And kicking. I’m just working on a few other things at the moment.
You know that gets me? TV Science. You know the stuff, those one hour shows comprised of a hodge-podge of internally consistent, feasible-sounding accounts of life on earth that the shuffling mouth breathers can pick up in the analogy section of Aldi.
Recently I tuned in to Steven Hawking telling us that the risk of a world ending nuclear detonation was tiny but over a fifty gazillion year time frame it was almost a certainty. The only thing separating ‘total annihilation’ from ‘not total annihilation’ was the phrase “fifty gazillion years”, a concept so unfathomable it might as well be the instructions on a jet-ski.
Good TV science begins with your microwave, or snow, or sneezing kittens, and then before you know it you’re off in a parallel world of impressive hyperbole, where all observable phenomena are translated into orders of magnitude larger or smaller than three tablets of Equal or the cubic capacity of an Clubsport R8. The message is clear; Science is intrinsically connected to your everyday life. It is knowable, human, and inside all kinds of stuff. Stuff you use. Everyday. Like Wow.
Take that Clubsport for instance, what’s in there? Well, a petrol engine of course. But what do you really know about the internal combustion engine? The Otto cycle? Thermal efficiency? Well, don’t panic! TV science is here to help!
Did you know, for instance, that the energy inside your car’s engine is in fact thousands of tiny universes bouncing around, crashing into one another, at more than fifty giga-pica-nodules per nano-second? It’s as if billions of meteors were aligning then re-aligning to create power! But don’t get too cheerful; After all, TV science has a strong narrative arc to follow, so all stories must conclude with a faintly ominous warning. You should know therefore that over the life cycle of the average universe this barbeque of physics under the bonnet can cause a dramatic increase in the dangerous sulphidoron gas: hexavolkaic acid, potentially threatening the seat covers and, ultimately, life on earth itself.
That’s if you’re on SBS.
I want to tell you a story about being fat.
As a young girl I looked set to follow a fairly well-trammelled path, from chubby pubescent to husky young woman. Perhaps the critical moment in my weight gain was a job I had when I was 17, as a waitress in a high-end hotel restaurant. Happily, the hotel provided one meal per shift, plus all the pastries you could eat. Turns out, I could eat a lot of pastries.
Combined with a teenage enthusiasm for bottles of sticky wine and Vodka-Solo mixers my weight increased steadily until I weighed 87kg. That’s a BMI of 27. Not massive but definitely overweight.
My future, I thought, looked fairly clear – I’d be about a size 14 until I had kids, and then ramp it up from there. By the age of 40 I’d probably have high blood pressure, and by 50 I’d have trouble getting up the stairs. In short, I’d follow the same trajectory as most of my friends and the women in my family. That was OK by me.
And then one morning I was woken up by the television in the next room – one of my flatmates was watching a live rugby game. I made a cup of tea and flopped down beside him, just in time for the player profiles.
It was then I discovered that I weighed as much as the South African half-back. Only he could run to the shops.
I realised, right then and there, that I was at a cross-roads. I could get off my arse and lose some weight or keep going the way I was going, gradually expanding until I resembled the lounge suite I was sitting on.
I chose the latter. This isn’t Rocky.
Six months later however, I got glandular fever. My weight dropped dramatically – I lost around 10kg in a month. For some reason I decided to keep going with it.
I based my new weight-loss regime on the most authoritative guide I had access to – an article in Dolly that I’d read as a thirteen year old. It profiled a devastatingly gorgeous Russian model who cited her weight management as simply: ‘…running for an hour every day’.
Well, if it’s good enough for devastatingly gorgeous Russian models, it’s good enough for me.
I saved up for two weeks, bought some running shoes and started running.
I made it to the letterbox. But, each time I ran a little further until, three months later I was running for about 45 minutes every second or third day. The weight loss was dramatic – I lost about 25kg.
And here’s the crux – at some point I went from participating in that bizarre and temporary activity of ‘weight loss’ to actually being a runner.
Which brings me to my point: Weight-loss is something you do. Being a runner, on the other hand, is something you are. I suppose it started with a ‘lifestyle change’ but it’s been my regular, ordinary life ever since. I’ve now been running for 20 years. It’s ebbed and flowed, of course, with work commitments, travel and childbirth, but I’ve kept going.
And it’s not like it’s gotten easier either. I still have to drag myself out of bed in the morning into the pre-dawn chill, telling myself that I don’t have to feel energetic or bouncy, I just have to fucking do it. Stick that on a shoe, Nike. But this is the price I pay to have a body that feels strong, easy and well-put-together. Yes, I changed my diet too, but not obsessively. I still eat chips and drink beer. I still eat highly processed bread and biscuits, I just got a bit more realistic about the quantity of these things, and ate more fresh vegetables and lentils. And, as anyone with kids will tell you, there comes an age when you have to pretend you’ve never eaten chocolate in the bath.
For me, running is not part of the obsessive, hyperbolic food-body fads that characterise modern life. From the 5-2 diet to raw-foods, I’ve noticed that they’re all promulgated by young, almost exclusively white sylphs, documenting their ‘holistic lifestyle practices’ through an avalanche of borderline pornographic selfies.
All these diets start off as an exclusive regime of consumption by which middle class bores distinguish themselves. Eventually of course, they are appropriated by unscrupulous marketeers capitalising on the – now majority – of overweight people primed for their products. From pseudo-scientific newspaper article to the 50c book shelf at Vinnies, it’s an utterly predictable cycle.
But here’s the thing, all these diets focus on food rather than exercise, because at the end of the day, food is far easier to turn into a product than exercise. Paleo diet? Show me a middle-aged paleolithic woman who couldn’t out-sprint a pissed off wooly rhino and I’ll show you dinner.
Running, and its consequences – not being overweight – is not really about food, and it’s definitely not about ‘dieting’. It’s a completely native part of my life. At at some point this went from being a diet or a ‘lifestyle change’, (therefore prone to ‘failure‘), to just being me, – “Skinny-me”.
Eventually, as I moved cities and even countries, the people who knew fat-me drifted out of my life, and I became known simply as skinny-me.
More than that, I became known as ‘naturally’ skinny-me, because of course, it’s genetic.
Like many new mums I’d pictured that moment when the midwife would place her on my chest for the first time. I’d play with her tiny fingers and crochetty little arms and marvel at just how tiny she was.
Instead, she was delivered to me with a solid WHUMP and a certificate of live lumber. She was big.
And lovely, of course, the most beautiful, cherubic child ever to grace the peeling pink ward of the local district hospital. But delicate she was not.
She’s a good one, I’d say to visitors, holding her up like an outsized gurnard.
I took pleasure and relief in her divetted elbows and nuggety little legs. My baby was comfortingly robust.
Robustness, however, doesn’t come for free. My daughter had a bit of a hunger on. And, after a very long, induced labour with multiple interventions at the pointy end, we eventually embarked on breastfeeding. I was anxious in the hospital, but with the help of a phalanx of sensible midwives my daughter ‘latched’ and suckled perfectly. Conditions were excellent. We went home. And that’s when it all turned to shit.
I’ll spare you the details but the short version is that I didn’t produce enough milk. My daughter fed for an hour and a quarter and slept for 45 minutes. This pattern continued more or less day and night. For weeks. My nipples fell apart. Each ‘latch’ involved digging my toes into the floorboards and trying not to drop tears onto her little forehead. We were both exhausted. The lack of sleep was taking its toll physically. I don’t want to get too Operation Ouch but like many new mums I’d left the hospital with my tail well and truly between my legs. Nothing would heal and on top of that I was developing new problems every day, like a mouth full of sores.
But my daughter was gaining weight, and, with the kind encouragement of the visiting midwife, I kept at it. According to her I was doing a great job. She was not, however, a fool, and suggested that I might like to try bottle feeding. Not permanently, just until my body stopped looking like it had been reassembled by the work experience kid at the abbatoir.
And I declined, which is why I’m writing this piece. Because in hindsight, some of my reasons were plain fucking stupid. So I thought I’d share them in the vain hope that some other new mother might read this one day and save herself some serious drama.
1.I’d been told that if I substituted some breast-milk feeds with formula my milk would begin to dry up. This is errant bullshit. I’ve since met numerous women who’ve abandoned breastfeeding entirely for a month or two and gone back to it over a week or so.
2.I read the ingredients on the back of a tin of formula – taurine? Seriously? If I’d been able to give my daughter a formula that was slightly less terrifying than a tin of Beefcake 2000 I might have been more amenable to the idea.
3.Anything less than full breastfeeding would cement my daughter’s future as 4 i.c on the clean up crew at McDonalds, in between neck-tatts and thundering phone calls to talkback radio. I’ve since read this now famous article in The Atlantic which explains that how breastfeeding has been appropriated by class interests, its benefits massively overstated as means to marginalise women. Like pretty much everything else.
4.There are proven benefits in the physical act of breastfeeding. It helps strengthen the baby’s mouth, neck and throat, and helps develops the muscles in around the spine. My daughter could knock over the 15ml of breastmilk I’d laboriously expressed over a 35 minute period like Hawkey with a glow on. This worried me. It seemed completely at odds with the physical benefits of breastfeeding above. At the time I had no idea that there were special ‘work for it’ teats on the market that more closely mimicked the physical sucking of breastfeeding. There are.
5.Formula babies sleep better but that’s because it takes their tummies longer to digest the formula. In hindsight, I’m not entirely sure why adults don’t take this up – it seems an uncomfortable belly full of indigestible slurry has its upsides. The 5,2 diet starts to look a whole lot simpler if you’re asleep for two thirds of it.
6.A deeply held but totally unfounded hypothesis about the health implications of formula feeding. In short, I suspected that formula was turning us into irretrievable fatties. Breastfed babies are, at least some of the time, hungry, whereas formula fed babies remain full for longer. At the time (five years ago) there was an avalanche of new research into the role of leptin in regulating hunger and satiation. I was fairly convinced that being a little bit hungry as a baby made for a better metabolism later in life. Coming from a family of very well-upholstered women, this was particularly appealing. It’s worth noting that of all the silly ideas in post-partum brain-shambles, this is the only one I’m still remotely partial to. I’m sure that scientific research into leptin will eventually provide some sufficiently ambiguous results from which I can extrapolate dogmatic conclusions that match my personal agenda. When it does I’ll be sure to Facebook it.
My last two motivations were perhaps the dumbest. They were political.
Stay-at-home mothers aren’t in the workforce. When women stop being potential economic units, their value is constantly undermined and belittled. Gen-X women like myself feel this particularly keenly. We have grown up with a feminism predicated on economic freedom and independence. For many of us, motherhood is our first experience of real reliance on someone else. It’s not just about the money. Even if you’ve saved money to support your family through this time (and by the way, who can do that? Not me!) it’s easy to feel useless ‘sitting around at home’. For many new mothers, I would argue, this lack of self-reliance is experienced as a humbling infantilism, nourished by an economic system that tells us that self-respect is limited to the skills we have that can be measured in money, not love. Or care. Or the ability to get continually smacked in the face with a colourful plastic hammer.
Well I wasn’t buying it. I would be valued as a human, a mother, a maternal feminist, dammit!
“Capitalist economy, I give you the big, Marxist finger!” I cried, to the cat.
This is, of course, facile bullshit. There is no escaping the capitalist economy. Or at least, not if you want to keep the power on. Moreover, breastfeeding (and the stay-at-home mothering it infers) is a potent marker of middle class status, right up there with the jogging stroller and the Audi. It doesn’t demonstrate a rejection of the economic system. On the contrary, it shows that you’re rather good at it. Or at least you’re shacked up with someone who is. You might be inwardly depressed and fuming at the circumstances that have transported you into a walk-on part in Mad Men, but the reality is that, in Australia, there is a certain status associated with extended breastfeeding (longer than a smoko break).
So by day two of new motherhood I was well and truly primed for breastfeeding, frothing on the completely contradictory positions above. Outwardly, I was proud of my healthy choice to breastfeed and filled with Marxist righteousness, asserting my value as a mother not just an economic unit. Inwardly I was smugly looking forward to my incorporation into the suckling classes.
There was only one problem; no milk.
As the days turned into weeks I became increasingly more desperate to breastfeed, and to breastfeed successfully. I became obsessed.
Which brings me to my next point; going bonkers.
Tiredness makes you mental. It unravels you, makes you obsessive, panicky and emotionally retarded. You’re suspicious and polarised, the last bandicoot at the Lizard Awareness Society, the lonely, un-ironed scientist at a Young Liberals fundraiser. Sleep deprivation is a well established form of torture, its victims become depressed, erratic and develop a severe need to make, and subsequently burn, plum jam.
It seems obvious that new mothers need to look after their mental health, including getting enough sleep. But when you’re totally exhausted and depressed it is extremely easily fall prey to obsessive thoughts of inadequacy. Here I was, a tracksuited sloth, lounging around at home unable to even feed my baby. I used to stare at my useless tits and think that I deserved every moment of pain and exhaustion because I couldn’t produce enough milk. For the first four months of my baby’s life I could not even hold her without her straining her little neck towards my breasts, hoping for just a teensy bit more. I was a failure. I was starving my baby. The guilt was exquisite.
The pressure on myself was compounded by well-meaning friends who told me that I wasn’t producing enough milk because I was stressed. Well, thanks for that, I’ll file it under ‘Crippling Sense of Self-Doubt’*. Another biscuit?
My point is this; new motherhood is a humbling time. You will never be more oversubscribed in your life. Even your bras have a drop-down menu. It’s easy to succumb to fruity irrational ideas about sleep, breastfeeding and lycra.
Too often our mental health issues are mired in an idiom of ‘failure-to-mother’. But in this enlightened age when everyone from celebrities to sports heroes is busting to chat about their mental health, surely we can do it too? After all, football players can talk about their mental health without being mired in an idiom of ‘failure-to-totally-smash-a-picnic-table-of- RTDs’. So why can’t we? Why can’t we talk about the real consequences of extreme tiredness? Most of us don’t have family living next door to take the baby for an hour or ten. How can we manage this unprecedented lack of support? Well, here’s the thing. Even if you’ve gone shit-eating mental not everyone else has. Taking care of your mental and emotional health might just be as simple as asking someone you trust if you’re being irrational and then actually listening to the answer. Part of being a strong, self-reliant woman is realising when you’ve been outfoxed by a small leaking human. Trust in people who can make it to the checkout with more than a box of Cheezels and a packet of highlighters. Ask for advice and take it.
In my case I should have bottle fed my baby. Just for a while. But I was too bonkers to accept it. It’s my only regret.