The next morning I awoke (I say that but in reality we were up all night as I was terrified I was going to have a stroke and die, leaving my baby alone to be raised by someone else), desperate to find support in my community. I scuffled through my leaflets after the breastfeeding support numbers. I called. I called all of the numbers. It’s not fair for me to say whom they were supposed to belong to, but none of them were answered. I left a message on one answerphone, one was disconnected and others just rang out. I was alone. The only support I managed to find was a local group detailed on the sheet for our local church, but that wasn’t run until the coming Thursday and so I would have to wait.
I couldn’t. Hysterical tears, bleeding, scabbing, raw nipples and fearful insomnia were tearing me apart. I didn’t want to hold my beautiful baby who was yearning for me because every time I did, he made his little snorking noises and tried to nuzzle and feed. He was keen, but we just didn’t have the technique. My body was raw and my mind was numb.
That night at 2am, we drove to three 24 hour supermarkets to try and find some nipple shields. My husband read whilst frantically searching the internet for support that these could help with the latching and the pain, and I was clinging to these as my last hope. Not one supermarket we tried stocked them. I was resigned to going home and sobbed silently in the back of the car, staring at my baby’s sleeping face. Whilst I willed him to sleep a little longer each time, so I could heal a little, at the same time I was scared out of my brain that this was never going to work; I was never going to be able to do it. I would fail him again, just weeks after he had come into this world. Some mother I was turning out to be.
At home, out of sheer desperation I called the nearest birth centre. I expected a little “there, there, it will happen, just keep trying” advice as I hadn’t given birth there, but instead the voice on the phone simply said, “Come in. We’ll help.”
They welcomed me with actual open arms. By 3.30am I was sitting in their lounge area, in a comfortable brown sofa, holding a cup of tea and a midwife was crouched down, eye level with me, holding my hand and telling me what a perfect baby I had and how proud I must be. The tears rolled like down my face and soaked my chin and neck. I felt safe at last.
I tried to explain what was happening through my self-pitying sniffles but Gavin had to help me. After I had drank my cup of tea, she asked to look at my breasts. It’s so odd how comfortable we get with our own bodies after pregnancy and birth. Before giving birth I was the kind of person who hid in the changing rooms for fear of showing an inch of flesh that shouldn’t be seen. Here I was, producing my breasts in a communal lounge.
She examined my damaged nipple and said that it would heal easily then asked if I would try to feed him and despite the pain, I hurried to try again. I wanted so badly to learn, to for someone to help more than just to try and force my body and my baby’s together and tell me to keep trying, that it would happen. So I lifted Jensen out of his Daddy’s arms and pleaded silently for it to work. We tried. Jensen latched painfully for around a minute and broke off.
The midwife looked at my breast and nodded. She saw what was wrong. My nipple was flattened. Apparently my let down was so strong that it was hitting the back of my baby’s throat and he was clamping down, trying to stop himself getting swamped in milk. In doing so he was pinching my nipple down and then using it like a straw. Combined with this was the issue that my breasts were so full with milk it was like trying to latch onto a slippery bowling ball, and he was biting down again to get a grip.
The relief hit me quite literally like a week long spa visit (I imagine; I’ve only been to a spa twice). I relaxed so much I think I even smiled. There was a reason ~ a clear and rectifiable reason ~ why I wasn’t doing so well. Why I was in pain. But I was still in pain.
She explained that the reason Jensen was probably not keen to latch in hospital was probably a mixture of the shot of pethadine given to me 8 hours before he was born (that I originally refused when offered but I was told I needed to sleep before I was in established labour; established labour happened rather quickly after that and the pethadine had no effect on me, just Jensen it appears) and a long labour. So much for “informed” choice. I was told it would be out of my system before Jensen arrived. This was the reason I refuse to have an epidural, and yet here I was doing the same thing to my baby unknowingly.
It was at that point that I came to my crossroads. I used to be ashamed about this part, but now I’m proud to admit that I can identify that these were my feelings at the time. The midwife spoke softly to me after she’d finished explaining things. She told me that it was fine if I wanted to stop feeding him; that he had already benefited from my colostrum and my milk for over a week and this alone had been so wonderful for his tiny little body. She said I had to do what was best for me.
Those were her words. What was best for me. I sat in silence and I looked hopefully at Gavin. I so badly wanted to stop. I wanted to throw in the towel and say I tried and get those little bottles of formula out and sit on the sofa and smile at my baby who would want to cuddle me because he loved me, not just because I was his food source. I wanted it to end. I wanted out. I had truly tried.
Of course I couldn’t stop. I knew in my heart I had more to give; that I was made of sterner stuff than this. More than anything I thought of my trusting little one. He needed me to pull it together. Whenever I tried to feed him, I felt like we were a team; we were coming last in the breastfeeding race, but we were a team. And my choice whether or not to be part of that team any longer might have health consequences for him.
The guilt slapped my self pity in the face. What was I thinking? What was best for ME? I gazed down at Jensen’s sweet pyjama covered tiny little body (9lbs 8ozs is small to me) and into those sharky blue eyes. Is this what I would tell him when he was older, that I quit on him because I was tired and it hurt and I did what was best for me? I knew myself too well for that and so did Gavin. I’m stubborn and I don’t forgive easily; especially my own mistakes, and giving up would have constituted a huge one.
For the next month we were in and out of the birth centre another five times. I learned different positions to feed in but I never mastered the normal one, where your baby’s head nestles on your arm; he wouldn’t let anyone touch his head and would scream and thrash around if I tried. The midwife told me that being handled as he was can lead to breast refusal completely and so I’m grateful that at least never happened.
Three months on and we were finally happy. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t so awful that I should ever have considered giving up. Mastitis came and went, my nipples healed and I bought a sling on the advice of my sister and her internet parenting-group friends. They were all very supportive. They sent me leaflets on breastfeeding and co-sleeping (another “shame” I was
trying to hide from people as Jensen wasn’t a sleeper) telling me it was okay, brochures from Le Leche League and gave me literature helping me to trust my body again.
I was no longer a failure; no longer another one
off the hospital-bred Mummy production line that gave it a shot but wasn’t worth
supporting. I was finally
supported and encouraged to nourish my baby the way I was clearly meant
I did it.