Yesterday, I met a wonderful granny. I was doing a home visit and she was staying with her daughter after the arrival of a first grandchild. She had that ability to be present without being THERE all the time. She sat quietly during the consultation and sometimes appeared to be doing something else, but her ears were always on. When her daughter asked a question, she was there. She made comments at the right time and had the needed balance of encouragement and acknowledging this was hard.
At one point, the mother was looking forward to reducing bottles and moving to more breastfeeding. At the moment, she’s doing the grim routine of breastfeeding and pumping and bottle-feeding and it’s tough. She was wondering whether to retain one bottle for her husband to give her a rest and her mum reminded her that once she’s just breastfeeding, a breastfeed can feel ‘like a rest’. It’s a ‘sit down’ and a chance to take a load off. That’s often true in a society which expects mums to complete a dozen other tasks on top of looking after a newborn. And the daughter smiled. Right then, she needed that reminder things were going to get easier.
This granny had breastfed. She remembered one child being easy and one child being harder, but breastfeeding was her normal. She was relaxed around breastfeeding. She trusted it. She knew it worked. That trust for breastfeeding had seeped into the pores of her daughter. Despite her struggles, she had a confidence that her problems could be overcome, and her husband shared that confidence. I didn’t get to meet his mum.
I meet a lot of grannies. I meet the ones who make an excuse to get me into the kitchen and it turns out they weren’t a cup-of-tea pusher (as many are) but they desperately wanted a moment to talk about their own breastfeeding experience. It was decades ago – usually 30 years plus – but there’s an emotional mother in front of me and she’s not the one I was expecting to be trying to help. She might be worried about her daughter or grandchild but often she’s reflecting on her own mothering experience and she wants to share. She might want to tell me that she didn’t breastfeed at all and she needs me to know that. Sometimes she’s filled with regret: “I wish I knew someone like you when my babies were small” is a common phrase. Sometimes she’s angry about the lack of support she received. I’ve even had anger about the lack of support she received from her OWN mother.
When we support a mother, we are shaping a future grandmother too. One day she might be cornering someone in a kitchen. What will she say? Will she be filled with sadness, angry that her local breastfeeding group got cut, angry about her lack of midwife visits? And we’re making the great-grandparents too. The gaps in support now will be felt for generations. And when support is there for new mums, we are helping an infant who may not be born until the next century.
It takes a great maturity to own your own regret, appreciate what happened to you and how YOU were failed and move on to be the kind of grandparent needed for a new generation. It’s an enormous ask. And how much easier it is when a woman was able to reach her own breastfeeding goals and breastfeeding for her is a fond memory, not a space where she is feels awful.
The grannies I meet in kitchens sometimes thought all was well. They didn’t realise they DID regret anything. Feeding their infant was a very long time ago and it’s only when they are suddenly faced with seeing breastfeeding again, a surge of emotions has taken them by surprise.
Sometimes we know that surge can lead grandparents in unhelpful directions. It’s a natural instinct to want to protect yourself. It’s natural to want validation that what you did was ‘the right way’. How you chose to mother is at the heart of who you are as a woman. And after a long time, you might have forgotten that perhaps you didn’t always get to choose how you fed your baby. Was it your choice when your healthcare professional told you to only breastfeed every four hours, or not to breastfeed at night, or to keep your baby in the hospital nursery for hours at a time? You were sabotaged, but you may not have realised it at the time. You may not be conscious that trying to lead a new parent down the same path is another act of sabotage.
Now, a baby is in front of you again. This new mother is making very different choices. She’s doing this thing called ‘responsive feeding’. She’s hardly using a cot. She doesn’t seem to mind when her baby feeds again after only an hour. She’s not even that keen to put the baby down. That can all feel very alien. It can also feel like an implicit criticism of the first few weeks and months you spent as a mother. You remember being worried about babies being ‘hungry’ and wanting to fix that, but this mum hardly seems to mind why her baby might want to come to the breast. It takes a special person to take a pause and acknowledge that some of your struggles might be because of your need to validate your own mothering choices.
If you didn’t breastfeed at all, you want to believe that your children are healthy. Seeing someone who is unhappy about giving formula is a tough thing to see when it was ALL you did. Even reading leaflets and books can be challenging.
If you did breastfeed, it may have been in a very different way. Someone told you not to ‘spoil’ your baby and you believed them, and it’s feels uncomfortable to imagine you might have been misled. Perhaps your own mother or mother-in-law didn’t provide you with the support you might have wished for and now you are trying to break a cycle. It’s hard.
Thank you for being there in a world where new parents can often feel alone and isolated. I’ve seen what a difference you can make. I salute the granny who was waking through the night to sit with her daughter-in-law while she breastfed (and was in charge of nappies and winding). I salute the granny who wore a baby in a sling while a mum slept. I salute the granny who lived far away and whose gift was the time of a postnatal doula in some difficult weeks. And for some mums without partners, the granny can be the partner in raising a child.
There are grannies out there right now who are holding people together in the best way. There are the ones who lives far away who send the ‘I’m proud of you’ texts. And the ones who send the articles about breastfeeding. We don’t care that we’ve seen the article 5 times across 3 different forms of social media – we just care that you sent it.
No one expects you to know everything. It’s OK to ask questions about breastfeeding and it’s great if you do some reading. You can even do it before the baby arrives. It’s important to know that new families sometimes want some time without grandparents at the very start and that’s no reflection on you. Encourage honest conversations about how much help they need and how they want to make use of you.
Your job is to empower the new parents to be the new parents they want to be. It’s going to be different from how you made your choices. And that’s OK. Science and research show us new things. You did what you did based on the knowledge and society around you. They will do their thing too and it might all change again in a few more decades. We all do the best we can with what we know. If you say the wrong thing or blurt something out, that’s OK because no one is super human. Just give yourself space to reflect and learn and if you need help, it’s OK to ask.
If you are feeling things you weren’t expecting, you call a breastfeeding helpline too. You really can. The National Breastfeeding Helpline is 0300 100 0212. We can answer your questions about the mechanics of breastfeeding and things that are confusing you, but we can listen to feelings too. We know that mothering can bring up strong emotions. Even if the feeding was a long time ago.
The Importance of Dads and Grandmas to the Breastfeeding Mother by Wendy Jones
The Positive Breastfeeding Book by Amy Brown
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
And a final word to say, I'm sorry if you are a breastfeeding mum without a granny in the picture. I know that can bring all kinds of emotions. Breastfeeding counsellors might be able to offer some support to you too.