I hear lots of women say ‘no one ever told me it would be this hard’ when they become mothers. I don’t think that’s true. Everyone tells you. In fact, no one tells you being a mother is easy. The difference is between theory and practice:
You can know that something will be hard, but when it actually happens nothing can prepare you for the reality of it.
Breastfeeding is no exception. Everyone tells you that it is hard, at least to start with and that it doesn’t happen for everyone and that’s okay.
I knew it would be hard, but I was not prepared for the reality of just how hard it would be.
Half an hour after my son was born, there I was trying to get him to latch. I was confident it would work out. It didn’t. The midwife managed to hand express some colostrum and suggested we top it up with formula. So that’s what we did.
The next morning I woke up in a puddle with rock hard, red and angry boobs. I can still remember standing next to my husband in the mirror and each of my breasts was the size of his head. No exaggeration. I had venous engorgement.
The swelling meant that my nipples were stretched flat. There was no way my son was latching to these. I ended up being hand expressed by midwives round the clock. They taught my husband and I to do it too, but I struggled. It was positively excruciating and, while I could sit there and take the pain, inflicting it on myself was much harder.
I had been in the hospital seven days when I was finally allowed to leave. We swung by the chemist and purchased a heavy-duty breast pump and bottles. It was my wedding anniversary and my family had filled my house with fresh flowers, while my in-laws had filled my fridge and pantry and put a lamb roast in the oven. It was heaven.
Then it wasn’t. I started to feel feverish. Mastitis.
I remember shivering in my living room wrapped in a blanket while my husband milked me like a cow as I sobbed. ‘I’m sorry’ he kept repeating. ‘It’s okay, keep going’ I sobbed.
I went back to see the lactation consultant at the hospital. I was getting almost nothing out on the pump, while my son’s appetite continued to increase. I was topping up with more and more formula. She told me to consider switching altogether to formula. ‘You’ve suffered through more than most’ she said ‘you’ve given it your all, there’s no shame in moving to formula if it is going to be right for your family.’ I loved her. She had let me off the hook, but I wanted to try. I wanted to breastfeed so badly. Ultrasound therapy and lymphatic massage from Vania, the women’s health physio and cult hero of North Shore mothers was my last hope. And it worked.
Ultrasound, lecithin (a supplement which helps with clogged milk ducts), and antibiotics were my holy trinity for the next six weeks. I got blocked ducts at least once every couple of days and had to ‘massage’ (a nice little euphemism for beat the living shit out of my boobs in the shower while wincing in pain) the lumps out. I pumped for one hour out of every three round the clock. I had alarms set for 11pm, 2am and 5am to make sure I never missed a pump. My couch is still covered in breastmilk stains from my late night spills.
I was so delirious I thought the whirring of the breast pump was singing to me. Its metre was such that it always seemed to be singing Auld Lang Syne. I would look out the window at the stars, look down at my beaten, stretched body attached to this machine and sing along to myself through silent tears. It was such a fitting anthem. A farewell to my old life, a farewell to myself. I felt I was lost to the machine. Nothing more than a life support system for this tiny baby who I loved so much, but was so busy making food for that I never got to enjoy.
After six weeks of recurring ultrasound appointments with Vania the miracle worker, she gave me some tough love: ‘You can’t keep on like this.’ I was so tired that it had just been easier to keep doing what I was doing than to make a plan to change. ‘You haven’t gone more than four days in a row without either ultrasound or antibiotics. This isn’t sustainable, so what are you going to do?’
Bless her. I made an appointment with the lactation consultant that very day. He had one more chance. He either latched at the lactation consultant appointment, or we moved exclusively to formula.
Even writing the words brings tears to my eyes. Twelve months later the moment and the emotions are still so raw.
When my son was eleven months old we bumped into the lactation consultant at the supermarket. I told her we were still breastfeeding. She told me that all the lactation consultants I had seen at the hospital were shocked I had persisted.
You see, when I was doing it I didn’t know what else to do but just keep going. Looking back, you know what? I’m really fucking impressed with myself.
The biggest thing motherhood has taught me so far is how bloody tough I am. I am stronger than I ever thought possible. Mums are tough as nails.
So, mums, I know it’s harder in reality than it ever could’ve been in theory, but I see your strength. I see your 3am determination. I see your witching hour ‘never say die’ attitude. I see your ability to let that tantrum wash over you as you visualise the glass of wine that awaits after bedtime. I see your tenacity, your persistence, your resilience. If you really look at yourself, you’ll see it too. You’re a freaking legend.