"How old is the child...?" asked the pharmacist, keeping a steady gaze on my baby girl.
"Then you should stop breastfeeding."
Simple. The perfect answer to a breastfeeding-friendly treatment for hay fever. After all, it was far easier to focus on my ridiculous breastfeeding than it was to check the handbook for safe antihistamines. Far easier to twist his face in mild disgust than to recommend something topical. Yet in a way, I was thankful. I was strangely relieved that my pharmacist had aired his views openly, instead of whispering them softly between smiles; that he stood proud and tall as he bellowed his suggestion for all to hear. Better that than quietly watching; gently drip-feeding layer upon layer of pressure to quit this strange habit.
I believe the latter approach, all wrapped up in glitter and bows, in smiles and good intentions, is known as Unsupportive Support and my-oh-my, do I see a lot of it.
It seemed like everyone and anyone would tell me at the beginning of our boob adventure, that there was no point continuing if I was in pain. It was with sheer determination and grit that I continued and with every week that went by, the Unsupportive Support would just pour in; "you've given it a good go"..."some people just aren't built for breastfeeding." I knew then, as I do now, that their hearts were in the right place. Yet doesn't that actually make it all the more difficult to dismiss? Or, God forbid, to challenge??
After a while, once my Unsupportive Support network had started to grasp that my chewed, grazed, engorged breasts and I were going to continue with this "breastfeeding lark" for the long-haul, the direct comments dried up, being replaced by a whole new set of Unsupportive Support tactics; it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase 'let-down'. The sideways glances and offers of a "private space" in which to feed became our norm. It is with regret that I followed their lead, for fear of offending with a momentary flash of nipple. So my babe and I, we hid away in upstairs bedrooms. We missed entire visits because the presence of an undiagnosed tongue tie meant that our feeds were inefficient, to say the least. As the clock tick-tick-ticked, I heard the grumblings, the mumblings from below. I sensed our hosts' frustrations over my brazen, boob-fuelled attitude and baby-hogging ways.
Yet this Unsupportive Support also came packaged in different shapes and sizes. The parent-baby room at our local shopping centre, with its neat little row of chairs and water-machine, was also doing its part to marginalise us; my daughter and I. We were fully and without question supported to hide in the unventilated, hot and sticky room, with it's oh-so-pleasantly adjoining baby-change area. The picture of the bottle on the door spoke the loudest message of all; it was certainly a concise illustration of the idea of Unsupportive Support for breastfeeding mothers: Parents Welcome. Formula Supported.
Yet still I sat, my babe at my breast, holding my breath as I fed my little cherub. Still I walked, past the benches outside, the cafés, the little wall on which I could have perched. You see, I was new at this breastfeeding thing. Today, I sit proudly whenever and wherever my toddler wants her milk; I make smiling eye-contact with passers-by to let them know that I am happy, my daughter is happy and there is no reason why they too, should not be happy with our feeding choice. Today, I sit chatting with my little girl, as she pops on and off my breast in between singing verses of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. These are our moments and I will cherish them forever.
Two years ago though, I saw this innocent room, this parent-baby room that was put aside for duos like us, as a safe environment. Because safety is needed in our strange little society, where breastfeeding is so subliminally wrapped up in fear; fear of failure, fear of offending, fear of embarrassment, fear that your body, your beautiful and powerful female figure, the one that grew and birthed this perfect child, might somehow have missed out on its biological ability to nurture and nourish its offspring.
And therein lies the other great minefield of Unsupportive Support: expectation. After all, we are women. Breastfeeding is what we expect to be able to do. Never did I imagine it would be a skill to master. Never had I even heard of the term 'lactation consultant' prior to childbirth.
Instead, we are engulfed in false hope and great expectations; if it doesn't come easily, without trauma and pain, without blood and tears, then there must be something wrong. And what do we do when there is something wrong? We look for a solution, of course. It just so happens that the most commonly supported solution to a rocky breastfeeding start comes in a tin; and there is no better representation of the concept of Unsupportive Support than that.