What’s so hard about breastfeeding?

When I was pregnant, I remember filling in a form for my midwife. ‘Do you plan to breastfeed?’ she asked. ‘I’m going to try,’ was my answer. I’d been warned by people: Breastfeeding is actually quite hard. You’d think it comes naturally but it’s actually harder than you think. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work out. And so I thought it best to be (what I thought was) realistic. It was like planning to cook a fancy dinner for friends but hey, if it was a flop, I could always hit Woolworths. I’ll give it a go, I thought, but I wasn’t too bothered either way.

Then I birthed a baby. Hello, hormones. If you think that hormonal stuff is hard during pregnancy, wait till Day 3 postpartum when your milk comes in. (All the emotions. All of them.) Birth changes you, in numerous and nuanced ways, and motherhood, it turns out, is a mindfuck.

Things that didn’t seem that important pre-baby were now everything. One of these things for me was breastfeeding.

With the right advice and support, breastfeeding is possible for most women, but I’m not going to downplay how hard breastfeeding was for me at first. It was hard. There was lots of crying (from both Reid and me).Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from cracked and bleeding nipples (a common horror), though I did experience nipple blanching due to vasospasm, which I don’t wish on anyone.

I did hate breastfeeding actually. I hated it – everything about it – for three full months, until one day, something changed and I started to feel it: that bonding experience everyone had been telling me about. I was battling with postnatal anxiety and initially, I’d actually thought breastfeeding was making bonding with my baby harder, because breastfeeding itself was so hard and frustrating. But after three months?

Breastfeeding was the best.

So yes, the early days were tough, physically and emotionally, and ‘giving it a go’ with breastfeeding turned out to involve a lot more perseverance than my pregnant self thought would be necessary.

But as it turned out, that wasn’t the only difficult thing about breastfeeding.

One of the hardest things about breastfeeding for me – and not one person warned me about this part when I was pregnant – was other people.

The judgy, uptight, unsupportive people who think that breastfeeding in public has more to do with them than it does a hungry baby who just happens to be hungry right here, right now. Motherhood is really hard enough without having to worry about offending strangers (who, hey, can just look away) when your starving baby is screaming.

The misinformed people who tell you your baby will sleep through if you stop breastfeeding. (Some quick research will tell you that this theory has been debunked.)

The misguided people who ask you when you’re going to stop being a cow. (Um, I have never been a cow. I am a mammal; a cow is also a mammal.)

The nosy people (strangers, sometimes!*) who ask you if you’re breastfeeding your newborn, like it’s any of their business, and nod approvingly when you say yes; often the same people who, a few months later, will note again and again that you are still breastfeeding, not in a ‘You go, Mama!’ kinda way, but like this is new information to you, like you hadn’t realised, and now that they’ve pointed it out to you, you will surely start weaning.

[*When Reid was a few weeks old, a complete stranger in the pharmacy not only asked me if I was breastfeeding, but if I’d had a natural birth. I was too sleep-deprived to point out her rudeness, but as I walked back to the car, I did wonder in amazement what she would have said if I’d said no. Why do people think it’s okay to be so intrusive?]

This week is World Breastfeeding Week. We need World Breastfeeding Week because breastfeeding is not easy.

When I was breastfeeding, I was lucky to get good advice and a lot of support. I attended a breastfeeding support group every single Wednesday for three full months. One Saturday, with stinging nipples and a screaming infant, I was really ready to give up. I emailed my lactation consultant, who responded (on a weekend! What a lovely woman) with encouragement and a sign-off that still sticks with me: ‘Lactationally yours, Laura’. It implied: ‘I’m here to help you breastfeed your baby. You’ve got this.’ I went on to breastfeed for another year because of that email.

Sometimes all we need is a little support. And that’s why we need World Breastfeeding Week.

But while World Breastfeeding Week does a lot to educate moms about breastfeeding and offers valuable support, World Breastfeeding Week is not just for moms. Oh no, it’s for everyone.

It’s about normalising breastfeeding. It’s about showing dads and grandparents and siblings and even strangers not only how to be supportive, but why it’s important to be supportive. (And yes, sometimes ‘being supportive’ means not imposing personal opinions but letting moms develop their own personal breastfeeding relationships with their babies.)

I’m no longer breastfeeding, but the breastfeeding relationship I had with Reid remains one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m grateful that I received encouragement when I needed it. I’m also glad I was able to (mostly) ignore the unsolicited ‘advice’ and unhelpful opinions, although it wasn’t always easy.

So mom friends, wherever you want to breastfeed, whenever you want to breastfeed and for however long you want to breastfeed, you won’t hear a peep from me. Reach out if you need to, but remember, breastfeeding is about you and your baby. You’ve got this.

Breastfeeding

Talking about postnatal depression and anxiety

When Belinda Mountain asked if I would write a guest post for her blog, Making Mountains (one of my favourite, favourite mommy blogs – I read every article!), I had a lot of ideas. In the end, I decided to write a piece on postnatal depression and anxiety.

It took a long time to write, as I wanted it to be personal and true, without being overly dramatic. I also knew I’d be putting this very personal experience into a very public space. This wasn’t just an account typed quickly into a Facebook forum, soon forgotten about amongst all the other questions and comments. No. Belinda’s blog has a well-established readership, and between her social media following and mine, we would drive even more traffic to the post.

Eeesh. Yes, it felt quite strange publishing these details online. I am quite a private person when it comes to these things. But it is because of what I’ve experienced that I feel it is so important that we start talking about mental illness. I feel more strongly about this than I do about my own privacy.

When Belinda published the post, the responses reaffirmed this for me. Some people left public comments; some messaged me privately:

  • Hi Kels – you’re brave and wonderful. I am actually crying with relief… xxx Can’t say much now, hot tears 🙁 🙁
  • You are so so not alone.
  • I have read your blog post three times now. I wanted to say how 1) brave you are – not only for sharing your story of PND with the world (I know it’s not easy), but for just being damn brave. 2) it was wonderfully written and it shocked me, because as friend with many moms you ‘forget’ about the mother – it is always the ‘how is the baby?’ and ‘they are so cute’; it then turns to ‘how are you coping?’ and not really listening because the baby is just too adorable. So yeah, that’s pretty much what I wanted to say.
  • Well done on the courage to tell and own your truth lady- very inspiring!
  • Your honesty is empowering and inspiring.
  • I went through the same thing and felt so alone at the time, you are very brave to write about it.
  • I read your blog. I take my hat off to you and salute your bravery. We all have dark parts that we hide from the world, and I can only hope to ever be as brave and honest as you were.

I was struck by how many people used words like ‘brave’ to describe my account. This is exactly why I decided to do this – because it shouldn’t have to be brave. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that someone you know experienced this.

We need to talk about this more. It’s important.

Here’s the piece:


I grew up around mental illness. I’ve lived in a house where visitors weren’t allowed because socialising was too hard. I’ve played along with hallucinations to get a relative to calm down (the worst one: worms coming out of the skin). I’ve hidden sharp objects and strong medication from self-harming, suicidal family members before.

So I knew that postnatal depression and/or anxiety may be a risk for me, genetically. But when I was pregnant and getting all those PND/PPD flyers thrown at me during antenatal classes and doctor’s appointments and clinic open days, I thought that my family history would actually make things easier: unlike someone unfamiliar with mental illness, I knew the signs, the symptoms. I would be able to recognise it. Surely.

That’s not what happened.

There were days, months into motherhood, when I would still just cry and cry and cry. On those days, I admitted that I needed help. But then the next day, I’d feel a bit better and I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, so getting help didn’t seem … justified. I was used to seeing the extreme side of mental illness, you see. I didn’t think what I was experiencing was bad enough to seek treatment.

But it was pretty bad actually, and I only realised how bad when I started feeling better. In the beginning, I chalked a lot of what I felt up to exhaustion. The sleep deprivation was pretty intense, and I’d underestimated the physical recovery that even a natural birth would require. As the months rolled on, I measured my mental health by how much I was crying or not crying, but it went much deeper than that: the sadness was intermittent; the anxiety and anger were what affected me every day.

I was paralysed with worry. Everything was so hard. Too hard. I entered survival mode. I carried on with work and I socialised when I had commitments, but the thought of going out filled me with dread. There were just too many things to think about, to worry about.

I was also hyper-vigilant and felt immense pressure to do things ‘right’. My anxiety about everything meant I had thought through every little, tiny detail about how best to change a nappy, pick a baby outfit, pack the cupboard, run through the bath routine … I was surviving through systems. If anyone else deviated from what I had worked out as ‘the best way’ (in my mind, also the only way) to do things, I would get upset and angry. And I wasn’t just a little cross. I was so often filled with rage – a hot rage that boiled up and shook inside me – over something small and stupid, like my husband dressing the baby in a different outfit than I’d planned. I tried to control it and I didn’t always explode with fury, but I still reacted by being cold and mean.

I didn’t recognise myself. I believe I am an inherently kind, fair person, and mom-me was a horrible mess – a shell of my former self; it felt like there was no me left. One morning, I told a friend that I didn’t know how to be a mom and also be a wife, friend, and business owner. I couldn’t do it. Motherhood had swallowed me up and spat out a person whose sole drive was to get through the day without falling apart. That’s all there was for me. That had become my life.

Thankfully, I did start to feel better and I did start to enjoy motherhood. And I even started enjoying other parts of my life again. The past few months have felt like the whole world has opened up to me again, where before I was stuck behind a glass window, looking out in wonder and bewilderment.

So how do you get yourself or your loved one out from behind that sheet of glass? Here’s my quick guide:

  1. If you know your wife/daughter/daughter-in-law/sister/friend is battling, call up a counsellor and/or doctor, put her in the car and take her to the appointment. Honestly, while I was often oblivious to just how bad things had become, there were days when I did recognise that I needed help but I still didn’t follow through because it was too hard for me to do it myself. As independent as I am, what I needed was someone to take control of the situation and take care of me.
  2. If you’re wondering if what you’re experiencing is legitimately bad enough to seek treatment, it probably is. I spent a lot of time googling ‘postnatal depression signs’ and seeing how many symptoms I could tick off. The fact is that the way this illness presents itself is different for everyone. You are allowed to ask for help. No medical professional is going to tell you to go back home because what you’re experiencing isn’t badenough. If you think something is wrong, it probably is.

So many people don’t speak about these things. Sometimes it’s stigma. Sometimes it’s just that it’s not really anyone else’s business. And I agree – it isn’t. But I also think it’s important that we start to talk about it more … so we know we’re not alone, so we know how to help each other, so we know how to help ourselves.

Sickness and sleeplessness

I started this year in full January-cliche mode – energetic, full of ideas for the new year, excited about all the plans I had. I wrote here about our marvellous Mauritius trip and how I’d returned feeling ‘rejuvenated’.

What a reckless word to use. The thing is, when you’re a parent, you just can’t use words like ‘rejuvenated’, ‘revitalised’ or ‘energised’. Either you’re already lying to yourself, or it won’t last long.

We got back from Mauritius and the next day, Reid was a bit out of sorts. At first, I thought it was the adjustment to being home and the late night he’d had the night before. (Our plane landed in the evening and after the whole passports-luggage-customs thing, we screeched into our driveway after 9 pm with Reid screaming in the back. Yes, Reid can handle new environments, but late nights – no.) Then later that day he sprouted a tooth, and we could see another tooth right under the gum. Ah, teething! More explanations for grumpiness.

But then he got a runny tummy that wasn’t going away and a fever that went away but then came back. He vomited all over me at 2 am, and stayed awake most of the night, not really crying, but just moaning for hours and hours in Mom’s arms. My baby who eats everything (except butternut, of all things) now wouldn’t eat at all. So while the nanny and the rest of the family kept telling me it just looked like bad teething symptoms, I still carted him off to the doctor.

Of course, the moment we arrived in the doc’s waiting rooms, Reid acted like he was cured, turning on the charm for the receptionists and giggling at their fish tank. The doctor ran some tests regardless, and we continued to monitor his symptoms during our no-sleep week.

The test results came back a few days later. Reid not only had salmonella but also E.coli bacteria! I was shocked and horrified. The doc said he likely caught something on the plane – possibly from food he ate, but it could have been something he touched (which had also been touched by someone who hadn’t washed their hands). And Reid touches everything. On top of this, he got two new teeth in the same week. The poor kid.

Sadly (but also thankfully, because yay for medicine), he had to go on his first course of antibiotics. Previously, I’d been so pleased that our fairly healthy baby had avoided antibiotics. But here we were, scratching off another baby first. The medicine’s packaging depicted a grinning dinosaur and stated ‘tasty banana flavour’ so at least there was that.

I’ve tried not to dwell too much on the helplessness I felt – helpless that I couldn’t have protected him from getting sick (short of staying home and not going anywhere, ever); helpless that hugs and boobs and bum-patting were not enough to cure him. But I guess I’m glad that my instincts were right – that I knew it was more than just teething and I took him to the doc – and that despite my own exhaustion, I made it through the horrid week somewhat sane and still conscious enough to comfort him.

Reid is feeling much better now and we have had a bit more sleep this week. I don’t think I’ll be saying I feel ‘rejuvenated’ any time soon, but I can say, without hesitation, that I feel very grateful for my healthy, happy baby. And of course, for the extra zzzs.