breastfeeding


The other day I went to a local group meeting of the Australian Breastfeeding Association.  The topic was ‘Understanding baby’s weight gain’. It was inspired by the too-many mothers who are made to feel like they are ‘failing’ because their baby is not keeping up with those tricky baby weight charts, and often people are too quick to assume that the problem is the mother’s milk supply. It’s another example of the kyriachy’s refusal to believe in women’s bodies, much preferring ‘man’-made things, which can be controlled, things which come in shiny bottles, in clearly measurable quantities, with a nutritional analysis on the side of the label.

Here are some of my thoughts on the issues, based in my own experience of a baby with weight issues.  These comments broadly come in two categories:

(a) Keep it in perspective: Weight charts are political and weight is just one indicator of overall health.

(b) Sometimes there is something wrong and saying there isn’t won’t help. But neither will weaning.

So here goes:

(a) Keep it in perspective

Baby weight charts are political. By this I mean they are not some immodifiable guide given to use by the Goddesses. Rather they emerge from a human process which involves power and judgements about what is a ‘normal’ healthy baby – something which varies enormously, particularly across ethnic groups (though also within). When health professionals use the charts, they rarely have this process and associated considerations in mind. They focus on the numbers as absolutes and forget to keep it in perspective.

Outrageously, the graph still used by health professionals throughout most of Australia is based on old data from mostly bottle-fed babies in the USA. The growth of breastfed babies tends to slow down much more after 4 months – not as much as some suggest, but it still matters given the small amounts of weight parents are concerned about. Using the old growth chart creates unnecessary extra anxiety.

The World Health Organisation has a more recent, more realistic graph here, based on healthy breastfed babies from a range of countries. More background on the new charts is available here.

However, while these new charts are an improvement, they still need to be kept in perspective. Do they accurately reflect how all babies ‘should’ grow? No. They are averages. It is a rare baby that grows smoothly up the middle percentile line – they grow quick, then grow slow, then later quick again. Very few babies are average, and nor should they be. Someone’s gotta be small and someone’s gotta be big, and there is nothing inherently better about being either. Note that all the babies used to create the graphs were considered ‘healthy’ and by definition some must have been at the top of the graph and some at the bottom. [I am focusing on ‘small’ babies here, but a lot of this also applies to parents who worry that their baby is too ‘big’ (and I would even go so far as to suggest that people worry more about girls being too big than boys). This can also have negative consequences if their intake is restricted, when they might be genetically inclined to grow quickly early and level out later – or they might just be bigger than average forever and that’s totally TOTALLY fine.]

Getting back to ‘small’ babies, the worry about them is really very widespread. When Wren was losing weight, I came across sooo many mothers who had been through a period when they were told their baby or child was growing too slowly. For all of them, it had been a period of anxiety. Yet for most of them, that period had passed and their child had grown and developed into a ‘normal’ healthy child. The worry was for nothing.

What this demonstrates is that there is a unhealthy focus on baby weight. Weight is just one indicator of overall health. It is a useful indicator for health professionals, because it is easily, quickly measurable. They like it because it doesn’t depend on (highly variable) accounts from parents (what would we know after all?). However, as a parent of a child, you see them every day, you see loads of other indicators: mood, appetite, changes in skin tone, poos/wees, physical development, mental development. You know what? You don’t even need to weigh your child to know they are growing! (You also don’t need to measure their temperature to know they have a fever – but don’t expect a doctor to believe you on that one.) Are they going up in clothes sizes? Do people keep exclaiming “my how she’s grown!”? That’s all the proof you need. It’s a much healthier way to keep check than obsessing over every 10grams.

(b) Sometimes there is something wrong and saying there isn’t won’t help. But neither will weaning.

Nothing I have said is intended to suggest in any way that weight gain is never a problem and that we should pay no attention to it at all. When my son Wren started losing weight (note: losing weight, not just growing slowly) at around 7 months, almost every other parent I spoke to tried to reassure me that there was nothing wrong.  This was not helpful. The response of these well-meaning people was based on (a) the problems I’ve outlined above, (b) often their own experience, and (c) a real fear of acknowledging the possibility fact that sometimes there is something wrong with babies. We all love our babies and believe they are perfect and hope they will always be healthy, but skirting cautiously around it when they are not, like it’s some kind of taboo, IS NOT HELPFUL.  It is frustrating. Acknowledging that something might be wrong is sad and worrying, but it is not the end of the world, and gees it’s just better to know and deal with it than keep trying to believe everything is okay. It probably will be okay – though ‘okay’ might come to mean something a bit different – as long as you address it. And as a friend of someone in this situation: listen, don’t dismiss! [This also applies to problems with babies other than weight – I had a friend whose baby had a serious developmental delay and people kept reassuring her that there was nothing wrong, even when she herself knew there was – and it ended up being something which could be treated]

Ahem. So let me tell you our story.

Although it might have taken me a little while to put it all together – I was far from an anxious mother – I knew that Wren was sick. And I knew this from my daily experience with him, not because of the weight charts. He was miserable. He looked pale. He was doing sloppy poos far more often than he used to. He wanted to drink breast milk all the time.  He had stopped trying to crawl or pull himself up to stand. And yes, I noticed that his clothes seemed bigger and his body was getting more bony. So I took him to a child health nurse. She didn’t really listen to my explanations or concerns, perhaps assuming I was an over-anxious mother. She calmly got him on the scales, plotted his weight on the graph, then exclaimed “My goodness! He’s dropped right off the graph!” She needed the graph to see there was a problem – I didn’t. He hasn’t dropped off anything, I thought, this is my baby you’re talking about, not a line on a graph! Something’s wrong, like I told you. We were referred to a paediatrician.

The initial response from child health nurses and paediatricians was to question what was going into him. He was not yet eating much solids, but I was confident that he was getting loads of breastmilk. Despite my insistence that it wasn’t his intake that was the problem, something was going wrong inside, I was told to breastfeed less, push solids more, and supplement with a high calorie formula.

It was a frightening time. I was vulnerable and uncertain about what was wrong. If I had not been such an educated, confident breastfeeder, it is very likely that I would have followed their advice. But I am very glad that I didn’t. The doctor was ‘surprised’ when test results revealed that there were high levels of undigested fats in his poo. I told you so! It is going in! That fat is from my milk! It took many more tests and a few months – during which time he actually did very well, thankyou – before he was finally diagnosed with pancreatic insufficiency caused by cystic fibrosis. Babies with cystic fibrosis need breastmilk more than most, for the immune protection and because it is more easily digestable than any other food.

I really believe that health care professionals confronted with a baby with weight problems should be much more careful about their advice. While I was not specifically told to wean, I was never encouraged to keep breastfeeding and many things were said which could have undermined my confidence in my breastmilk. The initial assumption should be that breastmilk is best, unless there is some evidence to the contrary. When the first question that every nurse and doctor asks is ‘do you have much milk?’ this can build up to make a mother question whether she really is producing enough milk, as sometimes it is hard to tell. Health professionals need to be more aware of their own power and the vulnerable position mothers are in, when their children are not growing as they ‘should’.

When I later expressed my concerns to one of these health professionals, about their lack of support for breastfeeding, the response was: But we weren’t to know he had cystic fibrosis. Exactly. YOU DIDN”T KNOW. And yet you gave me advice which could have led me to stop breastfeeding which would have had negative health consequences for my child. It really should be assumed that babies with weight problems should continue breastfeeding, because if they are really sick, then breastmilk becomes even more important.

So I guess what I am trying to say with all this is: trust yourself more than your doctor. Most of what I have said comes from my own experience, which may be different to yours, so you don’t have to listen to me either.

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I live in a very breastfeeding-friendly community. Most mothers I know breastfed their babies. Until recently, I have felt supported in breastfeeding and never felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public.  But shortly after Wren’s second birthday, I looked around me and found I am now the only person I know who is still breastfeeding a two year old. I feel I have entered new territory.

What I am doing feels quite natural to me. When Wren was born, I didn’t have any definite ideas about how long I would breastfeed him. There were times when it was hard and I would never have imagined I’d still be going now. But the thing I didn’t realise was how much the breastfeeding relationship changes over time. Breastfeeding a baby who is dependent on you as their only source of food is quite different from breastfeeding a toddler. Some things are more complicated, but mostly I find it less demanding.  If I had woken up one day and been required to breastfeed a small child, it would have seemed entirely weird, but the change is gradual and natural. For him, he is doing what he has always done; getting nourishment and comfort from his mother. To start denying him now feels cruel and artificial.

So why has everyone else stopped? Even mothers who I would consider ‘lactivists’ have weaned, or cut down to one (private) feed a day. In many cases it is related to pregnancy or the birth of a second child. Fair enough – I’m in no position to judge that choice. I don’t mean to judge anybody’s approach. I would just like to explore some of the reasons. If an individual mother (or child) makes a choice to wean, that’s their business – but if masses of women are feeling social pressure to wean (or are feeling unsupported in continuing to breastfeed) then that’s everybody’s business.

How much is early weaning due to social pressure? There is a high level of squeemishness and outright disgust in the general population about breastfeeding toddlers, even sometimes babies. Boobs are so ridiculously sexualised in our society, that people think there is something wrong with a child who can talk and walk still having a intimate relationship with their mother. This is not supported by WHO guidelines which recommend breastfeeding for two years and beyond if both mother and child still want it. Anthropological evidence suggests the average natural age of weaning is between 2.5 years and 7 years. I prefer the term ‘full-term breastfeeding’, which implies the normality of breastfeeding for a number of years,  to ‘extended breastfeeding’, which implies that this phase is being dragged out longer than it should.

I want to keep breastfeeding my son. Why?

  • Because breastmilk is the world’s most perfect food, the only true wholefood.
  • Because it supports his health while his own immune system is still developing. This is particularly important for us, because Wren has cystic fibrosis. Despite having a supposedly serious chronic illness, Wren is the healthiest toddler I know, and I can only put it down to the goodness of breastmilk.
  • Because it gives Wren a way to calm himself down when he get overexcited/frightened/angry, until he has developed the skills and emotional capacity to do that in other ways.
  • Because it’s  the easiest way to get him to lie down and have a nap during the day. I know several parents currently battling to get their wired two-year-olds to nap.
  • Because it means I always have a snack/drink on hand.
  • Because it is a convenient way to keep him quiet at crucial moments, such as when I am on the phone.
  • Because he LOVES it and it is a joy for me to see his happy face when a boob comes out. I know we won’t always be so close.
  • Because weaning would probably be hard work.

Having said all that, I don’t want to suggest that our breastfeeding relationship is always good and easy, or that I never say ‘no’.  There are times when he wants to stay attached for too long, or on and off all afternoon, and it is driving me nuts and I have to draw the line. There are times when I want my body back. If I can identify what he really wants, he will usually accept an alternative to breastfeeding – often he just wants my undivided attention or some quiet one-on-one time, and sitting down in my lap and reading a book is a pleasant alternative for both of us. I am teaching him that there are times and places which are not for breastfeeding, such as the supermarket and when I am eating a meal. He is accepting this easily in general, and so I know he is ready. I have also recently stopped breastfeeding during the night – separate post on this coming soon(ish)!

But back to the issue of social pressure. Despite all the very important reasons I have given for continuing to breastfeed, I am feeling social pressure to wean. By social pressure, I do not mean that people are actively telling me to wean, or ridiculing/punishing me for continuing to breastfeed. I know some people are unfortunate enough to have family or friends actively pressuring them to wean, but for me the effect is more subtle. Yet given the number of pro-breastfeeding women I know who are weaning, I believe these subtler pressures can be very powerful.

What do I mean, then, by social pressure?

  • When people keep asking ‘are you still breastfeeding?’ and ‘when do you plan to wean?’ Even without saying there is anything wrong with it, it makes me feel like my choice is under scrutiny.
  • The looks of surprise on strangers’ faces when I begin to breastfeed in public.
  • My partner is a big factor. He keeps asking questions about whether Wren really still needs it. I can convince him of it, but I still don’t feel as supported as I’d like.
  • When we are out – at playgroup, for example – and breastfeeding, the sight makes other toddlers ask their mother to breastfeed too. I feel apologetic, because my choice to continue breastfeeding is making their choice to cutback more difficult. I feel like I am breaking some sort of unspoken social contract to wean.
  • Having nobody to talk to about the challenges and joys of breastfeeding a toddler, at least nobody who is going through the same things.

In some ways, I find these subtle pressures more difficult to deal with than outright pressure. The rebel in me wishes those shocked strangers in cafes would be brave enough to express their ignorant views, so that I could defend myself. There is a part of me which definitely enjoys pushing boundaries, challenging conservative social norms, but I don’t want to do it all on my own. If I had someone to share my breastfeeding battles and triumphs, it would be much easier, much more fun.

I am finding myself becoming increasingly irritated with Wren’s requests to breastfeed, particularly in public. At times I think that perhaps this is a natural/biological response to trigger weaning, something coming from inside of me. But more likely, it is a response to the external pressures eroding my confidence. This is why I am spelling it out here. To confront it head on, and stop it eating away at me, invisible, un-named.

I will continue to breastfeed beyond two, beyond three, who knows? I would love to hear from others who are doing the same. What social pressures have you encountered to wean? How have you dealth with it?

My mother-in-law (Granma) arrived to stay with us yesterday. We haven’t seen her for over 6 months and I was unsure how she would respond to the fact that I am ‘still’ breastfeeding Wren. I thought I’d keep it a bit private, but was quite willing to defend it if necessary. Wren, however, had a different approach.

Within half an hour of Granma arriving, Wren:

– pulled down my shirt to reveal a breast, asking for ‘milky’;

– offered his own nipple for Granma to have a drink;

– asked me to give some ‘milky’ to his new toy characters (presents from Granma) and pushed them down my shirt;

– asked Grandma if she would also like some milky from me.

This is the first time he has ever offered my breast to anyone else, real people or toys. Fortunately, Granma thought it was all quite hilarious.

To allow to me to gloat a little, and for you to get to know Wren, here is a list of my favourite things about him and our relationship at the moment.

To allow me to vent a little, this is followed by a list of the worst things about Wren and our relationship at the moment.

I hope to do this as a regular list, for my own personal record, perhaps to share with Wren one day.

The Best of Wren:

1. Your love of music and dancing. You can dance to anything, any style of music. You are starting to request songs for me to sing. Your current favourite is the hokey pokey.

2. Your energy and love of a physical challenge- while sometimes exhausting for me, it is impressive. You are happiest running, climbing, jumping, and sometimes just want to run up and down the hallway with me, or around and round the lounge room, “fast, fast, fast!”. When we go for a walk in the bush and your favourite part is climbing the rocky hills.

3. Your growing capacity for independent, creative play. I love to see you digging away on your own in the sandpit, or playing imaginary games with your toy animals. Adorable. Oh, and it gives me a much needed break.

4. Your love of animal, particularly horses at the moment. The enthusiasm with which you spot them at every opportunity, in real life and in pictures (you’d be amazed how many horse pictures there are in this world once you start looking).

5. I love watching your growing awareness and knowledge of the natural world. You can “read” the landscape, for example knowing when we are likely to come across a waterhole. One day you’ll be a great tracker – you already excel at spotting animals holes / nests and particularly animal poo and can identify which animal it came from – kangaroo, dog, horse, rabbit.

6. Your social skills are better than mine. You love other kids especially and can win anyone over with a cheeky grin, friendly giggle and silly antics. You love to perform and be watched and feed off the energy of people. Your boisterous friendship with Jade is particularly lovely, and the way you look after May, who is only 15 months, is particularly lovely.

7. Your rapidly growing language – a sponge for words – I love the earnest way you repeat new ones. You talk a lot, though sentences are still forming.  You are picking up little instructional phrases like ‘keep going’; ‘come on’; ‘do it’; ‘find it’. I love it when you come back from walks with dad and rush to tell me “kangaroo… hopping… hill… rabbit poo… walking”. I also like it that I know you so well that I can interpret whole stories from just a few words, which are often meaningless to others.

8. You like to HELP. You are so proud when given a task which you can do, like putting things in a box or passing me clothes to hang on the washing line.

9. You are so healthy.  I am proud of myself for that, as I have worked for it, although probably it’s just you. I finally feel like I don’t have to worry so much since you got diagnosed with cystic fibrosis a year ago. You are growing and you can recover from colds and coughs without antibiotics.

10. You have recently discovered that you too have nipples. I find it so touching when you offer them to me to have a drink. Your dad thinks it’s a bit weird, but I think it is just sweet.

11. The way you kiss your dad goodnight and then instruct him firmly to kiss me. It makes you happy to see us kiss or cuddle.

The worst of Wren:

1. Kicking the dog, grabbing the dog’s tail, usually exactly because you know you are not supposed to. You do it just to get a reaction from me. You also try to ride dog, but this is just because you really want to ride a horse. The poor dog is so patient with you.

2. Kicking the chooks, chasing the chooks, and now even sometimes catching the chooks. I am glad you like them, but you just need to learn to be more gentle. I feel bad that when you disappear in the backyard, I tell myself you are playing in the sandpit, just to get a few minutes alone, when really I know there’s a good chance your torturing the chooks, or eating their food.

3. You are so goddam stubborn. You want to do be able to do everything yourself, not understanding why you’re not  allowed to drive the car, or help cook dinner (to be encouraged of course, but the knives are very sharp and the stove hot and your co-ordination still developing). I do hope this will be a positive characteristic in the long-run, but right now it’s annoying.

4. This leads to tantrums. hmmm.

5. Your renewed clinginess. I don’t want to be too hard on you, or force you to be independent before you’re ready, but it is hard for me, hardly getting a break.  Especially since for a while there, you were so confident and happy to be left with a number of loved people.

6. Sleep. I so wish you were a better sleeper.  Still waking up several times a night to breastfeed.  It’s exhausting. I’m going to have to draw the line soon.

7. When you are deliberately unco-operative even when you know exactly what is expected of you and have an interest in co-operating. Why – even when I tell you we are going to playgroup and you really want to go – do you run around and refuse to get dressed and ready to leave the house? It doesn’t make sense. Obviously, you have no sense of time yet or concept of being ‘late’. But why so much joy in making me frustrated?

8. The way you insist that certain jobs are mine, not your father’s.  Like putting on your socks. Why can’t your dad do it? He feels rejected.

9. The ‘mine’ phase. That word has such nasty sound when it comes of your little mouth as you snatch a toy away from another child. It is exhausting for me having to emphasise sharing and taking turns whenever we are with other kids; I don’t like to police your behaviour so much, but it is an important thing to learn. So many tears in the process. I realise it is a developmental phase; it comes along with you identifying that certain things belong to certain people, which is important to know, but why so much possessiveness?

It’s taken 2 years to get this blog going, so allow me to fill you in on what you’ve missed – starting with the birth of Wren.

I feel like there are really two stories of Wren’s birth. There is a rather frantic story about phone calls, plans upset, hospital understaffing and all that went on around me. Then there is a beautiful story of how my body and my baby worked together to bring him safely into this world. I find that too often when I tell the story – and particularly when my partner tells it – it is the former that dominates. This is probably because it has more dramatic value and is easier to recount. But what I really want to remember and what I really want to tell the world is how incredible it was, how extremely proud I am of my body, how my understanding of myself and life will never be the same.

I will tell two stories here together – they are of course intertwined, but I hope that the second story will stand out and be remembered. To set the scene, I’ll start with my pregnant days.

I had a really wonderful pregnancy – at least once I got used to idea and I got in to the habit of eating more regularly (to avoid that sudden drop in blood sugar level, leaving me a blubbering mess). I remember being 4 months pregnant and walking over the sand dunes, looking out at Ningaloo Reef (my last holiday alone), feeling on top of the world, my hand on my belly, a sense of satisfaction with what was growing inside me, wishing I could stay in this state forever (but also knowing the satisfaction was dependent on a progressing pregnancy).

Soon after that, I became very focused on birth. I read a lot, about natural birth, active birth. I did yoga, drank raspberry leaf tea, prepared myself physically, mentally, emotionally. Hmmm, perhaps I’m making it sound like I had a very active pregnancy; that’s so far from the truth – I slept A LOT, and I enjoyed that sleep, as I could do it without feeling guilty or lazy, knowing that my body was always hard at work. And looking back now, I’m glad I slept when I had the chance!

I thought a lot about birth. I knew what kind of birth I wanted and knew that I was capable of it. I wanted a home birth, but this turned out to be too expensive and too difficult to organise, given that we were moving back east only a couple of months before the due date. I settled on a hospital where a friend had given birth – I liked its setting, small size, and midwife-centred approach and support for active, natural birth – at least, that’s how it appeared at my first appointment there. Just in case, I got myself a doula – Sarah. Having someone there who I knew, and who knew what kind of birth I wanted, made me feel more confident. The importance of this was soon confirmed for me, as I became fed up with the lack of continuity of care provided by the hospital. I found my antenatal appointments quite frustrating, having a different midwife each time, going through the same things each time, particularly having to defend my well-researched choice not to take GBS antibiotics during labour (eventually I wrote them a letter to put in my file and refused to explain myself any further).

A couple of days before my due date, I started to get pain in my thighs. Walking became increasingly uncomfortable, but I felt like I had to keep moving or I would stiffen up. On the afternoon of 11 July, the day before my due date, I went to the pool and swam a few slow laps, did some gentle stretching in the water. This felt really good and was the best thing I could have done. That night I packed my hospital bag, which for some reason I’d been putting off. My partner went to bed early and I remember sitting in the lounge room alone, deciding I was ready, stroking my now very big belly and telling my baby I was ready for him, asking him to come. I pressed the acupressure point in my hands. Somehow it seemed unlikely he would come on his due date, but I convinced myself it was possible.

I woke early the following morning, thinking I’d felt something in my belly, but by the time I’d woken the feeling had passed. A little while later I again felt something like mild period pain – a contraction! I got up at 4am to go to the toilet, feeling sure labour was starting, but not knowing how quickly – my main concern at this time was to figure out how established it was before Simon had to go to work, as I knew he was working an hour away that day. Remembering pre-labour can last hours or even days, I went back to bed to try and rest. More contractions came, getting gradually stronger. I couldn’t get back to sleep. Around 5am, I got up, turned the heater on in the lounge, ate a banana, put the birthing visualisation / meditation CD on and lay on the couch, trying to relax. I felt surprisingly calm, but couldn’t concentrate for long on the CD. Within half an hour, the contractions were significantly stronger and I thought they were quite regular. I thought it was happening quickly, but I didn’t feel I had a good sense of time – I was already drifting off into a labour haze. I woke my partner up, asked him to come and time my contractions. I lay forward on the beanbag and told him when my contractions came. They seemed to be about 2-3 minutes apart. I knew this to be considered very regular, but I don’t think he realised that yet, and I didn’t want to alarm him. At this stage, I was breathing heavily through the contractions. It wasn’t until I tried to talk to my partner that I realised how vague I’d become. He rubbed my back for a while, then called the doula, Sarah, who didn’t answer. He then called the hospital. They informed him that there was no anaesthetist at the hospital that day (in case I needed an emergency caesarean or epidural), so we would have to go to a large hospital an hour away – and if my contractions were 2-3 minutes apart we should leave NOW. I was devastated; “I’m not going there! I don’t need an anaesthetist! Tell them I’m not going!” I did NOT want to drive for an hour to an unfamiliar hospital. Sarah called back and my partner updated her.
By this time I’d done two poos; my body emptying out. Then I vomited up the banana – so much for keeping my energy up. (How come everybody seems to leave these bits out of their birth stories? What’s wrong with a bit of excrement?).
My partner suggested I have a shower; a great idea. It felt SO good. I relaxed in the shower and I believe this made the labour progress even more quickly. I really didn’t want to get out of the shower, but I tried to create an acceptance within myself of whatever was to happen, reminding myself that what was happening in me was more important than where I might me.
We did consider staying at home for the birth, but weren’t quite brave enough to go it alone.
My partner called back the hospital, insisting it was too risky to drive to the big hospital; we didn’t want to have the baby on the side of the road; it was getting into morning rush hour. The midwife said that if we came there, they’d put us in an ambulance to the big hospital. My partner said this was better than him driving.
While he was making phone calls, I was sitting on the toilet, with contractions coming one after the other. I was moaning loudly. I thought I was beginning to feel the urge to push at the end of each contraction. I knew the baby was very close, but I didn’t tell my partner this because I could see he was quite nervous and I didn’t want to add to his worries. Somewhere in my labour haze, I was actually finding amusement in his nervousness and feeling fondness and appreciation for the care he was taking.

We gathered our things and got in the car. It was about 7am. I lay in the back seat, forward over some pillows. After a short, awkward drive, my partner pulled into the emergency entry at the hospital, thinking the ambulance waiting here had been called for us. But no, apparently my birth wasn’t the only thing happening that morning. My partner explained what was happening to some men there. I heard one of them say “Is it her first baby? … well then its probably a lot further away than she thinks.” This annoyed me because I knew he was wrong, but I let it pass. I was very much in my own world by now, everything was surreal.
I was put in a wheelchair and my partner wheeled me to the maternity unit.

I felt a contraction come on as we rolled up to reception and was glad for the opportunity to moan loudly; I wanted the midwives to see how far gone I was (I remembered my yoga teacher saying that if you appear too calm when you get to hospital – meditative, as she teaches – they won’t believe you’re in real labour). I was enjoying the freedom to be loud, that whatever I needed to do was okay. I remember thinking in passing that although I felt the urge to be loud through contractions, and probably looked like I was in pain, I wasn’t really feeling pain – I thought there was pain somewhere, or something very powerful happening in my body, but I wasn’t connected to it; it felt far away.
I was taken to a labour ward, to be checked by a midwife. Although I’d said in my birth plan that I didn’t want vaginal examinations, I consented because I wanted them to know I was about to have a baby, so that I wouldn’t be sent to the other hospital. And sure enough, she found I was fully dilated. No time to go anywhere. Hurray! What a relief!
I leaned forward on a beanbag, as I’d been comfortable doing at home. My partner called Sarah to let her know we were staying here after all. I think she’d already started driving to the other hospital, so it was a while before she got there.
The midwife mostly let me be for a while, she said to push when I felt like it, as my instincts were good. I really appreciated her trust in me, but I didn’t feel like pushing much. I just wanted to get through contractions with minimum effort. The main thing bothering me at this time was pressure on my anus – It felt like if I pushed too hard the baby would burst out of my bum!
It was only when I heard her say that it could be just 5 more minutes that I thought “Oh wow, this could be over in 5 minutes, there’s no need to pace myself, I can push for 5 minutes.” (I later found out that what she’d actually said was “It could be 5 minutes or it could be an hour”, but I’d only heard the positive). I moved from the bean bag to kneeling and leaning up against the back of the bed, which was raised.
The baby was crowning during contractions, but not moving much for some time. The midwife began to encourage me to push more and cough. She asked me to lie on my side. I reluctantly did, but it was uncomfortable, so I returned to my kneeling position.
Sarah arrived at some point – I don’t think I was able to acknowledge her. She came and stood by me, reminding me to relax my shoulders between contractions. I was also only vaguely aware that there was a second midwife there, who came and went a few times. My partner said later that she was really rude, possibly resentful that we were there at all, so I’m glad I didn’t notice her.
I remember my partner telling me he could see the baby’s head and that it had hair. He sounded happy and close to tears, so this encouraged me to keep pushing. I could feel my perineum stretching, stretching, stretching.
When the baby still wasn’t moving any more, the midwives began to get a bit concerned. The baby’s heart rate dropped a bit. They said I had to change positions, explaining that the baby’s head was pressing against my perineum and couldn’t go any further and that this would cause the baby distress if it was there for too long. They wanted me to lie on my back but I refused – this was against everything I understood about birth. I did agree to try lying on my side again. Sarah held up my upper leg and I pushed really hard.
Then it all happened very quickly. I felt a sudden sharp pain in the front of my vagina as it stretched when the baby’s head came out (up until then all the stretching pain had been at the back) – later revealed to be two significant tears of the labia. But the head was out – such relief! I think I rolled on to my back then. The rest of the baby came out on the next contraction (8.18am).
All of a sudden there was a wriggling, crying baby on my chest. It was almost a shock. Amazing. I think my partner cried, which touched me. He described how he’d watched the baby turn from blue to pink with the first few breaths. It felt like several minutes before the midwife asked if we’d seen the sex. It hadn’t even occurred to me – a baby was enough. The midwife knew was letting us make the discovery. So Simon and I peered under the baby’s belly and saw he was a boy. I was not surprised; I’d had hundreds of dreams of a baby boy.
My heart jumped when the midwife referred to him as “your son” – it wasn’t just a baby, he had a gender now. I have a son.
When the cord stopped working, my partner cut it.
The first attempts at breastfeeding were exciting and amazing, watching this new little creature snuffle around for my nipple – making real cute snuffling noises. Sarah and the midwife helped with positioning and attachment. Although the advice was good, at this time I felt like there were too many people talking, I wanted peace and quiet to discover my baby.
These delightful moments were interrupted by the realisation that the placenta was still to come. I had only had a couple of very minor contractions since the birth. I did not want the placenta induced, as is the normal procedure. The midwife informed us that the doctor (somewhere outside) said they’d give me an hour to deliver it naturally – any longer was too big a risk, given there was no anaesthetist on duty, in case I had a significant haemorrhage.
I had to then focus on pushing the placenta out. I handed the baby over to my partner (seeing him with his shirt off with the baby in his arms made me melt), as Sarah walked me to the toilet – emptying the bladder was supposed to help. I had a couple of contractions on the toilet, but no wee and no placenta. Back to the bed, tried squatting over a bedpan. This time was stressful and confusing. The obstetrician came in to talk to me. I’d liked her when I’d met her at an earlier appointment, but now she seemed severe, intimidating. She explained to me the risks – that I might be bleeding behind the placenta, if they didn’t find out for many hours, there was a risk of death, I’d have to be flown to Nepean – the worst case scenario. She didn’t even stop talking when I was having a contraction – everyone else was perceptive enough to know when to be quiet. I felt exhausted, all I wanted was for it to be over so I could sleep. I couldn’t remember why I was so against inducing the placenta, but I knew I’d decided that earlier so there must have been a good reason. It was good to have Sarah there to clarify things and to ask the doctor for time to think. I felt under a lot of pressure and I think this slowed things down. The midwife kept coming in and explaining things over and over again, saying she was under pressure from the doctor outside – it was a good cop / bad cop routine. I wished they’d just leave me alone. The hour was extended to an hour and a half. I eventually consented to the syntocin injection – just for it all to be over, and I didn’t want to risk things going wrong – I felt lucky to have been able to have the baby there, I didn’t want to have to go to the other hospital now.
So they injected it into my thigh and very quickly the contractions got intense again. I don’t think they were as strong as they’d been for the baby, but I was more aware of them now and I felt more self-conscious about making noise. It was a lot to go through this again after the high of having a baby. But in about 15 minutes, the placenta came out in one big blob (10.15am). And there wasn’t even much bleeding.
The doctor was there and she checked me for tearing – two big tears at the front of the labia, I wasn’t surprised. I had to have my legs in the stirrups for the stitches, which wasn’t pleasant. Several painful injections of local anaesthetic. As I flinched with one very painful shot, my baby (still in my partner’s arms) let out a loud scream – were we still connected? It made me smile, anyway.
After I was stitched up, I held my baby again. I no longer felt so tired and was very happy sitting there. I enjoyed being able to sit there naked, not being cold or self-conscious. I was a little disappointed to have to put my dressing gown on, when I was transferred in a wheelchair to my room in the maternity ward.
I had to spend at least 24 hours at the hospital, so that my baby could be observed for Group B Strep symptoms (I had refused antibiotics during labour – and it would have been too quick anyway). The best thing about being hospital was the bed – I loved the bed which went up and down by pressing a button! How anyone sits up on their own after having a baby, I don’ know. I would have stayed longer were it not for the AWFUL, tiny hospital meals and having people I didn’t know walk into my room all the time (the midwives shifts seemed to change so often). But I was recovering well. Midwives kept coming in asking if I wanted pain relief – what for? I asked, genuinely surprised by the offers.
We left hospital the following evening, after a test walk around the hospital, and took my beautiful little boy home.

Wren is now 2 years old. And thoughts have been creeping in about what this means, as far as where he should be now, where I should be, where society thinks we should be, where I wish we were.  I have been a full time parent for 2 years now.  It has been the obvious ‘choice’; not all that much thought has gone into it.  Wren’s needs and wishes have come first and I have been happy to oblige; Turtledad has been happy to work full time.  A certain level of ‘inequality’ has been accepted, as a temporary necessity.  But for how long?

I think I may have to make a series of posts into a few things this 2 year milestone is bringing up.  This includes:

– breastfeeding:  I have been breastfeeding on demand (that means a lot) until now.  Two years seems to be a popular weaning time for people in my social group (people generally supportive of breastfeeding).  I do not want to wean, Wren definitely doesn’t want to wean, but am starting to feel the odd one out.  Do I want to cut down breastfeeding?  Do I want to stop breastfeeding at night? I would like to examine this.

– paid work: Do I really want to get a paid job?  If so, why? Or is it social pressure?  Would it be good for Wren to have more time with his Dad or another carer, or should I listen to him and let him have me all the time? He has already proven himself against childcare. Can I ask Turtledad to quit his job entirely or switch to a part time job?  How do I negotiate more equality?

– sleep: There are a lot myths and different ideas about sleep, and I don’t want to sound like I’m buying into unrealistic  expectiations about babies sleeping through the night, but now that Wren is 2, I do feel like it might perhaps be about time to start encouraging him to sleep a bit better.  He has wakes 6 or more times a night to feed – not so bad given that we’re co-sleeping – but how long can it go on?

If you are interested in these issues or would like to share your thoughts and experiences, let me know now, or drop back in again soon for longer posts.