Norah O'Reilly

Norah, on breastfeeding in 1973

My mother-in-law Norah had her first child, my common-law husband’s older brother, the same year I was born, in 1973.

Norah and I got to know each other when our firstborn child, our daughter, was four months old. I was struggling to breastfeed her then, a struggle that felt increasingly impossible and soon ended completely.

My mother-in-law Norah and I have on several occasions talked about breastfeeding and bottle feeding and she has told me she did not nurse her children. Norah is currently visiting us in Sweden. A couple of nights ago I seized the opportunity to interview her about her bottle-feeding and breastfeeding experiences, as a part of my blog series of interviews with women about breastfeeding in past decades.

Mother-in-law Norah feeding our first child.
Mother-in-law Norah feeding our first child.

My first question to Norah is: What were you told about breastfeeding and bottle feeding before you gave birth to your first child?

”Absolutely nothing. It was never mentioned. Once in the maternity ward after delivery, I decided to try and breastfeed.”

How long did you try and what happened after that?

”I think it was two days after birth when a nurse came into my room to check on me. She had four children, she told me. She had breastfed two of them and bottle-fed the other two. There was absolutely no difference between the children, she said.”

”’It’s too much bother breastfeeding, the bottle is much easier’, said the nurse. So I began bottle-feeding instead.”

Norah, in Newfoundland, Canada.
Norah, in Newfoundland, Canada.

How did you stop the milk?

”I wrapped my chest with some kind of bandage. I think I got it from the hospital. I wore the bandage wrapped around my breasts until the milk dried up.”

Was there anyone who gave advice on breastfeeding or encouraged you in any way to breastfeed?

”No, the only one who said anything at all was that nurse. I was far from home, I had just moved from my home in Scotland to Newfoundland in Canada. I had absolutely no network around me.”

Newfoundland, Canada
Newfoundland, Canada

”A few years later I made a friend who was very involved in La Leche League. She went to meetings with women who supported each other on breastfeeding. If I had known her from the beginning, it might have been different, who knows? But as it was I started giving the bottle. I thought no more of it. Almost everyone around me bottle-fed their children.”

When you had your next child 11 months later, what happened then?

”A part of me wanted to try breastfeeding again. But I thought it would be difficult to breastfeed a baby when we already had a baby. I thought that the older child would be jealous.”

Did you try to breastfeed at all?

”No, I just wrapped my chest again. And after that I never thought about breastfeeding again. I gave the bottle to my third child from the start without even reflecting on it.”

Was there anybody who breastfed where you grew up, in Scotland? And were you breast-fed?

”I do not think that my siblings or I were breastfed. I have memories of bottles and tins of powdered baby milk when my younger brothers were babies. At some point I heard my mom talk to others about how difficult it could be to breastfeed. I overheard her talking about a neighbor who had suffered from a breast abscess while breast feeding. My mother’s sister nursed her youngest child. But it’s the only child I ever saw being breastfed when I grew up.”

I remember you told me that your youngest child had cereal in his bottle when he was just six days old?

”Yes, poor child. It wasn’t me who fed him, but my sister-in-law and my husband. It was my sister-in-law who thought that we should put a few teaspoonfuls of baby cereal in his bottle of formula. My sister-in-law thought that he would be satisfied and happy and go to sleep if we made the formula thicker.”

”They were upstairs trying to feed the baby, who in turn just screamed worse and worse. I was downstairs entertaining 50 people we had invited for the christening. Several of them had come all the way from Scotland.”

”Eventually they realized upstairs that the powder had completely clogged the tip of the nipple of the bottle so that nothing came out. That’s why our baby was screaming at the top of his lungs.”

Was it common back then to give cereal to such small babies?

”No, I don’t think so, not as a rule. It was probably my sister-in-law’s own thing.”

Norah with grandchild.
Norah with grandchild.

Today when your children are grown up and have children who have been breastfed, do you ever think about your own experiences?

”Yes, occasionally. It’s not that I was against breastfeeding. Had it been today I would have given it a chance, I think. It’s just that I never had any encouragement.”

Why had you wanted to give it a chance if it had been today? For the attachment, or for something else?

”Not for the attachment. I never felt I didn’t have a special bond with my children. My children have been loved to bits, they have been hugged and kissed and I have loved them above all else. No, the reason is that I think that breastmilk carries health benefits. And I think that I would had enjoyed nursing my children.”

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