I started writing this three weeks ago, at 2.28am, during an impromptu night out at the Hotel NHS – for the second time since the birth of our gorgeous little son, our youngest child, five days previously.
I was awake – as per usual – and our son was asleep (at that point, less usual).
I’m ashamed to say the reason I was there was because, despite all my research and rage over the insane pressure to breastfeed my first son and the shit that was thrown at me when I couldn’t, and despite the fact that I wrote an entire angry book about the fiasco that I and many other women have been through, and despite my absolute conviction that I wouldn’t drive myself mad about bloody breastfeeding ever again… I drove myself mad about bloody breastfeeding again.
That was a long sentence.
But that’s what you get at 2.28am.
Anyway the result of my decision to try to do something I already know from previous experience I am crap at was a dehydrated baby. I don’t need to tell you about the epic guilt trip I’m still on about that.
Have you ever spent time in a neonatal unit? It is as inspirational as it is heartbreaking – incubators reminiscent of sci-fi spacecraft pods house tiny little babies, while beeps and flashes on the screens which surround them drum out the statistics that are keeping them alive. Heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen. Sometimes the beeps get more shrill and then everybody comes running. The babies are literally the size of your hand. They don’t cry.
While I was there I listened to a doctor delicately talk an exhausted couple through the agonising decision of whether to allow their 24 hour old son to have a chest drain. His lungs were not inflating properly and the medics were unsure as to why. The doctor was amazing. I found myself thinking that perhaps he was doing the only job in the world that really matters – and knowing that I would be unable to handle it myself.
Imagine what a fraud I felt – there I was, with a perfectly healthy baby, who simply hadn’t had enough to drink because of me.
With Son 1, my milk never came in. We tried everything – a million different positions, pumping every 2 hours night and day (horrid horrid horrid), fenugreek (smelly), stout (vile) and so on. At my peak I managed to express a measly 20ml per gruelling 45 minute pumping session. By this point my son was easily drinking 100ml per feed. It felt useless, I felt useless… and everywhere I looked it felt like there were people lining up to agree with me on that.
With Son 2, we were prepared. This time, we bought bottles, teats, sterilising fluid, formula ante-natally. And we had every intention of using them from the get-go.
But what threw me completely was that, within an hour of his birth, Son 2 latched on of his own accord and stayed there for over an hour. My husband and I stared at each other in disbelief. What the hell was he doing? Son 1 screamed like he was being murdered every single time my boobs were thrust in his general direction by one of an endless cohort of midwives (and some were more gentle than others).
Son 2 never really stopped breastfeeding. He couldn’t get enough – quite literally as it turned out. Nonetheless, this time we were top of the class – midwives and health visitors alike congratulated ourselves on our “perfect technique” and after being so browbeaten last time, I felt smug. I guess I also felt that perhaps I could lay a ghost to rest here too.
I still have no issue with formula. Honestly, I don’t. I spoke to numerous experts when I was writing the book and they all agree that the merits of breastmilk are somewhat exaggerated (to put it politely) by the breastfeeding brigade. One of my favourite mad claims is that it raises your IQ. Yup, seriously. Never mind that little line in the research paper which states that other lifestyle factors (like, erm, education?) cannot be ruled out. Shush. Nothing to see there.
I just felt that if breast was what Son 2 wanted, perhaps that was what he could get. Maybe the fact that he was actually willing to put in the effort of looking for it would mean I would be able to produce it this time. And let’s face it, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.
Unfortunately once again my boobs decided not to play ball. To describe my milk supply as low is an overstatement. This time though I shut the door before getting sucked in (again no pun intended) to the pumping rituals, the endless fenugreek, the “have you tried…?” and the “I know someone who produced mountains of milk after breaking a leg…” – all that well meaning advice that usually involves doing something horrendous. Besides I’ve already tried most of it, first time around.
With the exception of the one midwife who curtly exclaimed “well you are his mother, I suppose” (yes, well done dear, I am) the health professionals were surprisingly supportive of our decision to formula feed. I say decision – it wasn’t really much of a choice. Babies are hungry creatures, and they don’t tend to favour pizza. But I have a toddler, and a husband, and a life, goddammit, which in my view is too short to spend waiting for my body to figure out how to do something it really doesn’t seem to get.
It is time to face the fact that I may be many things, but a milk factory ain’t one of them. And finally, I think – I hope – I’m at peace with that.