Once, when I lived in Spain, walking home one night from work, a man jumped out at me. He grabbed me from behind and threw me to the floor. He tore huge chunks of hair from my head and proceeded to try to rape me, tearing my summer dress from my body.
I fought, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Anger, utter outrage, made me strong. I reached up, grabbed his balls and twisted. Hard. He yelped like a dog and turned and fled.
In the days, weeks, months and years since that event I have felt every possible emotion. Guilt was a big one. I blamed myself, for walking that street alone, in the dark, in a foreign country. Guilt, because I saw him, walked past him. A thought crossed my mind but I dismissed it as paranoia. I felt stupid because, when I heard his steps behind me, I didn’t run.
Guilt because my pain was impacting on those I loved. Guilt because I wondered if my low cut dress was what prompted him to follow me.
In the weeks that followed I felt anger. The Spanish police were worse than useless, maintaining that it couldn’t have been a Spanish man and giving me only mugshots of black immigrants to try to identify. At no point was it even accepted that the crime was attempted rape but was recorded as a mugging. I was never offered a female officer to talk to, or provided with counselling or emotional support.
My self esteem took a massive battering.
In the months following I couldn’t bear to hear about crimes against women. I would be triggered so terribly that I would shake and sweat. I wished the bloody feminists would just shut up about it. I just wanted to forget, yet it felt like they were pressuring me to get political about violence against women. I wished they would shut up. I couldn’t bring myself to care a toss about anyone else. I just wanted that awful night to stop playing in a loop in my head and get on with my life.
Of course, in the years since, I have learned how selfish that was. Understandable, but self-centred. I have learned that it is only by standing together will women change the world for the better. Only by sharing our experiences, accepting each other’s stories without judgement and calling for change will the support we need be put in place.
I have realised that just because I have strong feelings I don’t have the right to tell people to shut up. Their silence might feel easier for me, but silence never changed the world. And crucially, I have come to realise that the struggle is no longer about me. No one can rewind and make what happened to me, not happen.
But we can make it better for the next generation. Maybe we can prevent some pain. Maybe we can make sure pain is dealt with properly, by skilled, caring, respectful supporters. Maybe we can build a world where women have true choice and true freedom.
But I’m not telling you all this for your pity. After all these years I have ended up as a breastfeeding counsellor and doula, grappling every day with strong female emotions, patriarchal notions of what women should and shouldn’t do, maternal guilt and the complex notions of choice and control.
Almost every day, on social media, I see women tell other women to be silent. I see women triggered, feel pressured, weighed down with guilt and blame. And every day I am reminded why women who have been through huge pain and disappointment, who have been let down and betrayed by the very system who should have had the time and skill to support them just wish we would shut the fuck up.
I get it. I really do. I’ve been there.
The thing is, your enemies aren’t women like me, who are trying to help new mothers breastfeed their babies. If I offer a woman the benefit of my years of learning and experience, how is that pressure? Honestly, we have absolutely no interest in persuading people to breastfeed. We’re too busy trying to help all the mums who come to us, desperate to nurse their kids.
There’s a clue in my title: ‘counsellor’ I hope implies that I am listening and unconditionally supporting womens’ decisions on how to feed their babies.
And we completely understand that when you’ve felt you’ve had no option but to bottlefeed your baby, it can seem utterly infuriating when people are droning on about breastfeeding yet again.
I know when we call for more funding, better social acceptance, more understanding of breastfeeding and better training for health professionals that you feel judged. I know. Those feelings are big and painful.
But they don’t come from me.
The fault is with the all those people who couldn’t help you when your nipples bled or your baby wouldn’t latch or didn’t put on weight.
The thing is, who benefits from my silence? Is it the women who are desperately trying to find someone to help them? Or is it the formula companies, making massive profits every time a woman gets rubbish help or no help at all?
Believe me, it’s not about you. I’m banging on about this stuff because I desperately want to create a world where tomorrow’s women don’t have to go through so much bloody trauma – whether that’s rape or months of mastitis.
Isn’t that something we can ALL agree on?