It all started when I went searching for a breastfeeding photo
To celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, I cheerily started searching for a photo of me breastfeeding one of my babies, there were bound to be dozens to choose from; raw and emotional first feeds in the birth pool, tender and snuggly bonding moments, funny and silly toddlers feeding upside-down while driving a matchbox car over my boob mountain, super-mum feeds with a newborn in the front sling and a toddler on my back pushing a trolley loaded with kids and groceries, after all, this has been my life for nearly a decade.
Not one. Not a single photo.
Why? I desperately asked myself, why have none of these precious times been captured?
I did find this picture, a tired yet blissed-out me and our firstborn, equally blissed-out daughter after first arriving home only days into this parenthood journey. What did that fresh-faced and slightly bewildered young me have ahead of her?
I thought back to the beginning of my motherhood story, pregnant with our first child, I educated myself about pregnancy and birth but weirdly I didn’t even think about feeding. I had grown up surrounded by my mum, aunts and family friends all breastfeeding. My grandmother was a midwife and despite raising her own children through the formula push of the 60’s and 70’s, breastfed them all. Mum was a member of the Australian Breastfeeding Association and she was always comfortable feeding my younger brother in public, I remember her saying that she wouldn’t eat her lunch in the Woollies toilets, so why should her baby? I was raised in a community where breastfeeding was normalised, so that was my normal.
After her decision to arrive Earthside much earlier than expected and throwing a whole box of spanners into my ideas of how her birth would go, a few weeks in we were going well. My milk just fell into her mouth without her really having to do anything and she slept all the time. Easy peasy right? After a while it was apparent that things were not as great as I thought. Cue that horrible, heartbreaking term “failure to thrive.” The one job I had on the planet, make my baby thrive, and I was officially failing at it.
Then it was months of round the clock pumping, tongue tie correction, supplements, mastitis, cracked and bleeding nipples, syringe feeding, supply lines and supplementing with formula. I expressed milk for her until she was 10 months old and only a few months away from giving birth again.
Our son was born sweetly at home, fed like a champion with a textbook latch and things should have been perfect, after the stress and exhaustion of my first experience, this was a dream. I was sledgehammered by post natal depression and most of that year is just a hazy joyless blur.
I was prepared and excited to tandem feed as we awaited the arrival of our next babe and my hungry toddler still fed several times a day. Two weeks before her birth he suddenly self-weaned, telling me my milk wasn’t yummy anymore. The hormonal changes obviously weren’t to his liking!
Another daughter with tongue and lip ties meant we were back in the awful “failure to thrive” territory again. Coupled with a mystery spinal infection and massive antibiotic reactions left her tiny system so ravaged that she suffered from malabsorption, she was unable to extract nutrients from anything other than breast milk, formula was not an option this time. Our household moved to the rhythm of the good old Medela industrial breast pump once again. Out came the supply lines, syringes and other paraphernalia that I thought we’d never have to use again. We made 800km round trips to meet the courier truck, collecting the liquid gold of donated breast milk from the Mother’s Milk Bank and I would weep at the litres of nourishment our baby girl was gifted by these incredible anonymous women. My own breasts were engorged with milk but expressing just wasn’t the same as a suckling baby for getting that milk out.
I tried to get our son to feed again to help get things going but his horrified face when I attempted to latch him on and his cries of “Mummy what are you doing with me?” was a traumatic moment for all involved! Only 8 weeks previously it seemed like he was swinging off my boobs constantly but I guess it’s a long time in the life of a 1 year old! My own diet had to be restricted considerably to eliminate all the triggers for our little girl’s allergies caused by her shattered immune system. Brown rice, a couple of fruits and veges and a tiny bit of chicken were the only things that wouldn’t cause her immediate pain and discomfort. Our beautiful girl’s skin was covered in a painful, blistering rash which would then peel away, looking like dreadful burns all across her newborn body. People would peer eagerly into the sling then recoil away in horror, “What’s wrong with her face?” was the recurring comment which broke my heart every time. With a lot of gut healing, strictly avoiding triggers and many other therapies, by the time she was 3 dairy was her only allergy. Since staring to milk our own cow, we have since discovered that raw milk is fine!
Once again I was getting excited to tandem feed, as we had another bub on the way and she still fed a lot due to her shaky nutritional start. We usually only have one scan per pregnancy, at 18-20 weeks, so when I began miscarrying at 14 weeks I had no idea that I was carrying twins. That night we experienced the emotional rollercoaster of thinking we’d lost our baby, to discovering we still had one very tough little bub hanging on for life, while beginning the grieving process for our angel.
The rest of the pregnancy was termed a “threatened miscarriage” and our little one was not expected to make it until term. I knew he would. I loved him in. I repeated “I love you baby” over and over like a bittersweet mantra. I was sad and angry and happy and grateful all at once. I didn’t want a blessingway. I didn’t want people. I didn’t have the pretty birthing aromatherapy mists or candles that I’d had for my other births. His birth was raw and emotional and on the bathroom floor. On the final push I roared “I love you baby” and he was finally safe in my arms and onto my breast. But I have two arms. And two breasts. And the joy and bliss of having my new baby boy on one side only made the emptiness on the other side more apparent.
I soaked up every minute of him. There were no major breastfeeding problems. No post natal depression. We decided he would be our last baby. I thought I would feed him for several years. Just after his first birthday he began telling me that one boob was the yummy boob and one boob was the yucky one. I was feeling pretty flat and under a lot of stress too. He eventually would only feed from one side and I discovered that there were some serious breast health issues to sort out immediately. After an intense period of healing, lifestyle changes and recovery it was all back to our kind of normal and our little man chose to end our breastfeeding time just after his second birthday.
The Universe sometimes has plans that differ a little from our own, after a lot of mysterious weirdness (which is way too long for this story) we found out that our family will be growing once more. Two souls came to me and I knew that I was pregnant with twins again. Very early on though, one of them came to me repeatedly in dreams to say he would not be staying. So I was not surprised to see two little specks on the ultrasound screen and I was also prepared to only see one little bub a couple of months later. Vanishing Twin Syndrome. I was at peace this time. I was, and am still, sad of course but it feels very different. I well up at every twin photo that Instagram thinks I need to see, especially the breastfeeding ones. I know I would have nailed feeding twins.
I sat back, teary after recollecting the long and bumpy road my boobs and I have been on and realising that it’s no wonder there are no photos to document the whole process, most of the time I could barely remember my name! I do feel blessed that I have one more shot to get a breastfeeding photo, a very unimportant thing in the big scheme of worldwide issues, but important to me nonetheless.
This journey has stripped away any judgement the new mum me in the photo had, it made me stronger, braver and fiercely protective of my children. I have learned what my body is capable of and I have learned to forgive myself when it’s not capable of everything. I sincerely thank my family for their support and the wonderful Sue Barford, legendary lactation consultant and a gentle and compassionate person as well.