Feeding, fraughtness

My favourite piece about breastfeeding is by Mary Tyler Mom, she describes breastfeeding as “a sweet, amazing, tender transaction between me and my kids”, which is very much how I feel, especially this time. I wanted to write about breastfeeding in that sort of way, but I keep knocking against the political issues.

I wanted to write about last Tuesday, how my husband was late home from work and everything went wrong. I got bub ready for bed then put him in the cot after a little feed, drowsy and almost asleep, and turned my attention to the little dude’s bath. It was the best plan I could think of at the time but turns out it was a crap plan. Bub started crying almost the second I put the little dude in the bath – I kept thinking he’ll fall asleep soon, he’ll fall asleep soon, people say that’s what happens, but he didn’t. He just cried, solidly, for the whole time it took me to get his brother to bed. I felt awful. When I went back, he’d made a little damp patch of tears in the cot. Is there anything more pitiful than a baby unable to wipe their own tears? Poor little love. I cradled him and nursed him immediately and his little body relaxed, and he slept, and we lay there for a while, and in moments like that, it’s so affirming of the bond, little mouth, soft on soft, I hold him to me, stroke his fluffy head, feel like we’re reconnecting, and all his needs are being completely met.

I’m pretty keen on breastfeeding eh, I like that cosy closeness. It’s a bit like how I’m keen on going for long walks, or swimming at surf beaches, or baking; and as with all those things, I can also see why people might not like it and that’s fine too. Except… the way we feed our babies is one of the most fraught and judged aspects of parenting. I wanna be able to say that support for breastfeeding should be better BUT ALSO we should be glad that formula exists, a safe alternative to human milk, and y’know, there shouldn’t be so much baggage to feeding decisions.

With the little dude, breastfeeding was a nightmare to start, and after the horrendous birth it took on an outsized importance to me. I was determined to breastfeed. Birth had been a trainwreck. My body was a complete mess (hey, y’know what’s not fun? Zero bladder control for three weeks while also looking after a baby – thankfully my husband was on leave). I felt like I needed the breastfeeding to work. It had to work. I was fixated on the potential redemption of my body doing what I wanted for me and my baby.

I’m so inordinately glad that I got good support from lactation consultants to get him feeding, that we got his tongue tie and lip tie treated, that we learned how to breastfeed together and he thrived. I had, and still have, a ridiculously overabundant milk supply. I have to be very careful not to get engorged, it happens easily, and several times I’ve had blocked ducts and a bout of fever, but never full blown mastitis (luckily). The supply is such that there are times when I avoid feeding in public because I know I’ll squirt everywhere. This meant that despite the problems with the little dude’s feeding, I was always able to produce enough milk for him. It’s a bit of an annoyance generally, but those first few weeks with him it was winning the boob lottery.

(My husband once said “if you went back in time, you could find gainful employment as a wetnurse”. I said “interesting fact, redheads were considered a poor choice for wetnurses because people thought it would make the babies too feisty.”)

The first time round, I was SO HAPPY that I managed to breastfeed and felt kinda fucked off that the lactation consultant was private and therefore not available to everyone, and fucked off that the pro-breastfeeding messages didn’t take account of how difficult it could be, and I felt really lucky that it worked for us. Fucked off at the hospital for not checking the little dude’s mouth – not noticing the extremely obvious problems, he couldn’t even suck milk out of a bottle, no wonder my nipples were destroyed. The day we turned to expressing, we fed him with a syringe. Fucked off that I had no idea what advice was good and what was bad – should I be stressed about giving him one bottle? Is virgin gut a real thing? Is nipple confusion a real thing? Will it make the breastmilk go away if he gets some formula? AHHHHHHH.

This time, it’s all been perfectly lovely. I had every expectation of breastfeeding again (it could hardly be worse than last time), and the birth was so great, and then bub just seemed to know what to do. I had that picture perfect thing of feeding him minutes after birth, skin to skin. He got bigger and bigger and bigger and now he’s really a ridiculous giant baby, and at 5 months he’s almost ready for the taste explosion of pureed kumera. It’s been really nice to experience an easy version of breastfeeding.

And it’s opened my eyes to something I didn’t notice before.

We dodged a bullet with the little dude. If my supply hadn’t been so copious, my obsession with only giving him breastmilk when he clearly wasn’t able to latch could have been dangerous.

The Plunket data shows that 86% of babies are either fully or partially breastfed at six weeks old. I think that demonstrates that the vast majority of mothers intend to breastfeed and give it a solid attempt. The data also shows that of these breastfed babies, just over a third have also had some formula. Having talked to more friends who’ve done mixed feeding, I think we should be more open about this, and particularly about the role formula can have in the early weeks for mothers whose supply is low (given it’s not like we have breastmilk banks everywhere offering an alternative). At the moment, mums and babies are often in a really awful situation if the breastfeeding doesn’t start well. They’re stuck in the gap between the pro-breastfeeding/anti-formula public health messages, and a lack of support to get breastfeeding established. It’s kinda the worst of both worlds, with some major risks – especially if the baby’s not getting adequate fluids.

In times gone past, it was considered totally normal for another lactating mother to feed a newborn in the early days. We’ve historically recognised the possibility that the mother who just gave birth may need milk backup, but now – despite formula being available in the supermarket – it’s barely discussed.

The support available for breastfeeding isn’t good enough. But increasingly, I also reckon that we’ve reached a point where breastfeeding is more or less normalised in NZ, it’s seen as the main way babies are fed. So… can we maybe chill a bit with the pointed messaging, and consider how to support mothers in their feeding preferences? Including the very obvious preference for babies getting fed, foremost.

As someone who’s racked up almost two years of breastfeeding experience, I also reckon it’s most enjoyable after it stops being exclusive. Which makes the pressure to not use any formula seem particularly odd. The time I was happiest to be breastfeeding the little dude was after I went back to work and he was eating a big range of solids. He could be gone from me for long periods, but when I returned, we’d nurse, and my on-the-go little chap would be quiet and cuddly. He was finally weaned at 16 months, a week after the positive pregnancy test for bub. Tandem nursing was never on my mind because I couldn’t bear the thought of breastfeeding through the bodily collapse of the first trimester. And yet, as soon as it was over, I missed it.

When I love it most, it’s not for the advertised health benefits, it’s for the convenience and the snuggles. That said, there are other ways to experience that close love for a cosy bubba, like having a bath or a shower with them, or rocking them to sleep then holding them for a long while, or co-sleeping. Breastfeeding is a feature of parenting that I mostly enjoy; simultaneously, I feel like it’s insulting and patronising to put it separate and above from the combined package of intimate baby care. I don’t know how I’d calm my crying over-tired baby if I wasn’t breastfeeding him – but I’m sure we’d figure something out together.

 

 

Mini post #2

Slaughter presents a contrast between caring and competition, one of the guiding strands of the book:

“Competition, with myself as well as with others, has helped drive many of the best things I have done in my life. But loving and caring for my family and friends, teaching and mentoring my students, helping and watching staff members grow into and then out of their jobs is every bit as rewarding.”

I wonder if we can reframe the appealing satisfaction she identifies in competition as a more neutral value, one that can be complementary to caring.

Competition is appealing because it’s satisfying to master something. This has application to all facets of life: not only paid work. I’d love to reach a point where I feel like my husband and I have mastered talking through disagreements. We are not there yet. We are getting better! An oppositional mindset could never get us there, but a cooperative mindset could.

Similarly, it gives me deep satisfaction to have mastered certain elements of parenting. It’s one of the things I am enjoying most about having a second baby, a chance to look after a bubba without so much self-doubt. I know for example that if he wakes after only 20 minutes when napping in the buggy, he needs me to settle him back to sleep, and then he will get a good rest and be his chilled little self. And when I succeed in getting him back to sleep, WOOHOO that is a PARENTING WIN my friend.

A cooperative flow with another person can also be a win. That flow is something that is highly valued in a professional setting, and it’s also a feature of parenting. I love baking with the little dude for this reason, “and den we mixtz it all todetha, and den we dgonna woll it out!”, and he’s happy and engrossed, and I’m happy and engrossed, and it’s a joint enterprise we’re doing with great success. 

So yeah, not buying this dichotomy at all.

A Slaughter book mini-post #1

I have SEVENTEEN PAGES of notes oh no way can I get that down to a proper review in the tiny scrap of time after children are in bed and chores done. Mini post series time!

At the very end of the book, she talks about her own family history. I love reading about family histories. Her stories are fascinating, especially the Belgian grandmother who fled her occupied homeland with two children in tow, to join her husband in the UK. Both of Slaughter’s grandfathers were educated and successful professionals – one a doctor, the other a judge.

My upbringing was upper middle class, but scratch back a few generations to the same time period as Slaughter’s grandparents, and the stories of my great-grandparents create a different perspective. My great-grandmother, a contemporary of Slaughter’s two grandmothers, had a pretty hard life. My grandmother doesn’t complain about her childhood, her reminisces are fond, but the detail of the stories she tells paint the picture of working class struggle anyway. There were seven living children, one dead. She and her sister closest in age shared a bed. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis so he had the privilege of an egg for breakfast every morning, despite the stringency of war rations. The children would take turns having the top of the boiled egg. That’s right: every eight days, they got the top of an egg. Growing kids. One Christmas, their mother decided to kill the pet chicken “Hoppy” (he only had one leg), to serve for Christmas dinner. My grandmother remembers none of them wanted to eat Hoppy and her mother was cross.

When the kids had spare pennies, they would buy a card of peanut butter from the shop: a smear of peanut butter on a scrap of cardboard, to be licked off, savoured. They would eat this treat in secret because their father thought it unhygienic and forbade it. When he was well enough to work, my great-grandfather was a telegraph operator at the post office. When he became too ill, he stayed home and managed the house and my great-grandmother worked as a  housekeeper for a doctor’s family. After he died, my great-grandmother remarried. Her second husband was a widower with two children. They had another child together. In the “on demand” economy of the day, the work situation of the second husband was not favourable. He was a dock worker (they lived in Liverpool), and would line up in the morning seeking work unloading containers. Here’s how the system operated: the men would stand around, and the big strong ones would be offered work first. There wasn’t always work for everyone. The wives would go down on payday and make sure they were there to get the pay packets so that the money wasn’t drunken or gambled away. My grandmother passed her 11-plus but there was no money for the grammar school uniform so it wasn’t an option. She wanted to be an “authoress”.

It’s not that long ago, this history.

It’s difficult for me to see the promise in the “gig” economy for mutually advantageous flexibility, glowingly discussed by Slaughter, when I think of my grandmother’s step-father waiting on the docks, hoping that there’d be work for him that day, knowing that there were ten children at home. 

But what are we over-valuing?

I have screeds of notes for a review of Anne Marie Slaughter’s book, but no time to write it, which says it all huh? I saw that puff piece today, paperback is out, more publicity, and it made me think – done is better than perfect so let’s just chuck down some bullet points or write a series of small blogs.

Sooooo.

I say, she says, everyone says that we don’t value care enough. The article closes with this quote:

“The bottom-line message,” she says, “is that we are never going to get to gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work — or when both men and women do it.

“That’s the unfinished business.”

And, I have some thoughts, because I think this is actually a really complex issue and I want to unpack it a little bit.

There’s a slight of hand in saying that we need to value caring more without looking at what is on the other side of the ledger, looking at what is overvalued, and what specifically is undervalued. “Caring work” is an amorphous term. It involves the daily grunt work, packing lunches and pushing buggies and keeping calm when the kid hits another kid at the library, getting them bathed and to bed. That stuff is undervalued, but there’s more hiding behind it, and the hidden components of care are even less valued: in particular, connection and play and downtime. These are so thoroughly undervalued that some go so far as to doubt whether they’re necessary.

Downtime is when all the magic happens. Holidays, weekends, time that is unhurried and unscheduled, time that does what it wants. When I was back in the office, between babies, I had my lovely expansive afternoons with the little dude – picking him up at 3.30ish most days. One day we got home and the neighbour’s cat was on the roof. The little dude would have been around 18 months old. We watched that cat for almost an hour. He was entranced. He might not remember that, but I do, I’m keeping that memory for him. We watched that cat as it clambered round the roof, slipping in and out of view, and he laughed and he burbled away, pointing, “diddis!”. I remember it so clearly, I remember thinking  – I am utterly glad that we get this time together, that I don’t have to hurry him down the stairs because he needs dinner soon.

Hey, how much is downtime valued in our world? Not so much eh.

Today I Skyped with my aunt in Vancouver (hiya!). When her twins were four they stayed with us for a little while and my brother and I, young teenagers, would take them to the park. I remember pushing them on the swings – two of them and two of us – the game was to try and get the swings to sync up so that the twins could reach out to each other. We must have played that game for hours and hours and hours.

I worked at a childcare centre most of the way through uni, one day a week during school terms, for four years. There was one girl who I was particularly fond of, she had this great purple corduroy jacket, and she was utterly fearless on the jungle gym, and the wickedest sense of humour. I looked forward to seeing her, my little mate.

I put the job on my CV when I was still at uni, applying for law jobs, and at an interview they said “that sounds like a fun job”, and I said, yeah, it was. I think now – wait, if they know how much fun it is to spend time with little kids, why are the hours so punishing for parents who work there?

Stop wasting time! Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive? Why are you lounging about? Don’t be lazy. Come on, don’t dawdle. We need to boost productivity. What is the most efficient solution? Did you know Steve Jobs used to wake up at 4.30am when his kids were little so that he could get work done before they got up? Top ten tips for busy mums and dads! Yeah, life’s good at the moment, pretty busy though.

 

STOP.

What’s the rush?

Seriously!

What is so urgent that it can’t possibly wait?

You know what’s actually, genuinely, really important: spending time with loved ones. Especially children, because they grow up and change. It is shattering how quickly they change. I get a notification from the photo app to rediscover this day and whompf, I miss the little dude as he was this time last year. Sometimes I see those little snippets of video and I get an ache of longing to just hold him once more as he was then. The day it sent me the photo we took of the last breastfeed, oh my heart. Those soft damp curls. That still chubby body, my arms around his back.

It’s bad enough that we miss them when they’ve grown, it’s a brutal world where we miss them while they’re still here, because we’re too busy doing something that FEELS more urgent. And most of the time, that urgency is a myth, a pervasive, intensely damaging myth.

The jobs where things really are urgent, burnout is a huge risk, and this needs to be managed through shift work and staffing levels. You don’t want the paramedic working a 60 hour week! People could die!

In other areas, like law and policy which is the area of interest to Slaughter and also, um, me, the urgency is… not real. It’s manufactured urgency. Sound, durable policy arises from a robust assessment of whether anything needs to change in the first place, careful consideration of alternatives, and an iterative refinement that builds consensus and broad support. A culture of urgency undermines this process, and creates a ridiculous waste of resources. If you’re working long hours, you’re doing it wrong. What the hell are you playing at – we’ve been trying for centuries to figure out a just set of laws, are you really so arrogant as to think that you working a 55 hour week is going to make or break our system of government?

We need to be like little kids, asking the why for the why, scratching away to see what’s underneath, see what we’re really valuing. Because it looks to me like we’re valuing the state of being busy, for its own sake. We’re valuing a life without spare time. The term “spare time” is even slightly derogatory! Spare?!  What’s spare about time? IT RUNS OUT. But hey, we should be so rushed every day that we don’t pause to remember our time on this planet is finite and every moment we don’t spend with people we love is a moment we can’t get back. Ouch. Fuck. Heavy shit eh.

On Friday a few weeks ago I picked the little dude up from creche at 4.30. (He goes two days a week now. Oh I’m so glad we can afford those two days so that bub gets a bit of actual attention, and so that the little dude gets the fun activities and gets to hang with his friends.) Buckle him in his carseat “where Daddy?” and I said “he’s at work”, and then he rattles off this long list of follow up enquiries, where Nana, where Dranddad, and so on – all the adults he knows! And I’m like “work, work, work, Auckland and also work, work, work, France and sleeping because it’s night there, Auckland, Auckland, work, work”.

It must be so weird from their perspective. I wonder what he thinks.

 

 

Small thought this morning 

I’m having coffee with some colleagues later today. I’m kinda looking forward to going back to work already – but at the same time, I think at 5 months old bub is still better off being looked after at home, his place at creche isn’t available til January anyway, and the little dude is getting his tonsils out in two weeks and will need a big recovery time after that. Then it’ll basically be the end of the year anyway. So I’m not going to change when I go back. And we’re having lots of good moments these days. But overall, at this point, I’m at home with them primarily for their sake not mine. My preference would be for some part time work already. 

I don’t think I know anyone who is unequivocally enthusiastic about being an at home parent. Can’t think of anyone in my circle of acquaintance. It’s so much harder and more exhausting than most of our paid jobs. 

I don’t feel any qualms being honest about this, though I know lots of mums wouldn’t admit it except to other at home mums, and there’s pressure to say something like “it’s hard but I wouldn’t swap it for the world!”. 

Being at home with them has some upsides, and in our current situation it’s the best option for the next few months. But I think we need to stop assuming that at home parents have the lucky fun job. 

in pain thou shalt bring forth children

Very much resonates for me. I love the photo of bub’s foot sitting above my belly stretch marks; I wouldn’t mind showing it to the world. But it’s not the truth (the truth is that when I walk briskly, it feels like my pelvis is collapsing).

myflatpacklife

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I were pregnant at the same time. My daughter arrived first, and despite my extended hospital stay, I was at home to see the footage of her leaving hospital rosy cheeks glowing, Princess Charlotte bundled in arms, another dress more lovely than anything I own. The plaudits soon rolled in; Kate had achieved the highest prize in motherhood – another natural birth. Oh, and a healthy baby.

Sitting on my couch at home I watched the cameras surrounding her. Glad I was spared the scrutiny of their lenses. That I could keep my dressing gown at midday, my grey-tinged skin, and slow painful walk to myself. I told myself the dress, the make-up, all hid the unglamorous reality of birth. Pain-killers and maternity pads can hide a multitude of sins.

After her first was born Kate was praised for her willingness to expose the…

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Live blogging instead of a review 

Started reading the Gopnik book. Thesis is that ends-based parenting is problematic. We shouldn’t be raising our kids with the intention they turn out a certain way. I like this general point, appeals to me philosophically. 

Related: I find myself drawn to the child-as-person category of parenting advice but I’m pretty uncomfortable with how often it veers into “and then if you encourage emotional connectedness your child will grow up to save the world!” Calm down, being nice is an end in itself. Moral perfectionism is just as unrealistic as any other perfectionism. 

(My vision of some parents in 30 years “Sirius is such a disappointment, I don’t know where we went wrong, he’s *sniff* he’s an optometrist in Christchurch and he doesn’t even attend political protests on the weekend! I always imagined him doing something spectacular you know? But he says he’s fairly content. Fairly content?! It breaks my heart. I can’t even talk to him anymore, not after our recent argument when he said he’s not planning on unschooling his kids. I offered to unschool them myself but he said that the local primary school was fine. Fine?! It’ll break their unique spirits! Maybe I was wrong to gently transition him out of the family bed so soon, eight might have been too young.”)

[Ed – I think the parenting perfectionism is more a US think anyway. Writers I follow from here and Aus and the UK tend to take a low key approach “if I do my job as a parent more or less ok, my kid will be a decentish person”. When we’re really enthusiastic we might add “who tries to make the world a better place in their own small way”.]