“I remembered reading one small caption about tandem feeding online and it opened up a whole new thing that I didn't even know was a possibility. I find it amazing that one small drop of experience shared by a stranger had such a huge impact on me so that's why I share my story online too,” says British model and mother of two Jess Bowen, who went on to tandem feed her two children until her daughter turned four and a half years old...
If you follow Jessica on Instagram (@modelmother), you’ll know she’s passionate about normalising breastfeeding, shifting the perception about what age is ‘normal’ to wean and making mothers feel more comfortable feeding in public. Here, she shares her inspiring story with The Grace Tales.
Tell me about your breastfeeding journey and where you are up to now…
I started breastfeeding in February 2015 and haven’t stopped since! My labour with my first child, Eliana was a long one, lasting a few days and although it was a very positive, natural and well-supported experience, by the time she arrived we were both so exhausted that it took us a while to get to that first feed. The midwives let us sleep for a couple of hours before coming to tell me that it’s important she had her first feed. It wasn’t until much later that day that Eliana latched when my mum came to visit and confidently showed me what to do. There was no going back from there. Bar the initial cracked nipples and blocked ducts I was very lucky that it was plain sailing. I fell pregnant with my son 2.5 years later when my daughter was still a feeding machine and so I just carried on. I remembered reading one small caption about tandem feeding online and it opened up a whole new thing that I didn’t even know was a possibility. I find it amazing that one small drop of experience shared by a stranger had such a huge impact on me so that’s why I share my story online too. I ended up tandem feeding my two children until my daughter turned 4.5 years old at which point I gently weaned her because I had nursing aversion that repelled me every time I fed her, even when it was only her latched. I can only assume that was my body sending me the signal to say time’s up. I’m still breastfeeding my son who has recently turned 2 and we are both happy with how it’s going although the plan is to night wean him as soon as his final tooth is through because mama needs some rest!
How has breastfeeding enriched your life? And also your children’s lives?
I find it almost impossible to capture the sense of enrichment in words. It just makes me feel in tune, with the kids and with myself. It’s been such a visceral and instinctive experience and somehow that’s enough to deflect all the knocks that come with continuing to breastfeed beyond the ‘normal’ age. It puts a fire in my belly and it brings out the lioness in me when anyone contests the way I feed my children because it is so evident to me how much goodness it has brought to our family life. It soothes wounds, reduces teething pain, gets them through illnesses, helps with transitions, gives me some quiet time, releases the pressure valve of life for us all and brings a closeness that has continued beyond breastfeeding with my eldest.
What are your thoughts on the attitude towards mothers breastfeeding in public and the reservations some mums have about feeding in public?
I believe mums should be allowed to feed their children wherever and whenever they want and need, without feeling they have to be discreet or cover up if they don’t want to and without fear of judgement. I know reservations come in all shapes and forms and from a deep-rooted place that is hard to override but in my experience, the fear is worse than the fact. Most people won’t even notice what’s happening if you breastfeed your baby in public. What they will notice is a screaming, hungry baby (especially those newborn cries that pierce the heart!) so feeding them is by far the less offensive action. Also, if you just do it like it’s the most normal thing in the world then people will trust your confidence and be more likely to accept it. They’re often more afraid of you making them feel uncomfortable than the other way around. The more you do it, the more normal it will feel and the more confidence you will gain.
You were a pregnant, breastfeeding mum of a three-year-old and have said you were “well outside of most people’s version of ‘normal’ when they think of a breastfeeding mum.” How did that make you feel? How do we shift our mindset on what normal is/looks like?
As a person who has always been quite prone to people-pleasing, not rocking the boat and fitting the mould, especially within my working life, I’ve often wondered where my resilience, courage and confidence stems from when it comes to challenging the norms of breastfeeding. I can only assume it’s me reverting to my default setting; my natural instinct to do what’s right by my kids overrides whatever anyone else thinks on this matter. I just have this really strong sense of knowing it’s the right thing for me and I’ve been so lucky to have the support needed to see it through. I wish this confidence extended to all aspects of parenting for me but unfortunately, I’m as guilty of second-guessing myself as the next mother.
You’ve said that breastfeeding a baby in public was never something that bothered you – why was this? And what advice do you have for women on breastfeeding in public?
I think it was the influence of my mum. I come from a line of breastfeeding (and breadwinning) women who have fed beyond one year, some for several years. I saw my mum breastfeed my sister, who was 12 years younger, in public and she now recounts the criticism she used to receive but I didn’t see that at the time. I just saw my mum doing her thing. When it came to breastfeeding outside of the home for me, I remember her being almost forceful in her encouragement and absolutely adamant that it was no-one else’s business. I think that I was so used to being undressed in front of strangers with my modelling work that I had no fear of exposing a very small amount of flesh, even in the early days when my daughter would only feed if I was reclined back and she could lie down the length of my tummy. She was also quite noisy about it which wasn’t ideal but it was what it was and she needed her milk! Thankfully I was also fortunate in having an antenatal group that included women who also breastfed beyond 2 years who made it a very enjoyable experience in the early days. We spent hours in coffee shops laughing and feeding and making sense of it all.
A few tips, from my experience, for anyone struggling with the idea of feeding in public:
* Start small – go somewhere familiar, friendly, somewhere where nursing is actively encouraged or if it’s nice weather, in an open space outside.
* Look into your baby’s eyes – it’s a great way to tune out the outside world and avoid observing any unwanted attention and it gets the oxytocin flowing when under pressure. Maybe even quietly hum a tune to yourself to block out any noise.
* Know that a lot of the looks come from genuine human curiosity or an appreciation for the act of breastfeeding and not from criticism or disgust. I find if you smile at someone who looks at you while breastfeeding then they often smile back or at worst, look a little embarrassed that you caught them at it!
* Make sure you’re in good, supportive company the first few times
* Wear something that is easy to breastfeed in and take any equipment that you might need like a feeding cushion.
* Arm yourself a one line retort for anyone who actively criticises. I’ve yet to master this but I’d love to deliver a perfectly timed shot to give the recipient something to think about!
You work in a very image-based industry. How did your respect for your body change after you had children? Did you feel more or less self-love?
I have spent my whole working life, from 17 years old onwards, making sure my body is looking as it ‘should’ be, making it look polished and presentable and always shoot-ready. I hadn’t realised how exhausting and time-consuming that constant upkeep was until I had a baby and all of that slipped far, far down the priority list. While I’ve always had a good relationship with my body I realised after having a baby that I had always been assessing whether it would meet outside approval because that’s par for the course in the modelling industry. I usually thought that it would and so I was confident in it but now I realise that was still an unhealthy way of seeing myself. Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding have been such positive experiences for me because I went in believing my body was capable and that they were all natural processes that didn’t need any undue intervention. But I hadn’t anticipated how those things would also make me feel so much more rooted and empowered, physically and mentally and I’m still genuinely in awe of what my body has been capable of. I really have absolutely no interest in what other people think of my body now because I love it more than I ever have, despite it looking different to before, and in fact, if anything it improved the scope of my modelling work as suddenly my body and face looked more lived-in, opening up opportunities to work with a more diverse range of brands.
What would you say to women about body love after babies?
It’s so hard to comment here because so many women come to parenthood with body issues that have been a constant presence throughout their life. Pregnancy, birth and motherhood only exacerbate those anxieties which is understandable when you’ve spent your lifetime seeing celebs’ postpartum bodies pulled apart by the media.
I spent my pregnancies fascinated by what my body was doing and read as much as I could to fully understand the process. There is something so wild and raw and feminine about it that I felt like a warrior. Reading books like Ina May Gaskill’s Guide to Childbirth connected with that feeling and gave me so much appreciation for my body which definitely carried through to the postnatal period. I would also say that your babies think your body is the most wonderful thing – their first home and their safe place – and I only wish that more women were able to see themselves through their child’s eyes.
How have comments as simple as ‘Oh, you’re still breastfeeding’ or ‘When are you planning to stop?’ made you feel and how do you respond?
It has taken me a while, but I am now able to understand that these comments come from a place of ignorance and ingrained prejudice that stems from living in a patriarchal society and until confronted with an alternative view people will accept their beliefs as truths. I am also conscious that language can be a fickle thing and that word, ‘still’, isn’t always intended as a criticism. Sometimes it can reveal admiration or curiosity which then allows me to open up the conversation. I have an opportunity to challenge the status quo by showcasing an alternative way of doing things. I don’t do it to push breastfeeding down people’s throats but simply to show that continuing to breastfeed for as long as you and your child want it is an option.
What have been the ups and downs of motherhood for you?
I really had no clue how demanding, all-consuming and relentless motherhood would be. The shift in gear came as such a shock and it took me several years to adjust and to feel full acceptance of my new version of normal. I’ve read a lot on matrescence since having my second baby and particularly love Dr Oscar Serrallach and his work on postnatal depletion because it made me feel seen and heard and I realised everything I felt was perfectly normal and part of the process. I really feel like I’m into my stride with it now though and we’ve reached a place that my friend describes as ‘the promised land’ where we feel like a proper unit and the kids will play happily together while I get to enjoy a hot coffee!
What was your experience of lockdown – how did you manage it as a family – what were some highs and lows?
In all honesty, I loved lockdown. At the beginning, it was a strange thing to acknowledge that life under lockdown was remarkably similar to my normal life in a small, rural village as a mostly stay at home mum but as soon as everyone else in the country (keyworkers excepted) were willingly incarcerated I suddenly felt much more at peace, less like I was missing out or that the world was carrying on at a pace while I was at a standstill. Staying at home with the kids felt proactive and a more valuable contribution to society than it is usually deemed to be and the slowness offered up a wonderful opportunity for reconnection. Having my husband there for every meal which we mostly ate outside and for bath and bedtime removed so much of the daunting loneliness that comes with motherhood. I understand all of this comes from a place of great privilege and good health but I can honestly say it was one of the happiest periods of parenthood for me.
If you could go back to before you became a mother, what would you tell yourself?
If you take the time to tune into yourself you will find you know how to do this. It will take time to process and learn, but the love and the strength is there for you and it’s limitless. I would also say it is really, really hard work, unfathomably so in the early days, but there is a direct correlation between the work you put in and the benefits you reap so hang in there. Work out what self-care really looks like for you and don’t compromise on it, even if it’s as little as brushing your teeth twice a day which can feel like a mini win with a newborn. And one thing that I’ve learned with my second child is that they will teach themselves. They are hardwired to learn through play so just wait and watch and resist the urge to step in to complete something for them or push them towards the next milestone because they will get there in their own sweet time.