Photography by Diana Nechita
Knowledge is power
“Why did no one tell me about these things?”
Right up to hitting Publish on this post I’ve been toying with whether to share is or not. I feel the need to bring all the disclaimers of how lucky I am to have a gorgeous, healthy baby and I want to focus on the positives, especially now that we’re feeling the fresh air of being on the other side of it.
Today, for example, was a great day. I love our new little family of three; giggling at his funny little mannerisms (and changing table shenanigans), staring at him with awe and melting a little as he falls asleep in my arms.
But today felt a long time coming.
Who knows how sharing this could help someone else and, let's face it, these tough bits aren't spoken about enough.
So, social anxiety aside, outside of my normal blogging style and with no intention of putting energy in to writing this well (mama resources stretched enough at the mo!), here’s my story of the last few weeks.
Trigger warning: Contains sensitive topics around postpartum recovery and some graphic details.
Raynaud's is a vascular disorder which affects over 20% of women and many don’t know they have it. For some it can cause mild to severe issues when breastfeeding but, depending on the severity, can be treated. Unfortunately for me the treatment didn’t work. If you’re planning to breastfeed and have Raynaud's (or recognise the symptoms) be sure to talk to your care providers.
Expectations Vs. Surreal reality
Before Iver was born I always said that we would try breastfeeding (I really wanted it to work out but was aware there's a lot of potential issues) but truly believed "fed is best".
But then we were in the thick of it; the hormones, the sleep deprivation and emotions. When things started going wrong for me I surprised myself at how strong the urge was to force it to work. When he cried every cell in my body wanted to put him on my boob. Overwhelmingly I felt so so depressed and guilty.
After a pretty traumatic end to my labour I thought I was strong enough mentally to face anything in the future (“If I can do that I can do anything!”). But I quickly realised the hardest part was yet to come and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
The normalisation of women's pain
I had the initial "common" problems of sore nipples and whatnot but over the first few days my pain just seemed to get worse and worse. I was told over and over again that initial breastfeeding pain was "normal". His latch was perfect, my supply was good...the bad experiences were just "how it is" if you want to breastfeed. Alongside all the other postpartum pain and recovery we have to do, this is just another part of it. Apparently.
This was one of the reasons I didn't get the correct support when I needed it. My experience felt so brushed off.
Just like the soreness of stitches that prevent you from walking and sitting, the cramps, the hormonal fevers, the bleeding that seems to never end, the awakening in the middle of the night to passing a blood clot the size of a grapefruit and calling the hospital to be told “Oh yes, this can happen at two weeks postpartum. It’s all normal.”
My breastfeeding experience (ie. the NOT so normal)
The initial latch felt like bread knives on my nipples and would hardly subside for a whole feed. I would get shooting pains up my neck and arms which would last for an hour or so after. The pain became so bad I had to bite down on a cloth not to cry out and my legs would shake through the whole thing. I dreaded every. single. feed.
It affected how I interacted with him. I cried all the time. I started having nightmares where he was latched on and I couldn't move. I would wake covered in sweat. I was in a really bad place physically and mentally.
“Don’t forget to smile!”
Our first brave venture out into the real world was to the local health station for a midwife check up. Baby was doing great, surpassing his birth weight, strong and happy. Mama - not so much. I felt like I had walked in to a mothering audition; surrounded by women happily breastfeeding, smiling and cooing at their content little babes. I kept my head down and tried not to draw attention to myself, hiding behind my husband who held our child while I watched on completely out of my depth.
I gave birth to this baby, the bravest thing I’ve ever done, yet here I was not daring to be the strong caregiver he needed. Or at least, that’s how I felt.
Then Iver started to cry. A lot. My husband tried everything to console him but we knew deep down what he wanted and it was something I totally wasn’t ready to give him, let alone in a public place. A midwife approached us and said “He’s obviously very hungry.” and looked at me expectantly. I sank further into myself.
When I did finally break down in front of another midwife, I told her I needed help. I told her this wasn’t normal. I told her I felt like I was living in a nightmare and had lost myself completely.
Her reply? That mood swings were normal. That I should keep trying. That it’s important my baby doesn’t pick up on my “bad mood” so be sure to sing and coo and smile...it’s very important he sees you smile.
The physical pain was nothing compared to the shame and guilt I felt in that moment.
July in Norway
She did however mention they have a Psychologist at the clinic...but unfortunately they were away for the summer. So was my regular midwife. So was my GP and the private Psychologist I reached out to. So were the local volunteer breastfeeding support group I tried to contact.
Getting the right support
After a week and a half we finally found a private lactation consultant (an amazing woman who I nicknamed my "Boob Mary Poppins") who, within 5 minutes of hearing my symptoms brought up Raynaud's disease which, thankfully, I knew about because I was diagnosed with it as a teenager. I went to a (private) doctor who said straight away that Raynaud's will of course cause issues for me and it should have been dealt with sooner.
To this day, I've had midwives and community nurses flat out say to me that this shouldn't be an issue and I should just "keep trying through the pain."
Sidenote: Norway is super pro breastfeeding and has some of the best research on it (including about the effects of Raynaud's) but it looks like this doesn't get passed down…
By 2 weeks postpartum I was on the max dose of medication (3 tablets, 3 times a day for the indefinite future) that was giving me awful side effects and yet no relief. The pain got worse. I would step out of the shower and my breasts would hurt. Every time he cried I got spasms in my neck.
Pumping was slightly less painful but left me with the same symptoms after.
We tried everything. And yet I still found it so hard to let go. I felt like such a failure. But if “succeeding” meant carrying on living in anxiety for every 2 hour feed and, though heartbreaking to admit, me being unable to bond with my son, then "fail" I must.
"Breast is Best" pressure
Even on the side of the formula box there's a "warning" that says "mothers milk is best". I felt like all my mama friends and family breastfeed. I was told over and over again to "keep trying" because of how vitally important breastmilk is to my son. Switching to formula was, to quote, "giving up". So I was giving up on my baby.
The other side
Once I made the final decision to just Let Go of breastfeeding and pumping it was like night and day. Honestly, I wish I had done it sooner so I could have taken in more of the precious good moments of those first two weeks. I can see much more clearly now that my little one is thriving either way except now he has a happier mama too. I still have big sad moments (and the voice of anxiety in my head cropping up every time he has tummy pain or spits up that "this wouldn't happen if you were breastfeeding.") but part of our job as mothers is to make difficult decisions and trust in the process.
For those entering parenthood: Don't do what I did. Don't put up with suffering because of pressure. That goes beyond having difficulties or a condition. If it's not for you and you just don't want to do it then don't. Trust yourself.
Breast Milk is great but it's not the centre of your baby's universe: You are.
Now our days are filled with plenty of cuddles, all the fierce love in the world and lots and lots of smiles.