“You’re doing this either because breastfeeding is really easy for you, or because it’s really hard,” a social worker told me in a somewhat snide tone. “Which is it?”
This was said on my first day volunteering as a breastfeeding support worker, and the social worker was running a health clinic where parents brought their children to get the babies weighed and to get parenting questions answered.
At that stage, I’d been breastfeeding my daughter for almost a year. To become a breastfeeding support worker, I’d gone through training that included lots of reading and an exam with 70 questions, many of them multi-part and nearly all requiring long answers, as well as breastfeeding observations. To get into the training, I’d had to be interviewed, write an essay, and get letters of reference. In other words, it wasn’t a fast or simple process, and it wasn’t something you’d undertake lightly.
So why did I decide to do this?
For me personally, breastfeeding wasn’t a straightforward process. Several midwives pressured me and my wife to give our daughter formula (for a variety of reasons, but they claimed to be just “following protocol” without actually giving us the support we needed or listening to what worked best for us as a family). One midwife frightened me by telling me my breasts were too big and were going to suffocate my child. (I’d like to know how common it is that a breastfeeding mother doesn’t pay enough attention to her child to notice that the baby isn’t comfortable or isn’t breathing; somehow I doubt this is something that affects many nursing moms.)
A male doctor patronizingly assured me that breastfeeding mothers couldn’t have any problems other than thrush, and that I didn’t have thrush, and therefore had no problems. He talked over me while I tried to explain about the pain I had.
Thankfully, I got great support from the midwife who’d worked with us throughout the pregnancy and also from a lactation consultant at the hospital. Together with my wife, these women diagnosed the problems afflicting me (vasospasms and repeated mastitis) and helped find solutions. Over a year after her birth, my daughter is still happily breastfeeding, and it’s been a hugely important part of our relationship.
Any number of other mothers have told me that they were encouraged to swap to formula, or that they were in pain and couldn’t find out what was going on, or that they thought they didn’t have enough milk, or that they were told they were being greedy to want to feed their babies themselves (their partners or other relatives wanted to share in the feeding), or that breastfeeding had gone on too long and it was time to wean, and so on.
So I wanted to help support these women. I got through the toughest times thanks to the help I received, and I wanted to pass that onto others.
On a typical day volunteering, women have wanted me to check that their baby is latching on correctly, or they have asked me for advice on weaning. Some have tentatively mentioned pain they’ve been having, and we’ve been able to discuss what might be causing it. Biting is a common issue, unfortunately, and I can suggest all the obvious solutions.
A few times women (or their mothers or partners) have simply told me how long they’ve been breastfeeding for, and how proud they are of that. And I’ve been proud for them, too. I know it’s not always easy, but it is definitely worth it.
One of my favorite aspects of volunteering has been sitting with the women, all of us breastfeeding our babies, just chatting about breastfeeding or about babies generally. I’m not some expert who knows a lot more than them; I’m just a mom like them, and I love being able to support them.
I couldn’t easily answer the social worker that day because for me, breastfeeding has been both really hard and really easy. It’s always been the obvious choice for our family, but I recognize that that’s not the case for everyone. It’s been wonderful to talk to other mothers about their breastfeeding journeys and to help answer any questions they have. They may be asking about their baby’s latch or about biting or nighttime feeds, but usually I think the questions are really about reassurance and support. They wonder if they’re doing the right thing or if it’s worth continuing despite pain or resistance from others. If I can offer just a little bit of encouragement, then I’m happy.
On my most recent day volunteering, a different social worker said to me, “You’ve really had an impact today—look at all those women breastfeeding their babies out there.” I shook my head and said I didn’t make the women breastfeed their babies; all I did was sit next to them, breastfeed my own child, chat with them, and support them as they thought about their own feeding decisions.
That’s all I can do, but I think that’s enough.