The village takes vulnerability

“What’s wrong with the baby?” a child asked at a music event when my youngest was a few weeks old. The question innocently reminded me that the intense rash all over her face and body was unmissable. I kept telling myself it would go on its own. I hoped it would.

I also hoped her bubbly poo would settle down. It was the right colour so I was confused about what it could be and I wondered whether the two symptoms might be connected, along with the colicky evenings.

By then, I’d been a breastfeeding peer supporter for four and half years and a newly minted breastfeeding counsellor for a few months. I felt as though I should be able to connect the dots on my own but when you’re postpartum, it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees.

Eventually, a friend who’s also a breastfeeding counsellor and an IBCLC (lactation consultant) offered the possibility that she might be reacting to something in my diet, possibly cow’s milk. She was right. With elimination, Delilah’s intense eczema, fussiness and bubbly poo all settled down. Every time I reintroduced them, they started up again. Even now, she can only tolerate some cow’s milk in her diet before things go awry.

But I don’t write about this because I think the details of the breastfeeding problem particularly matter. What stands out for me is that I was third baby in, valued breastfeeding support enough to be involved in it and it still took me ages to open up and reach out for help.

The village was there but it couldn’t hold me unless I was willing to make myself vulnerable.

I think of this with my first baby. I was desperate and willing to seek help. I talked to midwives, health visitors, the GP. I kept texting peer supporters who kept asking me to come to the local breastfeeding support group but it took me ages to go. The thought of being in a room full of women who, in my imagination, probably all had breastfeeding sorted was too daunting.

When it turned out that my low milk production didn’t have a quick fix, I stopped going to that group. It hurt to see others exclusively breastfeeding with what appeared to be ease when I was struggling to keep any of it going. I only returned once things were finally on track.

On reflection, I was repeating a common pattern of mine, isolating myself because I didn’t feel sorted. I withdrew at a time when I needed community, partly because I worried about what others would think of me.

And I wonder how many others who breastfeed do this. How many of us avoid seeking help because we can’t shake the myth that if something is biologically “natural”, it should be easy? Have we been sold a lie that parents are readymade rather than born and grown?

The community that so many of us crave, the village so many of us know in our bones that we need, requires us to be vulnerable – to show others where it hurts. But we can only do that if we know it’s safe enough to do so.

We can only tell our birth stories in ways that heal us if we know others will really listen without speaking over us and prescribing how we should feel. We can only seek and keep seeking breastfeeding information that helps if we know that others won’t jump to conclusions or inadvertently shame us.

Societally, we need to address the pressure we put on parents at all stages. It starts with asking “How can I help?” rather than “Is he a good baby?” It involves creating safe places where we can listen well and hold others in high esteem, trusting them by refusing to judge them and encouraging them to trust themselves by withholding unsolicited opinions.

There are many volunteers who are giving so much of themselves to create spaces where parents can receive evidence-based information and open up safely. As it’s Breastfeeding Celebration Week, I wanted to share two videos by mother-to-mother, parent-to-parent breastfeeding support charity La Leche League Great Britain that I think really highlights the value of finding a place where you can journey together.

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