All my life I feared babies. I feared pregnancy – the loss of control over a body that grows monstrous. I feared delivery – an agony I knew would be beyond description, the tearing of an area that should never be subjected to such violence. I feared giving birth to a mini monster, to Rosemary’s baby, to a selfish, screaming creature I resented and felt no connection to.
But what happened the instant Ziev was born I could never have foreseen.
I felt him come out of me, a relief and release, painless thanks to The Blessed Epidural (the Holy Grail is a catheter overflowing with cool anaesthetic), and then he was put on my stomach with a splat, a wet and sprawling creature, a small Gollum, still attached to the inside of me. I placed my hands on his bloody skin, my blood, his skin, and as I did, the configurations of the room changed, time vacuumed right out, a moment of syrupy silent suspension, and then it sucked back in. The world ended and began again, and I knew, in the second before he was whisked away from me to be cleaned and wrapped, that everything between him and I would be ok. I knew I’d protect him forever.
Around me chaos, in the room the doctor stitched and counted cloths, stitched and stitched and counted cloths, the midwives and maternity nurses dashed about, busy in corners, and out in the hospital, more howling women in labour, more blood and more harried nurses, and outside the hospital people living and people dying, war and fighting, cars and confusion, and around the world the swirl of the pulsing chaos of the universe. And here at its centre, a tiny human, made of stars and flesh, lying still and calmly breathing.
By the time Ziev came out, forged with forceps, after 2 ½ hours of pushing, and more than 12 hours of labour, there were eleven people in the room, not counting Eran, and all of them were covered in my blood.
During the labour, while in the throes of convulsions, (and let’s not be coy about this – full-labour convulsions are an off-the-scale agony, an exorcist-level of violence against the body, your insides in mutiny, a beast bigger than any puny Ridley Scott alien is trying to exit your body any way it can – the victims in the Alien films get off lightly) I managed three coherent thoughts…
The first was this: given the choice, why would any woman in her right mind refuse painkillers during labour? There are a number of scenarios where it’s not possible to administer pain relief (poor, sorry buggers) but there are women out there who actively choose not to receive any. I usually take a pro-choice stance on most issues regarding women’s lives, but on this, I’m sorry, but I have no respect for women who martyr themselves to pain. Don’t be a hero, don’t be an idiot; have the bloody epidural! That’s what modern medicine is for!
The second thought was: this had better be a boy, because I don’t want to give birth to someone who may one day have to go through what I am currently going through.
And the third was this: I am never going to take any shit, from anyone, ever again about anything! A pretty generalised thought at the time, but on reflection, what I think my brain was trying to get at more specifically was something along these lines: that, if this is what women all over the world have to go through in order to sustain the human race, then fuck everyone who has anything negative to say against women as a sex. Seriously, I mean it. They can go to hell. And that includes other women, who can be every bit as anti-women as men can be. And somehow that same thought incorporated this too: that there is no god, or at least, no god that I want anything to do with, because if there is a god, then he is most definitely male, and more than that, he is a mother-fucking bastard.
And all the Mother Earth associations, the allusions of motherhood to goddesses and the sacred feminine, that’s bullshit too. There is nothing sacred, nothing mysterious, about having a baby, and if it is ‘earthly’ it is because it is animal, because it is primitive and brutal, it is because Nature treats women like dirt. We have been designed to do Man’s dirty work for him, because He is a coward. If I had gone through my delivery experience a few hundred years ago, I would be dead. That’s how much god loves women. Well I happen to love life, so fuck god. I worship the idols of modern medicine.
The first sixteen weeks of the pregnancy were horrendous: days and nights of vomiting, perpetual nausea, nose bleeds, frequent crippling migraines that left me either bedridden, or vomiting in relentless spasms until I thought I’d bring up my internal organs. Days when four huge meals didn’t even come close to satiating the hunger, and days when the only thing I could keep down was jelly, spooned in weakly while I lay in a darkened room. To all the people who seemed to think it was helpful to remind me that ‘pregnancy is not an illness’: fuck you!
There was also a lesser-known symptom of ‘morning sickness’ that became the bane of my life, and which isn’t easy to describe. Information on the subject of the weird taste you can get in your mouth during pregnancy will usually describe it as ‘metallic’, or like the taste of pennies, which doesn’t really sound like a big deal. Let me try to do it justice: it’s like you swallowed the contents of a garage, it’s how you might imagine petrol, or car oil, or lead, or tar to taste. And in addition to its taste, its effect is to instantly acidize anything you eat, so that food – even heavy starchy foods and meat – just dissolves like rice paper the instant it hits the stomach. This, combined with the nausea and sickness, meant that I spent every day of that sixteen weeks eating and vomiting, eating and vomiting, like some kind of demented bulimic. This taste is to the tongue what tinnitus is to the ears. It turned food from a pleasure into a compulsion, a form of punishment against the body, lashing out in reaction to the way my body was punishing me. Inside me lurked the beast, The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, insatiably hungry, relentlessly demanding. ‘Burk. Feeeeed Meeeee,’ he’d bellow every hour of the day and night. I took no pleasure in the food I shovelled down my throat. All I wanted was to silence the beast.
If you want to know what really bad morning sickness is like, imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had, and imagine having that every single day for sixteen weeks. Some women (again, poor buggers) suffer morning sickness throughout the duration of the pregnancy. At least mine was over – ceased almost overnight – as I hit the second trimester.
I won’t bore you with the details of the second and third trimesters, which were virus-addled, stressful, uncomfortable, unpleasant and eventually de-habilitating, but I’ll just surmise by saying your immune system faces an onslaught that it’s never before encountered, a battle you are in no shape to fight, because a vampiric foetus is devouring your reserves from the inside out. You become a virus magnet, just at a time when most medicines are off limits to you: most painkillers, antihistamines, ointments, and anti-biotics, suddenly disallowed. Even fighting the common cold becomes a minefield of illicit substances.
Then, after nine months of this shit, the delivery itself.
About three hours of calm followed the birth, as the three of us were left alone in the delivery suite and Ziev slept. Then we were transferred to the maternity ward, and that’s when it really began:
The immediate, heavy-handed and urgent, pressure to breastfeed, followed by the shock and dismay at finding it incredibly painful and difficult. Five days in hospital because of second (borderline third) degree tearing and failure to establish breast-feeding. The numb disbelief at the extent of the damage done to your body, a barrage of interference from medical professionals, followed by the same intrusion from the people closest to you, well-intended, kindly-meant, and deeply, unforgivably damaging.
Back at home I spent the first weeks of Ziev’s life on two types of anti-biotic, two types of anti-inflammatory, a cocktail of pain killers, as well as tablets that were meant to boost milk production. Instead of spending days at home with the baby doing as little as possible, I had a packed diary dedicated to the production and dispatch of milk: in less than a month I saw my GP three times, attended two different breast feeding support groups, attended health visitor and midwife appointments, saw an Infant Feeding Specialist, a Lactation Consultant, and attended three appointments with an osteopath. All with the aim of ‘establishing’ breast-feeding.
In a discussion about our respective deliveries, someone said to me that giving birth, regardless of whether you have a C-Section or ‘natural’ delivery, is as traumatic to the body as any operation. I agreed, but added that, unlike any regular operation, you are given no recovery time. On the contrary, you must get up and run. The exhaustion that hits you after a mere matter of days is not a tiredness that began at the birth, it is a tiredness that began nine months before. You begin parenthood with a major sleep deficit.
The Baby Bullies Part I: milk.
The period following the delivery that should be dedicated to recovering, mentally and physically, and getting to know this small human you’ve been put in charge of, is the time when you face the biggest bombardment of pressures and messages about how you should be caring for your baby. It’s very likely that you’ll be at your lowest physical ebb, and mentally at your most exposed and most exhausted, weakened, and therefore at your most susceptible: this is when they’ll get you. The various governing bodies that legislate on the lives of women know this is when to strike. Everyone means well. I had two of the loveliest, warmest midwives any woman could ask for. I hold nothing against them personally at all. Everything they told me was delivered with the sincerest kindness, but by the same token, everything they told me fucked with my head.
Under ‘normal’ conditions, back in your old life, when you would have been in your rational mind, if any messages conveyed to you seemed suspect or extreme, you’d have the capacity to dismiss them at will; to extract the useful information from the harmful, to know what’s best for you. But you are not in your right mind, you are probably the furthest you will ever be from your right mind, you are firmly, irrefutably, and terrifyingly imprisoned in your very, very wrong mind.
I like to think of myself as strong minded, but I gave way under the pressure: I didn’t just give in to it, I collapsed beneath its weight; crushed, defeated, flattened. Straight from the delivery suite you are wheeled into the maternity ward, AKA The Church of Breast, where the indoctrination begins. I was treated with a great deal of kindness by most of the staff there, but the friend I made, in the ward down the corridor was not, and even in my ward, even within the kind treatment, there was no mistaking the message, however it was delivered: if you do not breast feed you are failing your baby.
Consciously or unconsciously everyone from the midwives to the nurses to the various baby specialists that visit you during your stay fire their particular line at you, seeking out the places where you are susceptible to influence: if you have been conditioned to be competitive, conditioned to achieve, then that’s where it gets you, that’s where the impulse to succeed kicks in, and it becomes a matter of principal: how can it be that I can’t do this thing? I must be able to do it. It’s supposed to be ‘natural’. You hear it in the click of the nurses’ heels – breast feed, breast feed, breast feed – plastered over every wall are posters – BREAST IS BEST, BREAST IS BEST. The ward of mothers is regulated according to the doctrine of breast milk: if you think Alex’s obsession with milk in a Clockwork Orange is disturbing, he’s got nothing on your average maternity nurse. “How wicked, my sisters, innocent milk must always seem to me now.” ‘I breastfed mine until he was two years old,’ said the nurse who came to take my blood pressure every day. ‘It was the best thing I ever did.’
But it was no good, I couldn’t do it. Eventually I was introduced to expressing and we were already combining breast milk with formula by the time we left the hospital. I was, at the time, prepared to give up the breast feeding in favour of expressing and so began a punishing schedule of expressing as often as I possibly could, at least 6 times a day and night. As an example of some of the well-intentioned bad advice I was given, one of my midwives told me I should be expressing on each breast for as long as I would normally feed the baby, which was about 40 minutes a breast, which resulted in me sitting in my bedroom expressing for over an hour at a time. When I’d finished, Eran would take the milk and feed the baby. There were days when I hardly saw Ziev. I was a milk factory, I was a monstrous milking cow-woman locked away out of sight, unsightly because of this contraption strapped to her breasts, milking herself while it was left to other people to hold the baby.
Under pressure from someone close to me to breast-feed instead of expressing, I persisted with looking for help to re-establish breast-feeding. It was at one of the two breast-feeding support groups that I was again given poor advice, again delivered with the best of intentions. I was imbued with a sense of urgency: ‘time is of the essence’ were the words of the advisor, because I risked the baby getting too used to the bottle, ‘go home, shut yourself in the living room with the baby, put the TV on, and feed him constantly, on the slightest demand, and shut everyone else out.’ So that’s what I did, but all that happened is that each feed became more painful than the last, which led to an increase in stress, which led to a decrease in milk, which led to Ziev being inconsolable by evening and me being a wrung-out nervous wreck, distraught with disappointment. In the weeks that followed I reached an uneasy balance of alternating every feed between breast feeding, expressing and formula feeding: there were some meals where Ziev received food three-ways: an initial breast feed topped up with one bottle of breast milk, topped up again with one bottle of formula, just to stay abreast (PUN!) of his appetite. This particular schedule went on for more than two months.
Looking back on it now, all I can think is WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WAS I DOING?? Had I taken leave of my senses?? Yes, yes I had. But don’t for a minute make the mistake of thinking you’d fare any better under that kind of pressure, that you would be afforded greater clarity, or better judgement. I am not alone in this experience; not by a long shot.
The Baby Bullies Part II: sleep.
Breast feeding is not the only indoctrinating message you receive about baby care. Another is about how your baby should sleep. Unpacked, the message is this: ‘if you don’t put the baby to sleep on its back, and you allow it to sleep on its front, it will die of SIDS and it will be your fault.’ This message was so immediate and delivered with such ferocity that Ziev was never put on his stomach by me. It was done without my permission and against my instruction by someone close to me. But the moment it happened, that was it, the damage was done: Ziev never slept well on his back again.
From one side I faced the might of the medical institution and its insistence that babies must sleep on their back, and that putting them on their front is irresponsible and reckless. And from the other side, I faced the might of ‘experience’, the professional mother, whose authority over-ruled mine. At no point was I given control of either option. Once again, like with the breast-feeding, I was at the mercy of stronger, more convincing voices than mine. But unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, if you have a baby with colic or any kind of tummy trouble, which Ziev most certainly did, they are going to sleep better on their stomachs.
Do you know what’s going on? We are having woolly little bonnets pulled over our eyes. In the name of ‘information’ we are being delivered an ‘education.’ I’ll give you an example: in one doctor’s surgery I came across a children’s book that simply stated, ‘babies sleep on their back,’ claimed as a universal truth, casting tummy-sleepers into the deviant position, making no qualms about implying that any parent doing differently is doing something wrong. This isn’t informing us, this is educating us, this is programming us. There’s a difference. A perfect example of how ‘information’ is being hoodwinked by ‘education.’ A book aimed at children, educating children to police their parents. This is insidious. This is bullshit.
In hindsight, it looks inevitable that the fragile routine of feeding I had in place, and the stress surrounding Ziev’s sleeps would lead to collapse as soon as I was faced with performing it alone, which is exactly what happened when Eran had to return to work in Africa. The night everything came to a head was only mine and Ziev’s second on our own:
Ziev had been screaming inconsolably since 4pm, like an angel a friend had descended on me and stayed until 9pm, when Ziev was still screaming and writhing in agony, like I was killing him. I took his clothes off in the hope that it might release pressure on his gut. But he just kept on screaming. By then my arms had given way – he’s a big baby, 9lbs1 at birth – and I had to keep putting him down, which only made him scream harder. As darkness descended, I was on my own, on my knees on the floor in the bedroom, in hysterics, crying, ‘I don’t know how to help you, I don’t know how to help you,’ but the only answer was the cool silence of an endless night that stretched on forever like an abyss into which my 8-week-old was howling with agonising, heart-ripping, head-splitting screams. Without a bath, without a feed, without any clothes on, he collapsed asleep on my shoulder at around eleven. I put him in his cot, threw a blanket over him, and because he would only sleep on his tummy, wedged myself on the bed right up against his cot, in the hope that I would be able to hear him breathe through my own sleep. I woke regularly, even while he slept, so tense I could feel my teeth grinding, my jaw so locked it ached in the morning.
Post Natal Depression
After everything I’ve written, this might sound unconvincing, but I was genuinely shocked when I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. On paper it looks like a no-brainer, but at the time I could not believe it, not after surviving my own preconceived perception of the nature of postnatal depression. I loved Ziev. How could I have depression? I wanted him near me, the addictive softness of his skin, the smell of him. I wasn’t ‘depressed.’ What I was suffering was acute, crippling anxiety attacks. Anxiety was the problem, not depression. I did not realise that anxiety is all part of it, and can signify PND even in the absence of all other symptoms. The panic attacks were so severe I would stop breathing, I would stop being able to speak, I would need to hold onto something for fear of falling over a cliff edge that would materialise from out of the fabric of the world around me. But at the time I did not make the connection. I was so sure that I would know if I was suffering from depression that even after the health visitor’s prognosis, and the doctor’s diagnosis, it still came as a shock to read in the report sent to the hospital that, had I not told him my parents had agreed I could move in with them, my GP would have had me admitted to hospital then and there.
I have been exceptionally well looked after: every person in the chain that was quickly set in motion has been fantastic. From the GP and midwives, to the Occupational Therapist to the Psychiatric Nurse to the health visitors themselves. I have been so lucky. It makes me fearful for the women experiencing problems who are not within the catchment of local authorities committed to these services. I couldn’t have asked for better support. It was my health visitor, in fact, who saved my sanity as I clung to its last thread with an uncannily well-timed phone-call that finally put to bed my insane expressing regime. Then there is the support of my friends. I am so privileged to have them.
In particular there was Csilla (and Leventer), who I met in the canteen of the hospital: we ate breakfast together, a basket of NHS toast and butter, the first properly ‘human’ encounter following the delivery, who’s son was born two days after Ziev, and who experienced remarkably similar problems with breast feeding. She and I texted throughout the first weeks and months of our boys’ lives and even though I was grateful for it at the time, it’s only in hindsight that I can see exactly how invaluable those texts were. They were a lifeline to me. There were times when it felt like she was the only person in the world who really knew what I was going through, who really ‘got it’, because she was going through it too, at exactly the same time.
And there was Eleanor (and Hamish) who, by some miraculous stroke of fate, happen to live next door to us and who went through a hellish ordeal with the birth of her son. As I unravelled, stage by stage, I ended up following her down a road she’d already travelled, involving the same team of professionals, like an echo of what happened to her. I took so much strength from seeing how she had coped. She’s a survivor. And the place she had reached was the place I knew I had to aim for. I can’t stress how vital that beacon of hope was to me.
I did not know either of these two women seven months ago, but giving birth seems to be one of those experiences where survivors seek out one another.
Then there was Katie, a shining star in my life who, between her and Rob, looked after Ziev when he was only 3 months old, so that Eran and I could go to the Olympics and feel like we were people again.
But there was one friend in particular who seemed to instinctively know when to text, and exactly what to say, and there were many occasions when his words alone got me through. He was quick to respond and pitch perfect and I cannot thank him enough.
Or the old, old friends who I know are always, always there, Suzy, Saira, you all know who you are…
I wonder what people did before mobile phones because it was often the text messages that saved me; from Mark, from Csilla, from Ellie. With a newborn, your hands are tied: the pace of the baby’s schedule renders it impossible to make phone-calls or write emails, and any spare time you have is committed to getting everything else in the house done, and perhaps awarding yourself a cup of tea that isn’t cold, and only if you’re lucky. But text messages require just about the right amount of available time and energy, and provide life-saving sound-bites, tiny windows into reality and sanity.
I am aware that not everyone gets to benefit from so much support. So for what it’s worth, and at the risk of only adding to all the conflicting and conflating advice that’s out there, I am going to attempt to give my money’s worth to anyone who might need it, on the subjects of breast-feeding, colic and tummy-sleeping – with the bullshit surgically removed.
Colic exists in worried whispers, for some reason no one likes to talk about it, or in some cases, even admit to it, as if to do so would be to manifest a devil. As if it doesn’t exist until it is named. And so people go as long as possible before confessing to it. Again, there is the sense of ‘failure’ about it: oh, you got one of those babies, did you? It is the condition that shall not be named.
Perhaps it’s something in the name, the combination of the words ‘cholera’ and ‘relic’, it’s a stain that won’t shift, a body under the patio, it evokes something distasteful for its roach-like indestructibility when it should have long been buried with the Victorians, or exported to Africa – an old fashioned name for a vague, inexplicable series of afflictions: as if today’s babies are far too modern to suffer from something as backwards and archaic colic.
Well I’m going retro. I’m bringing colic back, because it’s useful. It’s an umbrella term for all manner of ills that, regardless of their root, cause parents the same grief for the time that their baby experiences it. Some babies don’t have it for very long or very often, some have it until a particular cause is identified and treated, some don’t have it at all (lucky, lucky buggers), some just have it regardless of everything.
The term is given to the state of prolonged inconsolable crying (of the baby, I should clarify!), which can occur for all number of reasons, often attributed, though not exclusively, to gastric-related problems – anything from trapped wind, to diarrhoea, to trouble breaking down lactose, to constipation, to the immaturity of the gut – but is also linked to over-stimulation and over-tiredness. For most people the hell is over by the time the baby reaches three months. That might not seem very long, but it’s a tortuous purgatory when you’re in the middle of it, and when it’s day after day, hour after hour, and when you’re having to deal with it alone.
I really wished someone had warned me about it. Everyone knows that babies cry, but babies with colic scream, howl, gasp, stop breathing, hyperventilate and writhe about in your arms. They fight you when you hold them and scream even louder if you put them down. Everyone knows that babies cry, but no one warns you how long they can keep it up; that they can scream from four in the afternoon until eleven at night, hardly abating, and that they can do this day after day, week after week. I’d quite like to know, statistically, how many mothers with babies displaying symptoms of colic get through the experience without a diagnosis of post natal depression. There is nothing you can do to prevent colic, and there is very little you can do to prepare for it, except brace yourself. We swapped to a formula that better assisted the breakdown of lactose, made sure we only dressed Ziev in loose clothing, and gave him regular tummy massages, but every baby will need its own colic management system! I would have benefited from knowing what can happen, for people not to shy from the word ‘colic’, so that at least I knew what to call it when it kicked in with shocking gusto a week into Ziev’s birth.
Incidentally, The Church of Breast doesn’t miss a beat on the topic of colic: their official line on the subject is that formula feeding causes colic. Bullshit. Breast fed babies are equally likely to experience colic. There is no confirmed link between colic and what babies drink, only the way babies drink, hence anti-colic feeding bottles. Once again, education crushes information.
So Ziev sleeps on his stomach and has done from his first month. Because no one tells you anything real, it took me ages to find out that this is common with colicky babies and that, if you ask around, everyone will know someone who is putting their baby to sleep on their tummies for that very reason. The way you are warned against it, you are made to feel that what you are doing is dangerous, and even when professionals don’t condemn it outright they make damn sure, probably for libel reasons, that they don’t condone it either. You only have to do a quick google search to discover how much hysteria there is online surrounding this subject.
It’s probably true that among the babies that die from cot death, most (but not all!) were asleep on their tummies at the time. But the percentage of babies dying from cot death (or SIDS) is tiny. Most of my generation were put down to sleep on their tummies: that was the ‘education’ at the time.
The guilt of favouring his sleep and ours over his assured safety ate away at me and became, like the breast-feeding, an obsession. I would lie awake at night listening to his breathing while he slept, I watched him sleep when I could. In public I made excuses for it all the time, before people could voice their disapproval or judgement. Six months on, Ziev is still sleeping on his front. He likes his sleep. He needs his sleep, and so do I. No one else will tell you this, but I will tell you: if your baby sleeps on its tummy, it will be alright.
By all means, give it a go. If you can do it, and enjoy it, fantastic, keep going. Breast-feeding is the right thing for you.
But if it’s not going well, or you don’t enjoy it, don’t be too quick to turn to expressing and don’t be afraid of formula. I warn you, expressing is awful. You become a cyborg of the most disempowered kind, a slave to a machine, which is even worse than being a slave to your baby’s appetite. It doesn’t make sense to put yourself through this ritualised, humiliating ordeal when you consider that there’s nothing wrong with formula, millions of babies do just fine on it, tons of research has gone into making it match breast milk for nutrients and sustenance. The negative attitude to formula feeding is disproportionate to the infinitesimal differences attributed to feeding this way compared with at the breast.
Much is made of the bond created when a baby suckles at the breast and in the spirit of brutal honesty, I won’t lie and say that this is also bullshit. There truly is something peculiarly, almost transcendentally, unique to the practice of breast feeding. I hated it during the day – it was messy, inconvenient, unwieldy, restrictive and hard work – but I loved the feeds I did at night, when both Ziev and I were calmer, out of any kind of public gaze, and quietly skin to skin in the privacy and enclosure of the bed and the quiet of the night. But you know what you can do, mothers who find they can’t breast feed at all? You can give your baby a bottle of formula so that s/he is fed, and then put your baby’s mouth to your breast to suckle, even if only for a few minutes. That’s right, you can cheat! Screw the worthy devotees of the Church of Breast and their sanctimonious Mother Earth smugness. You will be told that babies lose interest in breast feeding if they are given a bottle, because breast feeding is harder work for them. But if you are bottle feeding anyway, then that doesn’t matter because if you put something in a baby’s mouth, I can assure you, they will suck it, regardless of whether anything is coming out. If you have relieved yourself of the pressure of having to feed your child through your breast, thus alleviating the stress in the situation, then it’s unlikely it will be as painful, and then you can experience the same skin-to-skin nipple-to-mouth intimacy that a breast feeding mother experiences. And if it does start to hurt, you can stop without any fear that the baby hasn’t had enough milk. WIN!
However, I don’t want to become yet another person telling women, don’t do this and don’t do that, undermining their every decision. So if you are intent on persevering with the expressing (as I myself was… because I was lost in the throes of a particular kind of insanity), here’s another important thing to keep in mind: there is an unspoken idea that the baby should be on either breast milk or formula, that breast feeding needs to be fully ‘established’, as they call it: that the aim is to be doing it exclusively. This, again, surprise surprise, is bullshit. There is nothing wrong with feeding your baby both breast milk and formula. All it means is that you won’t be able to maintain the breast feeding part of the baby’s diet for as long as an exclusively breast-feeding mother, because the milk will dry up sooner. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the sum total of the objection to combined feeding. And you know what else? You’d be surprised just how long your milk supply can hold on. By Ziev’s third month we had a fragile but manageable routine going, whereby I had finally abandoned the expressing entirely and was simply doing alternate feeds of one breast feed followed by one formula feed. My milk supply kept going at this rate with no difficulty and the break between each breast feed meant I never suffered too much pain and never had to go through either the awfulness of mastitis or breast-thrush.
In fact, I think I could probably still be keeping to this schedule to this day if it wasn’t for a pivotal feed I did as Ziev was approaching the end of his third month. Out of the blue he began acting up again and not latching properly and something finally snapped. I thought, enough of this infernal misery: enough of not drinking coffee or alcohol, enough of not eating certain cheeses and limiting dairy (due to the colic) and avoiding seafood. In fact, enough of having a shit life. Within a week I was down to one single feed, which I did at night, and loved, and just to prove how enduring the milk supply can be, I was able to keep this one feed going every night for an entire month.
In the end, by hook or by crook, Ziev got breast milk for 4 months. So was it worth all of that? Well, I suppose so, if my aim was to get as much breast milk into him as possible. So yes, I did that much. Bravo. Go me! But in so doing I also succeeded in pushing myself to an extreme of abject misery, to having no life at all, to subjugating myself entirely to what I perceived to be my baby’s needs, and the expectations of what I should be delivering as a mother. So yes, bravo, go me! What Ziev gained in breast milk, I lost in sanity and sense. He milked me dry until I was an emptied dried-up husk of my former self.
Those are four of the shittiest months of my entire life. But I believe it could have made a big difference if someone had told me that I could aim to combination feed instead of aiming to exclusively breast-feed. If I’d known that it didn’t really matter, I don’t think I would have got myself into such a state. Combination feeding is perfectly acceptable and millions of women do it. In many ways, it is the best of both worlds. The professionals won’t tell you this, but thousands do it, because you only have to look at the way baby bottles are marketed – with teets that ‘won’t interfere with breast-feeding’ – to see that combining the two things is common practice.
I could not have written all this before now, I was in too deep, and besides, there wasn’t the time! Six months on I am still dealing with it, still on the anti-depressants, still haunted by the night when my life all but disintegrated before my eyes, but I have a clear enough head now to describe postnatal depression as I have experienced it. I don’t make claims to represent any woman’s views but my own. I know that it isn’t this shit for everyone.
When you become pregnant you know your life will never be the same again, you know you will have to make major compromises, you know the baby will demand all of your time, you know because you are told endlessly. But all this is words; words that have little meaning until it happens, because the way in which it will happen will confound you no matter how well prepared you think you are.
With me it wasn’t the big things that got me so much (apart from the inevitable lack of sleep, which is a killer) as the small things, the things you never even noticed you did, those are the things that are ripped away from you: the moments in the day when you switched off to daydream. GONE. The five minutes you took to drink a cup of tea in the morning-quiet before starting the day. GONE. The warm, melting sensation of drifting off at night into a sleep that spreads out in front of you like a sea. GONE. The occasional long phone conversations with a friend you don’t see often. GONE. The emails you wrote, the youtubes you watched, the vegging out on the sofa, the gym sessions, or pilates, or swimming, or whatever you did; the baking, the days when you finally sorted out your receipts, or tidied kitchen drawers, or stared blankly out of the window. GONE, GONE, GONE, GONE.
And that’s not all that’s gone. Gone is the independent life you led, the clothes you wore, gone is the way you walked, the way you held yourself, the things you thought about, gone is the feeling of possibility and freedom when you walked down the street on a dark autumnal day, gone is the “shall we grab a coffee?”, “shall we meet up for a drink,” “do you want to see a film?” “lets get tickets for that gig.” Gone is the body you’d learnt to identify with your sense of self. Gone is the self, and in its place is a stranger, a stranger who is the wrong shape and the wrong size, who cannot move the way she used to move, who cannot think about anything other than the baby, who cannot wear the clothes you loved and wouldn’t want to anyway because it would be like wearing the clothes of a dead person.
At the baby’s birth the mother is re-born, and the manifestation at that re-birth is different for everyone. Perhaps there are some who’ll claim they rose like a phoenix from the ashes. But for me, I was the bride of Frankenstein: stitched and patched up, oozing, leaking, gacky to touch. Even today, six months later, I still ache where the stitches were after walking a long distance, and my body still feels as if someone shoved a grenade inside my vagina, and then detonated it in my gut.
I had a privileged twenties: a twenties I lived out in a small athletic body, solid, defined. I had muscles. What I inhabit now feels like a collection of left-over parts, a dogs dinner, what was remaining in the lost property box after everyone had picked out the best limbs and the best organs: for anyone who’s read or seen ‘Never Let Me Go’, I feel like a donor after their third donation: I am always exhausted, my skin is always terrible, my hair is always lank, every step I take is heavy, every breath laboured. I mourn the loss of the youth who died on that delivery table. She lived a life she loved. Even if in time I can tighten the creaky screws of this body I’ve been dumped in, I know I’ll never see her again, or ever live the charmed life she led. She was the sacrifice I made, and the immense discomfort of pregnancy and the agony of delivery is the price I paid for my beautiful son. I don’t begrudge him that, because he is worth it, but it’s a price that I alone have had to pay – not my partner, the father of our baby – just me, and me alone, and I resent that, and it will take me a while to come to terms with this injustice.
Postnatal depression is sometimes described as a period of mourning, for the body, self, life and relationships that have been irrevocably and irreversibly altered. Postnatal depression is coming to terms with that loss and finding a way into an identity again, reconstructing the self, reconfiguring, transforming, reinventing. Oddly enough, it is something I have always done, something I am supposed to be used to, but it has never been so brutally or forcibly thrust upon me before. Well tough shit. Had I forgotten once again that life owes us fuck all? Suck it up and get on with it, Jenny.
So far it’s as if all of this were only about me, but of course it’s not, because there is this baby, this little boy, who I am bound to – there he is in the midst of all these words – moody, warm, wilful, spectacular, and so alive. And inside him, and all around him – an invisible swaddle – is the indescribable love I feel for him, the love he has been created with. For as much as the post natal depression is about the conditions set into motion by Ziev’s entry into existence, it is, at least from my perspective, equally to do with the world around him, the world and lifestyle I lived in until he was born.
‘Ziev’ (pronounced Zeeve) is a Hebrew name meaning ‘brightness’ or ‘aura’. Every time I think of him I see again the image imprinted on my mind at the moment of his birth: a small, bright, strong creature, sleeping and still, surrounded by a galaxy in chaos, a dark, peppered furore. The postnatal depression is just another element of the chaos, a chaos in itself, contributing to the mass of disorder that surrounds a sleeping infant, frighteningly fragile, and all-powerful.
I am angry, and anxious, resentful, bitter, and jealous, but I would not change a thing about Ziev, and I would not trade in anything or take back a single thing if it meant trading him in. I want him; he’s mine. And besides, I have gone through too much to not love him, I have gone through too much to warrant giving him anything but the best; he is so very present; there is no turning back. I’ve felt like I was fading, like Marty McFly’s siblings in that photo in Back to the Future, and I have to remember that I am also present. I know what I have to do. I have to come to terms with what I have lost, with what we have done, and I have to reinvent my self again; that’s all. Some women have to deal with a lot worse than that.
There is far too much secrecy, far too much evasiveness, about what it really entails to have a baby. Not that I blame women who are vague, or allusive, I do understand: there is a need to cling to any remaining strands of the dignity afforded by coyness, having been through an experience that strips you of all privacy.
But by the time I was through with the pregnancy, birth and immediate post natal period, I’d lost count of the number of people who’d poked about my bits. There were times in hospital where it seemed like every passing member of staff wanted a gander. I don’t even know who half of them were or what half of them did. I was in such a daze, so spaced out, and so quickly conditioned to the position of surrender you adopt in hospital, by the time I was discharged, I’d have probably shown the postman my wounds if he’d asked. So sod dignity, I have so little of it left anyway, and sod coyness; it only serves to shroud in mystery what really goes on during pregnancy and birth. So here’s what happened to me laid out on the delivery table for all to see. Fuck it; I’ll take one for the team.