Got Milk? Breastfeeding Part 1

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.

Three panels of a comic. In all, comic Lucy is in a hospital bed, a bassinet is next to her with a sleeping baby, a midwife has come in and turned the light on. First panel: comic Lucy is lying down, groggy, rubbing eyes. The midwife has a clipboard and is saying 'Wait, you let the baby sleep for 4 hours without a feed?'. Panel 2: Comic Lucy sits up, but still looks groggy, and says 'I guess? What's the time?'. Panel 3, The midwife makes a note on the clipboard and says 'Hmmm... today we will be learning to feed on demand.'

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.

First three panels of a comic. In all, Comic lucy sits on the edge of a bed holding a baby and is conversing with a midwife. First panel: comic Lucy says 'Doesn't that mean if she sleeps fo 4 hours without demanding a feed, I should let her?'. Panel 2: the midwife says 'No! They need feeding more often than that!' Panel 3: Lucy says "So...for next time... how long do I let her sleep before waking her for a feed?'
The comic continues. In the first panel, the midwife says 'You don't! There's no need to wake a healthy sleeping baby! She'll wake you when she needs a feed!' Panel 2, comic lucy says '...but ... what?'. Panel 3, the midwife says 'Clearly you need a lot of help'

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.

First three panels of a comic. In all panels, comic Lucy is sitting up in a hospital bed, a sleeping baby in a basinet beside her. A midwife stands in the open doorway. Panel one: comic lucy is grabbing her chest saying, says 'HELP I'M GETTING CANCER THERE ARE LUMPS EVERWHERE'. Panel 2, the midwife says 'It's 3am. Get some rest.' Panel 3, comic Lucy says 'I CAN'T I'LL MISS THE NEXT FEED'
The comic continues with three more panels with the same scene. In panel 1, the midwife says 'She'll wake you. Just sleep.' In panel 2, comic Lucy says 'NOW I MIGHT BE HAVING A HEART ATTACK?!?'. In panel 3, the midwife says 'No'
The comic continues with a final three panels. In panel one, the midwife is turning off the light and closing the door. Panel 2 is completely black. Panel 3 is completely black except for comic Lucy's panicking face drawn in white in the darkness.

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.

Take your meds and stay in therapy, kids

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.

Comic lucy prostrate in bed, semi wrapped in a blanket. Her chest is all over lumpy, with an ice back and cabbage leaves sticking out her shirt. Smells lines radiate from her. She looks very tired and stressed.

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.

Comic with three panels. In all, comic lucy is in bed, wrapped in a blanket, with cabbage leaves and and ice pack shoved down her front. Her partner stands nearby holding their peacefully sleeping baby. Panel one, comic Lucy says 'I don't know why I'm so cold.' Panel 2, her partner says 'uhh ... is that a huge ice-pack right against your heart'. Panel 3, comic lucy says '... is that wrong?'
Comic Lucy's partner supports her with one arm while holding the baby in the other. They are walking toward a steaming shower. Comic Lucy says 'This will be a funny story one day.' Her partner, who looks very unimpressed, says 'Hilarious. Get in the shower.'

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.


2 responses to “Got Milk? Breastfeeding Part 1”

  1. Erin of the Hills Avatar

    This is such a fantastic description of the postpartum and breastfeeding journey. While I didn’t have Postpartum Depression, I had Postpartum Anxiety with my first daughter and so had all my coping mechanisms in place this time around so I could be prepared. The visits can absolutely be overwhelming and the cluster feeding and the milk coming in and the disparity between advice and reality (i.e. don’t ever wake a sleeping baby but also don’t let them go 2 hours without eating…) is all so overwhelming.

    I’m currently dealing with either the stomach flu or food poisoning while being one month postpartum exclusively breastfeeding with a 3 year old to look after as well…it is NOT easy! Sending you so much love and I hope you’re doing well all things considered!

    Like

  2. Rebecca Wallick Avatar

    You’re a rock star, a beacon of honesty and truth about motherhood. I’ve not had a child, so can’t relate to most of your challenges, but being female, can imagine the hormonal swings (but for you, times 100 from what I experienced).

    Your cartoons and prose are, as always, delightful!

    Like

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