'Don't tell me what I can't do' became one of the power phrases from the TV show Lost aired a few years ago. More recently, it became one of mine. People love to tell other people what they can't do and I never found that more true than when I was breastfeeding.
It wasn't that people thought I should, or that it was the 'best' thing for my babies; it was simply, most of the time, that they thought I couldn't. And, like Locke, one of the principle characters in Lost who loses feelings in both legs and is determined to backpack around Australia regardless, I was pretty determined to make breastfeeding happen; despite people's doubts and well-meaning advice that I 'couldn't'.
The World Health organisation advises that all babies, should be breastfed until their 2nd birthday, and beyond, should both mum and baby wish to. Research shows that in the UK, 84% of mums want to breastfeed their babies, but by week 6 is down to 24%. By 6 months, this is just 1%.
Around the world, the weaning from the breast age is actually much older; somewhere closer to 5 or 6; when children lose their ability to latch and their 'milk' teeth start being swapped for £2 coins under pillows.
Despite this, if you had told me 6 years ago that I would breastfeed until my eldest child was 5, I'd have laughed at you.
My eldest child was the first grandchild across both families. Much wanted, waited, anticipated and loved. When he was born, I didn't know how to put a nappy on, dress a baby, let alone feed it, but I knew I wanted to breastfeed because it seemed easier and, I wanted to be able to feed sitting down. I knew that bottles needed some amount of preparation and that didn't seem like it was for me. Nobody in my family had breasfed before, for any real length of time, and I did feel like when I mentioned that I wanted to do it, people were quick to point out that, 'I should have an open mind' and that 'it doesn't always work out'. They liked to tell me what I couldn't do, rather than offer any real sense of encouragement that it would work out. I think I would have actually had more encouragement if I'd told them I wanted to fly to the moon OR backpack around Australia without use of my legs, like our friend Locke from Lost.
This was until a good friend, who was breastfeeding her baby, took me along to breastfeeding group when I was 20 weeks pregnant. That group changed everything for me. I remember the first time I saw a mum breastfeeding a toddler and I thought 'That's for me'. Like, I had been living another life up until then and suddenly I'd been injected with this 'new way' and I'd been reprogrammed to a whole new way of thinking. I thought 'I'm going to do that'. I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It seemed, to me, like the most normal thing in the world. Not alarming, or startling or strange, just normal. I asked her, how old her daughter was, and how often she breastfed like that and did it hurt, and all those questions you ask when you're 20 weeks pregnant with your first child and gagging at the bit to know everything.
From then, on, I went to that group every week until my eldest was born. And then for several months afterwards I would go back sometimes with queries of my own, or naturally, to help others with theirs.
I found breastfeeding my son to be one of the most amazing things I have ever done. To have entire belief in your own body to keep another human being alive is humbling, emotional and a journey that has made me the person I am. People used to say I was 'lucky' to have had a baby who fed 'so well' but in reality a lot of it was hard work (a lot of it was also really easy) but it was hard work too. However, no matter how lucky I got, or how easy or hard it was, I lay most of the 'success' to how I handled it. I never bought bottles just in case, or worried about timing feeds or switching from one breast to another. I just fed my baby. Whenever he sniffed, made a noise, wriggled, stretched, moved his mouth, cried, snorted, sniffled...I just, fed him. To have this absolute belief in your own self and your own body to just, do the right thing, is a really empowering thing.
When he was 9 months old, I fell pregnant with his younger sister. I breastfed all through the pregnancy and then tandem fed in the year's afterwards. Whenever people read about people 'like me' who breastfeed for extended periods of time, they always imagine a toddler wearing shoes, with teeth, suddenly getting up from the table and asking for a breastfeed after a Roast dinner. The reality is that time goes in a blink; one minute you're breastfeeding a piglet-like, alien looking newborn and then PUFF a woooosh of smoke, and that baby is 2 and then 3. The weeks roll into the months and the months suddenly become years. Breast milk doesn't one day magically lose it's nutritional and emotional benefits to a baby/young child.
As my babies got older, I found there were 2 divides of people. Those who championed it (not always mothers OR breast feeders themselves I should say) and those that didn't really 'get it'.
Never once did it bother me. I think when you've actually defied 'odds' and the 'naysayers' and kept 2 human beings alive with your own body, you start to believe in yourself more than anyone else can. Some people used to say TO my children 'Maybe it's time you had proper milk now' or 'When you switch to having cow's milk/bottles' and I found this an irritant, but It didn't 'bother me' because I know it came from a place of well meaning-ness and that if I looked back to the version of myself, 6 years ago, before I was reprogrammed with all this good-stuff, I'd have thought the exact same. Generally I would either nod or just gently say that we were 'good' for now.
I've stopped breastfeeding them both now. They are 5 and 3. I bribed them with the promise of gifts, because they would have happily continued, but I was very much done. It's emotional because it's the end of an era that I am really proud of. I also helped friends and families to feed their babies when they wanted to, became a peer supporter and volunteered in the very breastfeeding group where I'd started out, and worked on a maternity ward doing the same. It's a part of my life that makes me feel warm and fuzzy and that I did 'good' not just for myself, but for others.
I wonder sometimes, if anyone remembers me, like I remember the lady and her toddler from my first experience of long-term breastfeeding. I wonder if I am anyone's inspiration as she was mine, for so long. I think, if I am, or if anyone thinks of me fondly when they are trying to feed their own baby; if I can spur them on or be the picture in their head when they are doubting themselves - that's when it will have all been worth it for me.