Blogging. We fell out of love for a little while but here I am asking for your forgiveness, begging for you to take me back. I lost my faith in you a little, I lost my confidence a lot and I also lost the luxury of time that maternity leave affords (I started writing this on Friday. It’s now Tuesday and I still haven’t finished my first draft)
But anyway, here I am. I’m back and I have missed you so much. So what has led me back here? Bizarrely, a pair of twin TV doctors, the Van Tullekens. ( Dr Xand, the beardy one, is my current crush du jour. Dr Chris is like staring at the ghost of a boyfriend past but I’m a fan nevertheless.)
More specifically, a tweet by Dr Chris (@DoctorChrisVT if you wish to follow him. Click here to view the tweet) has inspired me. A picture of his baby daughter lept from my Twitter feed. She was ‘reading’ their book ‘The Human Body,’ featuring a picture of said baby daughter, just a few hours old, breastfeeding. Last night, I watched the series that accompanies the book and felt a wave of sadness that I had tried and epically failed at breastfeeding. And now, as I sit at my desk in work, having my 3pm skive, I suddenly feel something wet on my cheek as I stare at this (no doubt) beautiful woman’s perfectly functioning breast and glance down at my own pair of flaccid failures. The visually disappointing tits came before the kids, thanks to two decades of yo-yo dieting, but their complete inadequacy came after I gave birth. Looking at this image with such regret, I feel compelled to write something down.
My story of breastfeeding is pretty pathetic. Actually, scrap that, my breastfeeding story makes me feel pretty pathetic. The truth is, I found breastfeeding emotionally draining and never got beyond the 6 week mark with either of my boys. It absolutely crushes me.
James Stuart Anthony Anglesea was born at 16.47 on 6th February 2014, weighing 7lb 12oz. Labour was long and traumatic. I won’t spare you the horrors. Everyone loves a good gory birth story. Induced. Twenty four hours of labour. James was facing to the right, so I was wheeled to surgery, ready for a c section. Only, the obstetrician (who never once spoke to me directly) changed his mind at the last minute. I endured an episiotomy that split me in half (my lady garden and my back passage were one), rotational forceps and internal and external stitches. Thank Christ for the epidural.
“And what the fuck do I do with you now?!?!” Was my first thought as I lay awake on our first night, staring at this little pink ball that had destroyed my nether regions. Despite having been on an NHS breastfeeding course involving a box of Maltesers and a knitted nipple, I didn’t know when to feed him or how. We spent the first 24 hours awkwardly trying to figure out the oh-so-natural process of getting milk into his tummy. I winced as I tried to get comfortable, thanks to my butchered under carriage. Sitting was challenging, holding him even more so and then latching without feeling like my delicate pink nipples were clamped in a vice. It’s not like this for cows is it?
On our first night at home, James screamed all night. ALL BASTARD NIGHT. I tried to feed him but he arched his back and wailed and fidgeted and I just became stressed and freaked out and bruised by his overzealous attempts to latch on. I had draw down pains, a heavily sutured perineum and the whole experience was agony. When he eventually fed and I thought he was done, I would try to put him down but it happened all over again. His head hit the Moses basket and WAAAAHHHH! I didn’t have a clue about cluster feeding. I was on the day three crash of hormones. You know, the one where you go bat shit crazy and cry constantly but no one warns you about. My milk hadn’t come in (again I had no clue what that was ) I had not signed up for this shit. Two hourly feds, sure. But not 24 hour feeds!
At 2am, I sent my husband to a 24 hour Tesco for formula. Something wasn’t working. My boobs were broken, my milk wasn’t coming out, my baby couldn’t get enough. We needed formula because quite frankly I was fucking this up rather exquisitely. It didn’t occur to me that the emergency bottles weren’t sterilised and that neither of us had a clue about how to make up formula. By the time Rob came back, started sterilising and made up a bottle, James had eventually latched, fed and gone to sleep. And that pretty much set the tone for the weeks to come. James fretfully trying to latch, screaming and arching his back wriggling and fussing. And me, exhausted, sobbing like a mad woman at almost anyone vaguely medical who crossed my door. Why wasn’t I doing this right? How was I going to get showered and dressed ever again? How was I ever going to leave the house? How was I ever going to have visitors again when I just seemed to go round with my tits hanging out and stinking of milk? I didn’t know when he would feed or how long for. I had no control over anything and I hated myself and I was fairly sure my baby hated me too. I was a terrible mother.
Finding breastfeeding such a gargantuan task crippled me. The attitudes of others wasn’t much easier to handle. I think it’s fair to say that any man related to me found my breastfeeding hugely uncomfortable. I tried to be discreet but when my dad and step mum came to visit from Tenerife, I found myself sat sobbing on the bed alone, trying to feed whilst my shy, awkward husband tried to entertain my shy, awkward father and a woman he hardly knew at the dinner table.
To be fair, the women weren’t much better. When he would scream and writhe and they couldn’t hold him for long because he just wanted boob, there were cries of “aren’t you just going to give him a bottle?” Or “he’s just using you as a dummy” I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
When breastfeeding went smoothly, I did love it. I loved the little grunting noises that showed me he was eating, the chubby cheeks satisfactorily bobbing up and down, the milk dribbling down his drunken face. I felt completely bonded to my hungry little mini milk, as I called him. But those moments were few and far between and at 4 weeks, I finally lost my shit. I had an infection in my stitches, which had made me very poorly indeed. I was only physically comfortable lying on my side on the floor. I was exhausted. I felt emotionally destroyed. Looking back, I was suffering from postnatal depression but either no one noticed or I felt so ashamed that I hid it from as many people as possible.
So one particularly draining evening, after hysterical texts to my best friend and her partner, I sobbed as I watched Rob giving him his first ever bottle of formula. There it was. His very first bottle of my failure.
I tried combination feeding for a while but that only seemed to complicate things further. When should I feed? How long for? When was bottle time? Should I express? How do people have time to express? I had no idea and the screaming and writhing didn’t seem to get any better so in the end, I bid a pain farewell to the boob.
There was no improvement in the screaming and writhing. After one whole 24 hour block of hysterics (James not me), plenty of Infacol and gripe water, I went to my GP and sobbed. This wasn’t normal, surely? He sent us to Alder Hey, immediately. James was diagnosed with silent reflux. He was 5 weeks old and put on infant Gaviscon. He was on omeprazole for a few weeks before being downgraded to ranitidine. This continued until he was a year old and, yes, he was a very different baby. Much calmer. When the consultant asked how he was being fed. I explained my breastfeeding horror. I felt so ashamed that I had failed but she was kind and sympathetic. It was ok. Giving Gaviscon to breastfed babies was a nightmare anyway, she reassured me. Dissolving in bottles was much easier. It was my get out of jail free card. I felt relieved, but seeing the many women around me, breezily breastfeeding away, I also felt thoroughly miserable that I had been unable to perform my main function: to feed my baby my milk. The bespoke milk, which my body was producing to nourish him and him alone. I felt useless.
I always wanted two babies close together and when Joseph Stanley John Anglesea arrived at 16.41pm, on 20th April 2016, weighing 7lb 6oz by planned c section, our family was complete. The birth was calm. Theatre was relaxed. Every person in there was wonderful and joyful. The anaesthetists grabbed my phone and took amazing pictures of Joseph being pulled out of my tummy. It was incredible. This time it was all going to be so very different. That’s why we have second babies, isn’t it? To correct all the things we ballsed up with the first one. James had been my breastfeeding practise run. Many of the people who had disapproved of my breastfeeding first time were horrified that I was going to do it again. But this time… This time I would nail it, right? Ha! Would. I. Shite!
Initially, as in the 5 minutes immediately after he was born, Joseph fed hungrily. All the midwives commented on it. But then, the morphine in my spinal block gave way to itching. My whole body was alive and I wanted to rip my own skin off. I had been sliced in half horizontally at my abdomen, so one again getting in position was a nightmare. The ward was hot. SO. FUCKING. HOT. Joseph was sticking to my clammy skin. He didn’t seem interested in feeding.
Well into the night, Joseph was trembling and I couldn’t get him to feed. One particularly aggressive health care assistant came in to see me. Let’s call her Doris. Mainly because that is her name and she shouldn’t be spared exposure of having the worst bedside manner I have ever come across. I know many a steely woman who has encountered her at the Women’s Hospital and been reduced to tears by how vile she is. Doris barked at me “Are you actually feeding this baby?! Come on, get him on to you! NO! You don’t hold him like that. Like this!”
She wrestled with me but we struggled still. I cried. She yelled at me more. I wanted to smack her right in the mouth but I just cried some more. She took his blood sugar. It was low. Keep trying. I was going to keep trying. I persevered. I still struggled. I sobbed through the night as I failed.
Thankfully, one particularly wonderful midwife called Shauna took over. She gently took the time to help me but we still struggled. She helped me hand express into a syringe. It was agony and felt fruitless as the tiny yellowy drops struggled to fill even one millilitre. She was not the only one. There is not a pair of hands in Liverpool Women’s Hospital that did not touch my boobs during that stay. I spent 24 solid hours trying to get something down him. I fell asleep with him on my breast and luckily a midwife spotted him almost rolling out of my arms and saved him so I could have an hour’s sleep. I wept constantly. Joseph’s blood sugar remained low. He was becoming increasingly jaundiced. He was going to get ill if I couldn’t pull this one out of the bag, In the end, the doctor told me I needed to work on my milk production – skin to skin, hand expressing, encouraging him to latch.
But, in the mean time, she told me sternly, Joseph had to have some formula. He simply had to. He needed food. Once again, I sobbed as I watched the midwife give my baby formula from a cup. He lapped it up like a cat. I was defeated completely. We started combination feeding on day three and Joseph, like a true Scouser, was placed under a UV lamp, to try and clear his jaundice. Without food to clear his system, the jaundice was getting worse and we were not allowed home until it settled.
Once my milk had come in, I spent my days in hospital on an industrial sized breast pump or trying to feed my baby. Finally after 5 days, we were sent home. Still combination feeding.
At home, I had to set an alarm to wake him every two hours to breastfeed . A lot of the time, Joseph wasn’t interested. Nevertheless, he gained weight. But combination feeding was playing havoc with his bowels and the routine of it was as complicated as it has been the first time. I tried to lower formula and increase breast but that was even more bloody confusing,
At this point, James was two and very jealous of his younger sibling. (He is three and a half now and still hates him) He was telling monstrous lies, refused to sleep and had tantrums to demonstrate his disgust. Breastfeeding was only exacerbating the sibling rivalry. He would climb on me and try and push Joe out of the way as I fed or sulk. He wouldn’t look at Joe or cuddle him. I couldn’t manage and after three weeks, we began to increase formula. By six weeks, Joseph was a solely formula fed baby.
On the whole, I don’t necessarily feel like I am one of life’s quitters. I have completed four half marathons. Two of which, I wasn’t necessarily fit enough to run. I have a degree. A degree which I hated virtually from the off but one which I persevered with regardless.(Copious amounts of alcohol and zero responsibility were encouraging factors there, though) So, why did I quit when it came to the most important thing I could do for my children? I feel enormously inadequate. I know that formula isn’t harmful. I know that my boys are healthy and bright. I know that if I ask my sons at 16 and even at 46, they probably wouldn’t say they wished I had breastfed for longer. What man wants to think about their mum’s tits? EWW! But for me, it is devastating that I have not done that for them.
Since 2013, six of my closest friends have had babies and breastfed successfully. Most of them until the 12 month point. To this day, I do not understand how they find it so easy. Maybe I am a control freak and I need routine too much, but I don’t understand how it slips into their lives. I don’t understand how they feel ok about feeding in front of dads and granddads and uncles (and even a few women) who all clearly find it so uncomfortable. Compared to these women, I feel completely pathetic. I feel like a bad mum. If I’m honest, I feel like a bad person. Everyone knows that breast is best but I just couldn’t do it.
Feeding is emotive. I do not judge anyone’s decision on how to feed their baby. But when I saw that picture of Dr Chris Van Tulleken’s beautiful daughter being breastfed, all I could feel is regret. Parenting is about guilt and regret. I get that. I regret so many things. I regret ever letting James sleep in my bed. I regret all the times I spent in tears and wishing away those days when they didn’t move. When I could just cuddle them all day long, without them running away or fidgeting or general causing havoc. I regret not savouring the moments of skin to skin, when they would sleep on me or would contentedly breastfeed. I regret that I will never get that back. Most of all, I regret not trying hard enough to breastfeed or giving it longer.
Maybe I am selfish but then again maybe my mental health is more important. And maybe I have rabbited on about this for too long. Actually, I definitely have.
So there it is, my first blog since January. Thanks to boobs, or more specifically Dr Chris Van Tulleken’s wife’s boobs, for getting me back on the blogging bandwagon.