Who knew it would be so hard? Every article I read on breast feeding was accompanied by a photo of a zen mother, meditating on world peace while her child suckled. Or a village women cultivating a paddy field, baby nestled to her breast peacefully.
So many competent women in the world, multi tasking while feeding their babe the most nourishing food source in the universe. Guaranteed to increase their IQ quota and lead to long, disease free lives.
My daughter knew I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Her tiny red face would scrunch up tight as her mouth searched for that elusive nipple. She screamed if she couldn’t latch on quickly. I scratched as my eczema flared up.
“Ah, you have a Porsche baby.” chortled one nurse “She goes from nought to ninety decibels in five seconds.”
I scratched as I pondered this statement. It seemed even my baby knew I was incompetent.
My barefoot, earth mother dream went crashing. Along with the candlelit, aromatherapy birth. No, I was stuck in the maternity ward of a major hospital, recovering from a caesarean and the million drugs administered to help deliver my daughter. I was cross, itchy and nervous.
My Italian mother oohed over Nina’s delicate features and fabulous lungs. “No, I couldn’t breast feed my babies either,” she pronounced “mia latte era cattivo.”
Translated: “My milk was bad.”
“It’s genetic,” I thought bleakly “my breasts are poison.” I never knew breastmilk came in two flavours: delicious or rancid.
“I’m sure it wasn’t mum,” I responded loyally “maybe you needed help like l do.”
Shake of elegant silver hair. “No, my milk was bad.”
I wondered if I was sufficiently recovered from my caesarean to throw my mother out the window. Just as a tension breaker.
“Drink a glass of wine a night,” advised a midwife “it’ll help relax you.”
“Make sure you stretch afterwards,” advised another “to ease tension.”
“Empty your breast thoroughly,” lectured another “you don’t want to get mastitis.”
No, I didn’t.
I went home. It was better to be incompetent in private, I decided.
Unfortunately, my mother knew my home address.
“Darling,” she announced during her first visit “I’ll cook for you.”
“Oh no, that’s ok mum,” I protested weakly “we’ll be fine.”
“No, I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
I rejoiced silently, as I knew my husband faced the same future my daughter did: starvation. I couldn’t feed anyone.
This was some sacrifice on my mother’s part. She had been diagnosed with leukaemia in the previous year and her energy levels were low already.
She and dad lived at Bankstown and I lived at Manly, an hour away. She would deliver the food in ice cream containers, filled with wonderful Croatian vegetable soup, slow cooked pasta sauce and parsley scented vegetable casseroles.
“You can heat it for Barrie’s dinner.”
“Thanks Mum, that’s brilliant.”
Little did she know, her dishes were eaten by Barrie and I, forks and plastic containers in hand, standing alongside the fridge late at night after Nina fell asleep. Worked for us.
Mum and I would sit in the sun room when she visited, on my small green and white striped sofa. Nina would attempt to suckle and I would attempt to relax, to ease the milk flow.
Nina suckled on gamely, undeterred by the occasional drop of blood from torn breast skin. Then something miraculous happened: a month passed! I had feed my daughter for a whole 28 days. What a clever woman I was!
“I feed you for a month,” my mother said softly to me “but my milk was bad.”
“Must’ve been hard mum, you and dad were alone in Sydney.”
“There was no one to talk to, I cried for my mama. In my village, the women would cook for the first six weeks, to help the new mother. I was alone.”
“Maybe your milk wasn’t bad,” I said “maybe you just needed someone to talk to and be with you during the day.”
She nodded and we sat in the sun quietly.
My mother cooked for me for seven weeks. We sat on the sofa and she told me more of her struggles. No friend to talk to, laugh or cry with. No loving mother to hold the baby when she needed a break. She reminisced and sometime during those seven weeks, her words changed.
No longer was her milk bad. She was lonely, tense and needed her family. Her babies missed her milk because she needed support.
I look back wistfully to that time. My daughter is ten years old now and her memories of her grandmother have faded.
One day, I’ll tell her this story. Of days spent on a faded sofa with my beloved mother and her gift to me. A gift no midwife or breast feeding consultant could give me.
For somehow during those seven weeks, my mother taught me how to breastfeed.
“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