Making my peace with breastfeeding

My third child, like my first two, is being exclusively breastfed. I don’t particularly enjoy it.

 

Breastfeeding, in my opinion, is one of ‘those’ things. You know the ones… Those things as mothers we secretly feel we should be doing, even whilst we verbalise every mum’s right to choose. Those things that when we say we do it, other women try to justify to us why they don’t (even if we never suggest they should). Those things that when I don’t do them and I hear another woman talk about them, I feel judged and get defensive. Like carrying my child in a sling, or purée-ing organic home cooked food, using reusable nappies, home-schooling, co-sleeping. ‘Those’ things.

 

For example, I was chatting about slings with a friend the other day. (I have a sling. I find it hard to use). I had composed a whole spiel in my head about my problems using it when our conversation was interrupted by our toddlers falling off a log, and by the time I returned to the conversation I realised that I was being defensive even though she wasn’t attacking. No-one was. No-one cares if I use a sling except me. It was one of ‘those’ things again.

 

Back to breastfeeding. I really really wanted to breastfeed my first. I was totally convinced by the research literature , my close friends all breastfed (or at least gave it a darn good try) and isn’t it just what middle class UK mums do? 

 

And it hurt. It really hurt. My nipples cracked and bled and I had to express entirely from one side for the first month. My overriding memory from that time is my husband casually saying “It’s going alright isn’t it?” whilst driving us to our two week midwife appointment, and turning to see silent tears dripping down my face because I didn’t think I could keep going with breastfeeding anymore, and to stop would mean I had failed.

 

I didn’t stop. I got help. I found things to motivate me. I struggled through. I had my first pain-free feed at 3 weeks and by 3 months it didn’t hurt at all. In the end she self-weaned at 11 months and we went straight on to cows milk as part of her normal diet. 

 

With my second, an amazing lady from Barnardos helped me to understand what had gone wrong before and showed me some tips to make it better.  We stopped earlier though: by the time I retired to work at 7 months we were down to just morning and evening feeds. As this baby wouldn’t take a bottle at all we went straight to a cup and a normal diet for those evenings I was working and she was fine – we dropped all evening feeds soon after. I decided to stop feeding her in the mornings a couple of months later: firstly, I needed to run for the sake of my mental health and I couldn’t do that in the mornings if I also had to feed. Secondly, I had developed gallstones, and I couldn’t take the pain killers I needed to whilst breastfeeding. 

 

I felt agonisingly guilty about stopping feeding, as I knew it was a decision I was making for my sake, rather than hers. I rationalised it: she needed a healthy and happy mummy more than she needed breast milk. Again, we went straight to a normal diet – I had still never fed either child formula milk.

 

And here is baby number three. Another baby with a small mouth and a difficult latch. More support needed from Barnardos. More painful feeds, sore blistered nipples, difficult positioning. We got down to ‘uncomfortable’ fairly quickly: nothing that a good dose of facebook/novel escapism can’t deal with. Since his birth I’ve read all the Swallows and Amazon books, my entire collection of Dick Francis novels, a few more here and there I can’t remember and now I’m working my way back through the entire Sharpe series. 

As you can tell from this, I’m spending a lot of my time feeding, perhaps up to 9 hours a day spent with my baby attached to me between waking up at 7 and midnight. I haven’t timed it. It would be too depressing. That much facebook is frankly just miserable. Watching tv is a no-go too, as my older children inevitably walk in if there’s anything on I don’t want them to see. So novels it is, and daydreaming about plants and day by day we are getting through. 

 

But this one is different – maybe because he is my last, maybe because he is visibly growing with all that milk and I can see his newbornness slipping away, maybe because by your third you know how precious this time is and how quickly it disappears, maybe because life with two other children is so busy and full-on that to slip away and feed, just me and him, is special time. Maybe because it’s the one role in our family that I and only I can do, or because having my husband at home and no school runs means I have the freedom to just be and to feed for as long as it takes. 

 

But for the first time, I’m enjoying my child during the baby stage and treasuring these quiet, uncomfortable times of feeding, with its peculiar ache of letting down milk and scratchy pinch of suckling. I know the whorls of hair on his head, the way his breathing changes when he wants a feed, the cheeky grins he gives me as he catches my eye mid-feed, his outraged expression when he needs a burp. 

 

And for the first time, I genuinely don’t mind if I have formula ‘as a back up’ in the cupboard, or if we end up using it full time. Accepting the feeding for what it is to me – an uncomfortable and slightly painful way of having lots of time to read books and be on my own with the baby – has freed me from both my earth mother idealism and my pigheaded refusals to quit. Maybe I will feed till 7 weeks, maybe I’ll keep going till he self weans. Either is fine by me.

 

And whatever I decide to do, I’m going to try my hardest to not get defensive about it. Firstly it’s not actually a moral issue: there’s no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to feeding my baby, only us making the best choices we can. And secondly, when other mums tell me about their decisions to breast feed or formula feed, to wean or to keep feeding, I’m going to try and remember that as with all ‘those’ other things they aren’t actually attacking me, judging me nor telling me what I should do: they are simply making conversation.  

 

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Baby has arrived

The last few weeks of pregnancy were in some ways the toughest: I became impatient, frustrated at the lack of control and over analysing every tiny cramp and movement in the hope of labour starting. By the end I had been off work for ten weeks without a newborn and was bored.

Still, arrive he did, as babies do. Labour and birth were the best I’ve had of the three – no undiagnosed breech like my first , and thanks to the good planning and care no post partum haemorrhaging like my second. In fact, despite being under consultant care and booked into the Delivery Suite and therefore most ‘medicalised’ of any birth plan I’ve had so far, it was a lovely, natural, midwife-led, gas and air, intervention free delivery. Praise God! And all credit due to the NHS and the great staff at Southmead hospital. I particularly liked the way my midwife accepted that I was in labour and due to have the baby soon, despite having very irregular contractions.
He’s a week old now, and it’s been ok on balance. I had a few days of baby blues (that’s the normal mood dip and tearfulness you get around day 3 when your progesterone levels plummet). I could tell because my eyes welled up at the thought of having to get up and dressed, or saying hello to lovely people who had made me meals. But frankly, between sore nipples from a couple of poor latches, aching breasts with the milk coming in, extreme sleep deprivation and my muscles from uterus down feeling like I’d just given birth, I think that’s pretty fair.
I’ve had loads of support – my friends were praying for me and wishing me well all labour,  my husband is on paternity leave, my mum has been down for most of the week and our amazing church is doing a food rota for us. Again I’m so grateful for all the help.
And the baby himself is a joy- he looks a little more like a Miles than my girls did, I think, and so far seems to like infacol, routines, hiccuping, being warm, sleep and being in constant human contact. Fair dos, for your first 7 days. 

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Treating my perinatal depression : thoughts.

I’m back in bed feeling miserable, this time with a chest infection. It’s an opportunity to examine my thoughts. This is the part of depression I find the hardest to deal with head on – I much prefer the sneaky, round the back, change the behaviour approach. You see often I believe that my thoughts are true, accurate reflections of the world and that my response of self pity is therefore justified. It takes guts to accept that my thoughts are just thoughts, little passing mind blips which don’t necessarily correlate to reality. When I examine them I find  some are realistic, some are unhelpful, and others are downright lies. The skill lies in knowing which are which and treating them differently.

 

Examples of realistic thoughts.
‘I feel ill.’ ‘I don’t like being ill.’ Yes, they are grumbly and complainy but I’ve found thoughts like this, honest opinions about my situation, are better to acknowledge and share judiciously than to try and persuade myself otherwise. I dug myself into a hole in the first few months of pregnancy telling myself ‘I should be enjoying this last pregnancy’ when I would have been better off accepting the truth that I was struggling and not enjoying it. Sharing that truth helped me realise that most other mums I chatted to didn’t enjoy it either, and that was ok.

 

Unhelpful thoughts.
‘What if this turns to a serious infection like pneumonia, and I spend the rest of my pregnancy feeling this bad, and then I’m ill all the way through labour….’ This is one of my familiar ‘unhelpful thinking patterns’. It’s called catastrophising and is unhelpful and like all thoughts starting with ‘what if’ it’s unanswerable. I need to recognise it for what it is, and be done.

 

Untruthful thoughts.
I’m a pathetic person for being ill in bed.’ ‘I should be downstairs helping with the children.’ ‘I’m a failure as a parent.’ Now CBT teaches great strategies for recognising and weighing thoughts like this, and coming up with helpful alternatives. But I’ve been here before and I know what they are and how to come against these ones. Quite frankly, they are lies. And the truth I need is in my faith and the Bible. ‘I’m a child of God.’1 ‘I’m accepted, beloved.2 ‘I don’t stand guilty and condemned but forgiven and free.’3
Even non-Biblical but slightly more balanced and rational thinking helps. ‘I’m an ok parent.’ I’m treating myself the best I can and following NHS advice for this infection. ‘
CBT calls it ‘cognitive restructuring’ or ‘thought challenging’. The Bible calls it ‘taking captive every thought’4 ‘reckoning the truth’5 or ‘renewing your mind’6.

 

Call it what you will, I don’t find it easy to do. It’s easier to believe the rubbish inside my head and ride the spiral path down to despair, to hide under the duvet and escape into the latest fantasy novel / self help programme on tv. Because once I accept the stuff inside my head needs to be sorted and then accepted ignored or challenged, I can’t let it dictate my behaviour any more. Which takes me back to last week’s blogs on treating my physical symptoms and changing my behaviours… And up and round the spiral I go, fighting for every step out of depression and despair.

 

  1. 1 John 3:1
  2. Eph 1:4-8
  3. Rom 8:1
  4. 2 Cor 10:5
  5. Rom 6:11
  6. Rom 12:12

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Amy and the stumpery garden

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Going out the front door

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

 

I haven’t been running since my youngest daughter (then aged 2) overtook me on our weekly run last autumn.  With pregnancy a fast receding memory and gaps between feeding the baby becoming more regular running is back on the agenda.

 


I saw my physiotherapist Helen a couple of weeks ago. My pelvis is correctly aligned, which is good news as my ligaments start to tighten again, and my divaricated stomach muscles are coming together nicely. I need to keep stretching and doing the pilates exercises but she was pleased with my progress. ‘You’re actually pretty healthy when you’re not pregnant, aren’t you?’ she said.  When it comes to running though, she warned me to take it easy until my pelvic floor gets stronger, in order to avoid longer term problems.

 

This advice was echoed by my doctor at my six week check, who also advised me to up my Kegel excises to three times a day. Up till then I had been feeling proud that I was doing them once a day – obviously I’ve reacted to good advice by managing to forget to do them nearly every day since. Oops.

 

I was planning to start gently anyway… Back to couch to 5k for me, and before that I wanted to try walking for twenty minutes. Given that I hadn’t walked for more than five minutes during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, that seemed reasonable. 

 

So today, 8 weeks after birth, I dug out my trainers and rather tight running bra stepped out my front door. 


 

I went for an 18 minute walk on my own in the evening drizzle. My right thigh aches slightly (I came in, fed the baby and forgot to stretch) but no bottom pain so I’m counting this as a good start. 

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Gunnera and the problem of the back wall

Last week we stole the gunnera from my father-in-law’s garden. My husband planted it when he lived there over a decade ago, and since then it’s been moved and divided but it’s never really grown. Despite being ten years old it doesn’t get over a foot high, and for a gunnera manicata whose leaves can grow to a magnificent 2 meters in diameter, that’s not much.

 

 

So we’ve moved it from the Ridgeway chalk to our Bristol clay, and going to see if, with a bit of love and care, it can flourish here. It’s the first plant in our stumpery area – ideally we would give it pond to live by, or a bog garden to keep its feet wet, but neither pond or bog have made it into the final design. 

 

Our other current concern is the back wall: we both loathe it but have so far not agreed on a solution. Options range from the very costly and time consuming ‘rip it all out’ to various degrees of covering it up. The leylandii effectively discourage almost everything from growing for a strip 1m deep along the back. Despite being at least 30 years old even the ivy has struggled to clothe the council estate grey breeze block wall which is topped with a variety of old fence panels. In these conditions somehow the bindweed and horsetail (equisetum arvense) seem to thrive of course. 

 

 

Our current plan is a series of raised beds planted with climbers and fruit trees, just in front of the canopy. This will leave a dead space behind which would be a children’s running space/ potential chicken run.  Maybe our trip to RHS Wisley tomorrow will give us some ideas. 

 

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Today I pruned the buddleia

One of the lovely unintended consequences of this blog has been that people have consistently asked how I am, and specifically how my mental health has been, since B’s birth.

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I don’t always know how to answer. ‘fine’ in short I suppose, or I could give you a detailed analysis of each day.

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It’s been nearly three weeks now. I had a couple of teary days at the start, like I mentioned, and since then I’ve twice woken up with the black dog on my shoulder. Both times followed very sleepless nights, where by 4am I’m feeling resentful towards B, and can’t bear the thought of feeding yet again. And at 7am the girls are up and bouncing on the bed, crashing into B and me and upsetting his latch, invading my precious personal space and touching my tender body; the skies are grey and ahead of me all day is yet more feeding and not much else.

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By the evening of a day of grumping I’m wondering if it’s time to call the mental health nurse and discuss going on medication, because I can’t bear weeks of this and I know the sertraline will take a couple of weeks to kick in, and going running is still a month away.

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And then the next morning, the skies have cleared, and I’ve had more sleep, the feeding is a little less uncomfortable than the day before and I have plans to see my friends and I realise that yesterday was just a normal day after all, when one is sleep deprived and at home with a newborn.

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To balance the dark days out, I’ve had moments nearly every day of pure joy: I’ve been able to get out in the garden in between feeds a couple of times and this morning my husband discovered me perched on a wall, pruning saw in hand, taming the buddleia with a huge grin plastered across my face.
I had my first social smile from the the baby. A few days ago my toddler ate an entire plateful of a cooked meal which was new to her (huge thanks to my church for our food rota which continues to bless me with gorgeous food I have not cooked).  On Sunday we made it to church and I was able to stand and sing a worship song to God. Friday I made it to the fish and chip shop and introduced the baby to the staff there – it’s the first time I have been able to walk that far since before Christmas.
Writing this at the end of another long day of feeds and childcare, I am content with my lot. Because in between the occasional difficult day and the frequent moments of pleasure is normal life, and it’s a life I want : full of feeding and nappy changes, looking after the girls and washing up, seeing friends and discussing the garden with my husband.
I’m keeping a close eye on my mental health: I’ve my 6 week check booked and my GP will ask and the health visitor is coming at 8 weeks and will check on it then too. I’m accepting the tough days when they come just that. I think the difference won’t be in how they feel but in the quantity and frequency of them, so I’ve decided if I get 3 in a row then I’m calling the nurse for a chat.  But so far, so good, and I’m grateful for it.
And I’m grateful to you all for asking. Every time it reminds me that people care and are interested, that I’m not alone in this and I’m loved. Thank you all, for asking how I am. Today, I am well. Today, I pruned the buddleia.

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Pregnancy and the death of feminism

There was a joke we told at university: ‘Why does a woman have legs? So she can walk from the bedroom to the kitchen sink’. Funny because it was shocking, shocking because by the end of the 20th century, the sexism was out of sync with our culture.
 

Although pretty conservatively evangelical in lots of ways, my inner feminist is strong enough to affect my life and my marriage. We like to think we have a pretty egalitarian marriage – both myself and my husband work roughly 22 hours a week in paid employment, and spend the other half the week doing child care and home educating our girls. We are going to share parental leave following this pregnancy so we can both spend time at home with the family. We both serve in our local church. We both study, when we have the opportunity: I’ve done Post Grad courses through work and he’s completed his PhD. We have hobbies and friends, together and apart – I run, he buys and sells books, we garden. Housework is divided according to abilities and preference – I do most of the cooking, day to day finances and have used a vacuum cleaner fewer than 5 times since we got married 7 years ago. He is far more diligent at general cleaning and tidying, does more laundry, is better at planning educational activities and hasn’t touched an iron yet. Neither of us is much good at DIY but we are learning, together.

sleeping beauty

Sleeping Beauty woken by a kiss. Romance or sexual assault?

 

And we want to bring up our children this way too – in the midst of the inevitable pink and Disney princesses that having two girls under 5 seems to bring, we hope we are bringing them up to be strong women, confident in their own worth and that of other people, aware of issues of consent and power.

 

And then I fall pregnant. I don’t do pregnancy well in general, and this one in particular. So for the last few months, Mummy hasn’t been going to work in her paid job. And Mummy hasn’t been doing any gardening with Daddy. Or taking her girls to play ball in the park. Mummy hasn’t been serving at toddler group, nor doing much housework. Mummy doesn’t run any more. In fact, Mummy doesn’t leave the house except in a car, and then only to sit down when she gets to where she is going at the other end. It’s been a struggle to even manage the washing up, but I’ve worked it out now, by pacing myself and using a stool and taking it slowly.

feminism …is all well and good if I’m fit and healthy but you put an embryo in my womb and it all goes to pot

 

So I stand at the kitchen sink, washing up, whilst my husband and father-in-law are doing the hard landscaping in the garden, and think back to that old joke. Is this the end of feminism then? It’s all well and good if I’m fit and healthy but you put an embryo in my womb and it all goes to pot?
 

Was this how the androcentric culture we live in started? Because women, through constant childbearing, breastfeeding and child rearing, physically couldn’t do what the men could? And are my feminist ideals really based in the Bible as I like to believe, that God created men and women equal in his image before the fall, that Jesus restored women to their place of equal worth both by his treatment of them and by his death which as Paul wrote means “there is now…. no male nor female“? Or is it merely because I live in a society that is used to contraception, and in particular contraception which provides women with reproductive liberty and therefore for the vast majority of my life I can live like a man, without being crippled* by this thing called pregnancy?
 

And there is the fallacy in my thinking – because for all my feminist principles, some part of me thinks to be equal to a man, I need to be like a man.
It seems I’m not the only one to succumb to this fallacy. In Australia, it has just become permissible for MPs to breastfeed in Parliament. However here in the UK, people seem to agree with the Betty Boothroyd test – that “You wouldn’t start feeding your child if you worked on a supermarket check-out or if you were a solicitor having a meeting with a client.” and therefore we don’t allow our MPs to feed in the chamber.
 

But that’s the same lie – our whole British idea of work culture is male dominated. When a father of a 3 month old child works on a supermarket checkout, or meets with his client as a solicitor he doesn’t need to consider the feeding demands of his baby. As an employed mother of a 6 week old baby I have to choose – do I take less money (and therefore accept a lower status) to be at home with my child or do I return to work, without my child? Even with recent changes in law, employed fathers don’t even have that same freedom of choice – we’ve found the loss in income in a man taking shared parental leave means that amongst all our friends, family and colleagues we’ve only heard of one other couple who have done it.
 

In our society ‘work’ and ‘paid employment’ is still something one does without having to be responsible for growing or feeding a child during those hours – or for that matter without taking into account the care needs of your grown up child with disabilities, or your elderly parents. So if you do have to consider those demands, as many women do, then you cannot work as a man does – which equates to fewer hours, less money and therefore less status and worth.
 

So is my concept of feminism embedded within this androcentric culture? Have I swallowed Betty Boothroyd’s opinion and believe that to do a man’s job (and thereby have a man’s worth), I need to act like a man?
 

This pregnancy and all its associated problems has taken away my ability to do so many things I place status and value in (like working, running, and, in this case, constructing pergolas). Furthermore, unlike a broken leg, or fibromyalgia, this removal of status has come about purely because of my sex. Were I a man, I wouldn’t have cause to ask these questions.
 

Do I really believe the Bible when it says that my worth and value as a person – as a woman – is not connected in any way to the money I am paid, the work I do, or the status or hierarchical place I hold?
 

I’ll be honest, part of my grumbling is down to simple jealousy – both myself and my husband enjoy being out in the garden and because of my need to manage the pain, he gets to do the job we enjoy and I’m stuck inside making the coffee. But part of it is that I have accepted the lies of my culture – deep inside me lies the belief that out door physical labour (‘man’s work’) is of more value that looking after the home (‘woman’s work’), and unless I can do the man’s work, then I am not equal in worth to a man.
 

So until I can stand here at the kitchen sink with bump so big I can barely reach over to turn on the taps and know that what I am doing — both in growing a child, and in serving my family by washing up last night’s dishes – is of equal worth and status as my husband’s construction of the garden pergola, then the answer is not that feminism is dead and therefore has nothing to say to me at this stage of life. It’s that I’m not feminist enough.
 

*I mean this is the most literal sense, because of the SPD type problems I have.

 

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