Birth, motherhood and me

So I had a baby! And as expected I have many thoughts about birth, motherhood, and babies.

On birth

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Birth is like an event horizon. When you’re pregnant for the first time, it is almost impossible to visualise what lies beyond it. But one of the things I forgot is even if I was exceptionally unlucky, at most it would be 72 hours out of my life. I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the birth. I wish I had thought more about what would happen afterwards.

As a mum-to-be you hear a LOT of labour horror stories. Looking back now, it’s amazing how much of my memory of the labour has faded replaced by what came afterwards. Yes, it was painful but I had a baby at the end of it.

I find it interesting how much of being ready to give birth is about physical readiness versus psychological readiness. I spent the day before I went into labour sewing Nib’s mobile. ‘It’s the last thing on my maternity leave to do list.’ I announced brightly to HWSNBN. Somewhere in my head a tick had been placed on the list and there was just one last item:
Have a baby.

I woke up at 1am contracting three minutes apart. But I’d had Braxton Hicks for days so I wasn’t sure this was it. Then half an hour later I turned over in bed and my waters broke with a sudden pop and I knew it was time.

Our NCT teacher told us your waters breaking wasn’t like in the movies – it just a trickle. DUDE, it was exactly like in the movies. It felt like I had Niagara falls in my knickers and out of the biological indignities that were to come it was almost the grossest.

The grossest was the vomiting. Imagine having a contraction, perhaps the worse pain you have ever experienced and as you are trying to breathe your way through it you projectile vomit. Again. The midwives were thrilled ‘open mouth, open cervix’. I was less than happy. I’d never imagined I’d met my child covered in green bile. But nobody ever said labour was glamourous.

As somebody whose always been self conscious about her body I worried beforehand about how I would feel lots of strangers seeing it. I can’t count how many people saw my poonani, nor did I care.

I had gathered together so many supplies for my birth – aromatherapy oils, playlists and birth balls. What I actually wanted was a dark room, a bucket to throw up in, to be on all fours, and for HWSNBN to push on my spine so hard it gave him bruises.

Which brings us to… back labour. From the moment I woke up contracting and felt that Nibs, after being in the optimal position since week 20, had turned so his back was grinding up against mine, I knew I was in for a rocky ride. Back labour feels like the baby is trying to exit via your spine. It isn’t only extraordinarily painful but the pressure is almost unbearable and it turns out is visible from the outside. HWSNBN described afterwards as like a scene from alien as my coccyx pulsated and bulged outwards.

There are lots of things you can do to try and turn a back to back baby. I tried them all (not knowing that he had the cord tangled around him and he was stuck). Being in the birth pool helped for a bit. Being in on all fours helped for a while. But as he descended I began having back to back contractions. I would breathe my way over the hill of a contraction and just as the pain began to fade the intensity would slam back up to the peak again. I was getting tired and we had a choice. Stay at home for another hour and try and turn him or transfer to hospital. I asked to be examined. If I was in transition I’d stay at home and bear it out. But I was only six centimetres. I cried, despite the midwives comforting me. Six centimetres at home in this time was amazing, they said. But I was done – we made the decision to transfer.

Before labour in our long discussions I’d asked HWSNBN to be my advocate as I have been known to be less than assertive. But apparently (I have no memory of this) when everybody was milling around the ambulance, they kept offering me pillows and water for the journey, I snapped ‘JUST DRIVE.’ They did.

Putting my clothes on and leaving the house was hell. I had to stop for each contraction. I kept my eyes closed in the ambulance. And I didn’t even care as people stared at me as I waddled through A + E or in the lift up to the labour ward as I panted sucking on the gas and air.

In hospital I had an epidural which alleviated some of the pain but none of the pressure – thanks back labour! However, the contractions began to space out so I could breathe in between them.

It became clear that the baby wasn’t coping very well as his heartbeat was dipping during contractions. I could tell that the doctors and midwives were worried. All I could do was lie there helpless and ask over and over again ‘Is my baby OK?’ 

A lot of the things I worried would happen did. I got transferred to hospital, the pain was, at times, so unbearable I lost control during contractions, I tore. But in the end only one thing mattered that my baby was safe and well. When his heartbeat kept dipping, if a scalpel had been in reach I would have cut him out myself.

My labour was short by first labour standards at around 20 hours. But it felt like no time at all – the day a brief window of light before the darkness fell again. Midwives kept changing shifts and I’d look at the clock and see that hours had passed.

In labour the world retreats. The room had one of the best views over Brighton but I barely saw it. There was nothing but this small room, this breath in between contractions, this baby and me working together so he could be born.

You never forget the midwives who delivered your child. During the long night and day and night I was in labour we had lots of different midwives. I was so glad that it was the last two who delivered my baby. They were brilliant, compassionate, open about what was going on, and so encouraging as I pushed the baby out.

As the baby was getting so tired and his heart wasn’t returning to normal in between contractions, they gave me half an hour to push him out. I put my chin down and focused. Although I knew that after an epidural it can be harder to push – there was no doubt in my mind that I could do this. One advantage of having back labour was I always felt the pressure of baby. And as I began pushing I could feel the baby moving down with each push and even when he finally flipped round the right way in my pelvis. As he was crowning and I was panting through the stinging, doctors barrelled into the room with a gurney. They took one look in between my legs, told me to ‘Good job, carry on!’ And left again.  

As soon as I saw him I knew it would be OK. He was silent, a colour not found in nature and a midwife was furiously palpitating his back as the other worked the cord free as it tangled around his neck. I cried and I think they thought it was because I was worried. I wasn’t. I knew he was OK, in a weird way deep down in my bones. I cried because he was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

They put him in my arms and we just stared at each other and I thought ‘Oh, there you are.’ There was an immediate feeling of recognition, like running into somebody beloved I had not seen for centuries. He was tiny, blanched white and smelt of clementines. His eyes were universe dark and he had an expression like he’d been here before. We stared at each other for hours and he didn’t make a sound.

I pushed out the placenta, they sewed me up, people came and went but HWSNBN and I just stared at this perfect being we’d made and he stared back in a trifecta of love.

On postpartum

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Apres the birth was the biggest high, followed by the deepest come down of my life. There were moments of being caught up in the most blissful love bubble ‘Look what we made. I love him so much my body can barely contain it.’ and moments of being snagged on the rocks of despair ‘This is so hard. I can’t do this. I’m a shit mum.’

I didn’t think motherhood would be easy. But when I imagined it I saw it through the filter of  pre-baby me. Well rested, non bruised and not on a hormone crash from hell me.

A friend described it best when she said postpartum is like being in a car crash and then being handed the most precious and fragile being you ever saw and told not to drop him. How can you look after somebody else when you need looking after yourself?

As we walked up to the postnatal ward, I heard another mum being bought in howling. Just the sound of another woman in labour made me feel like I was going to throw up again.

Word up to all the expectant mothers, even if you don’t tear you’re going to feel bruised and tender for at least ten days post birth. Good thing you’re not going to be spending a huge amount of time sitting on your behind breastfeeding a newborn. Oh… wait. To add to the mix I had a huge purple bruise from where Nib’s head had engaged in a prolonged battle with my spine, that meant putting any pressure on my back was toe-curlingly painful. Breastfeeding involved arranging an elaborate system of pillows and a piles cushions around and under me while the baby howled for his dinner.

Ah, the post labour poo. Read this mamas-to-be and god be with you.

Good friends bring pressies for the baby. Amazing friends send pressies for the baby and for you. My lovely fairy godmother Ros sent me a postpartum package including tinctures and arnica, cool packs and a savoy cabbage. Yes, really. It was hands down the best present I received.

Night sweats – because what every woman wants to do with less than ideal pelvic floor control post birth is ask herself the question in the middle of the night ‘Is that puddle I’m lying in pee or sweat?’

I expected to get postpartum depression (ever the optimist). I didn’t. What I did experience was postpartum anxiety. It did not last long but it felt endless at the time. A lifelong sleepaholic I suddenly had horrific insomnia my thoughts racing so fast I could not follow them. I jumped at every sound convinced that there was something wrong with my baby. After a couple of days of me not sleeping more than an hour at a time, HWSNBN took Nibs in the other room promising to bring him in for feeds. But every time I closed my eyes I heard the baby crying. Yet whenever I went to check, he was fast asleep. ‘He’s OK.’ HWSNBN would tell me. But I could not shake the conviction that he wasn’t and that I had to be hypervigilant to prevent anything from happening to him.

The insomnia did not help. My baby was sleeping, my husband was sleeping but I could not sleep except when the exhaustion grabbed and I fell into darkness for a hour or so. I haunted the flat like a little ghost. During one conversation in the middle of the night I realised I was so sleep deprived it felt like I was having a stroke. I could tell I wasn’t making sense but I couldn’t articulate that thought. I could not articulate anything.

Day fucking five really sucked. Mention into the other mums and you get the shudder of been there, endured the hormone crash. In perfect storm of shittiness events conspired to make mine pretty awful.

Picture the scene me manic from not sleeping more than a hour at a time when the midwife comes to weigh the baby. I’d expected that he would have lost some weight. He was still quite jaundiced, sleepy and had to be woken to feed and throughout the feed. But the night before he’d fed almost constantly – surely he was starting to put weight back on? I knew as soon as she placed him on the scales that something was wrong. ‘He’s lost too much weight.’ But he was feeding constantly the night before, I said. ‘Yes, he was feeding constantly because there wasn’t enough milk. We need to see how much milk you’re creating and make a plan to get his weight back up and if that doesn’t work we’ll admit him into hospital.’ I pumped and we stared at the measly amount of milk that dribbled out and then she wrote out a plan: breastfeeding every three hours, expressing breast milk and then supplementing with formula. I could barely hear her at this point over the siren blare of my baby is starving and it’s all my fault.

After she left, HWSNBN was sent out to get formula and pumping equipment. ‘You’ll be OK?’ He asked as I stood in the doorway, rocking the baby and weeping. There was nobody I could call to come sit with me. My family were over the other side of the world. His were an hour and a half away. And as I tried to feed Nibs it became clear that the milk wasn’t coming. I felt like the shittest mum ever. How could I have missed that he was starving? He cried frantically until his little body was exhausted and he fell asleep in my arms. This was the nadir.

HWSNBN and I embarked on the fatten the baby up plan. I’d breastfeed on one side and express on the other while HWSNBN fed me sips of water and food. After the baby had finished we’d offer him the milk I’d expressed earlier and then formula if he was still hungry. Before setting an alarm to wake up in an hour and half and do it again. I remember it being hard but I also remember the love and that feeling of being on the same team.

I’ve always been notoriously talented at hiding when things are wrong. My leg could be hanging off and I would still insist that I was ‘Fine. Oh that? It’s nothing. Tell me about you?’ Birth robbed me of that skill – I lost my filter entirely. I sent out messages into the ether to my friends spilling my emotional guts. The responses, ah me, they make me want to cry even now. They were so lovely. In my vulnerability came honesty and connection. Sadly the filter is firmly back in place now. This is one thing I miss from the postpartum period.

Weigh in day arrived. The midwives wanted to see a weight gain of 60 otherwise we’d be admitted to hospital. Luckily the January genes for putting on a shit-ton of weight are strong and he had gained 300. I tried and failed to not cry on the midwife.

Like it had never been the anxiety began to fade and I slept for three blessed hours in a row and it was wonderful. I’m not sure why it went. Was it simply hormonal and the hormones had began to fade? Or was it emotional? It wasn’t until the midwives told me that my baby wasn’t putting on weight that I realised I had been carrying the fear from the birth that my baby was not OK. Plan fatten baby up gave me somewhere to challenge my anxiety and like that it dissipated. Looking back I realise how lucky I was in comparison to other women whose babies were seriously unwell. But at the time my anxiety seemed so real, so valid.

On breastfeeding

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I thought breastfeeding would be as simple as take boob, pop boob in babies mouth, baby feeds – done. Insert hollow laughter here.

Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I have ever done. None of it was easy. In the first three weeks I cried almost daily about how hard it was. The temptation to say fuck it and only give him formula was almost overwhelming. But a small voice inside me said just try another day and I did.

If I wasn’t supported in the people around me I would not have persisted. From the kind midwife who suggested giving him a tiny bit of expressed milk to satiate his hunger, then breastfeeding him when he was so hangry he refused to latch. To all the other women my friends and at the breastfeeding clinics who said yes breastfeeding is really, really hard but it gets better. To HWSNBN who did everything so I could feed our baby. From bringing me endless glasses of water and food, to changing nappies and taking him around the park so I could give my sore boobs a rest. And for encouraging me to keep going when things were tough.

The first challenge I faced when it came breastfeeding was physics. Nibs was born on the small side and my boobs are anything but small. He’s seven weeks old now and much to my little sister’s amusement my boobs still dwarf his head.

The second challenge was genetics, I was the most uncoordinated person I know until I met… my son. Latching was like trying to touch opposing magnets. In the early weeks it would take up to half an hour and HWSNBN’s help to get him to latch. Where he would feed for a couple of minutes and fall asleep, and then the whole process started again.

The third challenge was medical. I have PCOS which means that my breastmilk supply is lower than average . Nibs like many babies had jaundice which equates to one sleepy baby who doesn’t really want to feed. As breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis, having a sleepy baby who didn’t really want to feed meant my already low supply dwindled further.

My boobs the day milk came in two words: rock tits.

They say breastfeeding isn’t meant to be painful. Seriously? Tell that to my fucking nipples. It gets less painful as your nipples get more desentised but still sometimes when he latched I have to count to ten.

Getting newborn to latch is like trying to put a sock on a snake.
‘Hey baby, here’s the nipple.’
Baby turns head in the opposite direction.
‘Baby the nipple, it’s here.’
Baby bobs frantically headbutting nipple.
Baby manages to get nipple in his mouth (yay), and his hand too (no).
Baby latches on and while latched whips his head back and forth still searching for the nipple. Yep Nipple whiplash, it’s a thing.

Years ago I read about Melanie Klein’s theory of the good/bad breast and the concept of splitting. I thought it was bullshit. But Klein was right on. Sometimes Nibs loves the boob and sometimes he hates it. Being a mother is about being able to withstand both.

The breastfeeding books speak about being in a comfortable position. But I’d stay contorted in the most awkward positions because I had finally got him to latch and who cared that I was bent double over my baby. And if the remote control was out of reach well, love meant enduring Jeremy Kyle.

I’ve breastfeed through thrush, engorgement, blocked milk ducts (twice), cracked nipples… I’m just waiting for mastisis and then I’ll have the full set.

In some ways, having to introduce a bottle so early was a blessing in disguise. It has meant that HWSNBN can feed the baby and have that bonding time together. Even better it means I get a blessed hour off. Bliss

The best thing about my breastfeeding app. It tells me how long I’ve been feeding for and which breast I last fed from. The worst thing about my breastfeeding app it tells me how long I’ve been feeding for. 8 and a half hours! No wonder my arse is numb.

Cluster feeding was demoralising as hell and it hit in week three just as HWSNBN headed back to work. Unless HWSNBN or his mother were there, I couldn’t eat, or wee or even take a sip of water. I didn’t leave the house for days because he would not stop feeding and as he was finally putting on weight I did not want to interrupt him. He still cluster feeds at night but it isn’t all day so I am so thankful for it.

I quickly learnt to prioritise in those brief moments when I wasn’t physically attached to Nibs. Have a wee, drink water, eat something and perhaps if you’re really lucky nap. Fuck housework.

Some babies are into fast food. Feeding my baby is like trying to feed a narcoleptic drunk gourmand who ordered the fucking tasting menu goddamn it and he will finish it. Even if it takes him three hours actual time (thirty minutes effective feeding time) A sample feed looks like this.
Feed frantically for four minutes.
Fall asleep.
Get put down.
Howls indignantly.
Come back for a two minute soupcon.
Fall asleep while possetting on self. Handed to daddy.
Howls while rooting on daddy’s nose.
Repeat until mummy declares the boob restaurant is closed. Baby does not understand language yet so ignores this.

Stuff Nibs hates:
Being put down
Having his nappy changed
People touching his feet
Having his cheesy armpits cleaned
Being stripped naked
Falling asleep on the boob and waking up to discover the boob is no longer there.

Stuff I will do to get him to feed (because I am eviiiiiiiil):
See all of the above

They said it takes six weeks to get breastfeeding established. By week four it was noticably easier (barring the really painful thrush episode). It’s the end of week six now and I finally feel like we are in a rhythm. What I would say is you need to what is best for your baby AND you! Whether that’s breastfeeding, combi-feeding or giving formula your emotional and physical wellbeing matters too.

On motherhood

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Pre motherhood me would judge the fuck out of some of the choices I’m making. Mother-me would pour me a gin, give me a hug and tell me I’m doing my best.

Having a child unearths a lot of shit from your psyche. I am not somebody who likes being dependent and I hate asking for help. Having a sister who needs extra help, I think I made me grow up fast and decide that I didn’t want to burden people by being too needy. Since having a baby I am physically, financially and emotionally dependent on the people around me and I hate it. I feel incredibly uncomfortable which I think indicates growth.

It takes a village to raise a child. We aren’t meant to do this alone.

You will welcome the people who come over and want to hold your baby. You will want to worship the people who come over with food, pop a load of laundry on, and make you a drink while you hold your baby.

There are a lot of nasty jokes made about mother-in-laws but mine has been amazing. In those early days when I was a walking zombie and later when HWSNBN went back to work she would come over every couple of days and help out.

Being a mum eclipses everything else. I lose hours staring into his eyes. There isn’t a to do list anymore.

Being perpertually late person naturally is exacerbated by having a baby. Leaving this house is like martialling an army. An army that waits until you are just picking up your car keys before pooing up it’s back.

Saying it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t also wonderful. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

One day he may be 33 too and taller than I will ever be, but he will always, always, always be my baby.

During the birth, he was born but a new me also emerged. I am not sure what mother Rowan looks like. But I can’t wait to find out.

Sometimes you have no choice but to put your screaming child down and have a wee. It doesn’t make you a bad mum – it makes you somebody who values continence.

On marriage

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When I met HWSNBN I was 21. I wasn’t sure I wanted to even get married, let alone have children. I never chose him thinking about what kind of father he’d make. Luckily those qualities I fell in love with as a partner map perfectly onto being a dad.

My bestie asked me what I was doing for Valentine’s day and I replied sarcastically that HWSNBN and I were playing the ultra romantic game of pass the screaming baby. But it’s true I have never loved HWSNBN more than when he sees me pacing with a screaming Nibs and says ‘Let me take over for a bit’ and I go cry-sob in the shower. It isn’t roses and chocolates but it is love.

On the dark side, I have never hated him more when he complained in all seriousness ‘I never got out anymore.’ The baby was four weeks old. Complaining to a new mother about never going out, is like bitching to people in a famine regime that the size of Quality Street tins are a bit skimped. Know your audience!

I don’t mind admitting that HWSNBN is better at settling him that I am. He seems less affected by Nibs’ crying whereas to me it’s like an alarm saying do something! One of the downsides of having boobs is that I use them as a pacifier. Whereas HWSNBN has a whole host of tricks at his disposal.

It’s ridiculous that dad’s only get two weeks of paid paternity leave. I was lucky because HWSNBN works for himself he could work from home most days or ask his mum to come down when he wasn’t able. I don’t know how other women do it. 5.30pm has become my favourite time of day.

I am a better parent with him around.

On babies

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I never knew much about babies and to me they all seemed alike. Tiny, sleepy bundles that looked and acted like drunk old men. Now I have one I see the differences.

The first night Nibs threw up every half an hour gobs of yellow mucus. I sat and watched over him terrified he would choke and drown. It was first experience of motherhood that sometimes there is nothing you can do but bear witness and be there for your baby.

If you have a baby that screams uncontrollably for hours, it can almost unbearable. The one that helped was imagining the screams were him talking. Very loudly. For hours.

It’s OK to think your child looks a bit weird sometimes. Sometimes I think he is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Other times I think he looks like a cross between Pob and a monkey.

The principle of the fourth trimester governs many of my early parenting decisions. Nibs has gone to never being cold, or hungry, or not held to experiencing all of those things. No wonder it is overwhelming.

He loves staring at me the most. Followed shortly by the curtains.

Nibs hates to be put down. If he could he would cling to me (preferably) or Johnny at all times. At 7pm when I’ve been feeding for hours and he’s howling, I would do anything to be alone. I miss having my body to myself. But sometimes in the dead of night when I feel his warmth on me I think nobody will ever love and need me like you do and it makes me want to cry with the tenderness of it all.

You can’t spoil a baby. A child yes, but not a baby.

Babies noises are deceiving. Throughout the night he will frequently sound as if he is choking on his own vomit only when you turn on the light – there is no posset to be seen. Paradoxically when he does posset it dribbles from his mouth silently like Bishop at the end of the Aliens movie. Frequently while fast asleep he will emit a sleep screech that is so terrifying it alone makes me glad I religiously did my pelvic floor exercises. We’ll just settle him for the night when he will start hiccuping in his sleep. Loudly. His favourite thing to do is lie there asleep making snuffling, snorting and burbling noises. HWSNBN calls this his ‘look mummy I am sleeping. Look at me sleep. I iz very good at the sleeping’ noise. I call this fucking irritating. Other times I will wake in the night and he will be lying silently in the dark staring at me. #mybabyiscreepierthanyourbaby

Babies are gross and because you love them you become gross too. He has possetted on my hair, stomach and nipple. Once he threw up on his fist then sucked it like it was a lollipop. I took a photo. Sometimes I don’t even know myself anymore.

When pregnant I read in the newborn book that babies feed on average every two hours. That’s not too bad, thought me. At least your getting around two stretches of sleep. What I didn’t realise is that’s two hours from the start of the feed and by the time you put them down you have forty-five minutes before the whole cycle starts again.

You win some, you lose some. I hesitate to write this because I am so tempting the baby gods to curse me for my hubris. But Nibs sleeps absurdly well for a newborn. WINNING

I expected the nights to be bad – but the first fortnight aside they have been bearable. The evenings on the other hand… ah dios madre. When the clock turns 5pm my angel child turns into the bat baby from hell. He has a full agenda of screaming and feeding or screamfeeding and he isn’t going to stop until he’s done. This is coincidentally the time when my reserves and patience are at their lowest. Luckily it is also the time when HWSNBN comes home. 

The days are long but the years are short. As I write this Nibs is six weeks old. He is smiling and burbling. He loves to be held upright so he admire the curtains. He’s grown almost 30 centimeters. I can’t wait to witness the little person he grows into.

I thought I would have this strong feeling of ‘mine’ when I saw him. But he doesn’t feel like he came from me. He feels like a gift from the stars and the sky and I am just looking after him for as long as he will have me.

They didn’t say it would be easy, they said it would be worth it. And it is so worth it.

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3 thoughts on “Birth, motherhood and me

  1. This is the most beautiful account of your experiences Rowan and even though we;re so far away made me felt like we’d lived it with you. So wish we could come round for a cuppa and a cuddle – can’t wait to meet him

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