next day, when she opened her eyes, Ekta saw her mother-in-law putting the baby next to her and preparing to leave.
“I had to tell my husband that there was no way I could take care of the baby in that state. My mother-in-law shot me a look like I had said something criminal, and remarked, ‘Doodh to pila do isse kam se kam’ (At least feed him some milk). I had just undergone surgery on my breasts and was in no shape to resume feeding immediately. I could not even sit up in bed. I had to say no.”
“It has been 7 years and, to this day, she reminds me how I ‘abandoned’ my new born baby.”
“I was labeled a ‘b**ch’ by everyone, including my mother”
It is not just mothers who are unable to (or choose not to) breastfeed their children that are judged. Even mothers who are able and willing to breastfeed are not spared criticism and comment.
Janaki did not have any over-supply or under-supply issues. She wanted and was able to breastfeed her baby. Yet, she told me how her family made it impossible for her to do even that.
“After my C section, when I tried to feed my baby, my nipples cracked and started bleeding. I was crying in pain. But I wanted to keep trying. Both my mother and mother-in-law – instead of helping or encouraging me – berated me for wanting to breastfeed instead of giving cow’s milk to satiate the baby immediately.”
This set a trend that continued well into the next few months.
“After I came back home from the hospital, all hell broke loose. Every time my son cried for a feed, my mother and mother-in-law would rush in to the room with a bottle before giving me time to even try breastfeeding. It takes a few minutes to get in position and adjust the baby. In that time, they would start screaming, ‘Baccha bhookha hai, baccha bhookha hai!’ (The baby is hungry, the baby is hungry!). Despite me begging for it, they refused to give us any time to get adjusted to breastfeeding. My husband, who is an MBBS himself, said nothing to help them see it from my perspective.”
Janaki saw her baby becoming used to a bottle. She decided that if she wanted a chance at breastfeeding at all, she had no choice but to take a firm stand.
“I had huge showdowns with everyone in the family. I set down a rule that they needed to give me five minutes alone with the baby before they come swooping down every time he cries. I was labeled a ‘b**ch’ by everyone, including my mother.”
Janaki, who was anyway experiencing baby blues, was pushed into full-blown postpartum depression by this toxicity.
“I would put up a strong face in front of everyone, and cry buckets in private. I became depressed and suicidal. I had to consult a psychiatrist, and she reassured me that I had done the right thing for myself and my child by putting my foot down.”
Within 10 days, Janaki’s milk supply settled and her baby became an EBF (exclusively breastfed) child.
“My milk supply was great. My baby had regular pees, poops, his lips were wet, drooling was normal, weight gain was normal – all signs that the baby is healthy and well-fed. I was still sleep-deprived and had set an alarm to feed every 1 hour 40mins. Yet, my mother-in-law would keep looking at my baby with tragic eyes every time she saw me breastfeeding.”
“Once, when I was away, she fed him cow’s milk and sugar without my consent. He came down with severe diarrhoea because his stomach was not accustomed to anything but breast milk. It crossed a huge line for me. When I confronted her, she concocted some nonsense logic about of C-section antibiotics drying up my milk – a myth that her MBBS son should have dispelled by then.”
When her 6 months of maternity leave ended, Janaki had to move to another city for work.
“Even though I had no family support there (even my husband was posted in another city), it was actually a huge relief to move away. I went on to breastfeed my son for 18 months- and deciding for myself when and how to wean, without any debates with anyone. Of course, raising a baby alone is very, very difficult. But my family was so intrusive and judgmental that even single motherhood was easier than being around them.”
Even though she personally chose to do it, Janaki specifically wanted to address the myth that ‘breastfeeding is beautiful’.
“It is not. All the time I was breastfeeding, my shirts would get embarrassing milk stains on them. I had to wear a sanitary napkin-type nipple patch to soak the leaking milk. In peak summers, I would stink of sweat+milk 24×7. I constantly lived under a two hour deadline. I felt like I had turned into a milk-vending machine. My decision to breastfeed was taken by my brain. It had nothing to do with my heart or my love for my child. I breastfed for 18 months and still don’t get what was supposed to be beautiful about that experience.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Meeta feels that breastfeeding is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ predicament. Hers was a problem of plenty.
“Did you know that if a woman’s body produces excess breast milk, it finds its way out of any duct – even armpit ducts? Did you know the body can make an extra nipple (even if a tiny one) in the process? When it happened to me, I was told it is a common ‘part of motherhood’. I wanted to shout, ‘Then why didn’t anyone ever tell me about it!?’ The 22-hour labour I went through felt like cakewalk compared to the 12-15 months of painful breasts afterward. A word of warning would have helped.”
Meeta is 5 feet tall. So it was not surprising that both her babies stayed at the lower end of the age-appropriate weight bracket for the first few years.
“On one hand, I was dealing with the pain of over-production. On the other, people offered me herbal concoctions to produce more milk, while they looked sadly at my kids and said, ‘Oho, so tiny. Are you sure he isn’t hungry?’ That was 19 years ago. Today, my son is 5’9″, my daughter is 5’4”. Both are in great health. So no, it was not that they were undernourished during breastfeeding.”
Meeta thinks it might help a lot of women going through painful experiences like she did if we stopped judging a mother by her milk.
“It is fine if a woman can breastfeed. It is also perfectly all right if she can’t or chooses not to. In either case – taunts, do’s and don’ts, tips and tricks, homemade remedies – these don’t help. We would have healthier and happier mothers if we take the external stress of judgment out of the feeding process. What a strange world that would be!”
This piece doesn’t even touch upon a host of larger issues beyond the home. Particularly, lack of breastfeeding infrastructure and support at workplaces and public places, and how horrified we get when a mother is spotted breastfeeding in public. It will take another edition of this newsletter to cover those, no pun intended.
The same society which makes a mother’s life hell for not breastfeeding, can also not stand the sight of her doing it. Does nobody see the irony here?
Is breast best?
A few days after my son was born, he had to be admitted to the NICU for 48 hours. In these 48 hours, I would sit in a wheelchair and have my husband take me to the NICU pumping room every 2 hours, trying to ensure whatever few drops of milk my body produced reached my baby. (In hindsight, I should have caught some sleep instead because my baby was fine, and the sleeplessness made my own condition worse.)
In this NICU pumping room, I met some women who I will always remember.
One had a baby admitted in the NICU for the last three months. She would commute from 20kms away just to pump milk and hold her baby for a few minutes every day.
Another had a baby born with a kidney issue. Doctors had just told the family that the baby would not make it. Her husband was outside, making calls to another hospital, hoping for a miracle. She sat next to me, making valiant attempts to pump milk from her breast that had never touched her child.
On the four walls of this NICU pumping room were four posters – each showing those blissful smiling mothers with babies at their breasts. Each one shouted statistics at us explaining why “Breast is best.”
I wonder what heartless soulless bureaucrat made the decision to put those posters up in that room – the room where mothers separated from their children came to pump and cry. I have no doubt that the volume of tears shed in that room far exceeded the volume of milk pumped.
There are as many types of mothers in this world as there are families.
And each one has a different context – physically, mentally, financially, emotionally, socially. To assign one prescriptive model of birthing, feeding, raising children to all is not just myopic, it is cruel.
Maybe my doctor thought “a mother knows” everything. But I am yet to meet this mother. In fact, I am on online groups with thousands of moms and have yet to see a solution that is one-size-fits-all.
All I’m saying is – maybe we can make space for the idea that the halo of Mother Dairy does not fit all of us either?
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