Celebrating my boobs

During my first midwife appointment, only a few months pregnant and not really even showing yet, was when I was first asked, ‘Will you breastfeed?’. A silly question to ask at that stage to be honest, because no one can know for sure, but I certainly wanted to try.

It seemed that my boobs wanted to try too, because at around six months pregnant I started waking up to small wet patches in the bed where I’d started leaking already. This was when I first started thinking that, really, the whole thing with boobs is weird.

We are subconsciously taught from a very early age that breasts are for admiration. They are a feature of attractiveness, a sexual tool. And yet here mine were leaking through my clothes and bedsheets at night – not at all sexy! Suddenly they were not mine anymore, they were preparing for someone else’s arrival instead.

Once Millie had been born we began to negotiate the breastfeeding minefield, which for us took a while. My nipples were dripping milk onto my swollen tummy in the shower, they were suckled for hours as Millie would fall asleep during feeds so I was expressing to make sure she was drinking properly, and as it turned out they weren’t quite large enough and needed little silicone shields to ensure a good latch. They were now a constant consideration, as they became full, hard and sore, then had to be switched regularly to ensure good flow for Millie, and were also pumped like udders with a loud electric device to allow my husband to get involved in feeding too.

This is all a bit overwhelming for anyone, and I feel lucky to have stayed in hospital for six days where I had access to clinical experts and a daily breastfeeding clinic where I could go and ask questions, and sometimes just sit and feed knowing I had people around to help if I needed it. The first time I literally asked the nurse to grab my breast and do it for me because I felt so lost, and she duely obliged – that level of support was invaluable to me.

Being able to ask my mum and friends openly about feeding was also vital, because it helped me feel more normal and less isolated – I’ve said it before and will always insist that a support network of any description is they key to how you manage with a child. No one can do it alone.

Initially I had been pleased at my extra cleavage but in fact it’s a huge amount of pressure. On top of trying to manage the varying size, leaking and feeding, there’s the constant talking about it all. Asking friends if the things I was feeling were normal, did their babies do this or that too, trying to fit my breasts into different bras, checking for their fullness. I lost count of how many times I was asked how I was feeding, and then when I started topping Millie up with formula at around six weeks because I couldn’t keep up with her appetite, waited for the judgement. I wasn’t often openly judged, in honesty, but there’s so much conversation about it that I felt ready to be, which is wrong in itself really.

The breast vs bottle thing is a crazy weight to land on a woman’s shoulders after squeezing a human out of her hoo-ha. Yes, breast milk has the longest list of utterly fantastic properties, but if we’re honest formula is great too these days, and the fact is that not every one can physically breastfeed, and even if they can they may not want to – and that’s THEIR decision.

Then came  feeding in public. Because of some of the hype around breastfeeding publicly I was ready to fight anyone who dared challenge me, despite never having actually been challenged! I believed vehemently in my right to feed my daughter wherever and whenever she needed it, and never shied away from that, because I was determined to normalise it and help change perceptions, but then I came back to the old societal rules. There are loads of places that openly support breastfeeeding in public, which is fantastic, but sometimes I didn’t want to just flip my boob out for all to see, despite the very necessary purpose. It feels beautiful, but also vulnerable, and very out of the ordinary for a woman, so I used to carry a big cloth for a bit of privacy now and again if I wanted it.

On the flip side of all that, breastfeeding Millie was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had with her. My favourite times (and my husband says the same, so it’s clearly more about bonding than just boobs) were the night feeds. In the early hours when it felt like we were the only two awake, quietly snuggled together as she filled her tiny tummy and blessed me with her new smiles. It was all about her, all about us, and those moments are so very precious.

Then at only five months it was all over, we’d worked so hard to create a routine and adapt together to her needs as she quickly grew, and then one day she decided she had finished and preferred full formula. I was bereft, and not ready, but the use of my body in this way was no longer my decision, and my baby was choosing to move on.

Now my lovely lumps, humps, breasts, boobs, tits, jugs, or whatever you call them (thanks again to society for steering us towards objectification) are mine again. They’re sexual again, meant for a very different purpose than for those few months of newborn sustenance. And I think I love them a little bit more now. They’re not quite the same as they started out but they’ve worked hard and deserve to stand a little less high, though no less proud.

Breastfeeding is beautiful, important, effective and bloody hard work at times, and I’m very glad I was able to feed Millie this way for a while. Everyone does this slightly differently, and ‘trial and error’ were never more important words for me than in raising a child. We made it work for us, which I think should be celebrated and cherished. I look forward to the day she might want to know her story, and perhaps if she chooses, to experience all this for herself.

Whether you breastfed or not, give yourself and your boobs a little hug, because whever you’ve been through, you deserve it!

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Depression and anxiety: with a toddler 

So far in this mini-series of blog posts about my mental health I’ve talked about how my struggles first came about, how I dealt with it then and  how I feel I’ve begun to tackle it now. But I’ve mostly avoided discussion about one pretty major component in it all; my daughter Millie.

If I boil it down my main problem was being overwhelmed with too many things to worry about on a day to day basis, and of course Millie is a huge part of that. There were days when I really struggled to just get to the end of the day, and I was so frustrated, but I knew that her demands weren’t anything out of the ordinary and the problems were mine.

As time wore on and I felt lower and lower, and I began to feel disconnected from her. If I tried to say no to something and she protested, I gave in instantly. I normally feel guilty if she watches any TV or if she eats something I think is unhealthy, but I just went with the quickest and easiest option instead. I was lacking the mental energy to cope with most things day to day, and that included Millie.

That’s actually quite painful to admit to. Obviously she was never neglected or open to harm in any way, but if I’m honest our emotional relationship suffered for a time, because I had just begun to go through the motions. I had to remind myself to get more involved with her; smile when she did something funny and looked at me for a response, sit with her and cuddle while she watched Peppa Pig for the millionth time, and just not let it go when she refused to do more important things like clean her teeth.

I had been signed off work and had decided to keep Millie in her routine of spending two days a week at nursery. She also spent a day a week with my sister in law, and my Mum and Dad would help out and take her for odd days too. If anyone was able to give me a few hours to myself, I took it.

I was drowning and constantly dreamed of ways out. I often fantasised that I could book somewhere and go away to just be completely by myself, because all I wanted was for everything in my life to stop and leave me alone. I particularly remember a day when my sister was off work after an operation and couldn’t drive, and we were going to visit her. She lives about 20 minutes from me and I packed Millie and the dog into the car, and cried the whole way there. I genuinely considered what might happen if I asked my sister to take Millie for a few weeks and just drove away.

Afterwards I felt ridiculous and incredibly guilty. I felt guilty because I knew I was letting Millie (and everyone else) down and giving her far less than she deserved from her mother. I felt guilty because other people were coping with more children and more complicated lives than me, and yet I was crumbling. I felt guilty because there are people who would give everything to be parents, and I was wishing my daughter away. I felt like a failure.

One day my Mum popped in to see us and Millie saw her at the door and immediately went to get her bag and shoes as if she was going out, and then cried when she realised her Nanny was staying in the house with us. That was a bit of a slap to be honest, because I realised just how accustomed she’d gotten to being taken by other people, and how my company was wasn’t enjoyable for her.

I slowly started trying to spend time with Millie one on one. We often do things with others, and I thought it would be good to be together, away from home (because we both go a bit stir crazy when we’re in for too long), with no expectations.

We went to a local play café, we went to the farm, we went to the forest. I tried to let go of everything else in my head and just see her. I would sit with her and talk, play, or do nothing, just watch her. Forget my worries about what she was eating, what else was going on that day, everything.

You know what I realised? I need her. Dear God, do I need her. All the time I had been pulling away from her, and yet when I began to let her back in, she was the one healing me. When I focused on her I could smile because I was happy, and laugh because I wanted to, not because I thought I should. Children are such unaffected, joyous little souls, and I was getting to share that, and see things the way she did.

She doesn’t give a shit if I didn’t shower today, or if she had spaghetti hoops for tea three times this week. Everything she does is interesting to her, or fun, and when I began to just follow her lead, I saw it that way too. I would come home from our times out feeling lighter, and a little at a time I was genuinely enjoying life more, in all aspects.

Millie and sleep have never been great pals and in the last few months she’s spent a lot of nights in bed with me, then more recently we’ve moved her bed into our room, and this has also been really wonderful. It’s meant her sleep has settled and she no longer wakes nearly as much at night, which helps with my sleep deprivation, and I love being so close to her. Laying in the dark and listening to her breathing is very relaxing, and always makes me feel comforted and warm. Then in the mornings she doesn’t wake crying, I roll over and she’s right there, all bed head and chatter.

Now I continue to make time from myself away from everything else, including Millie, because I know I need it, and I know it’s ok to have that. I also continue to make time for just the two of us, because it seems to centre me a bit, we always have a great time, and I know one day she’ll be grown and gone, and I will be fantasising about our lives now instead.

I’ve read a number of times that having time away from your kids makes you a better parent, and it’s so true. If I have time to refuel myself I can give her everything when we are together, and I’ve accepted that now. I’ve realised that I can’t learn to manage my mental health issues without her, so from here on in, it’s a team effort.

A letter to myself

I found out recently that maternal mental health awareness week was happening this week (1-7 May), and it got me thinking. Having a child – whether you’re pushing it out, having it surgically removed, adopting or whatever else – is the most incredible life change. There is no amount of reading or research that can prepare you for the sudden weight of responsibility in keeping such a small person alive. It’s a 24 hour operation, and if ever there’s a time in your life when your normal defences are down, and you are vulnerable to a bit of mental pressure, this is definitely it.

Some people take to it like they were born to (the buggers), but others, like me, don’t. I suffered with post-natal depression in the months after Millie was born, and at the time I thought there was something wrong with me. I refused medication, I didn’t talk about it, and I pushed on through. My life and experiences may have evolved and moved on, but there are many, many more people out there feeling like I did then. Eighteen months on, I’ve written my new mum self a letter with some advice I wish I’d had the courage to ask for then.

Dearest Liz,

Hits you like a brick wall, doesn’t it? I mean, you expected it, but you also really didn’t, and it’s hard. It’s so very hard sometimes, and you need to acknowledge that; you don’t have to brave face it all the time.

We need to just set a baseline here – you’re doing a good job. You know why? Because you give a shit. I read this recently and it makes total sense. The very fact that you worry about Millie getting the best, and feel guilty about what you think she might be missing out on, makes you a good mum. If you weren’t you wouldn’t care. Take heart in that.

I know it’s a rollercoaster. I know that you can’t leave her sight for a second, and that sometimes when you do the cry you hear makes every nerve in your body jangle, and you need to take a breath before you can walk back in and paint on a smile for her. I also know that when she smiles back and kicks those little legs because she’s happy just to see you, your heart melts. I can see it in your face. She’s a powerful being, and personally I think mother nature makes babies that way on purpose. They have to be so delicious in order for you to take the hardship – they give you strength.

You need to draw on this strength when you are at your lowest. Those times when you think she’d be better off without you, and you want to disappear? That it would be easier if you just kept driving and never stopped? You’re wrong. You need each other, right now more than ever.

You are strong, you are doing a brilliant job, you are not failing her, she does not deserve a better mum. There is no one better than you to look after your daughter.

I know you can hear all this, but you don’t believe a word of it. You feel battered, exhausted beyond the realms of possibility, and like you’re falling at every hurdle. There are days when you feel disconnected, and have nothing left, and can’t summon the energy to look after yourself, let alone a baby. And that’s ok. There is no overnight fix, and for now just that you’re hearing the words is enough, but you must never, ever forget them. When you lay down on the floor on her mat just to get a better look at her and drink her in, or during the many hours you sit staring at her sleeping on your chest, tell yourself how great you are. When you look in the mirror and cringe at your reflection, or hold back tears because she’s been crying for hours, tell yourself again. The smiles, the contented naps, the giggles, are all because of you. She’s figuring out a lot right now and growing fast, so she’s got a tough job to do too. You are all she wants in the middle of all that; you’re her whole entire world. You must be pretty bloody special to hold that spot.

Now I’m nearly done. See that bloke on the other end of the sofa? The one holding his iPhone? Tell him. Tell him everything you’re feeling, and ask him to help. He won’t be sure how, because he can’t be when you don’t even know yourself, but you can’t do this alone. Plus he’s not a mind reader! Then tomorrow text one of your friends and do the same. It’s scary to be so honest when you’re breaking inside, but it’ll be worth it. BT once said it’s good to talk, and they weren’t wrong. It takes a village to raise a child, so start getting your village on board!

Finally, step back and look after yourself now and again, don’t try and do it all. Walking the dog is driving you insane so get someone else to do it, and stop thinking about the hoovering, and making people cups of tea when they pop in. In fact some days you don’t have to say yes to them popping in at all if that’s what you want! Let people do more for you, it’s not for you to look after everyone all the time. Focus on you and Millie, get fresh air, take more baths, eat all the chocolate.

Oh darling, when I think of you now it makes me quite emotional, and I just want to scoop you up and hold you. It will get better, and as that little girl grows you will too. I promise.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself first sometimes. Millie needs you to.

Me xx