A Support Network: This is what it looks like.

I started a Facebook breastfeeding support group a few months ago. The reasons I started my group were multiple: 

It was because I had so many questions almost every single day, and I desperately wanted a collection of experienced mamas to help me out. 

It's working... it's not working... it's working...
It was because of those moments where I wanted to rejoice, to shout from the rooftops that I had fed my boy supplement free, and I wanted those people who truly understood how amazing this was to know that and to rejoice with me. 
First supplement-free feed in five months
It was because I wanted to cry and cry and cry sometimes because of things that the majority of the population deem as 'not such a big deal'. 
Pleeeease, bubba, pleeeease....
It was because I wanted to educate like-minded mamas in all the things I had learnt along the way on this crazy journey of mine -- About the Supplemental Nursing System (SNS), about galactagogues and domperidone, about tongue and lip ties, about donor milk, about postnatal depression, about biting, about dealing with the past, about the medical system here in Switzerland, about monkey brain -- and I wanted to do it in an informal, positive manner. 

After 5.5 months of using the SNS, I was a friggin' pro.
I wanted to be able to freely discuss any issue whatsoever regarding feeding our babies, without having to conform to guidelines set by some overarching (however well-meaning) organisation.

My first defrosted bag of donor milk,
obtained from an informal milk-share.
I wanted other mamas to have a network of help that I desperately needed when I had my first boy, that may prevent future problems or assist them in reaching their personal goals. 

I suppose this is my version of tandem feeding :)
I wanted mamas to know that they aren't alone, and I wanted to feel less alone. 

This group now has almost 200 members (edit, it now has 1500 two years later!!!), many of whom actively post and respond. I am so proud of the mamas in this group -- there has never been a comment (truly!) that I have felt I needed to moderate due to criticism, judgement or negativity. It is such a wonderfully supportive environment where I feel so supported and so safe, and I hope that all the other members feel the same way. 

Now. To the point of my post. 

Yesterday I received this incredible message, and it has warmed my heart so wholly, more than I will ever be able to articulate. It is from a woman who also has been working so hard towards her goal of being an exclusive breastfeeding mama, but who was having to overcome a host of hurdles: Latch issues, Nipple shields, giving formula top-ups from a bottle, a sleepy feeder, a possible lip tie... sounds rough, eh? And sadly not uncommon! So among other things, I told her about the SNS, and a bunch of us helped her along the way.

Here is the message I received from her yesterday: 

Hi Johanna! I've been meaning to send you a message 'when I have a spare 10 minutes' for about the last month...slowly dawning on me that I may never again have a spare 10 minutes...haha! In fact it was in response to an article that you posted a while back...can't remember what it was about but you commented that you hoped one day to be people's go-to person for breastfeeding issues - I wanted to say that you already are! I'm not sure that we would have succeeded in weaning off the supplements (which I think we have - hurrah!) without your advice and the general support from the group that you have created. So thank you a million times! And having read on your blog about all your own struggles...it seems that through these you find the strength to give such compassionate and non-judgemental advice. You already are a fabulous lactation consultant, even if you don't have the bit of paper to say so quite yet! How is it going with the motilium? Hope you are all feeling better xxx

I mean, really. How amazing is that?! Yes, it made me cry. To know that something that I have done has helped a mother to reach her goal, when I know exactly how important that goal can be, really fills me with such joy. This is what it's all about to me, this is what I am striving for. Yahreepa! 


My Magic Power

This last week has made me so incredibly thankful for all that we have been through to become a breastfeeding mama and bubba. I know there have been people who have doubted it, people who have thought that my passion to continue through it all, to find a way among the madness for us to somehow have this relationship, was entirely nonsensical, obsessive, ridiculous and potentially even damaging. And heck, I have obviously had my doubts too, never sure if I was doing the right thing, trying so hard to continue to see the big picture and ensure that the blinkers of my tunnel-visioned-stubbornness remain off.

But I know now that it was all worth it.

Feeding at the zoo - this is the only way to
do it in such a distractible environment!
My Little One has been sick. He stopped eating and his fevers reached 40 degrees. He became incredibly unhappy and listless, sleeping almost constantly, and crying when not. I breastfed as much as possible, and yet his nappies were nearly empty. He was sweating like crazy, losing a lot of fluid. He was biting me again – I now know that this is a clear sign that he is sick – but I just had to keep offering. He was going six hours without any pee. No matter how much he fed, he wasn't staying hydrated enough. I didn't have enough milk for him to be an exclusive breastfeeder in that way. I fed him tea and water from a cup, from a bottle, from a spoon. The biting was always the worst just after I had given him medication, I learnt, so that was always where I offered some sips of water from a bottle first, and then my breast.

I had flashbacks to feeding my first boy when he was sick. I have never given The Little One a bottle before, and yet at 3am, there I was, cradling a sick little baby in my arms in the dark, his head against my chest as he sleepily sucked at a bottle (though this time with tea, not with formula). It was nice. That surprised me.

Feeding my little one amidst flashbacks to life with my first bottle-fed boy
At the doctor, he had a blood test. He was sleeping when we arrived, so I gently took him out of the carrier and put him to my breast. They pricked his finger and squeezed out the blood, and he barely flinched. 'Wow!' the nurse said to me. 'I might just ask every breastfeeding mother if they could feed their baby during a blood test, that's amazing!' I was surprised that more mothers didn't do this, as it was my first instinct when I knew that my boy would be in pain. She said that they get every single kind of mother in their offices, and that it is very rare for a mother to feel comfortable enough to breastfeed outside of the private rooms and in the public space where they do the blood test. That amazed me; surely if a mother knows it will stop their baby from screaming and screaming in pain, they would? But she said no, you'd think so, but no. So now I'm on a mission to breastfeed my boy in those offices any time in the hopes that more mamas will feel comfortable doing so!

He then needed more tests, some attempts at catheterisation, and finally a bag attached to him to collect his urine. I just nursed and nursed and nursed my little boy through the whole thing. At one point, we had to take him from me to weigh him, and he screamed that kind of scream that makes a mama die inside. The kind where his mouth was open, his eyes screwed tight, his face almost purple, and yet no noise was coming out. Until it did. And goodness, it did. Straight back to my breast.

To know that this is how he reacted even when he was in a situation where no pain was being inflicted on him made me so thankful that I could breastfeed him for every other scenario.

So that's really all it comes down to.

I didn't have enough milk, yet again (I got my period, which is potentially also to blame... there's another post!). But that's not what this was about. This was about comfort. All that we have been through together has allowed us to now be capable of getting through such days. I absolutely love that he can receive that from me, that I can mother him in this way. I have a magic power that will make it all better.  

All better! Phew!

Postnatal Depression

I have so many half-written posts saved to my computer that have begun to discuss Postnatal Depression and then fizzle into nothing.

And, despite the fact that I have been sitting here for twenty minutes now with only that one sentence above in front of me, I am determined to finish this. To write about it.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I am getting better now. I am still plagued by days where life feels like this, but this is no longer the underlying feeling that flows through me constantly. I have never reached any point where I feel that there is a serious danger to either myself or my babies, and for that I am both grateful and lucky. I am getting help, I have begun to speak about it, and I am getting better. Acknowledging its existence, that it is different from normal new mum stress, has been a big step for me.

I always thought that postnatal depression was signified by lacking a bond with your baby, or by wanting to do harm to your baby. I thought it was being filled with such desperation to either get your baby to just stop that you want to leave forever, or by having the desire at 3am to throw your baby out of the window. I thought that the fact that my babies are absolutely the most beautiful babies that have ever walked this earth (fact), and that my love for them is so strong, meant that I didn't have postnatal depression. I suppose for some women, this is indeed how it manifests, but not for me.

(photo by Olga Bushkova)
Postnatal depression for me is a feeling of emptiness. It is the feeling of being so overwhelmed, so anxious, so emotionally isolated for such a long time that the only way to deal with these feelings is to just be empty. When things are particularly bad, I simply can't get it together to pick up my crying baby; I just sit next to him and stare at his scrunched up face with such hopelessness, until I find myself staring into space. When things are particularly bad, I can't smile when my two boys are making each other giggle hysterically. I just sit there, a robotic observer, trying to find a way to cope, realising that I am in a golden moment right now and I can't even properly see it. I don't cry, I turn to stone. And then of course I am filled to the brim with guilt over such things.

Postnatal depression for me is a complete lack of resilience. I can be fine one moment, and then one small unpredictable thing occurs that spirals me into a state of anxiety and overwhelm. This can be as small as my husband unexpectedly suggesting we pull into a petrol station on my way home with everyone in the car. That wasn't a part of the plan, you see. There is no room whatsoever for any form of spontaneity, due to the irrational fear that something will go awry. This manifests into a need to be entirely in control of everything all of the time, which obviously makes me a pretty (very) tough person to be around. This, in turn, continues to make me not like the person that I am, the person that I am modelling to my children. 

Postnatal depression for me is an overwhelming fear that something bad will happen to my children. Actually, scrap that. It is an overwhelming fear that one of my children will die. I have never voiced it before, but I feel quite a weight removed now that my eldest has made it to three, as it seems that so many fatal accidents occur when children are two. This manifests in a need to be so constantly on, that I begin to drown under the weight of responsibility. Terrible thoughts enter my mind about so many possible what ifs, and with such detail, that I just can not turn off. Perhaps all parents fear that their child will ride their bike onto the street in front of a car, but for me, I then find myself completely immersed in this fear: where would I be standing when I see it, what would I hear, how would he look, what would I smell, how would I sound, where would his bike be, what would the driver do, who else was there, what then would happen, who would call an ambulance, how would I speak (English or German), how would my husband and I cope with the grief, would we have to move back to Australia, how would it impact on his brother, etc etc etc. And this is just one in perhaps a thousand catastrophic scenarios that occur to me. It is an absolutely constant battle to keep such thoughts under control, to distract myself the moment that it enters my brain, to mentally slap myself into reality.
(photo by Olga Bushkova)
It is only in these last few weeks that I am realising now that I have probably had some kind of postnatal depression or anxiety ever since my eldest was born. And that I probably-most-definitely-probably had some kind of antenatal anxiety. My pregnancy with my second was rough. Not physically, but emotionally. I grieved for how I was going to lose my first boy, that stunningly beautiful and gentle child, the moment that my second was born. I spent so many evenings next to his bed as he had just fallen asleep, tears streaming down my face with the knowledge that this life was about to end and that I will never, once this new baby comes, be able to be the mother that I wanted to be to him one hundred per cent of the time. I felt as if I'd just have to give him up – to give him to his dad forever -- and I didn't want to lose him. I could never imagine a scenario where I would ever choose that baby in my belly over him. I envisaged both crying simultaneously, and just putting the new baby in the bathroom and closing the door so that I could help my big boy. But I knew that the best thing that I could do for my sensitive little toddler, in the long term, was to give him a sibling. And so that is what I did. For him. It was only when I was around 7.5 or 8 months pregnant, and after some counselling and a lot of discussions with my husband, that I began to envisage that baby in my belly as an actual person, and not just an object that would take me from my eldest. And my contractions started not long after...

(photo by Olga Bushkova)
But even when I was in the deepest trench of all of this, I still loved my babies whole-heartedly, needed to do the best for them, to be the best for them. And that includes modelling how to reach out for help, how to deal with big feelings and to give them a name, how to argue, how to heal. Now, I have my days. I have my couple-of-days. I am learning what my triggers are. But now I am able to laugh with my beautiful babies, to soak up the joy on their ecstatic faces when they watch me laugh out loud after they accidentally squirt my face with water. I am capable of being filled with joy without a permeating fear running through it all. I am no longer a functioning stone. I am doing my best to not isolate myself, to have coffees with friends, to talk. Having children certainly makes this easier, as I do not have the option of staying in bed all day and hiding, or hibernating from the world. We must go on walks, we must go to playgrounds, have play dates, go to the shops, talk and sing and dance and jump and laugh and hide and pretend and tickle and experience life.

There. I've written it now. Phew. 

Our Little One's Birth Story

My Little One is now seven months old and only now do I have the time to write his wonderful birth story. Thus is the life of a second-born child, I fear!

His birth perfectly reflects the person that he is: Patient, amicable, without too much fuss, surprisingly easy. He waited inside my belly, despite three weeks of regular contractions, until the perfect time; He waited until my mum had arrived from Australia, then he waited for his big brother to feel comfortable with his Nanny caring for him, and then he waited for me to put my big boy to bed one last time as an only child. He then, as the icing on the cake of perfect timing, made sure that he was outside of my tummy by the time his big brother woke up in the morning. Even now, if his older brother is crying for some reason, he will wait. It is rare that I am bombarded with two crying children simultaneously. Sure, the moment his brother stops crying, he sees his window, but that is him: Patient, amicable, beautiful.

Contractions started three weeks before your birth. Three weeks. I'm not talking about those Braxton Hicks contractions that come and go throughout the day, I'm talking about contractions that were three or four minutes apart, lasting for one minute... Proper, regular contractions, increasing in intensity. They would usually begin around 4pm, and then continue to get stronger throughout the night, dissipating by 6am. Handy timing, eh? But that was my uterus's fault, not yours. I was speaking to my midwife (the same wonderful woman who would come to my house for all prenatal checks, who would attend the birth and who would do all postnatal checks at home) almost every evening during that time, either she would call me or I would call her. She'd keep me on the phone and in conversation through a number of contractions to judge how my speaking changed when in the thick of it. Her advice was almost always the same: “Go and have a bath. Bring a cup of tea. If that baby wants to come, it will come. You will know if something changes. Call me in an hour.”

My mum was planning to arrive four days before the due date, and it turned out that this bubba was waiting for her. He was also waiting for something else: The beads. Mum had developed a secret plan of collecting beads from all of my friends and family throughout my pregnancy, in the hopes that I would have a long string of very different, very personal beads to hang above me and know that I had all of those people, both close to me in Switzerland and half a world away in Australia, plus a few from USA and Canada, holding my hand and telling me that everything was going to be okay. Most of the beads were sent to me throughout my pregnancy, which was really just so beautiful, but my mum would be arriving with a whole bunch more. So this baby knew to stay inside until then!
My big boy's favourite book for the months leading up to
his brother's birth: There's a House Inside My Mummy.
On the 13th of October, contractions started in the afternoon as usual. I made dinner, I tidied, and I became aware of the fact that they were really getting stronger this time. I listened to music with my big boy, stroked his beautiful hair as he watched Charlie and Lola, and then I put him to bed. I cried and cried and cried during that bedtime as I sang him 'The Long Time Sun' song, knowing that this might be the last time I put him to bed in that way, the last time it would be just us. I knew that his entire world was about to shift and he had really no idea. I knew that I would never be able to be there for him again like I had for every moment up until that one. And so I climbed into bed with him that night, clinging to the rail through my contractions, holding him against my body. When I had visualised my dream labour situation, I had always hoped that I would get to put him to bed one last time, and then by the time he woke, he would have a baby brother. And that's exactly what happened!  
Already two weeks into contractions...
I called my midwife, I told her things were different, and she told me to have a bath. This time, instead of the warm water easing the contractions a little, they intensified. I called her again, described how the pain was now much moreso in my legs and hips, she listened to me talking to her and told me that yes, this was it, I was in labour. This time, she told me to go to bed, try to sleep, and call her when I was ready to go to the hospital.

Just after midnight, I was no longer able to stay in bed, no longer remotely comfortable. I woke my man, told him it was time to go, and then went to the spare room to wake my mum. Once she recovered from jumping out of bed so quickly, she moved into our bed for the rest of the night, as our boy would religiously wake and sleepily walk into our bed, climb in and go back to sleep. We were all a bit nervous of how this would work, but my mum said that he didn't even register that it was her in the bed – he just climbed in and went back to sleep. Phew!

We grabbed the bags and the beads and headed out to the car. I had to stop three times and hold onto various things – my man, the tree, the huge bin – to get through a contraction. We drove slowly through the forest when I realised that I still had not threaded the last few beads onto the string and so, stupid of stupid can be, I decided to do it there in the car. Of course I had a contraction just at the pivotal moment and I dropped them all. Beads went everywhere, in all of the cracks and crevices, under the seat, down the side, under the mat... Gaaaah! We arrived at the hospital and I stood there against the car, holding on and contracting away while my man was on his hands and knees collecting beads. 'More!' I told him. 'There's that big green one! And the little black one! And the... (contraction)... blue one with the white in it!'

Hilarious, really, in hindsight.

Anja, my midwife, was of course there when we arrived. Both birthing rooms were already occupied, so she had set up a different room so it looked as relaxing and lovely as can be. We put on my birthing music – the music from my prenatal yoga from years ago, the same music I had used for my first birth – and hung my beads up on the bed, Anja got us some tea, and we just hung out for a while. My contractions were strong, but I was completely lucid and pain-free between them, a totally different scenario to my first birth, where the pain was continuous from the outset. She sat on the floor cross-legged, chatting to me between contractions about her studies, I talked to her about mine, she told me that I should really consider studying midwifery at some point, I told her that now was probably not the best time to try to convince me of that... It was all just very lovely, actually. Through each contraction, I'd turn over onto my hands and knees on the bed, Duncan would massage my back and talk me through it, and then it was done.

At some point I told her that the pain was beginning to seriously move into my back, which was one of my greatest labour fears, as my first was posterior and that was unbelievably rough. She reiterated that this bubba was not posterior, and asked how I felt about being given an enema. She said that there is a chance that it would relieve some of the back pain, and I agreed to giving it a try.

It was awful. I won't go into the gory details of the process, but having severe explosive diarrhoea every minute, while also having incredibly intense contractions at the same time? Not advisable. One requires you to sit, the other makes sitting impossible. Anja admitted to me afterwards that while, yes, there is a chance that the enema would relieve back pain, the other reason she suggested it was to speed up my labour. She said that the way we were, chatting away through each contraction, could easily go on for days. As it was, I had my baby in my arms only two and a half hours later!

After that, I was no longer able to sit or lie down at all. The contractions became almost continuous, with a very short break between only to catch my breath and attempt to gain enough strength to move my body to a potentially more helpful position. Once again, I was suffering from intense nausea and had to hold onto a bowl and often was gagging through each contraction... not so nice. I began to enter that bubble, where the world becomes fuzzy, I become unable to open my eyes, unaware of the world around me and completely retreat into myself. One thing I do remember at that time, though, was Anja, Duncan and Tanja (a young women's doctor there who is also my acupuncturist and with whom I hold a pretty close relationship. We promised to call during my labour, and she came straight over to witness it – though I don't remember when she arrived) all groaning in unison to try to get me back into my deep moans rather than my panicked screeches as things got nearer to the end. I remember hearing one of them laughing at the noise they were all making, and thinking that it was indeed hilarious, but being completely unable to come out of my bubble to express that in any way.

I hit the wall. It became too much. The nausea, the incredible steamroller that was driving through my body continuously, the inability to catch my breath, the feeling of being about to black out from the pain of it. Again, I remembered my last labour: I remembered being filled with those feelings, but then I was immediately relieved, as I had heard that these feelings often signified transition – that point where you were fully dilated and about to push – but it turned out, the first time, that I was only 4cm. Not even half way, and twenty hours into labour. This time was different. I opened my eyes for what felt like the first time in an age, locked eyes with Anja, who was holding onto my foot at the time, and though I was unable to speak, she understood. “You're in transition, Joh,” she said. I had done it! I was in transition! I don't think I have ever heard more beautiful words in my life. It was almost over!

And then came the urge to push. I was scared to push, fearful that maybe, like last time, I wasn't yet fully dilated and pushing could cause some serious damage. “Go for it!” she said, and so I went for it. I pushed once, and she laughed, told me to ease off a bit, that I was too powerful, which made me feel like a total warrior. Two more pushes, a few gasps as I felt that fire of crowning, and his head was out. One more, and out slipped his beautiful body. So simple, so perfect. 5.04am, and my littlest love was born.
Just out! All that hair! 
My eyes were open. I looked at Duncan, so incredibly rellieved that I could finally reveal my big secret. “It's a boy!” he said through laughter and tears, and I laughed and laughed. He had been so convinced that it was a girl, and it was such a release to finally share this knowledge with him after keeping it a secret from everyone on earth for such a long time.

The first thing that hit me was how different he was to our first. A head of beautiful, very dark hair (which has now vanished and he is also a blondey!), and he was immediately crying. Our first boy took a solid fifteen minutes and a bit of assistance before he began to cry after such a long and tough labour, but this little baby was the absolute picture of a quick and by-the-book labour – in fact, his face remained quite bruised with a red tinge for the first five days or so because the pushing happened so quickly. He immediately looked like the name we'd chosen. It's incredible how perfect that name suited this chubby-cheeked, double-chinned, dark-haired little baby instantly.
Mama, Papa and The Little One with the beads.
And then came the moment where I would breastfeed him; The moment I had been so nervous about, unsure of the anxiety it would bring, unsure even if I would want to, if it would make me feel some kind of repulsion or loathing... but no. This new, slimy little baby latched himself perfectly to my breast and it felt like the most perfect, natural thing in the world. I was met with a flood of relief. Sure, I knew it wouldn't feel like this forever, and I knew that we would have things to work through, but right now, for that first feed, things were perfect. And the plan of having no plan, of taking each feed as it comes, hour by hour, day by day, was underway.

It's working! Well... it was. :) Day 2.
Zero jealousy from the big brother, just adoration.
At home, our big boy woke up in our bed, and Nanny was there next to him. She told him that mummy and daddy were at the hospital and that he had a new little baby brother. He was apparently very happy and excited about it all, and still, seven months later, talks about how his brother brought him a fire truck when he came out of mummy's tummy, and how he loves playing with the wooden train at the hospital.

The first time they met.
And thus began our lives as four.  

Three weeks later...
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