It all started with a dream. A dream that remains both profound and lucid even now, some six years after it came to me one wintry night. This dream changed my life forever.
I’d never wanted to be a mother. It scared me half to death thinking about the weight of responsibility, the burden of a child on our DINK-y lifestyle, the fear of losing my career (or the impossibility of scheduling or affording time off to have the baby). And as for the physical pain of childbirth, imagining that was like a tidal wave of terror.
But the dream changed everything. All those protestations, those long discussions with my partner, those reservations – vanished overnight.
It was a dream of lying in bed, breastfeeding a baby. The feelings of tenderness and complete harmony with another soul remain palpable even now.
Gradually, I began to change my answer to the inevitable onslaught of questions thrust at any woman over the age of twenty who is married or partnered-up.
“Are you planning to have children?”
I started to say “maybe” instead of “no, we’re not interested.” It didn’t go unnoticed by some because, although a mild, non-committal response, it was a radical departure from my previous stance on parenthood. It took me six months to find a suitable, maternity-leave-paying government position so I could wind up my own business. (No time off, much less paid maternity leave was possible there!) A year later, by now in my mid-thirties, we’d saved some money and my body clock was ticking so loudly I was sure even my boss could hear it.
I did everything right. For a year, I exercised daily at dawn. I started taking folate and went off the pill three months before the start of our conception timeframe. I even planned the baby’s star sign.
And then, only one month after first ‘trying’, it happened. I was pregnant and ecstatic, although I found it hard to believe it could have been so easy.
That nine months was the slowest in my life. Time dragged as only during childhood, when summers seemed to stretch forever. Finally the baby came, but not the way we planned it. His birth was about as far from non-interventionist as possible – but he was healthy and beautiful and totally present.
I was determined to breastfeed him. My own mother had been similarly determined in an era when babies were removed to sleep in a nursery and bottle-fed. If mothers asked to breastfeed, it was limited to a strict four-hourly routine with the babies forcibly removed once their allotted twenty minutes were up.
Because of the complications from my emergency caesarean section, I couldn’t even hold him for the first twenty-four hours. When I awoke from a drug-induced comatose state, the first thing I wanted was my baby: to behold his wondrous body, caress him and offer him my breast.
But breastfeeding didn’t come easily to me. The nurses gave me conflicting advice and tried to force my nipple into his mouth. The pain was excruciating and I’ve heard some women say it is worse than labour.
On that first day, my baby drew blood. By the time the sun was setting – oblivious to my raw, jolting agony and my body’s total shock of major surgery – my nipples were bruised, cracked and so tender I couldn’t bear to have him touch me.
I was forced to express milk on a ‘milking machine’ in the early hours. Despite the discomfort, I wasn’t giving in. I was going to master it. My child would be breastfed –the dream was proof!
However, I needed a day or so of respite so I asked for some formula to give him, in addition to the small amounts of colostrum I was able to express. The hospital was pro-breastfeeding, so this didn’t go down well, but one look at the state of my breasts and the nurses agreed that I needed some time out.
My milk still hadn’t ‘come in’. I was waiting for the feeling of engorgement, hoping that it would change everything and suddenly I’d know what to do and so would my baby. I was tired of hearing that it was a learning curve for both of us. I hadn’t slept more than three consecutive hours in a week. I could barely stand. My body was racked with pain. I just wanted to be able to care for my baby – and to me, that meant being able to breastfeed. I asked to extend my time in hospital by a day.
The turning point came on my last evening there. I still needed the pillow props, assistance from the nurse and a large dose of patience – and it still hurt – but there was no doubt we were both improving. He’d never had any doubts about breastfeeding; he wanted my milk and was determined enough to persevere.
It took me six weeks to learn to breastfeed without pain. For the first week at home, during the night feeds my husband sat with me for moral support, while tears ran down my face and I gritted my teeth. Gradually it changed. From the visiting lactation consultant, I learned more about properly attaching my baby and how to breastfeed in different positions, so I wasn’t locked into using the kitchen table padded with pillows.
From there it was plain sailing. Better than that, it was a time of shared joy, of drinking in every detail of him while he guzzled in an ecstasy of closeness and fulfilment. Hours spent holding him at my breast or dozing in bed while he drank, cocooned in warmth against my skin. Mornings where we’d both fall asleep again and I’d wake at his snuffling around my nipple.
Twenty-two months of bliss. He weaned himself and I was content that it was his choice. And now, four years later with my second child, I am revelling in that same special closeness, the unique bond between us that breastfeeding brings. Our days begin and end together, skin to skin.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem