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Kittens and Butterflies and Breastfeeding

Posted on: Thursday, 5 February 2015

You might be forgiven for thinking after that last post that having a baby was all kittens and butterflies. Um, it wasn't.

And so to the tough aftermath I alluded to. Man, having a baby is hard. It demanded a total readjustment of the way I thought. It reminded me of doing the Coast to Coast (well, a bit of it) last summer and having to have a word with myself about the fact that all I had to do every day was walk. That was it. After a busy summer term at work my mind struggled with that comedown from firing on all cylinders (IB MADNESS! BOOK WEEK! SCHOOL MAGAZINE!)' to 'Oooo....pretty mountain...and another...and another...' And in those crazy early days after five weeks of babyless maternity leave, I needed to have a similar mental pep talk with myself, i.e. "ALL YOU HAVE TO DO TODAY IS LOOK AFTER A BABY." That's it. Anything else achieved - reading a page of that heavy grief memoir, a shower, standing up for a period longer than five minutes - is a bonus.

And so to Belgian hospitals, which are feckin marvellous in my humble opinion. OK, there were a few weird bits (the leg massage from the physio the day after giving birth was a touch awkward, and the baby photoshoot on the day we went home - "Does 'ee 'av a leetle teddy? Does 'ee 'av a pyjama weeth a leetle beet of colour?"- was on another level of surreal Belgian comedy). But I also remember looking at the clock 12 hours after delivery thinking 'If I was in the UK, I'd be home by now.' Sobering stuff. I mean, I didn't feel dreadful but by God I didn't exactly feel wonderful either and the thought of going home and NOT having a big red shiny button to press to summon a jolly trilingual midwife wasn't a particularly pleasant one.

Because breastfeeding? Jesus, of all the hard things in the world (PhDs in Chemical Engineering, understanding income tax, scrubbing dried-on porridge offov a bowl)  it was the hardest man. Even with the phalanx of midwives and the big red shiny button. Too hard, as it turns out. Big baby = super-hungry baby, and that + a tongue tie + conflicting advice from midwives + there-are-different-types-of-NIPPLES-in-this-world?! shock revelation + mastitis + 40 degree fever + antibiotics depleting my already crappy milk supply (see 'conflicting advice from midwives' for further details) = no more BF for me. I've made my peace with it I suppose, although I would like to say to those over-ardent Advocates Of Breastfeeding that every time you cheerily say, 'Well, never mind, you can always try again with the next one!' to a woman who's given up with a heavy heart all she hears for the BILLIONTH time is 'Breast is best!' And, actually, she doesn't have to look very far for that message - it's projected from every parenting manual and every desperate Google search that the aforementioned poor sod of a mother is scouring at 3 o'clock in the morning for some kind of reassurance that formula isn't going to turn her baby into an obese allergy-ridden dolt while the aforementioned hangry (not a typo) baby screams and screams. What might be more sensitive is, 'Formula is fine, you know. It's not poison. It exists for women who choose not to breastfeed, but also for those like yourself who struggle with feeding, or who have to go back to work very quickly or have a baby with a medical issue.' Or 'You managed x days/weeks/months with a hell of a lot of obstacles  - bravo.' Or something. THAT'S the message she's struggling to find in a book or on an online forum and could really do with hearing.*

Or perhaps I was just so miserable and hormonal and therefore so prone to taking massive offence that nothing anyone said would have suited me.

ANYHOO. Onwards and upwards. 'Life is a roller coaster,' as a wise man once mused, 'just gotta ride it.' Baby update, yeah? Well, apologies to the women of the world, but I Got The Best Baby. And now that he's smiling, oh, my heart is BURSTING every time I wake him up (and he smiles!) or put him down to sleep (and he smiles!) or I shove my face into his and sing a stupid song about his burps (and he smiles!) And when he looks across at us through the bars of his cot with a little dribble of milky sick escaping from one side of his mouth and I reach out to wipe it I feel like I've uncovered the Meaning of Life. It's this. This is what it's All About.

And I can't decide whether I should laugh or weep a little bit. This is what parenthood has done to me (and, to a lesser extent, Adam, although he still has to function at work and think about things other than baby vomit like, umm, electronic sheep tagging). I'm losing my mind over baby vomit and sending him photos with comments verging on 'OMG he is SOOO SUPER-GORGE look at his ICKLE FACE! LOLZ' Jesus.

OK, a tiny bit more of babybabybaby and then I'll rein it in (for a bit). As well as smiling and sleeping like a pro he's growing like a beaut. Since he was tinywee old women of Belgium were peering into the pram to compliment him and saying things like, 'Il est trop mignon!' (oui, oui, merci!) and then 'Trois mois?' Err, non. When he was born he was like a skinned rabbit (even though then people were still saying 'he's HUGE') whereas now he IS actually huge, like a seal pup - all lovely big eyes and lashes and ponderous weight. Oh, his thighs. His little wrists. His fat hamster cheeks.

To. Die. For.

Now that the feeding issue is sorted and I can take him places (as opposed to sitting stripped to the waist in my front room with the lights down low and Elliott Smith playing wanting to die - is listening to Elliott Smith and wanting to die actually the same thing?) we've been travelling all over fair Bruxelles. We've been into school to show him off. We've been to cafes and parks. We've run the gauntlet of teeth-sucking harridan disapproval in Pain Quotidien. The other day I took him to Zara and managed to TRY ON and then BUY some clothes which was rather exciting. I also took him to the physiotherapist (who was very nice if a bit stern and said that she could tell my abdominal muscles were still 1cm separated - what voodoo is this? All she did was feel my gut for a nanosecond! - and I should NOT be running yet, oopsy) and he charmed the pants off everyone in the waiting room.

And to wrap up here is a darkly funny photo I took in the hospital on my way to the physio room:

Full marks for forward planning, that architect.

I'll try not to become a massive baby bore (try - can't promise owt). Back soon to bang on about some stuff what I have read (possibly) and my new pink coat (definitely).

* Disclaimer: I did get that message, eventually, from a couple of lovely souls who very generously offered up their time and expertise to speak to me at length and tell me repeatedly that Everything Was Going To Be OK. Big love, people. 

Having a Baby - Part 2

Posted on: Friday, 30 January 2015

I suddenly need to know everyone’s name - I’m ready to shake hands and kiss people and write thank you notes. The anaesthetist is already out the door but I ask the midwife what she’s called anyway. ‘Tell her thank you!’ I say, dizzy with joy. ‘Really, you must tell her thank you. Tell her I said THANK YOU SO MUCH.’ Everyone’s smirking yet I’m completely earnest. God, I feel amazing! Totally AMAZING! Look at me - painfree, contracting like a boss, teeth chattering, arms and legs shaking, shaking quite a bit actually - Jesus, hang on, am I having some kind of fit, is this normal, FFS…?

Totally normal,’ says the midwife. Ah, OK. Best find something new to worry about. ’Will the drugs wear off?’ I ask anxiously. ‘No,’ she says, busying herself with buttons and drips and clips. I have a peculiar need to Be In Charge despite clearly being in a situation where I am most definitely Not In Charge. ‘Are you sure? What if I labour for 24 hours? Do I need to warn you when the bag looks low?’ ’No,’ she says. ‘Your baby will be here before I finish at seven.’ It’s perhaps 1am. Woah. 6 hours tops. Countdown. 

Now that I’m no longer completely absorbed by pain every few minutes I can take in the room properly for the first time. There’s a stainless steel lamp the size of a dustbin lid fixed to the wall with an anglepoise arm.  Directly opposite the bed there’s a changing station with an overhead heat strip and monitoring equipment where the baby will be checked after it’s born; clean towels folded, a quiet altar, waiting. A red LED flickers like a sanctuary candle. Everything’s so quiet and still. It’s also, I suddenly realise, horrifically hot. Adam tries to open a window but they’re nailed shut. He’s gutted. “Change into your pyjama bottoms,” I tell him with sudden clarity. Minutes ago I couldn’t speak, never mind suggest sensible courses of action such as changing into cool cotton pants. Hmm. Interesting.

I have what I think is a Deeply Profound Thought about some women being intimidated by an overly medicalised environment, hence all the focus in the antenatal class on doing things naturally and challenging all suggested medical interventions; however, I am a Completely Different Kettle Of Fish and find all of the equipment and drugs the most reassuring thing in the world. I tell Adam about this Deeply Profound Thought. He finds it less profound. In fact, now that the ‘Oh my God, this pain is HORRIFIC’ panic is over, he’s trying to go to sleep on the floor. 

Zainab - the healthcare assistant, we’re all on first-name terms now - wheels in a fold-out bed and Adam lies down. The ‘relaxed’ playlist I composed in a panic in the days before my due date (and totally ignored until now) purrs in the background. ‘Do you have children?’ I ask Zainab dreamily. My right leg, dull and fizzy, keeps slipping off the bed and she lifts it gently back onto the mattress. I’m not so out of it that I’m not a little bit embarrassed by the hole in my sock. ‘No,’ she says, and her smile implies ‘As if!’ Instead though she says, ‘I’m only twenty.’

And so we lie there talking until Adam drifts off to sleep. I could be pissed off, but actually it’s lovely to lie there quietly for an hour or so, thinking about the pulsing in my stomach and my body doing what it needs to do and the baby on its way. I can’t remember the last time I lay down, listening to music, thinking, doing nothing else with no distractions - I can heartily recommend it. I’m thinking about us and the baby, unsurprisingly - no great epiphanies, just vague drifting thoughts, and it’s deeply pleasant albeit in the most pedestrian of ways. 

Midwife Adele (see, we’re practically best friends) and Zainab appear and disappear at intervals. Zainab, then Adele, then Zainab, then Adele again. She still smells of cigarettes. Night shift sucks, eh? She scrutinises the machine and whatever’s happening down there and then she speaks. 

‘OK, I think we start to push soon.’ She looks at the clock. ‘Around 4:30, yes?’ 


Adele is required to shift into super-patient, super-reassuring mode again. Yes, there will definitely be a feeling despite the epidural. No, it won’t hurt. It’ll feel a bit like needing the toilet. Yes, there will be a doctor, he’s on his way. 

Nothing happens for five, ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Adele has disappeared. She’s wrong, I think. Nothing to see here, no urge to push, categorically nothing. Almost simultaneously I feel a bearing down; a sort of painless pressure. Bloody hell. Shall I? There’s only me and Adam in the room. I push, tentatively, feeling like a naughty schoolgirl about to be caught out at any minute. The sensation returns minutes later, and I push again. 

A doctor breezes in - not my doctor, but a man - removes his coat and rolls up his sleeves. Literally. I don’t think to ask where my doctor - cheerful Dr Inge with the jazzy shoes - is. ‘So we are pushing?’ Um, yes. We seem to be. Suddenly the room seems very busy, what with the doctor, his assistant, Adele and Zainab and Adam and me. The bed has been hoisted up and the doctors sit on stools. Adele and Zainab hover in the background. 

Things are speeding up. Push. Don’t push. One big long push now. Little pushes. Pushpushpushpushpushpuuuush. And rest. It’s like you see on the TV but there’s no pain, making me feel like I’m an actress in a crappy daytime soap. I’ve got no idea how hard I’m pushing on account of not being able to feel anything. Everyone seems pleased with my efforts, mind, so I can’t be doing too badly, I rationalise.

After what seems like a ludicrously short space of time someone announces that they can see the head. Oh God, this is actually happening. Empty cliche alert: I can’t believe it. But I actually CAN’T believe it. Apparently it has hair. Then the head is out. Oh God. It feels like I’ve been doing this for fifteen minutes. It’s actually been forty. Still, ridiculous. I can’t believe it. THE BABY’S HEAD IS THERE.

Zainab is suddenly at my shoulder, tugging at my gown. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask, thinking OK, I liked you, but now you’re violating me. ‘You will want skin to skin, yes?’ she says. What? I can’t believe we’re so close to the baby being born. ‘Is it ready?’ I ask, which makes everyone laugh, like he’s a microwave meal.

And then it happens. 

‘Ooooh!’ cries everyone, collectively. 

He’s hot and hollering and livid on my chest. I’m not sure how he got there. I say ‘he’ - I knew he was a boy before we even thought to check. 

‘Oh my God!’ I say. I say very little else for the next five minutes. ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!’

It’s 5:30am and I’ve just had a baby and I feel like a bloody champion.  

(all the hard stuff came later)

Having a Baby - Part I

Posted on: Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Because another birth story is just what the internet needs, yeah?


It’s 11:15pm when Adam calls the taxi. The taxi driver looks from our bags to my belly. “C’est un cas d’urgence?” Oui. St Elisabeth, s’il vous plait. Vite. I knew it would happen at night.

It’s taken three hours of puffing, panting, standing up, sitting down, a phone call to the labour ward (“Maybee ‘av a bath, no?” Maybe feck off with your fecking bath), burying my face in the duvet and a TENS machine ribbitting away uselessly on my back for me to concede that This Is It. But as the driver hits what feels like every speed bump and red light between Woluwe St Pierre and Uccle, fear rises. What if it isn’t? What if they laugh in my face? Go home, little girl. And when real labour hits it’s going to hunt you down like a DAWG. 

We arrive at the emergency exit, the normal entrance for women in labour arriving after 8pm, which is pretty grim despite St Elisabeth’s fancy private hospital credentials. Plastic chairs, scuffed walls, a mother hushing a toddler wrapped in a blanket, two policemen and a German Shepherd, a vending machine. My panting and gurning gets us to the front of the queue and we’re directed to the second floor. The midwife - the one I’ve spoken to, the one who suggested a bath - is younger than me, has beautiful cheekbones and smells faintly of cigarettes. I want to say this to Adam - ‘She smells of fags!’ - but can’t - a contraction gets in the way. I’m instructed to pee and strip in that order; then she straps me to a monitoring device and leaves the room. The machine tracks the baby’s heart rate but as a contraction rises I have to - categorically MUST DO THIS RIGHT NOW - get up and move around. An alarm sounds and the midwife reappears, panicked. I try to say sorry (not sorry) but find I can’t speak. In fact, I can’t do very much at all; I can’t focus on anything other than squaring up to the wave of pain heading my way. And yet it isn’t frightening or even, strictly speaking, painful - it’s intense, I suppose, and absorbing rather than simply ‘painful’, which suggests something trivial and day-to-day like, oo, stepping on an upturned plug.  Adam tries to talk to me but I can only put my finger to my lips. Ssh, stop, don’t you know that my head is FULL OF CONTRACTION? I live inside it for a full minute; then it ebbs and I spend the next four or so preparing myself to meet it again. I bury my face in the mattress and my knees tremble. The pain is the only thing in the room; it's the only thing that matters. 

Somehow, despite my cavorting, the midwife manages to examine me. “Seven centimetres,” she announces, smiling. “I suppose we’ll let you stay.” A stab of triumph: this IS it. Oh yes. Oh Jesus. 

And so there is a decision to be made. “Would you like an epidural?”* Yes, I say, and afterwards I’ll laugh at the decision made just like that after all the antenatal hours (mis?)spent reading and researching and discussing. I’m not desperate, mind, but I think a shot in the spine right now would be very nice, very nice indeed. I’m just starting to feel a bit mad, a bit like I’m losing control, and that is not a happy place to be. Again afterwards, I’ll describe it as feeling like an animal, although I’m not exactly sure why - maybe because I couldn't talk, was reduced to mute desperation? Or maybe because the pacing up and down reminded me of when our family dog went old and senile and wandered around the house shaking and staring at skirting boards? 

When a midwife asked my friend how she felt as she approached delivery she replied, 'Like I've got a wardrobe between my legs.' It was the biggest thing she could think of, she said. And that’s how I felt - like an old, senile Jack Russell. Does that make sense? Probably not. Childbirth brings about some interesting analogies is my point. 

And then comes the crushing blow, just as I’m envisaging a seamless transition from pre-epidural on-the-edgeness to post-epidural serenity and I’m mentally patting myself on the back for having this giving birth thing totally sussed, the midwife speaks. “OK,” she says, still smelling of fags, still young and beautifully-cheekboned. “I’ll call the anaesthetist. She’ll be half an hour.”

Oh. OK. I had visions of her sitting in the corridor, masked up, needle in hand, awaiting my feverish call. How stupid, I think, of course she isn’t, it’s after midnight, it’s a tiny maternity unit and I’m the only woman giving birth tonight. Half an hour, right. 

I do the maths. Seven contractions? Eight? Oh God.  

And so this was the part of labour which really wasn’t All That Pleasant. HoooEeeee. Hoo hoo hoo eeeeee. Everything's gone a bit blurry. Please live nearby, I think, and please hurry. Please, please, please don’t have a cup of tea before you leave home. Please don’t have a car accident and please let the lift be on the ground floor when you arrive.

In the end, she only takes 20 minutes, although I’ve been acutely aware of every single one. She breezes into the room, smelling of the cold. She speaks in French to the midwives but she’s too quick and accented for me to understand. A blue paper screen is stuck to my back and I hold Adam’s hands. He looks anxious but I’m not worried; I just want it done before the next contraction hits. HURRY UP. There’s fumbling and some comment about my skin. Another attempt to get it in, then another. Adam says afterwards that there’s a lot of blood but thinking about it, it was probably iodine, wasn’t it? Then she speaks in English, leaning over my shoulder. “Do you ‘av a special feeling in your leg?” she asks. Eh? Special feeling? “Do you ‘AV a special FEELING in your leg?” What are you talking about? I feel like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation when the escort commands him to “lip" her stocking. Lip? Special feeling? And then it hits, third time lucky, the ahhh Bisto moment, and my legs fizz (special feeling!) and I watch the numbers rise on the monitor. Contraction coming. I brace myself. Can’t feel a thing.


* in Belgium, there is no gas and air. No pethidine. It's all - epidural - or nothing. Hardcore. 

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