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.