When I was pregnant with Kitty there was not a doubt in my mind that I was going to breast feed for as long as possible.  I was certain of it.  I was convinced that it was the most natural thing in the world and the very best thing that I could do for her.  I had friends who told me that their supply hadn’t been up to the job but I had considered that to be more about confidence than biology.  Of course you had enough milk,  everyone can produce enough milk, how would we have survived if we didn’t?

Then something awful happened.  I didn’t make enough milk.

I had a long and difficult labour and birth.  My waters broke early,  I went into labour that night but it all stopped in the morning,  I didn’t have much appetite during that time and what I was able to eat came back up again just ahead of labour restarting in the evening.  By the morning,  my appetite had vanished.

I got to the hospital at 930 on a list to be induced.  The fact that I was pacing the corridor periodically moaning didn’t register until I lost my shit a bit and asked if I could at least have some pain relief, at that stage they finally realised that I didn’t need a doctor.  I needed a midwife.  Even then there was a wait.  Other maternity departments in the area had closed and they were overrun.  It was midday when I was finally assessed.  I was 8 cm dilated.  But that wasn’t the end of it.

Kitty was posterior and, as we learned when she came out,  wrapped shoulder to hip in the umbilical chord.  She wasn’t making progress.  They gave me drugs to speed things up and she still didn’t make progress.  Then they realised that my bladder was full and I couldn’t pee.  Somehow Kitty was blocking my bladder and my bladder was blocking her, once a catheter was fitted everything sped up no end.  Her weird positioning however meant that every time I had a contraction her blood pressure dropped.  They checked the blood for her scalp to see if she had been deprived of oxygen.  Thankfully she hadn’t but they were still very worried.

I tried very hard to make it through the last stages of a natural birth but her weird positioning meant that I had no urge to push, nothing.  I tried but the signals weren’t getting through, the right nerves weren’t being stimulated, I made a lot of noise and thought I was trying very hard but nothing happened.  I signed on the dotted line following a conversation I don’t remember and I was wheeled into surgery where I was given an epidural and an episiotomy and Kitty was pulled out with forceps.  That all happened quite quickly,  which is good because, if it hadn’t worked, I would have had a caesarian as well.  When she came out, she was drugged up with pethodin (the ‘pethodin effect’ they call it) and for a few moments, she didn’t breathe.  She was okay in the end though and I was okay and at the point when I was wheeled out of the delivery room, I was numb but happy.  It was, by that stage, coming up to 1100 o clock at night.  They offered me toast, which I dutifully ate, but I wasn’t hungry.

The thing is that when I haven’t eaten for a long time, I tend to lose the will to eat.  If I wake up and don’t eat breakfast, I can go for hours before I feel the need to eat anything at all.  It’s like the act of eating is what sparks off the desire to eat.  After 48 hours without food, I had no appetite at all.  I was also tired and caring for a newborn, I did eat but not much, and the upshot of all this was that my milk didn’t come in.  Days passed and nothing happened.  Kitty went from being a very contented little baby to one that cried most of the time. We called the midwives. They said it would come soon and not to worry.  After fours days my husband left me in bed at 2 am to get some rest and he went, without my knowledge, to the supermarket to buy some formula.

A few hours later, in the morning of day five. Kitty was weighed, she had dropped a big chunk of her body weight and we had to go to the hospital forthwith.  My milk had just started to come in on one side but there wasn’t much there.  We waited for hours in the paediatric ward while they ran tests.  My water breaking early meant that they were worried that Kitty had contracted an infection.  We were admitted.  I was now tired and stressed and really, really had no appetite.  The nurses tried to convince me to eat and I tried to oblige but there was just no will there.

In the mean time my stitches had become excessively painful. I struggled to walk or sit.  My maternity pads rubbed painfully on my swollen parts and lying down was the only way that I was comfortable.  After a day or so of being back in hospital, they checked out my stitches.  I had an infection.  They prescribed pre-emptive antibiotics waiting for the results of a swab.  Kitty turned out not to have an infection and in three days we were back home which was great.

Except, I wasn’t getting any better.  My infection continued to rage.  I was on the same antibiotics for two weeks without getting any better.  I knew that no one had checked my swab results.  I lost my shit again.  Someone checked them.  I was on the wrong antibiotics.  With the right prescription I started to get better but here’s the thing, between stress and tiredness and a raging infection I was significantly weakened.  My body didn’t have that much to give and, without much of an appetite, I wasn’t giving it much of a chance.  It could take me an hour to pump 2 or 3 ounces and that didn’t get any better.  The formula was vital.  I tried to keep up breast feeding along side of it and Kitty defied expectations by continuing to be receptive, until one day she gave up. She’d latch on but she just wasn’t getting what she needed, she’d break off after a few moments and cry.  Ultimately, I gave up.  I was devastated.

This is what I have learned about the whole Breast is Best thing.  Yes, it is the most natural thing in the world.  Yes, it is the food that evolved over millennia for babies to consume.  But no, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will have enough and that everything will be okay.  How did we survive?  Simple.  Sometimes we didn’t.  Mothers died in childbirth or of the infections that they picked up afterwards.  Babies failed to thrive.  A mother who was struggling would probably have been supported by others who had a more plentiful supply but the fact remains, birthing and parenting was never as safe and beautiful as we like to imagine these days.  It was brutal and mothers and babies died.

All the scientific or statistical evidence in the world that says that mothers who breast feed for years have smarter more successful children won’t change that.  All the pressure and all the guilt in the world won’t change that. Just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean that its just or fair or beautiful.  Nature is cruel and some of us don’t come out on the winning side.  Fortunately modern science helps us out.  It gives life to those who might have died, it helps us to thrive where we might have given up.  Nature might be better but science is your friend and it’s not capricious about who it helps.

I will have an open mind and an open attitude the next time.  Like all things related to pregnancy, birthing and parenting.  You don’t know what’s going to happen so the very best course is to go with the flow and make your choices as you go, adapting to what is thrown at you with a little help from your friendly neighbourhood scientist when and where appropriate.

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