23rd to 27th of June was apparently breastfeeding awareness week. This is the kind of information you become party to in the Mumsnet Bloggers Network. Some bloggers have used this as an opportunity to post about their own breastfeeding experiences- so I thought I’d have a go. A little late, but still….
Jimmy was born by cesarean section: a little scrap of life, just 4lb 2oz, whisked away from me before I could hold him. I was bouncing off the walls from morphine, and shaky from some really dramatic blood loss when I was asked for permission for the nurses to “just give him his first feed” of formula.
This I happily did, taking the “just” at face value. It wasn't like that of course and Jimmy ended up spending a full 10 days on SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit).
He wasn’t even drinking formula in the end. He was so little that any kind of sustenance made his blood sugar jump about like a metronome in an earthquake. They fed him glucose through a drip in his arm. He was like a little humming bird.
Visiting your own baby in SCBU is awkward. It’s your child and you have the right to be there, of course. But you’re also hanging around someone else’s workplace. You are allowed to help care for him, but it feels a little like playing with dollies. Your presence is not exactly necessary.
On the other hand- being apart from your baby feels mildly but unmistakably wrong. The mildness decreasing with the amount of time spent away. For 10 days, I had the choice between sitting in a rather boring, overheated room feeling socially awkward; or sitting in the comfort of my own home feeling wrong.
On top of that the social services investigation was still on-going so I felt like my visits were being scrutinised. In retrospect they almost certainly were. I found myself doing things like unnecessarily bringing in little blankets from home, despite the perfectly adequate bedding he was already wrapped in- purely because bringing in blankets felt like something a loving mother might be expected to do.
So, Jimmy took glucose through his drip. Then he took milk through a tube in nose. Then finally milk by mouth. The milk by mouth bit was important because it was a condition of him being able to leave hospital.
There was a period where there was nothing medically wrong with him; he even known to be capable of sucking, because he’d been given a bottle for a night feed once. But he wasn't allowed to come home because I’d said I wanted to breastfeed, and he hadn't done that yet.
He wasn't going to either- the way things were going. Jimmy’s feeds were scheduled for once every 4 hours. I was managing to make maybe 2 or 3 of them per day. I would hold him up to the breast and he would look up at me sweetly and… do nothing. He’d never been hungry in his life and I think sucking simply didn't occur to him.
We would just sit there together until the nurses got bored of it and then Jimmy would have a feed through his tube and then I would put him down. I knew we were never going to get started with these few, regulated minutes of practice per day. But I was never going to get him home until we’d got started.
Now- I’m a person who’s cautious with her optimism. I like contingency plans. I like to scope out the worst option ahead of time and make my peace with it. So I’d already decided that if I couldn't manage to breast feed, i wouldn't let it bother me. In my opinion, people got altogether too invested in this kind of thing. They placed too much pressure on themselves and then allowed their own expectations to spoil their happiness. I wouldn't be making the same mistake. If it worked out for me, fine. If not- I’d move on.
And this was not working out. It’s instinctual to want to be with your child. Everything in my being was telling me that he needed to be with me. Far, far more than he needed vitamins or immunity from diseases, or hormones or any of the other undoubted benefits of breast milk; he needed just to be with me.
And yet, and yet…
As I faced up to jettisoning the breastfeeding, I did worry. I wrung my hands over it. I even ended up phoning a very uninterested, childless friend for advice:
“You want to give your baby a bottle?” He asked nonplussed “What’s in the bottle? Is it Buckfast?”
Pro tip: Childless friends are great for perspective.
In the end, it didn't come to that. My ceaseless lobbying for a place in Transitional Care finally won out.
Despite professional concerns that I would “Go mad with post puerperal psychosis” if I were placed there “too early,” I was finally given a private room where I could just hang out with my baby in peace and take 15 minutes fiddling about with the latch if we needed to. Which we frequently did.
We were there for a weekend and it turned out to be the most idyllic two days of my life. Jimmy fed like a trouper, and then slept happily. I read books and phoned friends and wrote discussion pieces on the acrimonious breakup of a far left group I was involved with at the time.
I had a huge sunny window and a comfy hospital bed and my baby sleeping beside me, smelling of sweetness and peace. I did not develop post puerperal psychosis. I was more deeply contented than I’ve ever been. Perhaps since I was a baby myself.
Jimmy is coming up to a year old now. He eats macaroni and bread crusts and cheese and chocolate cake. I've moved him onto formula during the day so I can return to work, but he still enjoys a good feed of breast milk first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
So my breastfeeding experience is a happy one and it all worked out.
But for me, breastfeeding was also, as I suspect it is for a lot of people; a quick and dirty lesson in compromise. In the necessity of doing, not the “best” thing for your child; but the best thing in the circumstances. The death of that exacting pressure we are encouraged to place on ourselves.
And for that, I am also grateful.