Acquiring a brand new bodily function fairly late in life is a strange experience. For 25 years, my breasts had been my constant companions, rarely thought of except when compared unfavourably with All Saints and Kelly Brook. To me, they were dismal mammaries, disappointing in dimension and providing no tangible use, until of course they roared to life when I was 28 years old and pregnant. That was when they proudly announced themselves as a bold new component of my body, ready to assert their independence and eschew any of my attempts to tame or control them.
It was a breast rebellion.
As evidenced by the mode in which they chose to announce this new mammary emancipation.
I was pregnant but still months from my due date and enjoying an intimate moment with my husband when they stirred and viscerally declared a new era of the Republic of Boob. Formerly docile breasts spraying milk out of nowhere is a jarring end to a romantic encounter and no amount of frantic googling and reassuring ourselves it was perfectly natural could salvage the moment. The breasts were like a beloved pet that had suddenly lashed out at us. The trust was broken. We still had sex but the boobs were carefully quarantined from then on lest they start hissing again.
Writer Sophie White had private lactation consultations. Photo: Frank McGrath
The one upshot of the overly-zealous boobs was that I felt more confident I wouldn't have any difficulty breastfeeding as my due date approached.
Oh, how the gods of tit feeding must've lol'd. "Hark, listen to the hubris of this stupid mortal!"
I presume they decided there and then to throw every boobing curve ball from tongue tie to low milk supply at me as punishment. That was a fun year. Like a lot of new mothers, I was plagued by a persistent sense of failure from virtually the moment they held up the baby in the operating room. I had, to my addled mind, 'failed' at childbirth when I'd had a c-section. I was convinced I was failing to bond with the baby.
I wasn't feeling motherhood in the way I thought I should be. This sense was reinforced by the fact that the most pervasive emotion of that time was abject terror and not the more Instagram-friendly #blessed I was accustomed to seeing in relation to newborns. Where was the crying and screaming and pain in these saccharine social media posts, I railed. I felt duped by these insta-bitches and everyone else who seemed to be taking the transition in their stride.
New motherhood scalded me. It was so alien and frightening. The sense of failure was a nebulous one, hard to pin to any one thing so I, in my wisdom, decided to hitch it to breastfeeding. I was pathologically obsessed with nailing the boobing. Getting the hang (little mammary humour for you there) of breastfeeding, I decided, would solve all my turmoil and ambivalence towards this strange new country: Motherland.
With hindsight, it was a terrifying morass of pressure to put on myself. I had no idea how to breastfeed and for something so apparently natural, it was not coming to with any great ease. When I was eight years old, I tried to give my cat a bath. My cat did not want this bath. This was what the initial weeks of breastfeeding my first son reminded me of. It was like he was tangibly repelled by me and my needy breasts. He arched away from me when I tried to latch him on and if he did stay suctioned to me, it was unending. Marathon days of feeding on the couch left my nipples as raw as skinned knees and still, by the end, he seemed unsatisfied.
One morning, I heard an item on John Murray that nearly completely undid me. It was supposed to be one of the light-hearted segments at the end of the show. A listener had an 'hilarious' tale of how her dog had been nursing some of the new litter of kittens in the house. Cute right? Wrong, I felt personally attacked by this dog. I couldn't even breastfeed my own son and this dog was interspecies breastfeeding. I was incensed and so I launched a campaign of exhaustive research trying to identify the problem.
I had private lactation consultants, craniosacral therapy for the baby, talk therapy for me, I power-pumped to up my supply, I counted wet nappies, I had his tongue tie snipped, I drank fennel tea, I read a book called The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and then turned on it viciously when I decided the book was a judgemental b*tch - probably more to do with my deteriorating mental health than anything the book did. I would even weigh the baby before and after feeds to try and convince myself that milk was indeed going in.
In the end, we managed to establish a method of feeding that worked for us. I privately called it Every Which Way But Loose because it involved boobing him, bottle-feeding him and pumping endlessly. It was a demanding approach because I couldn't exploit any of the boons of breastfeeding - the convenience, the lack of paraphernalia because I still had bottles and sterilising and formula involved in the mix.
By the time I weaned him to the bottle at six months, I was drained and I definitely had the sense that he was just humouring me, politely pretending to sup at the boob all the while thinking 'put your tits away, luv, and give me a nice six-ouncer of the good stuff'.
As he grew up and I began to settle into motherhood, I still ruminated on what had gone 'wrong' with our breastfeeding. The explanation, I settled on eventually, was that I had a lack of trust in the process. Breastfeeding seemed like a dark art, I couldn't see it and therefore I struggled to believe it. I also didn't prepare in any tangible way. I didn't realise I could.
When I was preparing for the arrival of my second child, I took a much more engaged approach to breastfeeding prep. For one thing, by then I had a great network of friends who also had children and through talking to other women I'd realised that I was certainly not alone in feeling like I'd failed at breastfeeding. Some of the more dogmatic idioms around the breastfeeding conversation definitely didn't help in that regard. Sayings like 'every woman can breastfeed' and 'don't stop on a bad day' felt pointed when I was in the vulnerable early days of motherhood. The campaign to normalise breastfeeding and support women who want to do it is so essential, which is why I feel responsible to be completely honest about my ambivalence during my first breastfeeding experience. I don't think I'd been exposed to a broad enough spectrum of accounts of breastfeeding to understand that experiences can be as various as human beings ourselves.
The second go around, I researched more deeply how to prepare for breastfeeding and while I couldn't quite bring myself to start pumping pre due date to 'stimulate milk production', as some sources advised, I did make batches of lactation cookies - oat cookies made with brewer's yeast and anything you can find to mask the taste of brewer's yeast, that many believe help with milk supply.
I decided that anything that I believed would help would either truly help or might, at the very least, bestow a placebo effect. I stocked up on marathons of shows and podcasts to binge while boobing and most crucially I prepared what I called my Breast Nest - the room where I would sleep with the baby until I was ready to wean. I had slept with my first baby but not through any conscious decision on my part - it was a battle and he was calling the shots.
I had been obsessed with trying to get him off into his own room and routine as quickly as possible. Futile. With the second, I had learned that my babies simply won't stand for this. The second time around I was ready for the all-night breast buffets that babies love and need. I think I had a much more realistic understanding of feeding-on-demand and also how important it is, especially in the beginning, to drop-kick any notion of routine and simply slow down and match the baby's pace.
With this in mind, I read up on the concept of the 'fourth trimester', which is widely recognised in most cultures but has been slightly lost in the deeply irritating messaging around Millennial motherhood in the west where 'bouncing back' in as little time as possible is the general goal post-baby.
The fourth trimester is the customary bedding-in period where mothers rest with their baby and find their mutual rhythm. A friend of mine, who is a midwife, is a great proponent of this. For new mothers, she prescribes one week in the bed, one week around the bed, one week around the house and only then can we start galloping around Dundrum Town Centre, the mandatory destination for all new mothers wielding the buggy like sleep-deprived, hormonal velociraptors.
My final and most crucial pre-titting prep was a solemn pact with myself, not to get too hyper-focused on the breastfeeding. I swore to myself that I would be open-minded, I would give it a go but I would not compromise my mental well-being at the Altar of Boobing, wonderful as it may be, I would not place my entire stock as a mother on it.
With my expectations of breastfeeding adjusted accordingly, I found to my amazement that my second experience of breastfeeding was wildly different to the first. There were wobbles in the early days and definitely one day when I was inches from jacking the whole thing in, but then we righted ourselves with some tears and pumping and, to my amazement, we carried on breastfeeding for six months, finding cherished moments amid the chaos of exhaustion and a rhythm all of our own.
I finally and wholeheartedly began to enjoy some of the more quirky, strange aspects of the exchange. My breasts became a source of intrigue as the ebb and flow of this milky tide became wedded not only to my baby's needs, but also oddly tethered to my emotions.
I cried on the morning of my father's funeral. It was a quiet, private cry in my childhood bedroom. I had just pumped milk because in the melee of funeral-planning, I had been unable to feed the baby. As my own tears dropped to my lap, the boobs started leaking in what seemed like an odd show of solidarity.
Another day, I was out shopping and spied a cute baby passing, the breasts must have been on high alert as the by-now-familiar ache of the letdown amped up. How unseemly! I had to hurry away, whispering for them to chill out. The boobs permanently had the energy of your overly emotional drunk friend at the end of the night. Liable to start crying or hissing at the slightest provocation. One day a hug hello from a friend got them going. Another day, a friend asked me to hold her new baby inciting a deluge from the left boob.
Then there was the sheer range of the squirting breast milk. One time, the baby popped off the boob unexpectedly and an arc of milk hit my father-in-law on the pant leg as he sat across from me. In his seventies, he'd seen a lot of s**t in his day and took it like a pro - his face barely registered the direct hit he'd just suffered and he just mopped it up with a handkerchief produced from his pocket.
There's so much wild stuff people forget to tell you about breastfeeding, maybe it makes people uneasy that pumping to a picture of your baby will help the milk to come? Or how the breasts become so attuned to the baby that they will wake you up in the night, right before the baby does.
Having two polar opposite experiences of breastfeeding, I feel confident in saying that my bond with each baby is the exact same. Nothing is forged in the sweet milkiness of breastfeeding that isn't forged in getting up multiple times a night to wrangle a bottle. It's pretty basic with babies at the end of the day - you put stuff in the top and it comes out the bottom.