Breastfeeding – second time unlucky

baby's hand

Awww.

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.

Sorry.

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.

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Saturday night

I remember a time when autumnal Saturday evenings were all about good food, good wine, good music and good friends. Or at the very least, bad dates – which inevitably resulted in good stories to tell afterwards.

Then along came parenthood. Tonight I’ve put the toddler to bed, washed the towels, vacuumed all the cobwebs off the downstairs ceilings (not intentionally a euphemism) and I’m writing this during a quick snack break (that snack is a fucking satsuma, people) before I Dettol the bathroom sink.

This is what teenagers should be taught during family planning lessons.

Baby #2 incoming in T-12 days.

A make up lesson – how much is “too much”?

make up free

Me without make up. Does it make me a better mum?

I read a tabloid take recently on women who wear make up to work. Needless to say, it was yet another occasion upon which the ladies under scrutiny – through no choice of their own – did not fair well.

The gist of the story was that bosses tend to look down on female staff who wear what they deem to be “too much” on the cosmetics front. I’ve googled like mad and I can’t for the life of me find the article so it must have been some online filler (no pun intended) designed to boost somebody’s ad clicks that day – the only reference I could find to anything similar dates back three years to a very dubious PR survey of about 5 people in the west midlands or some-such so I won’t link to it here.

The feature had a lot to do with lipstick, I seem to recall. Lashings of lippy = bad colleague, apparently.

So far, so cliched, and the rest of the article did not disappoint, containing exactly the sort of lazy man-bashing views you’ve probably second-guessed already… these disapproving bosses must obviously all be men and they must obviously all feel threatened/distracted/intimidated/aroused by being around attractive women in the workplace . Or maybe they’re just downright jealous.

I’m not so sure about that.

The men in my life don’t tend to bat much of an eyelid about the make up I wear at work, unless I’ve really, really gone for it. Television make up attracts the comments,  but that is utter warpaint in the flesh. And the guys have to wear it too. Put it this way – the age of HD has a lot to answer for.

Generally, it’s the women you need to watch out for, if you’re feeling self-conscious.

I once took part in a German exchange programme in secondary school and one of the visiting teachers, a colourful Fraulein whose name I have long since forgotten, had the misfortune to have a few wobbles with her eyebrow pencil.

For this alone she was utterly ridiculed by us, as openly as we dared. We were the archetypal bitchy English teenage contingent, despite being at a fairly experimental stage with our cheap cosmetics ourselves. It’s telling that 20 years later all I can remember about the entire scheme is a pair of badly drawn brows.

What has all this got to do with breastfeeding? A friend confided recently that she went to visit a “breastfeeding counsellor” because she was having feeding issues.

Only she made the mistake of throwing on a bit of eyeliner and some lipsalve on her way out the door. Despite her desperation the counsellor’s opening gambit was that obviously things couldn’t be that bad because she’d had time to put on make up, followed by an equally uninvited tirade about “career girls”.

Not exactly what you expect from a counsellor, is it? Even if she thought that – and clearly she did – why say it out loud?

It’s certainly a new one on me though – I hadn’t realised that successful breastfeeding depended entirely on ditching the mascara wand.

Except guess what – it turned out it was an undiagnosed tongue-tie, rather than my friend’s cosmetic regime, which was causing her problems.

Who knew.

Dear bump…

Dear Bump...

Anticipation

This morning a friend sent me a link to this beautiful blog post. It’s a letter to an unborn child and it’s preoccupied me all morning.

What would I say to mine? Unfortunately the things which immediately sprung to mind were in the form of various apologies:

– Sorry for bending the diet rules a little when it came to that prawn starter in that gorgeous restaurant in the south of France. I honestly didn’t know they were part of the dish when I ordered it but you have to admit they were delicious.

– Sorry for complaining on Facebook about you using my bladder as a trampoline and my ribcage as a set of monkey bars. I of all people should understand the impact of a digital footprint – hope it doesn’t prove too humiliating in 15 years time.

– If you feel a big squishy smack on the bottom/leg/forehead from time to time it’s your big brother enthusiastically pointing out to all and sundry where his little bro is currently residing. He is super excited about meeting our new “beebee” but he hasn’t quite mastered the gentle touch yet. He is only two, although that probably seems like 97 to you.

– You know when I told your dad he should try carting you around for a day and see how it feels? I was honestly mad at him rather than you – please don’t take it personally, you know I didn’t really mean it (cough).

– Apologies for that word I said last night when I woke up for the FOURTH time in two hours to go to the loo – it was very rude and you should never ever repeat it.

– Sorry that I’ve been so stressed out at various points during this pregnancy – I desperately hope that what has been an emotional rollercoaster for me at times has been no more than a mild case of butterflies in the tummy for you, if that. Please know that I would do anything and everything to protect you and your brother from all of life’s curve balls (well, the bad ones anyway) but I also have to tell you with a very heavy heart that this is inevitably going to be an impossible task.

See what I mean? it may sound like things are not off to the best of starts. But we are all so looking forward to meeting you in three weeks time (or thereabouts). Oh – if you could find it within yourself to be born on a day while Nanny is visiting, and without mummy requiring any major surgery/counselling/vodka afterwards that would be totally awesome too.

Lots of love xxx

Of birth plans and Michael Parkinson: is there any point?

Michael Parkinson/BBC

I wonder how many other women accidentally associate Michael Parkinson with childbirth (pic: BBC)

My hopes and dreams for the birth of my first child were pretty simple.  Actually I can pretty much sum my “birth plan” up in one word: survival. Primarily of the baby but obviously I was hoping to emerge from the experience with a pulse as well. TV personality Michael Parkinson certainly wasn’t supposed to be part of the proceedings.

Nonetheless, my firstborn ended up emerging to the dulcet tones of Sir P  on the delivery suite’s tinny FM radio, because it only seemed able to receive BBC Radio 2 and wouldn’t play any CDs. Although I do have a vague memory of my husband discreetly hitting the mute button when the theme tune to Psycho started playing. Michael Parkinson must have a sense of humour, after all. I couldn’t have planned that if I’d tried.

Now, three weeks and five days until the due date of Number Two, as the app on my phone helpfully keeps reminding me, I can honestly say that nothing has really changed in the  “birth plan” department. This includes potential birth-related cameos by ageing celebrity interviewers (sorry, Parky).

I haven’t stocked up on Diptique candles or lavender-scented scatter cushions. There is no music playlist under curation which will take me and my poor cervix from 0-10cm and I haven’t even googled the “golden thread” breathing technique I vaguely remember from the ghost of yoga classes past.

I honestly don’t see the point in attempting to control the event. Both my body and my baby are going to do whatever it is they’ve got to do. How can I possibly anticipate that? Last time round I remember a midwife warning me not to be “bullied” into having a C-Section if I needed one. If I need a C-Section, that is exactly what I intend to have, I replied.

In the event, nobody listened to me anyway. Plan or no plan, two hours before I gave birth they were still refusing to believe that I was even in labour or give me as much as a paracetamol to help with the pain… so being bullied into having a C Section turned out to be the least of my problems. All of which kind of proves my point, I suppose.

Recently I went to meet my new health visitor, who has the job of seeing me through the arrival of Number Two. She instructed me to be very clear “in my birth plan” about how I intend to feed the new arrival because apparently, if I want to give breastfeeding another chance, I must write in this mythical plan of mine that my baby is NOT to be given formula.

Needless to say she got short shrift. I think we can all agree that, one way or another, this newborn is going to need to feed. Either my boobs and my baby will rise to the occasion or they won’t. Last time ended in a spectacular no-show on my part. So – where does that leave us? Open minded, perhaps – but also prepared. This time there are both bottles and breast pads in the hospital bag and I’m sure as hell not ruling anything out.

I actually thought that was quite a nasty little trick – to try to force a woman to make such a vital decision before she’s aware of the reality of her own unique situation. What a neat way to set yourself up for failure if it doesn’t work out. This particular jelly is extremely hard to nail to the wall, in my experience.

That said – almost every other mother I know has had a “plan”. Am I missing something here?

Breastfeeding in public

image

There’s a story doing the rounds today about a woman who says she was told to leave a leisure centre because she was breastfeeding in the swimming pool.

A journalist approached me for comment about it and was obviously hoping I would do a bit of shit stirring on the media’s behalf.

Did I think it was disgusting, the reporter asked, or was it a sign that the formula feeding crowd had gone too far in their message?

At the time i was busy trying to stop my toddler leaping into a lift on the third floor of Debenhams while singing twinkle twinkle little star at thw top of his lungs so in all honesty what little brain i had left was not exactly firing on all cylinders.

However – I am also a journalist (if not of that particular ilk) and so fortunately I recognize a leading question when I hear one. I said I needed to see the story first and would call back.

After a few missed calls and texts I actually got an email. I replied to that.

What do I think about this story?  I think parents should be able to feed their babies as and when they need to. It is sad that this lady experienced the disapproval and humiliation also faced by thousands of people when they get out a bottle of formula in a public place, I wrote.

I guess I’d make a rubbish troll because I never heard from the reporter again. it was an interesting little lesson in how easily you can become a caricature though – it still feels like a close shave.

Through the looking glass (yeah, did i mention I’m pregnant again?)

In about eight weeks time Baby Number 2 is due to make his grand entrance.

I am older, wider and a lot more exhausted this time around but at least I’m finally being treated like a grown-up.

Shall I tell you how many times a health professional has mentioned breastfeeding to me in the last 32 weeks?

Once.

When I first met my midwife, she asked how I was planning to feed the new baby. I said that I hadn’t been able to breastfeed last time around and would see how it went this time – but that I wouldn’t push myself to the brink of madness over it ever again.

I waited for the questions, the “did you try….?”, the deluge of leaflets, phone numbers and  “support group” meeting dates to rain down upon me. I braced myself for a lecture at the very least.

Nothing. The midwife just nodded and told me to roll up my sleeve for a blood test. I was actually stunned into silence – most unusually for me.

Last night I went to a “refresher course” for pregnant people who have already had kids.

What a strange bunch we were – this group of women from all walks of life, all with our different shaped bumps and swollen ankles, some supported by wary partners, others alone, with our handbags full of wetwipes and half eaten toddler snacks.

Breastfeeding was bound to come up, right?

Wrong!

“You can tell a first time mum anything and they’ll accept it, but you lot know the truth now,” the teacher began.

We’re through the looking glass now, I thought, looking around.

At the start we discussed our biggest fears.

Mine, i said, was not being listened to – again. Being told I wasn’t “really” in labour while the contractions came thick and fast, just four hours before my son was born, being told to “just keep trying” after days and days of not producing any milk and then getting shouted out for doing what I was told as his little body screamed for the food I didn’t have.

“They will listen to you now,” the teacher said.

“They just tend to think first time mums don’t know what they’re saying”.

It felt like that scene from V for Vendetta [SPOILER!] when Natalie Portman emerges from her horrible hostage experience only to find it was all just a set-up to make her more tough.

Not sure it was ever intended as a model for 21st century maternity care but it’s not exactly her fault.

What I learned from my own initiation to parenthood was not to trust anybody who claims to be an expert in the area.

That said….  if the pressure is indeed well and truly off, and I’m not going to be hit by a roller coaster of well-intentioned but ultimately useless and conflicting advice, it might just work out a bit better this time mightn’t it? Now there’s a thought.