Breastfeeding is not beautiful.

If I hear one more time, “Breastfeeding is beautiful!” I think I’m going to scream. There, I’ve said it. And during World Breastfeeding Week, no less.

Messy, messy, messy!

Comments on many, many posts and articles related to breastfeeding are along the lines of “breastfeeding is beautiful!” and it makes want to vomit a little. Breastfeeding is beautiful! It’s a private, bonding moment! Well, no. Not necessarily. Breastfeeding can be many things — exhausting, messy, restful, endless, momentary, calming, athletic, energy-sapping, sanity-saving, irritating, soothing, relentless, toe-curling, scream-inducing, sleep-inducing, amazing, magical and yes, sometimes even beautiful.

A bit like parenting in general.

But to say, “Breastfeeding is beautiful!” puts it on a pedestal that cannot always be achieved or, let’s face it, deserved.

It’s not beautiful to have my breast smeared with snot, yoghurt, blood, dirt, crayons. It's not beautiful for my baby’s face to be spotted with milk squirted from a particularly well-timed unlatch-and-squeeze maneuver. It's not beautiful to have my child’s finger on my nose and/or mouth, foot in my face, or hand yanking my hair. Or all three at once! It’s definitely not beautiful to have a baby latched while also trying to climb the back of the sofa or look around the room. And it’s honestly, truly not beautiful to have a baby or child latched on past your point of exhaustion, when you just do not want to be touched, when you’re both full of illness, when it’s 10pm and you have stuff to do, when the only way you can get a moment’s peace is to shove a boob in a mouth.

But that doesn’t make breastfeeding any less magic.

I have read a lot about breastfeeding. For close to 5 years about 80% of what I’ve read has been, in some way, connected to breasts and what they produce. So many times my mind has been blown. Did you know that the composition of milk varies — from mother to mother, nursling to nursling, over the child’s life, according to time of day and throughout a feeding session? Or that the nipple “reads” a child’s saliva and produces the right antibodies ready for the next feed, helping protect both mum and baby? How about breastfeeding reduces a mother’s risk of breast cancer, or osteoporosis, or PPD to name a few? Would you even believe that breastfeeding mothers tend to sleep better and longer? And I’m not the only one fascinated.

The idea of breastfeeding — the serene mother gazing adoringly at her small baby gently sucking, eyes closed or locked onto mother’s face while violins play and butterflies frolic — is beautiful. But the reality often isn’t. The journey many mother/baby dyads take is often far from beautiful. To promote this idealized image of a private bonding moment is to promote the idea that breastfeeding is something to be in done in private, akin to an intimate moment between lovers, something to avert the eyes from and pretend you haven’t seen. That if it must be done in public it’s only right to do it in a corner or covered up.

Reiterating this image can be damaging for those mothers whose picture isn’t that; the mother who uses a nipple shield, the mother who exclusively pumps, the mother with a distractible baby who can only be nursed under a cover or in the dark, the mother whose baby constantly twiddles or pinches or switches sides. If that’s what it’s meant to look like and this is what looks like for me, what am I doing wrong? Maybe I should just give up?

Focusing on this image minimizes the journey a dyad might have taken to get there, even if that picture is now their reality. Coping with criticism, dealing with blocked ducts, managing mastitis, suffering a lack of support, tackling tongue-tie — all these challenges, faced and overcome, are wiped away with “gosh, isn’t breastfeeding beautiful?”.

So no, breastfeeding isnt (always) beautiful — it’s so much more.

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