I wake up, panicked, realising I’ve fallen asleep. It’s somewhere around three AM, the morning after my emergency Caesar. Becs left me in theatre shortly after 01:45 to go up to NICU with Fletcher. She isn’t back yet.
I wake up again, Becs is back. She tells me it’s around three thirty. She’s finally managed to open a file with the hospital’s main reception and Fletcher has been admitted to the NICU. He’s on a CPAP machine because he has fluid on his lungs – “very common in Caesar babies,” she assures me. I nod, only half taking it in. I close my eyes and a tear rolls down my cheek.
It’s about 9AM, I’ve had my catheter removed and am waiting for the nurses to come and take my drip out so I can shower and go to NICU to see my baby. He’s nearly 8 hours old and I still haven’t held him.
One of the nurses comes into the room, she stares down at me with accusing eyes, “Your baby is starving!” I blink, usure how to respond – I can’t get to him, I’m sitting here, desperately waiting for them to take this drip from my arm so I can see him. “What must I do?” I ask her, pleading. “You must sign the consent form for us to give him formula!” Still aggressive, still unempathetic. “Okay! Babe,” I say to Becs, “sign the form!” Becs signs the form for me because I can’t walk to where the nurse is standing. Unwittingly, we sign away my breastfeeding experience.
A few minutes later the same nurse returns, this time to “milk” me. She begins the extremely painful process of hand expressing my colostrum. Tears stream down my cheeks.
10:21. The drip is finally out of my arm, I’m clean and can now enter the NICU and hold my baby for the first time. He has tubes coming from everywhere. He’s off the CPAP, but still has oxygen prongs in his nose and a feeding tube down his throat. My heart breaks. The NICU nurse explains the various cables and tubes and passes him to me. My heart bursts with love like I’ve never known before. It also breaks a little more.
A little later, the feeding tube is removed and we try breastfeeding. He latches like a boss! I’m ecstatic. This is going to work.
The nurses explain the NICU routine. We’re allowed to come at 09:00, 12:00 and 15:00 for an hour each time – feeding time – then we have to leave. We are there religiously at 09:00, 12:00 and 15:00. But, often when we arrive, the nurses tell us he was crying, so they’ve already given him a bottle and so he’s not interested in taking the boob – he’s full. We cuddle him, kiss him, and fall more and more in love until we are kicked out again. We don’t realise that breastfeeding is fading further into the hazy distance.
The following day, I am discharged and we have to leave. It’s Christmas Day, so after the 12 o’clock visiting hour, we head to my parents’ for lunch. It’s awful leaving him behind, but we’re doing the best thing for him, giving him what he needs to thrive. Because it’s a Sunday, grandmothers are allowed to visit in the NICU for half an hour in the afternoon, so we take our mom’s back to the hospital to meet their grandson. Because of numbers, we have to wait outside while the grannies are there, during which time he is given a bottle. A little further, a little hazier.
The next day, at home without a baby, I’m in excruciating pain. My milk has come in and the pressure is awful. Becs comes to the rescue with two giant cabbage leaves and the pressure subsides. I grab the breast pump and gather those drops of gold for our little boy. At 09:00, we are at the door of the NICU with a bottle with 15ml of breast milk – it’s all I got from about 40 minutes of pumping, but it’s better than nothing. When we put him on the boob, he fusses and screams, he won’t latch properly and when he does, he gets frustrated quickly – it’s not happening fast enough for him, he’s hungry. Ultimately, he’s given a bottle. Still further, still hazier.
This cycle continues for two more days. I pump and take what we can to the hospital (generally, only around 15ml), we try to feed at the hospital, he screams blue murder and is ultimately given a bottle (after he’s had what little breast milk I’d been able to express). Even further, even hazier.
After 5 days in the NICU, he’s discharged and we bring him home. This is our reality, and each time we cave and give him a bottle. At no point do we consider giving him a small bottle – to calm his rampant hunger – then trying him on the boob again. In our minds, bottles are “top-ups” – they come after the boobs. Every feed is a whirlwind of tears, frustration, devastation, giving in and, ultimately, failure. That’s how I feel anyway. I’ve failed him. The one job my body was meant to do, it failed at.
We tried everything to boost my production. I drank litres of “Jungle Juice” (which I’m pretty sure just made me fat(ter)), I took Eglonyl, at the behest of my gynae, I pumped for hours to try and boost my production. Nothing worked. After a full month with not one successful feed, we gave up.
After Becs’s (also emergency, although better timed) Caesar, Stevie came into the world – screaming, pink and perfect. Because it was an emergency procedure, we hadn’t done our COVID tests, so we were admitted to the “yellow” ward for “persons under investigation”. That meant that Becs didn’t go into recovery, but was brought straight back to the ward after they were satisfied she was stable. Forty minutes after Stevie came screaming into this world, she was on Becs’s boob and doing her thing like an absolute little boss – they both were. My heart was filled to bursting with pride and love, for both my girls.
As our hospital stay progressed and the number of Stevie’s successful feeds increased exponentially, I began to reflect and compare. My labour story was, up to a point, almost identical to Becs’s. Both of us were losing amniotic fluid, neither had contractions. We both contacted our various healthcare professionals – me, a midwife, Becs, a gynae – who then advised a course of action. My midwife – obviously being an advocate for a (preferably safe and frictionless) vaginal delivery – advised us to go for induction. Becs’s gynae – only being an advocate a safe and (as) frictionless (as possible) delivery – did a scan, assessed the risks and advised us to go for a Caesar. From then on, our journeys could not have been more different.
During our 48 hours in the hospital, I experienced every stage of grief, except acceptance. As I watched Becs feed Stevie, I bounced between wild, green-eyed jealousy and wide-eyed awe, all the while with a deep undercurrent of immense love. I felt desperate sadness as I began to mourn the experience I had lost, but didn’t know until then that I’d lost it.
Only with Stevie’s birth – a textbook Caesar delivery with a perfect post-op latch and a great in-hospital feeding experience – to compare our NICU feeding fiasco with, did we realise we had been robbed of something truly special and utterly “un-get-backable”.
At the time, we knew no better. We were brand new moms who were just happy each time everyone survived another night. We didn’t know anything about “breastfeeding super foods” or other meds we could’ve tried to increase my production. We assumed my production was so pathetic that is wasn’t enough to satisfy Fletch’s appetite, because when I tried to express we’d get 15-30mls, max. We didn’t know that breast pumps often yield far less than a successful feed. We couldn’t understand why my boobs were constantly leaking but there wasn’t enough milk to satisfy our son. We never considered quenching his hunger with a bottle, then trying the boob. It just never occurred to us. And no one advised us. We also never thought about the fact that an experience that is meant to be fuelled by love and oxytocin was actually riddled with anxiety, fear and stress, and that those emotions were, without doubt, exacerbating the situation.
As I reflected and compared, I was filled with anger – anger at the nurse who came in and yelled at me about my starving baby, instead of trying to help me express, or better yet, getting the drip out my arm so I could see my son. Anger at the lactation specialist at the hospital for not taking the time to explain a NICU feeding journey and prepare me for what was to come. Anger at myself for not bloody Googling it. Anger at Becs for letting me quit (I know how that sounds and my rational brain yelled at me too, but emotions are not rational). I bounced between rage, desperate sadness and numbness.
I also struggled to understand my place – my role – in Stevie’s life. With Fletcher, it was easy – I was “Parent A”, the birth-mother. My job was to feed, nurture and love him. But with Stevie, I was “Parent B” and suddenly it was all new. I assumed Becs must’ve felt the same things, but our experience was so different with Fletcher. Because he was bottle-fed from day 1, we split everything down the middle. He was our first child, so we had no previous experience to compare it toI didn’t want to encroach on Becs’s experience (most especially, I didn’t want to taint it with my negative emotions), but . I just wasn’t sure where I should fit in.
Becs and I spoke at length about our feelings, both in the hospital and in those first few days at home when the hormones and emotional roller-coaster are so raw you actually don’t know which way is up. We briefly discussed non-gestational feeding and how (if?) it might work, given that we hadn’t planned it and prepped my body in advance. The irrational, emotional-and-hormone-fuelled part of me was all for it. The rational, semi-sane human being underneath all of that immediately yelled at me about not being selfish, about not taking this from Becs, expecting her to have a lesser experience because mine was crap. It’s like going to a restaurant and both ordering desserts, but when they arrive, yours is a bit of a let-down. You eat yours anyway, then ask your partner if you can have some of hers too.
Almost 6-weeks later and I’m a far more together mom than I was in those first few days. I tried hard to live in the moments, to experience them for what they were. I couldn’t help comparing, but I tried not to let those comparisons sour this experience. I’ve formed such an amazing bond with Stevie; and despite not being breastfed, Fletcher is an amazing little guy – he’s smart, strong, fit and healthy, what more could we actually ask for? The “pain ball” is still there and some days it’s bigger than other days, but mostly I’m just in awe of Becs and in love with my beautiful family. I gave myself time to grieve – importantly, Becs gave me time to grieve too – and when the hurt flares up again, I will continue to give myself time. Because that is all we really can do, give it time.