The highs and lows of exclusive breastfeeding (when you don’t have a choice)

My boy won’t feed from a bottle. He used to, and now he won’t. I don’t know why. One day he’d take one when required. The next day, about 10 weeks in, nada. He mouthed the plastic teat, scowling, appeared dumbfounded that we expected him to suck milk out of it, and screamed utter blue murder until I fed him from me.

And there it is. From me. Those two words, expressing something given and received but also something originating from its source, encapsulate my dilemma. They’re why exclusive breastfeeding is so wonderful and so hard all at once.

It’s wonderful because it’s the last biological link with my son after pregnancy and birth. When you nurse a baby, you feel, see and hear milk being drawn out of you. It’s like nothing else, just as feeling them kick and shuffle inside you is indescribably weird and unique. He seems more animal when he feeds than at any other time, and I suppose he is, following in the footsteps of mammals through the millennia.

I love that he’s so healthy on it, gaining weight (those chubby thighs!) and staying remarkably well. I love that he’s so happy nursing from me and I love the hours of quiet bonding, that we can’t feed without cuddling. I love that my body has quietly succeeded at something which is far from easy, however natural it might be, even in the times when my mind is a mess. I love nursing’s ability to soothe. I kind of love feeling like a super feminist she-wolf in every new public place I feed him. I love how clever it all is, how the milk can change to suit a baby’s needs through the day.

When Theo was born and I struggled to get through each day and night, the strength and wisdom of my body, what it had done and was still doing, was a solace. I remember thinking: I might not know what I’m doing or how I’m going to do it, but my body’s saying, we’ve got this. Every time I feed him it tells me that again.

So it’s wonderful. But it would still be wonderful if he took a bottle every once in a while – and so much less hard. As it is, I’m tied to him. I can’t leave him for more than two hours, not with his dad, not with his grandparents, because they can’t feed him.

This is more than just a practical issue. Of course he can go more than two hours without food and suffer no ill effect. He just doesn’t want to. He gets hungry often (partly because he gets reflux) and when he gets hungry, he gets mad. Then sad. Then pitiful, crying big, heaving sobs, hands shaking, face red, hot and sweaty all over. He feels things strongly, like his mum, and he’s stubborn as hell, like his dad. It’s horrible for him and horrible for whoever’s with him. I suppose there would come a point where he’d be so hungry he’d drink from a bottle, but how long would this go on before he did? We’ve never pushed it hard enough to find out.

It’s just…it’s hard to be me, fully, when I can’t ever go away for an unspecified amount of time. I can’t be free or get a full night’s sleep or get drunk or storm out the house after a marital disagreement, muttering to myself that his father can take care of him for a bit. I can’t completely relax when I am out in case he’s been sick or didn’t eat enough at his last feed and is hungry again.

I can’t really crash low and hibernate when depression hits, which I guess is a good thing, but there’s a part of me that’s being crushed smaller and smaller because I don’t ever give her pain any space to breathe. My sad, frightened side needs a rest, needs to be held, and it’s very hard to learn how to do that when I have to be on baby duty 24/7.

I know it’s only temporary. My mother in law is going to try to get him on the bottle when she’s here visiting. If she doesn’t manage it, he’ll be weaning soon and feeds will get further apart. It’s just hard to see that right now. The thing he most wants and needs comes from me and there’s nothing I can do except provide it.

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How do I love thee?

Everyone says you can’t know what parental love feels like until you have a child, but that’s a bit of a cop out. For many parents, this love is the hide tide mark of human joy and as such, we have a duty to try to describe it. Art and culture are supposed to reflect on the extremes of our experience and God knows enough people sing songs and write poems about romantic love. Why not parental love?

So I’ll have a go. Borrowing from the great Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways I love him.

I love him because he changed me. The moment he was born has been the best moment of my life so far. Partly it’s the overwhelming relief at knowing the ordeal of labour is over, and I’m convinced that’s partly why evolution has let childbirth remain so utterly crap. But it’s not just that. I remember clearly the first time I saw him, the red, round little nose, dusted with milia in extreme close up. He kicked and slithered and looked up at me and I was his mother, his parent. He’d come out of me. He literally transformed me. It was bloody amazing.

I love him so that the idea of something happening to him is the most terrifying thing ever. I imagine him being gone and it makes me feel sick and faint. It’s stupid thing to do, but maybe imagining the worst helps us feel prepared, in control. Or maybe I’m the only one who does this. Whatever. Theo, you’ve now replaced even my husband and parents as the number one person I’m terrified to live without.

I love his smile.

I love the person he’s bringing out in my husband. Slowly, day by day, Theo works his magic on the self contained man I share my life with. He knocks on the walls around his solitude and ducks under the rules he lives his life by. He gets him to deal with poo. The magnitude of this cannot be overstated.  

I love how he’s bringing my family closer. Everyone gathers round and loves him and can’t believe how great he is. He’s the first baby of his generation in our small family, a little campfire to gather round and warm our hands and hearts.

I love him extra for the sake of those who never got to love him. I imagine him in my grandpa’s arms, the same expression on his face as in the picture of him holding baby me. I imagine his pride. I imagine the softening of my brilliant, dominant grandmother and how fiercely delighted she would be at everything Theo did (she was always fierce, even in her loving). He makes me long for heaven to exist, and sometimes believe it does, so that they can meet him one day.

I love him shoulder to shoulder with all the other parents who love their children, and all the children who love their parents, for we are all born into this deepest of bonds. My love makes my heart break for those who didn’t get the love they deserved as children and break awfully, over and over again, for parents who have lost or face losing a child they love. I am nothing, know nothing, next to these parents, in their courage and their pain.

And now I turn to Elizabeth, who said it so much better.

*

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43

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The problem with milestones, or Why do I keep judging my baby?

Answer: because I’m insecure.

Today I’m embarking on a new way to describe me as a mum and my baby as a developing person.

Up until now, I’ve unintentionally focused a lot on Theo’s progress and defined us by comparing us to others. I’ve read up on the different developmental milestones and find myself holding them in my head as a roadmap, charting Theo’s course along them as he begins to show signs of hitting them. There’s physiological milestones, such as sleeping for longer periods of time or being ready for solid foods. Motor skills, like grasping objects or rolling over. Language, including the complexity of the sounds he can make and his attempts to convey meaning. And social and emotional connections, from smiling to searching out his mum and dad.

All very sensible and useful to know. But I’ve realised that I spend so much time calibrating Theo’s position on these parallel pathways, and what this says about me as his mother, that I forget to notice him as he is. I mean, I don’t – emotionally and intuitively I have a picture of him so steeped with colour and nuance that I couldn’t begin to describe it. I’d need a Shakespeare or a Keats to supply the words. His eyes, his smell, the Groucho Marx way he raises his eyebrows, his sleep noises, the extra strength I suddenly feel in his legs when he stretches himself straight on the changing mat. But when describing him to others or thinking about him consciously to myself, I fall back on the milestones. His grades, if you will.

And that’s only the start of it. Once I have his grades, I plot them alongside the other babies I know. A couple are further forward in motor skills. He smiled quite early but not as early as some. He does seem ahead of the norm in the language stakes, creating vowel-consonant combinations from about six weeks (as an English graduate I am enormously proud of this jargony point). As his mother, I also believe with absolute certainty that he wins at life by being breathtakingly beautiful.

Knowing all this, I construct a picture of his progress and secretly urge him to show the behaviours he’s mastered in front of friends so I don’t have to announce them myself.

But this isn’t a picture of him. It isn’t a picture at all. It’s obscuring who he really is and the infinite detail of our time together.

Babies are magical, incredible, infuriating sometimes but so beautiful, so changing in every hour. I truly want to be able to look back on this year at home with Theo and remember as many moments of pure him, pure us together, as I can. And I’m missing so much by allowing my insecure grading and comparing to take up mental space. I can’t bottle his essence or paint an exact picture of it, so the only way I’ll have to preserve it is in my memory. Memory relies on senses and emotions and I need to focus more on sense and emotion to really experience my boy.

So I’m going to try to catch myself every time I compare him to a list of baby milestones or to another child. I won’t be able to stop completely – it’s too ingrained and also, to a certain extent, normal – but I don’t want it to be so pervasive. I’m going to practice holding him in my mind exactly as he is and trusting that this is just how he should be. And I’ll practice feeling warm and happy for the progress (and uniqueness) of the other children in my circle of maternity leave friends, rather than threatened.

I will try to do this because I love my son and I want to be better for him.

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We should be sick of feeling not good enough

Not good enough.

Every day, sometimes every hour, this is what I think. It’s a familiar thought. I find ways not to be good enough in most aspects of life, from work – my former inadequacy drug – to looks, weight or overall niceness. Now, of course, these thoughts revolve around motherhood.

I’m failing Theo because I don’t give him enough attention, good enough quality attention, or occasionally because I give him too much attention. This will affect his physical development, his mental progress, his creativity, his self esteem; or, in my too-much-attention scenario, to him not being able to fend for himself. I’m therefore reinforcing his chances of poor mental health that I’ve probably already passed on in my genes.

If it sounds improbable that I could really think this, let me give you a specific example. I like to watch TV. I find it relaxing, comforting escapism, just like reading a good but not overly challenging book. It’s easier to do than reading at the moment because I can let it slip into the background whenever Theo needs something from me. But every time I sit down to watch an episode of The Good Wife (my favourite box set right now) the guilt creeps up on me. He’s making a noise? He must be sad, wondering why I’m ignoring him. He’s chilled out? Then I should be stimulating him. He’s grouchy? It’s my fault for looking at a screen.

I genuinely find it hard to write those last few lines because I’m so disgusted with myself for looking at a screen sometimes, not my baby. And I’m afraid that you’ll be horrified by me.

I hope you’re not, and I feel I must give you some mitigating information. I don’t only watch TV. We go out, Theo and I, at least once a day, most days to a baby group, activity or social meet up with other mums and babies. We also walk the dog and/or go to the shops. I make time to play with him or chat to him one on one each day. And that’s aside from the time we spend feeding, nappy changing, comforting or soothing to sleep. I do do mummy things! I do care! But sometimes I watch TV for a couple of hours as well.

Why am I writing this? Because part of me, a small part of me, is angry that I feel this way. I’m sick of it. It’s not fair. And I know that, although I’m prone to this kind of negative self-perception, so many other mothers probably feel this way too. We beat ourselves up and compare ourselves to each other, anxiously awaiting developmental milestones that prove we’re doing ok.

Well, here’s the thing. We are doing ok. If we’re trying our best, navigating our way through this utterly new life, answering the demands put on us by dependent babies who can do nothing for themselves, we’re doing ok. I was going to say, if our babies are fed, healthy and loved, we’re doing ok, but even that’s not a given. Some babies have trouble with feeding. Some babies are born sick or get poorly. Some mothers, especially if they’re affected by postnatal depression, don’t find it easy to love their babies at first. This is all ok. IT’S OK. If you’re trying, honestly and to the best of your ability, and accepting the help and support on offer, then it’s ok.

I want to cry when I think of the pressure we put on ourselves. We’re doing the most natural thing in the world and we’ll all do it differently, because hey, we’re different. I wish we could just accept ourselves and the journey we’re on with our children. I wish I could enjoy each moment more clearly, without the critical voices crowding out my attention. I’m bloody well working on it, with the help of a good therapist, but it’s hard. Anger at my stupid negativity is a weapon. I hope others who feel the same get angry too. We don’t deserve this and it WILL change.

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The meditation of new motherhood

Every time I try and write something I trail off. I’ve been thinking it’s because I’m tired (but I’m not that tired anymore), because I don’t have time (even though I’m writing now with Theo asleep on me) or because I don’t have ideas (but I must do because I keep starting).

Just now I realised the real reason: it’s because I don’t want to. Writing requires you to step out of your experience and observe it, describe it, dissect it into themes. Even the most confessional blog has some kind of beginning and end. And I don’t want to do that. It doesn’t feel right. I just want to be doing, being and feeling, even in my quiet moments. The most I feel comfortable with is letting thoughts run through my mind or touching on themes and theories in conversation with others.

When Theo was first born and everything was so hard, my counsellor suggested bringing mindfulness to the really difficult moments. When he cried at night, I should try to breathe through it, accept that babies cry, notice my response to it (stress, tears, buried anger) and remember that this too shall pass. So I tried. I tried to turn it into a meditation, forcing deep breathing and repeating the mantra ‘babies cry’. It didn’t really help.

Now, though, as I realise why I don’t often want to write, I begin to see this whole process, these last three months, as one big, unintentional meditation.

Each time I summon my emotional energy to soothe and connect with an unhappy baby, I’m being present. Each time I change a nappy, sit down to feed, pick him up when he cries, I’m surrendering control of my actions to an outside force. Each time I pay attention to the difficult feelings that arise sometimes – frustration at Theo or my husband, fear that I’m doing something wrong, a strange shame that someone like me is a mother – I’m practicing mindfulness.

It’s also a bit like falling in love. You don’t want to analyse it. You don’t want to stop being with the person, drinking them in. I did that when I met my husband and now I’m doing it with Theo, constructing this totally wonderful and complicated relationship day by day.

In fact, who am I kidding? It is falling in love. I was imagining what I’d do if someone attacked me and Theo the other day (as you do, when you’re pulled over in the car outside Wycombe, feeding a grumpy baby) and I realised I’d both kill for him and die for him, just like parents always say. And that comment I got on a blog I wrote when I was most struggling, that I was the sun on my baby’s face? I feel like that now.

So, yeah. Why would I want to step too far outside this? It’s not what it’s about. The first few months of mothering are for relearning who you are and what you’re for. They’re for learning all the angles and soft edges of your baby. They’re a succession of minutes and hours of caring and trying again.

I know I am writing now. I think that’s because I gave myself permission to write what I really felt, even if it was an odd snake-eating-its-tail, writing-about-writing piece. Like everything these days, I’ve got to change my expectations of what writing’s going to be – and try to be ok with that.

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In baby hinterland

imageHow to describe this? I’m sitting on my sofa, grey February light outside, and there’s a baby on my lap. He just had a very small feed and is now asleep.

He didn’t exist two months ago. He is now here, a combination of peachy skin, pouchy nose, long, brittle eyelashes under fluffy, barely visible eyebrows. Mouth floppy and tucked in on itself like a mollusc. Superfine brown hair brushing the inside curve of his ear. Half asleep, now, half drinking and huffing at the breast, hands opening and closing. He scratched his cheek this morning with sharp tiny nails that I don’t know how to cut. The little red scratch looks sore on his cheek.

This is a close up description, a collection of nouns and adjectives reporting just this immediate moment of Theo Paredes, because so much of life is like that right now. I’ve been trying to put my mind to a topic to write about but topics won’t come – or they do, but they rise in and out of the brain in barely visible cycles. Abstract ideas and long term trends in my life and emotions escape me. That version of me, the one that thinks and analyses and comes to a conclusion, is hibernating. I’ve been half heartedly trying to wake her but then Theo – or the basic life tasks I fit around Theo – take over again.

I take care of my baby. I’m a carer. That’s what I do, what I am right now. In brief moments when he’s sleeping or off me, and when I’m not also sleeping, I’m racing myself to complete tasks. I choose the tasks based on what’s most important and what will fit into the time I think I have. Shower, make meal, load dishwasher, hug my husband, pour drink, go to toilet. Put sling on so I can carry on doing some things when he wakes up. The time slots are unpredictable because I don’t know how long he’ll sleep or when he’ll want to feed. I experience time and days like I imagine my body operates inside the skin: my needs trigger automatic biological responses alongside a few deliberate actions I choose to make. I’m an Attenborough timelapse film, nature’s systems moving in delicate, beautiful then ugly then beautiful symbiosis.

Each hour is interspersed with the sensations and emotions of being with Theo. Warm fluffy damp hair against my cheek as he droops on my shoulder. The he-keeps-grizzling frustration, the hi-mum-morning-smile joy, the screaming-and-I-can’t-get-to-him desperation in the car. The Felipe’s-exhausted-but-I-need-him-to-help guilt. Slippery baby skin in the warm bath. Sharp release as he latches on to breastfeed.

This is all it feels right to write now. Bigger themes will come back, I hope. But this hinterland is actually ok. Sometimes it’s lovely. I have another person in my life that I love totally, another person to delight in and trust completely. They are rare and hard to find. With this one, I have the most intimate and permanent connection of all. He was part of me, he came out of me, he feeds from me and as he grows and becomes himself he’ll always be perfectly proportioned to me and my love. I’ve no idea what that will look like, but I had no idea what he would look like, what life with him would look like, before he entered the world. No idea at all. And it’s now more real than anything has ever been.

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In darkness, acceptance

I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance. As these early days go by, I’ve been hyper-judgemental of myself, analysing every ‘negative’ behaviour Theo shows and trying to pinpoint what I did to cause it and what I can do to fix it. In particular, I’ve focused on sleep. If he slept more at night, or more peacefully, I felt good about myself. If he woke up a lot, cried a lot, wanted to feed more often or didn’t want to be put down, I trawled the events of the past day to work out why.

This approach puts an expectation on me and on him that neither of us can meet. Why not? Because he is a two-week-old baby and I am a new mother.

Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he feels awake or wants to be held. Sometimes his instincts or his belly tell him to feed a lot. This is what is. He doesn’t conform to adult behaviour and sleep quietly when I want him to because he is two weeks old. He is adjusting, making sense of a big, bright, busy world where his needs are no longer met automatically by his mother’s body and where the single only way he has to call attention to them is to cry.

I do not always know what the need he wants meeting is. This is partly because I’m new at this. I can’t identify different cries or hold him in exactly the way that might ease a spasm of colic. But it wouldn’t matter if I’d cared for five newborns, or fifty. Sometimes I wouldn’t know what makes him cry. He doesn’t necessarily know what makes him cry. Sometimes he just cries.

This is what is. So, to try to cope with this reality – its tiredness, its unpredictability, my inability to control it – I can try something different. I can look into the heart of the moment, focusing my attention on exactly what happens. His face moves in a tiny grimace. He grunts and squirms in his bed. He’s on the edge of waking up. Either he wakes up or he doesn’t. You can react to this with fear of the outcome you don’t want or simply with observation: he is my baby and he is moving. He is waking up or he isn’t. This moment comes, is, passes and won’t come again. Neither of us are wrong or right, good or bad, coping or not coping. We just are.

Two comments on my previous post have stayed with me as I’ve reflected on this:

‘Because only in the darkness can we see stars.’

‘Your baby adores you and you are the warm sunshine on their face.’

These resonate because they both encourage letting it be.

Let darkness be because it allows you to see starlight, the tiny, pinpricks of light that can so easily be missed when things are blazing bright but that are more lovely than hard, tangible diamonds or a definite, inescapable sun.

Let your mothering and your baby be because it doesn’t matter what you do, or how ‘well’ you do it. You are joy and warmth and light to your baby by being his mum, coming when he calls, keeping him alive and fed, warm, loved. You are goodness to him even when he is screaming and miserable.

In the last couple of days, the depression has started to clear a little. In some ways it makes the challenges facing us over the next few weeks clearer. I can process the routine I’ll be in and my inability to change it.

But that’s ok. I have some extra calmness to allow me to accept this. I have a million moments where I can hold the sensation of Theo’s eyes, hair, skin, smell – or where I can appreciate a period of quiet or sleep while it lasts. I still struggle to extend the quiet times, to ‘fix’ him when he’s less peaceful, or to work out what I’m doing wrong when things feel hard. But I’m not utterly buried in heavy, featureless despair right now. This is a uniquely human, intimate time to endure, to notice, to experience. It will never come again.

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