Nothing can prepare you for waking up in the soft, glowy morning after having your first child—that one in the little plastic-walled bassinet next to your bed, wrapped up like an angelic bug in a hospital baby blanket—to the brick-wall reality that you are definitely already doing everything wrong.
On demand feeding means you feed the baby whenever they want it. You are supposed to learn their cues—open mouth, moving arms, turning head—so you know they’re hungry before they actually start crying. Apparently, I was useless at it.
This is the early stages of motherhood. Is the baby okay? Why’d they do that? Are you bad at everything? All the advice seems contradictory and confusing, but maybe it isn’t and comprehending basic instructions is beyond you because you’re too physically and emotionally messed up from staying up all night in agony, pain meds, having your genitals cut open and stitched back together, losing 1.3L of blood, being pooed on by the small squidgy human you went through all this for, coming down off pregnancy hormones and going back up on breastfeeding hormones? Did you just pee your disposable blood-soaked undies a little bit?
Who knows. Certainly not me. But the stakes are high.
The first few days of breastfeeding were awful. I couldn’t get the position right, my baby struggled to latch, when she did latch it hurt like her tongue was covered in needles, and she wouldn’t stay on very long.
All that was before my milk came in. To begin with, you only make something called colostrum. There isn’t much of it, and it’s just to keep the baby going until approximately day three when your body starts pumping out the real deal. The transition involves a tsunami of hormones that make you weepy and anxious, turn your breasts to a mass of engorged lumpy nightmare, and roast you like a big sweaty chicken.
For me, the first wave was pure anxiety.
Later, the depression hit. In a twist surprising no one, I was flagged early on as high risk for post partum depression (previous history of both anxiety and depression, previous pregnancy losses and pregnancy related trauma, life upheaval during pregnancy which I haven’t talked about here but essentially my little family was stuck with only my patreon income (lol) for five months but it turned out fine don’t stress, etc, etc).
It was the weirdest bout of depression I ever experienced, because I was happy too. My life was exactly what I wanted it to be, and I truly and honestly felt amazing about that and so lucky. I had no trouble bonding with my daughter, who was and is still the most wonderful, fascinating thing on the planet and probably off the planet too. But simultaneously I felt worthless and hopeless and I would just walk around dripping tears like a sopping dishcloth. It wasn’t a ‘I should be happy but I’m not so I feel guilty’. I legitimately was happy. Just also broken.
And breastfeeding affected me in the weirdest ways. You’re supposed to get a surge of oxytocin with it that makes you relaxed and happy, and I definitely got that later on when it all settled down, but for the first couple of months anytime I breastfed my insides would drop away and I would fall into this grey canyon of empty darkness.
This is all to say, hormones are weird, man.
And, disclaimer, I absolutely got help. Like I said, I’ve had mental health problems in the past and knew this was likely to be a rough time for me. I pre-emptively set myself up in therapy and the moment things started going wonky I went to my GP and we sorted out medication we knew from previous experience would help me. I already had a playlist of things to do when it all went to hell—start small, music, company, walks, TELL SOMEONE etc, etc—that I immediately activated.
The great thing about having had depression for most of my life is that I have had lots of practice implementing those things even when getting out of bed feels like too much effort.
Because I lost all that blood after giving birth, I had to stay in the hospital a few days, and in hospital we hadn’t been allowed many visitors thanks to the great panini, so the day we went home all the new grandparents came over. My parents very kindly and with amusement brough a large cabbage, which is supposed to help with breast discomfort somehow.
I remember going to the bedroom to feed the baby, and just being caps lock DONE. My partner came in, and I told him the baby had finished and could go out to see people again, but I would not be. I informed him that I would be lurking in bed with our big, chunky lunchbox icepack shoved down my sweaty, miserable cleavage and with cabbage leaves layered in my suddenly-too-small bra like the seashell cups of some sort of farty-bathwater mermaid.
He said fair enough, and he took the baby to distract the guests.
I lurked as described, and wept for no reason.
I couldn’t work out why I felt so awful, other than everything was awful. Bleeding, stitched, anaemic, exhausted, sore, lumpy, sweaty, leaky, shivery, and cabbaged.
The concept of an equal partnership in child-rearing is lovely in theory. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of it both in theory and in practice. It’s just that there are some areas that are impossible to split. E.g., pregnancy. If you don’t have the bits for it, you can’t help much there. And even if you do both have the bits for it, it’s not like you can switch partway through and do half each. Same with breastfeeding.
If you’re the partner, you do still have a job. You’re the Sam Gamee of this breastfeeding quest. The breastfeeder is Frodo. The baby is the one ring to rule them all. Your job description is that bit near the end where Frodo is caps lock DONE and Sam is all ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you’ and then picks Frodo up and carries him and the ring together up the volcano.
Just stop the analogy before Gollum jumps out and starts biting off fingers and they chuck the baby in the lava.
You are in charge of bring heat packs and cold packs as required, keeping the feeder hydrated and fed, changing the baby, general garden maintenance … and hypothermia prevention.
Turns out some of why I was feeling so absolutely dreadful and shivery was that I had managed to ridiculous myself halfway to dying of exposure while in bed wrapped in a doona.
Boobs: 1. Lucy: 0.