On Friday we stopped breastfeeding.
31 months and 1 day.
2 years and 7 months and 1 day.
One of the longest, most rewarding, and most fulfilling jobs I have ever had. Yes : I said “jobs” – because whilst it was wonderful and tender and wrought with hormones and body doubt and body gratitude and self doubt and self care and self neglect and ideological ambition and realistic set backs and unwaivering perseverance and effortless ease and sublime miraculous grace : it was work. Holy work. I do see it as me having chosen to take on a job to nourish you, my child. A job commissioned by nature to fulfill as long as we both enjoyed the process and relationship of nourishing and nurturing / drinking and receiving. It was nourishment and nurturing of a complex and multifaceted nature. A journey and a relationship shrouded in blissful connection and sometimes underpinned by deep struggle. A journey that has naturally ended at the perfect moment; for both of us.
I still can’t quite believe that it is over; and to be honest it isn’t quite “over” as we are still talking about it between us: still touching Ninnie and feeling together how Ninnie is changing, laughing together at the incredulity of there being no more milk drinking. Ninnie is your name for my milky breasts – you know the word “breasts” but refer to my breasts (still now a few days later) as Ninnie.
If anyone would have told me when I was a few weeks pregnant that I would breastfeed you for this long I would have laughed in their face(!!!) I thought I would breastfeed for 9-12 months until you transitioned into food, and didn’t need the calories anymore….but then there you were, and my natural instincts blossomed and my rational mind was convinced after doing the research….and there you were: relishing the milk. Loving your safe haven from the exciting world, your body growing and flourishing so powerfully, your immunity and your health so strong – your desire to continue so palpable as each and every time you arrived at the breast your body relaxed and your nervous system reset.
We breastfed through a lot. We breastfed through our mutual recovery from a Caesarean birth after a long labour; for a few days we supplemented here and there as my milk supply came through – and despite the gruelling pumping schedule we breastfed through it. We breastfed through your Upper Lip Tie and for 9 weeks we breastfed with a nipple shield. We breastfed through the protracted death of my granny; your great grandmother. We breastfed through your first teeth, and your first mild fever. We breastfed through the arrival of each and every tooth that arrived – and at 12 months you had 14 teeth…each one bringing fresh chafing for my resilient nipples. we breastfed through the second level three day doula training I attended when you were 12 weeks old – your loving aunty bringing you at breaks and lunchtime. We breastfed through the flashbacks I started to have as part of the PTSD that was triggered in those first few months post partum; we breastfed through the ensuing migraines. We breastfed through a move to the UK for a few months; through the emotional rollercoasted that turned out to be. We breastfed through our happy return to Amsterdam. We breastfed through the first student births I attended, we breastfed through the “interuption to service” that the births and the hospital internships brought. You even had the privilege of breastfeeding from a friend whilst I was at the first full overnight birth. We breastfed through your first virus and your salmonella. We breastfed through your learning to walk and your increased sleep talking – thankfully no sleepwalking yet. We breastfed through the uncertain months of the beginning of self employment; me often reassured that whilst I wasn’t able to afford to put organic food and line caught salmon on our table as I had wanted – at least I could still offer you the breast -and that was as close to organic as it gets right?! We breastfed through your start at nursery, we breastfed through your decision to use the potty and the toilet. We breastfed though 2 years and 7 months of single parenting; and whilst a lot of parents in partnerships may not understand that there is a difference…that is no mean feat!
So how did it all come to an end?
On Friday night as we went about settling down for sleep after stories and tooth brushing; you said “Big Ninnie first” and out of nowhere I heard myself say “It is almost time to stop breastfeeding Jasper. You are a really big boy now, you can do so much for yourself, and Ninnie’s job is done – you don’t need to drink Ninnie anymore.” Your concern was initially mainly if you could drink from Ninnie tonight – naturally – your primary concern at 2y 7m is the present and immediate moment and the moment playing out in such a way that pleases you!!!
I cherished you as much as you would let me whilst you drank. I stroked your toddler head, your long blonde hair – totally different from the dark dark brown head of hair you were born with. I felt the size of your head; the solidity of it. I reminisced back to the first days of our journey when despite weighing 4.448kg at birth; you felt so tiny and fragile in my arms next to my blossoming bouncing balloon like breasts. I felt the full length of your little but solid toddler body next to mine and realised happily that you too will probably remember our breastfeeding journey in the longer term. This makes me so happy.
I have whispered into your ears at various points in the days since with tears in my eyes and my throat choked; “Ninnie will always love you – even though there is no more milk for you to drink; you can still put your head on the soft roundness and remember all the lovely milk you have enjoyed.”
The next night as we turned out the light after stories I invited you into my arm for a cuddle and you said; “Can I have Ninnie?” I smile in the half light (expecting the worst) and say “Oh no – we have stopped drinking Ninnie remember?” Tired after a lovely long day you say; “Oh yeah!” and lie back in your sheepskin.
Falling asleep the next afternoon; you are fidgetty and can’t get comfortable. You lie vertically on my body, your head over my heart, your arm outstretched over “Big Ninnie” (my right one) and fall asleep like that. I cherish the closeness; my heart hurting for you a little. Is it my projection or is this you searching for reassurance?
Last night you tried again – with a knowing and cheeky grin as you ask; “Can I have a little drink?” I laugh and say “Noooooo – the milk is gone now….”
“A tiny drink? A really really short drink?” you venture.
I reply with a clear voice defying my mental uncertainty; “Oh that would be so nice wouldn’t it; but Ninnie doesn’t have milk anymore – feel how wobbly they are now! They are very different now….” I’m half wondering if I should actually offer you some but the dread of the feeling of the dwindling milk being drawn up through the already very different feeling ducts persuades me not to(!)
I am so PROUD of you that you seem able to navigate this change with such confidence. Seeking out affirmations of our love and attachment, yes, but in what seems to be a secure manner. Our relationship is changing again – again! Oh how the wonderous journey of parenthood embodies the only certainhood we have in life: that nothing is certain – that nothing lasts forever.
In these last days of our breastfeeding journey (is it appropriate to say “The Wrap Up”?!?! Too soon maybe?!?!) I have laughed, I have cried, I have massaged and soothed my breasts in deep loving gratitude, I have reflected a lot on what the breastfeeding journey has meant for me, what I hope it has meant for you, and what it has meant for us as a mother and son. There are so many memories – some fleeting and funny, some raw and intense, some euphoric, some I have shared with others, some that will simply remain between you and I; and some that I hold close in my own heart just for me. It is also incredibly beautiful; that on the day that our journey stopped – the breastfeeding journey of a dear dear friend and her absolutely scrumptious newborn daughter began. The cycle continues!
I want to end with gratitude. Gratitude for you and your unwaivering determination from just minutes old, gratitude for your grunting and sucking and stroking and patting and burping and slurping, gratitude for my breasts and my body, gratitude for the healing nature of our “successful” breastfeeding journey after a birth journey that wasn’t what I had hoped for us, and last but not least – deep gratitude for all the people around us. The women, the dearest friends and family, the birthworkers and teachers, and the supporters who made our journey possible with their glasses of water, the delicious nibbles and snacks, the warming tea, the hand on the shoulder, the gentle reminders about techniques in those early days. Gratitude for their understanding when everything stopped so that I could sit down and nourish you; the knowing loving glances in cafes; the spoken words of tenderness, encouragement and support on the days when I was hollow eyed and “over it”; and everybody and every act of support in little and big ways since: THANK YOU.
I have been pretty busy these last few weeks fighting and getting over some seasonal bacteria(!), coaching my coaching clients through their year reviews and assisting them in planning ahead for 2017, getting my own business goals and business tools in place for 2017, and meeting with new and current clients. Two points came up in all four new client meetings that I thought would be great to share here in a blog post and offer clarification on…
- “I didn’t think a doula would support (xyz) type of birth”
- “I have the impression that a lot of doulas have some kind of agenda”
These concerns always worry me a little – because I wonder how many women shrug off the idea of having a doula because they just don’t think their birthing preferences are in keeping with the type of birth a doula will support?
In my opinion (obviously as a professional doula in Amsterdam; I’m a little biased here!) even one woman disregarding the possibility of doula support because of that uncertainty is a crying shame!
Let’s get clear on each point by turning the statements into questions:
- What type of birth is a doula best for?
- What kind of birth agenda does a doula have?
Q1 – What type of birth is a doula best for?
Answer: Every type of birth!
Whatever type of birth you want – a doula is a good choice for extra support. More often than not; your midwife or gynaecologist will not be able to stay by your side the whole time. A doula can be with you (& your partner), or just outside your door (should you wish to be alone) from the point you need her until a couple of hours after the birth of your baby. A doula can be by your side in the theatre as you have a planned Csection, she can hold your hand over the pool side as you have your baby in the birthing pool at the Geboortecentrum (birthing centre), she can support you and your partner through an induction at the hospital, she can kneel down and hold your left hand as your partner holds your right hand and look up at you in your eye to reassure you as the anaesthetist administers your epidural, or she can be sat behind you on the baarkruk (birthing stool) as your husband catches your baby in your bedroom. A great doula has experience in all types of birth!
Q2 – What kind of birth agenda does a doula have?
Answer: A doula has an agenda to support you and your partner in navigating your pregnancy, birth and post partum period (particularly the first 6 weeks) in the way that you want to be supported by her.
She has no agenda of her own other than how best to support you in preparing for, in having and in recovering from the birth that you want; supporting your birth (& parenting) agenda. Of course a doula can offer helpful pointers about research, direct you to support groups or webinars or articles that may be of interest to you, hold your hand as you say yes or no to any change of plan in any birth setting, and most importantly: do all of the above and be with you in an unconditional, reassuring and non judgemental way.
Let me emphasise this in bold typeface and by colouring it purple: her agenda is supporting your agenda.
All this said; there are doulas who do express preferences for a certain approach to birthing or to parenting, and usually they will be upfront about what type of birthing or parenting that is. If you feel that doesn’t match your chosen direction then rest assured there are many other doulas out there to choose from; doulas are not necessarily one size fits all.
To be clear about my approach as a doula from our very first phone call or meeting:
I will listen to you.
I will ask you questions, I will offer sign posts to helpful information about studies, alternative and possibilities; I will encourage and empower you to make informed choices.
I will be there at your side to support you – whatever your choices – and I hope you will never feel judged by me.
I will offer unconditional support around you and your birthing space, wherever that space may be.
I will support you in the way that you decide you need me to support you, and it may be that the mode of support you need changes along the journey – I can handle unexpected change and I will remain by your side unconditionally.
This is your journey. It is an honour that you ask me to be a part of it.
“Every orchestra has specific instruments and musicians, but you, the mother, are the conductor. You are writing your own symphony, you choose the music and the notes. If something is out of tune, you can change the music. You create the harmony. You are the maestro.”
excerpt from The Greatest Pregnancy Ever: The Keys to the MotherBaby Bond Tracy Wilson Peters, CCCE, CLD, and Laurel Wilson, IBCLC, CCCE
As a doula in Amsterdam, I hear many confessions from pregnant women or women who have recently given birth. I say confessions because often it’s as if they hear the word “Doula” and then decide to offload the thoughts they haven’t dared to share with anyone else about pregnancy, or childbirth or the postpartum period. This isnt a new experience for me – I often wonder if I have a sign on my forehead that reads “Please share your most taboo thinking/intense life experiences/painful loss/heartfelt desire/dirty secrets with me”?!?!?! It’s all good – I love hearing these untold pregnancy and birth stories!
A very common pregnancy confession (that sometimes women feel so guilty about that they don’t dare to vocalise it) is that they don’t or didn’t feel very connected to baby.
Fortunately we are now very mindful of the fact that babies’ consiousness does indeed develop in the uterus. Annie Murphy Paul gave an excellent TEDTalk on the matter, and the documentary What Babies Want explores this in a very convincing and heartfelt way – both great watches if you find you do want to explore the subject of babies’ inutero consciousness (see also the links at the end of this blog).
As with much of our developing awareness though – this knowledge can be a double edged sword. Many pregnant mothers upon hearing that indeed baby’s consciousness is there from almost the moment you see the extra line on the stick or hear the words “You’re pregnant” become very concerned with making sure their unborn baby has only positive experiences within the uterus, and that she experiences as much love, connection and nurturing as possible before birth. Great! As long as it doesn’t become a means to tell yourself that you are anything less than absolutely incredible for carrying a baby inside your womb.
“People keep asking if I’m enjoying the mother-baby connection and honestly I just don’t know what that is supposed to feel like?”
“How do I connect with a baby that I can’t see?”
“It’s hard for me to feel loved up and connected to baby when I just feel like crap 82% of the time due to pregnancy tiredness!”
Other confessions along the same lines go
“I felt so sad so often during my first pregnancy – I was worried that when she was born she would be depressed”,
“I just don’t have time for this pregnancy – I’m running around after an eighteen month old who has just started running – I can’t keep up with him let alone focus on this unborn baby”
You get the picture. Why are parents so hard on themselves?!?!
Here are six suggestions as a quick “How To Connect With Baby During Pregnancy”
- First thing in the morning or last thing at night. That lovely only half awake time when your eyes are probably closed, you feel way less self conscious and either the thought bubble (The Mind) is just about to switch on or off. As you’re adjusting your body to rest or wakefulness take a moment to place your hands on your beautiful bump and maybe just begin by saying “Morning Baby” (or Goodnight!) No need to say it aloud – though no harm in doing so. Once you feel comfortable doing this – you may even like to spoon in to your partner and invite them to say a few words.
- Whilst doing something mundane or mind numbing. You’re washing the dishes or brushing your teeth, dare i say it – maybe you’re driving on a route you know like the back of your hand. This is also a great moment to decide to check in with how baby is feeling. Chances are you’re relaxed and just in the moment – baby may already respond to this energy and have a little wriggle around – focus your attention on your womb, perhaps this feels more comfortable if you touch your belly with one hand to make contact. Tell baby what you’re doing. Tell her it’s boring! Tell her it’s really not your favourite thing to do but that somehow it’s quite relaxing anyway. Tell her what you did today. Tell her what you’re doing later.
- Guided visualisation or meditation. As a coach and doula in Amsterdam I often suggest to clients who are looking to build meditation into their practice but who find it difficult to switch off that they have a look on Youtube for guided meditations to listen to on headphones. That would be a great place to start, there are lots of guided meditations out there to try, and many women report finding a lot of peace and relaxation from the Natal Hypotherapy and Hypnobirthing CDs. It is also important to say that it is very very common for you to go “to sleep” whilst listening to a guided meditation, especially whilst pregnant(!) forgive yourself for this – and be reassured that it is all going in anyway! EDIT: I have also since recorded a few prenatal/pregnancy visualisations and meditations here and here!
- Singing to baby. Something wonderful happens to us when we sing! We breathe differently, we breath deeper, our lungs expand more fully and our diaghpram needs to get to work to help us project our voices. If you are a power ballad singer in the car, if you are a musical star in the shower or if you’re an arena filling singing chef in the kitchen – keep on singing – and just set the intention that the song is for baby. Having a song or two that you sing repetitively for baby during pregnancy can be a wonderful calming and reassuring tool for helping baby to feel safe and calm in the fourth trimester – and beyond. There is a truly beautiful anecdote from Penny Simkin (doula and doula educator extraordinaire) to be found here – enjoy!
- Going within: asking questions and listening. After having adopted a couple of the practices above – once you are able to recognise that you are connecting with baby in a deep and a meaningful way; then you may be ready to really take the contact with baby to the next level. Usually to really be able to pose questions and hear the answers it helps to be still and quiet. To be comfortable and feel safe. To know that time is stretching out ahead and you can really enjoy taking time to communicate with baby. Sitting down comfortably; if you are comfortable in the lotus position with your back straight and your spine aligned – great! Perhaps you’re more comfortable sat on a chair – a straight and well supported spine, both feet on the ground, perhaps you’ve been really using the birthing ball and are able to sit with a straight well aligned spine, knees wide and below hips, feet stable and supportive in full contact with the ground. Begin by placing your right hand on your belly to make contact with baby, and your left hand on your heart centre (on your chest).Take three deep breaths and focus on dropping your consciousness from your head into your heart. Take another three breaths and set the intention to connect with baby. Notice the warmth of each hand, notice baby; is she still, does she move? Invite the heart to ask baby how she is feeling. Notice. Breathe. Notice. Allow the feelings/instincts and thoughts to come up and take shape. Try not to judge. The ego will get busy telling you this is crazy, telling you that you’re imagining things. Just allow those thoughts; they too have their place. Ask again; ‘what can I do to help you feel better’? Notice. Breathe. Notice. Allow. Ask if there is anything else that baby needs to communicate to you. Notice. Breathe. Notice. Allow. And finally, what do you want to communicate to baby? Share. Notice. Feel. Breathe. Notice. Allow. Before you open your eyes, move around and get back to your day – take some time, take space together, feel the gratitude, feel the peace, feel the calm. Then >slowly< come back to your body, open your eyes, stretch and pick up your day.
- You’re always connected anyway….Remember this. Go about your day. Just be reassured that baby is listening, baby is feeling, baby is sentient, baby is connected to you; you are connected to baby – baby is within you. Baby is coming to earth, and earthside there is a whole range of emotion, of feelings, of experiences, of connection, of disconnection. Baby will get to taste it all. You are unequivocally connected to baby every second – waking or sleeping. And maybe that is enough for you to remember; actually you dont have to make a conscious effort to “connect with baby” because baby is connected. Let me say it again: you. dont. have. to. “DO”. anything. Be aware of the connection. Don’t scaremonger yourself about any “negative” experiences being “bad” for baby. By all means – focus as much as you can on the positives – beautiful if you can mainly be in this state, but if there are things going on in your life that are stressful, that are out of your control – let it go, try not to get hung up on it.
Here are a couple of other links for you to look into on the notion of mother-baby connection and evidence for it’s positive impact on pregnancy, child bearing and the immeditate post partum period, if you have any to add or if you have any heart warming anecdotes to share on the topic: please comment below!
Lastly: image credit unknown – I would love to attribute this beautiful image to it’s rightful creator so please make contact if you know the artist.