“The mums making our babies fat.”
Has a single headline ever captured the dilemma modern mums face so perfectly? It ever so subtly reminds mums that their choices are being watched. That their decisions won’t merely affect themselves or their babies, but society at large. And that, ‘dads’ aren’t accountable for the well-being of their children.
At the close of Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness week, it’s worth considering. PANDA week is dedicated to raising awareness of perinatal anxiety and depression, which affects over 100,000 Australian parents each year.
That headline, which ran on the front page of a News Limited Sunday paper, and the accompanying story about mums bottle-feeding, is unlikely intended to insult or shame mums. At least I hope it isn’t. But whether it’s intended or not, it does. It perpetuates a dangerously simple narrative that fails parents and parents-to-be.
Just the day before I saw that headline I devoured a brave and stunning personal account of perinatal depression and anxiety from The Age social affairs reporter Miki Perkins:
I didn’t fully appreciate it until my daughter was born, but breastfeeding lay deep at the heart of my hopes for motherhood. When I realised I would probably not be able to feed her, it was a deep loss, a grief. I pumped every two hours, counted every blue-hued drop. I berated myself. What a terrible mother, what a failure. In hindsight, I know my deteriorating mental state had become entwined in a nasty symbiosis with my breastfeeding trials.
For Perkins being unable to breastfeed was one of the triggers for her “going mad in just a few short weeks”. She is not alone.
Is it any wonder struggling with breastfeeding feels like an unforgivable and overwhelming personal failing for so many new mums with headlines like that?
As a mum I am acutely aware of the pressure – not just about feeding but about so many aspects of parenting – and I’ve had enough. I don’t want to be shamed and I don’t want other mums, particularly not brand new mums, to be shamed either.
Yes, there are some things that ought to be shamed: setting a baby on fire or putting a child in an oven fall in that category.
But making decisions about what works for you as a brand-new parent doesn’t. Bottle feeding a baby who refuses the breast is not shameful. Bottle-feeding a baby because breastfeeding doesn’t work or appeal isn’t shameful. Having an epidural is not shameful. Feeding pre-prepared baby food is not shameful. Working is not shameful.
Motherhood is tricky. It’s life-affirming, an incredible privilege, it’s fun and funny and filled with joy. But it is also exhausting, relentless and overwhelming. And never more so than in those first few weeks and months of becoming a mum.
The expectations that we have of ourselves, our babies and our new family, that we absorb all around us, compound this. There isn’t a catalogue anywhere in the world that accurately portrays early motherhood. We are still sold this idea of bliss in the newborn bubble, yet for many new parents it’s the most physically and emotionally demanding experience in their lives.