You know when you’re in a room full of pro-breastfeeding women and one woman gets a bottle out and mixes something up to give to her child? You know how the icy chill of judgment swoops through the room and the poor woman has to cower in the corner? It doesn’t matter that there are naked breasts and nipples hanging out all over the place, the most offensive thing in the room is that bottle. (Not that I find breasts or nipples offensive, but I’d rather look at a bottle than a breast, but that’s just personal choice. Please don’t come and stage a breastfeeding protest outside my house. Please.) I’ve seen this myself a few times and it’s made me think about how unsupportive mothers are to each other. Whether it’s online on forums, in person at baby groups or generally on the street. It’s our attitude towards things.
Yes, we believe our way of doing things is better which is why we make the choices we do. But we can also make those choices without judging what others do. I was reading comments, left by Muslim women, on a thread online and I noticed something: we breastfeeders are a sanctimonious, smug bunch. Breastmilk is always best. I would never give my baby anything other than breastmilk. Formula? Do you know what that stuff has in it? I’d rather another woman breastfed my child than I give my child that stuff. These are all genuine comments from women, on a post to a fellow woman, after the birth of her baby. She was struggling to breastfeed and was wondering whether to supplement feeds with formula as family were advising her to. She was shattered. She was brokeN and she was in need. And this is how we supported her.
“That stuff” was condemned to the deepest, darkest part of Dante’s Inferno and instead, helpful comments like, use a milk bank or donor milk (no mention that Islamically-speaking, the baby would need to know where that milk came from as any children nursed from the same breast were siblings and therefore sexually off-limits) were offered, smugly pushing the agenda that breast milk was the saviour, leading our children towards the light, into high-powered, successful jobs and formula, that chemical concoction was the work of the devil, come to lure our children into a lifetime of ill-health, depravity and low-paid menial jobs, designed to suck the life out of them.
Before I am inundated with comments about how there is much scientific proof about the benefits of breast milk, I need to stress: I know. But that does not mean we can be sanctimonious, smug nipple-heads about it. I’m not saying breast isn’t best, it is. But it’s not always a choice: some women don’t lactate, some women find they just can’t do it, some women just don’t get the support they need and stop breastfeeding in favour of formula as it saves their sanity and helps to cement the bond they have with their baby; the reasons for making such a choice are endless.
So when these women are looked at with distaste, because they’re not whipping out a mammary to nourish their offspring, they probably feel ostracised and judged. For no good reason. What would be better? That their baby go hungry because they can’t latch on? Or their baby go hungry because they didn’t lactate? Or their baby wait while you determine the source of the milk, make sure you know where it came from so you can tell her when she’s older that Aziz is her brother and can’t be married to her? Or is it better to just make another choice? What if they didn’t want to breastfeed at all? Is there something inherently evil about that?
I can’t answer any of those questions because I was one of the ones who managed to breastfeed (Thank Allah) but it wasn’t easy. It was tough, in some ways tougher than labour, because the problems seemed to go on forever; I hated my body, I hated myself, I even hated my baby at one point. But I powered through it and it worked. Yes, there was a time when my husband felt the need to discuss formula, but we had worked so hard to get her off the formula feeds (yes, the horror! My baby’s first feeds were formula feeds and she was topped up with formula while I worked on my supply. If she ends up working in McDonald’s or similar fast-food chain restaurant, I’ll know why) that I dug my heels in. I saw any attempt to re-introduce formula as a regression – not that formula was the work of the devil, but that I didn’t want to go back to using it again; it was a choice I made. But I won’t lie, doing so affected my relationship with my baby. Looking back now, I still wouldn’t change a thing, but I have to just be honest, my sheer determination to continue to breastfeed despite all the problems that came with it did create a rift in my mind between us, a rift that I’m still healing.
Had I moved onto formula, I know I would have experienced judgments, but that’s not why I avoided it. I made a choice and I stuck to it; I was pig-headed and determined; but I was lucky, my choice worked out for me. Not everyone is so blessed and they have no other choice. I’d rather my baby was fed than hungry; and controversially, I’d rather my baby was fed with formula than on the milk of another woman. Yes, milk banks are available, but I’d rather not use them. That’s not to say I’d judge anyone who does, and that’s the key. We need to stop judging. Yes, what we are doing with our own babies is the right choice, but it’s the right choice for us. Your choice is not the right choice for everyone else.
I say this first and foremost to myself as a breastfeeding mother: that smugness that you feel when you can nourish your baby from your own body? Keep that to yourself. Keep that smugness in check, because you could have easily been one of those women who was forced to give it up. That smugness should really be a feeling of blessedness: you managed it against all odds, but you could just as easily have hit a major snag. Remember that and be humble. You are no better a mother with your breasts hanging out than a mother holding a bottle of formula. Remember that. And be humble. It could have easily been you with irreparable nipple damage, forced to express until you bled and reach for the formula to save yourself. Remember that and be humble. God could have chosen you for the sacrifice and made you one of those who struggled so much with supply that you had to use formula to mend the broken relationship between you and your baby. Remember that and be humble.
The next time someone says the F-word realise this: it may be artificial, it may contain things you don’t like, but it’s no more offensive than the rancid stench of your judgments. Remember that and be humble.