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.
Dear Natural Birth Movement,
In June this year I gave birth to a beautiful bouncing baby boy. He was born 2 weeks and 3 days over his due date. The 36 hour journey he and I took together was in parts both the highest and the lowest, the lightest and the darkest hours I remember living. The nearly 16 weeks I have spent with him since have been pink, fluffy, warm, fuzzy and heart explodingly incredible. There have been moments where I have had to pinch myself, to check if this new life is really real and even now as I write my heart is full and my body enjoys another flood of Oxytocin just thinking of him.
But then I remember why I write to you, and my heart hurts a little as I access again the grief, the shame, the guilt and the confusion you have caused me. This is a cocktail of emotions I never thought you’d inflict on anyone, let alone me, and yet I see you inflicting it unwittingly on others too. Perpetuating the same self important, frequently impossible standards, the same standards I feel you have measured me up against, and against which I feel I have measured short. I want to write about and share my full birth story – sing it from the rooftops!!!! But before I do, I need to lighten my load and create some more space inside by getting something off my chest.
We need to talk.
I’m leaving you.
I’m moving in with the Empowered Birth Movement. She and I, well we’re better together than you and I ever were. Let’s face it – there were a few moments we stood high on that soap box together weren’t there? My getting together with the Empowered Birth Movement is better for the people around us; our female peers, their partners and birthing companions, the care professionals nurturing new mothers and their babies; and it’s certainly better for me and those I am privileged to assist as a birth coach and doula.
I notice you’re shocked.
When I came to the realisation that I have to break up with you – I was too.
It all started about 14 hours into my birth story. The first sign I was in labour was that upon waking I noticed my waters had broken and I had “menstruation pain”. As Thursday wore on my labour intensified and I was happily astounded by the amniotic fluid which intermittently gushed out around the house (Note to self: I must remember to thank my best friend and doula again for following me around with towels) Then I saw a pale greenish colour appear. The fear kicked in: would this mean that we would have to go to hospital – that dreaded place of unnatural and intervention riddled deliveries?
It did – neither my midwife nor I wanted to stack risks with me being a first time mum, carrying a big baby and being already 42w2d. I felt disappointed. As if I had failed at the first hurdle somehow. My contractions, which I had enjoyed riding at home in the shower chanting Ong Namo with Snatam Kaur, felt painful for the first time as I had to navigate the short 5 minute journey to hospital. The bright fluorescent light seemed to embody all that was unnatural; all that went against what you had promised me when I prepared for this day, told me to believe in myself and in my body, and since I chose to birth at home. I could almost hear you say “I told you so”. I rallied back and forth with the question “Is it really meconium? Do I really need to be here?”
Well there we were in the hospital; you and I and our strongly worded birth preferences which I had negotiated fiercely with the hospital at 42 weeks, then again at 42+1 to gain more clarity in the “grey areas” which had appeared in the conversation you, me and my midwife had had with the senior midwife and the gynaecologist at the hospital. I was fearful. Despite the fear, I drew on the oxytocin my body was saturated with and opened up to the midwife who was on duty. I asked her to stay present with me, to maintain eye contact with me whilst doing internals – to speak to me about the interior of my vagina and cervix and no one else. Hour by hour in doing so with such consideration and tenderness she gained my trust and I in turn hers, and she let me labour on unassisted. You seemed surprised, but I didn’t linger on the growing ill feeling between us, as my son and I had work to do.
Fortunately you stuck around and set up the birthing pool in the labour suite bathroom, you nodded approvingly at the various essential oil compresses, the crystals, the yoga postures, the homeopathy kit, the relaxing music and the affirmations.
Cut to 30 hours into our birth story following a couple of interventions, a journey back and forth and back again between 6cm and 8cm (YES that can happen!); I had an IV dripping synthetic Oxytocin into my veins and my uterus was leading my body in an almighty fight against the invading chemicals. And that’s the moment when you really flaunted your true colours: I felt like a failure asking for pain relief. I asked however, and my wish was granted. I avoided your gaze. During the three hours I spent floating away on the magic carpet of Remifentanil, intermittently glimmers of conversation came through;
“You’re nearly there! 9cm – great!”
“Your contractions are really effective now….”
But I was exhausted; from chanting, swaying and squatting, from the fight for intervention free plateaus and progression, from the 32+ hours with only 2 light meals, from being my own advocate throughout as a solo parent, from you and me fighting about our conflicting expectations of eachother. And despite all that fighting, during those hours floating away I found my truth: that my son had brought me healing enough throughout pregnancy without having to make the passage through my cervix and vagina and heal that trauma too. (I am a [sexual] abuse survivor)
“Don’t worry” I heard, “You’re 9.5cm and in minutes you’ll be at 10 – if you can’t find enough energy to push we have everything we need to help you achieve a vaginal birth.”
‘No. Thank. You.’ I thought. ‘Stay away from my vagina.’
“I want a Csection” I heard myself say with conviction, clarity and absolute certainty.
Whilst my relief at finding the surrender I had been looking for was almost palpable, I couldn’t make eye contact with you.
In the four months since little JT was born, we have come head to head at many crossroads. I have found you tutting in the sympathetic “Oh what a shames” which I receive when I explain he made his way earthside via his own stargate; my Caesarean wound. I have found you lurking self righteously in the Facebook comments of an “informative natural parenting piece” on how epidurals do indeed pass through the placenta and babies’ alertness is adversely affected; callously telling a woman who said she shouldn’t be shamed for giving birth to a dead foetus with the help of an epidural that in her case “it didn’t matter that the epidural crossed the placenta”. I have found you in the form of a prenatal yoga teacher withholding the happy stories of babies born by Csection to clients in my new friends’ post natal meet up class; the insinuation being that these stories weren’t the optimal outcome that the teacher had been encouraging her students to strive for. I found your influence in the story of my brave warrior friend who gave birth to her beautiful daughter at 27 weeks – where she defends the fact she had a Csection by explaining how dangerous it would have been for baby to have become at all distressed during a “natural delivery”.
I hear you dripping all over the expression “normal birth” – for what is a “normal birth” these days anyway??? I hear you in my final doula course training – a fellow student defending a brutal sounding gynaecologist she had witnessed manually dilating a woman from 8cm to 10cm to keep her in the proper timeframe and avoid being transferred to an inferior public hospital (I verbally winced at that idea); and your final defence? “Well at least she didn’t have to have a Csection.”
I read you as I come across a quote stating that it is a women’s right of passage to give birth naturally and vaginally; and I am left once again wondering if somehow my own experience (which is that the right of passage is in fact becoming a mother: a journey which started from the moment I was conscious my body was housing an embryo and not from the moment I felt the ejection reflex and started to push) is somehow invalid?
So no; I’m afraid these militant ideas you keep don’t ring true for me. I’ve opened my eyes to the countless women who also feel they have to apologetically explain their choosing an epidural or outside intervention – through myself having felt that need to defend; and now I’m starting to understand and realise why so many women unquestioningly hand over their power to medical care providers completely in the face of your dogmatic alternative. They’re frightened they won’t make your grade.
There is good news for me, and my fellow sisters who think along the same lines as I do though!
The Empowered Birth Movement is working hard to inform women about their rights, the possible choices and the protocols and side effects of the choices available to us in birth. The Empowered Birth Movement is exploring and inhabiting that vast expansive space between your natural birthing utopia and the carefully scheduled medical approach to delivering babies. The Empowered Birth Movement is bringing information about all options – judgement free – to the public sphere, bringing candid new images from all types of birth stories so that women can visualise for themselves what will feel safest for them.
When we talk about healthiest birth experiences we have to look at “health” holistically; physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. And I have you to thank for bringing me to that perspective. Speaking as a mother, as a doula and as a birth coach though, I can tell you first hand that there are many reasons why the “healthiest birth” choices for a woman may well include comprehensive pain relief and or surgical assistance. Those reasons range from having a phobia of blood, to being a survivor of sexual abuse and being keen to avoid a trigger, to simply not wanting to experience the pain of vaginal childbirth…all of these are valid reasons.
Whatever the reason – we are entitled to make our own choices. As female peers, as mothers, as birth workers, and as birth activists we have to STOP pushing preferences and shaming women’s choices. Birth activism and reclaiming birth is about informed consent and empowered birthing experiences – not a natural birth at all costs. And it’s certainly not about attributing shame to any mother’s birth story because she fell short of the latest soft focus home water birth video on Instagram or Youtube.
So here we are.
My bags are packed.
I’m ready to go.
Shall I leave my keys on the shelf in the hall on my way out?