Back to the baby shiz. So there are some Big baby ishoos that people have asked me about, that I've been reluctant to talk about because they seem like the kind of things that Mummy Bloggers write about and I'm not one of those and if I write about those things then people I love will stop reading my blog and I'll be a Mummy Blogger and it will be terrible. But also because I didn't know how to write about them, things like sleep and weaning and (dear god above) breastfeeding. Those things that make parents want to die. And then someone I know whose wife has just had twins wrote to me to ask about breastfeeding and before I knew it I'd written back an epic and it turned out that maybe I had some things I needed to get off my chest and maybe some of those things might be helpful to other people struggling through the same stuff. (Or maybe not, I haven't heard back from Dan, I may have just pushed him and Clo over the edge.)
But just in case, here is a short tale of our adventures in breastfeeding....
Breastfeeding is a bitch, let's just get that out there straight away. Before the girls were born I knew I was going to breastfeed (well duh) and the only response I ever got to that from the many, many midwives I saw was a brief 'good' while they looked down and ticked the box on my notes labelled 'mother intends to breastfeed'. It was only after the girls were born and I'd been taking it for granted for NINE MONTHS that I would breastfeed them that anyone thought to tell me it might be hard or that the majority of twin mothers don't breastfeed exclusively or that the whole thing might make me sob uncontrollably
Amelia was taken away to NICU straight away after she was born as she was blue and wasn't breathing well. Normally when a single baby is taken to NICU their mother expresses milk and sends it up to the baba but that was never even suggested to me, probably because there was the small matter of another baby to feed and I'd lost a lot of blood and wasn't in the best shape. So my little Ammie was put straight on formula from her very first feed, initially through a feeding tube and then by bottle when she was ready.
Ella was still with me and was feeding fine. There's a picture of me that Nye took on his mobile phone a few hours after the girls were born. I'm topless and tiny little Ella is in one arm, feeding away on my gigantic boob and in the other hand I have a sandwich which I'm about to chomp into. Never has a sandwich tasted so good and never have I been happier than I was at that moment, feeding my baby. I didn't know it was about to go to hell. They did a blood test on Ella, to check her blood sugar levels which were promptly declared to be too low. Orders were given by the paediatrician that after her breastfeeds she be 'topped up' with formula until she was breastfeeding enough not to need it and that she must have a blood test every three hours to check her levels. There is nothing sadder than a baby, asleep and warm, being taken from your arms, having her pyjamas removed from around her skinny little bird legs and a nurse jabbing a pin into her foot. Every. Three. Hours. For five days. The memory of the bruises on the soles of her heels makes me want to punch people.
I struggled on with trying to breastfeed her but it was hard work. I was alone for most of the feeds, in a ward with five other women and five other babies and less than one midwife between us. I had lost somewhere between three and five pints of blood and it was three days before anyone thought to give me a transfusion. Every hour or so a midwife would appear to give me advise, the midwife would change twice a day as day shift melded into evening shift and with the change in midwife would unfailingly come a change in advice.
'no twin mothers breastfeed exclusively'
'it will be easy enough to wean them off formula and breastfeed them both exclusively'
'you need to feed them on demand'
'you need to feed them on a three hourly schedule'
'some mothers just can't manage to breastfeed'
'all mothers can breastfeed, it just takes time.'
Each piece of advice followed with a breezy 'okay?' that was unmistakably a statement, not a question, before the curtain around my bed swished behind them as they left. In hindsight it's no wonder that from the moment of that first blood test those were the most difficult five days of my life and I felt perpetually on the edge of a complete breakdown.
Eventually Ammie was returned to me and we were sent home. Suddenly the babies that had been inarguably the property of the hospital were ours and we were allowed to take them away. We got home and I was on a strict three hourly feeding schedule, starting each feed with breastmilk before handing the baby over to Nye to 'top up' with a bottle. I dreaded every feed, not knowing if it would go well or if the baby would utterly refuse to feed from my breast, having become used to milk flowing faster and easier from a rubber teat. When it went well breastfeeding was a high that is incomparable, when it (more often) went badly it was an exercise in disappointment, failure, inadequacy and frustration that ended with heaving sobs and self-hatred.
Despite the signs that this was Not Going Well, I was adamant that just like the midwives promised, as the babies got bigger and hungrier I would simply feed them more breastmilk while keeping the quantities of formula that they were 'topped up' with the same, but it didn't quite work like that. The girls got hungrier and I didn't produce any more milk. I continued to give them as much time as they would take at the breast, I continued to express milk between feeds and in the evenings and during meals but my efforts would result in a paltry amount of milk. And exhaustion. Finally a nurse told me that women who lose a lot of blood* during childbirth often struggle to breastfeed. That in those crucial first few days after birth their bodies are trying so hard to regenerate and replenish that their milk supply never really gets going. It only helped marginally to assuage my sense of inadequacy.
Eventually, at 11 weeks, I stopped trying. The relief was immense, and the grief not nearly as bad as I expected. I had been grieving being unable to breastfeed them almost continuously since they were a couple of weeks old, since the first time I had to increase the amount of formula we gave them to compensate for their increasing appetites and my static milk supply. My grief had been overwhelming, I was dreading every feed (and two babies multiplied by 6 feeds a day is a lot of dread) and I was achingly, overwhelmingly sad, all the time. Not being that mother to my girls was more important to me than continuing to breastfeed them. Stopping trying was allowing myself to let go of the expectations I'd had and the sense of failure that I felt.
I prickle as I write this. My hackles rise and I prepare myself for criticism. Since I left the hospital when the girls were five days old I have not once felt criticised over my inability to breastfeed my babies exclusively, not by anyone but myself. I was prepared for it, always waiting for it, but it never happened. And I'm still waiting, still expecting someone to leave me a comment saying 'well if you'd just tried harder...'. I know that someone is me, is the part of my heart that hasn't forgiven myself, that thinks if I had just tried harder it would have been possible. That thinks other people manage. To that part of myself I would like to say a hearty fuck off. It's time to let go.
*I know the phrase 'huge blood loss' might imply otherwise but I found giving birth an utterly incredible, joyous experience. It was amazing and empowering and when it was over I leaned into Nye and whispered 'let's have more.' Yes, I had the drugs, all the drugs (that's another story in institutionalised birth and a sense of failure) and when people hear that they say 'oh well, that's different'. Whatever. I gave birth twice in one day and it was fucking amazing. Then it went to hell.