Imagine the scene then: I am holding my son who is less than an hour old and my wife is having the most personal of personal areas repaired under a bright light by the midwife. There is a massive part of me that wants to be with my wife to ease her suffering, but I know I can’t; I know I have someone else’s care to think about… and he is in greater need.
When the midwife has finished her stitch-work, I pass Theo back to my wife and take this time with both hands free (something those without kids will not fully appreciate) to send texts to family and friends. I then phone my mum to tell her the news: the unexpected news, as Theo was 4 days early. My family’s joy is almost palpable down the phone.
The rest of the afternoon is spent with Willy getting cleaned up and made comfortable in the birthing room as we decide to stay the night there. This was something we originally were not going to do, but because Willy was still in a lot of discomfort we agreed to accept the support of the maternity ward overnight.
Our parents later turn up during visiting hours and the obligatory photos are taken. Theo wakes and sleeps throughout and I feel like I am watching me in a film about a couple having a baby. It is both unreal and stomach churningly real. The pictures will show me smiling and I was happy: just happy in a clueless way.
The day staff sign off and the night shift clocks in. Theo is still asleep and on one of the nurse visits we have throughout our time there, we ask innocently what the hell should we be doing! Do we wake to feed him, or let him wake himself when he is hungry? Different opinions are given: both diametrically opposite.
We are alone. The three of us are all alone. We have no idea what to do and one nurse says let him sleep, the other says wake him to feed and then leaves us alone for hours. We literally sit and wait for instructions. Theo is comfortable and mostly sleeping so we assume nothing more has to be done. My mind thinks through what babies do: eat, sleep, poo. Our job is to supply food, comfort and clean and change them, then they fall asleep again, and so the cycle begins. Baby is asleep, therefore he must be comfortable, we will wait…
Finally about 10pm, the first nurse comes back (the one who said wake and feed him, even though 10 minutes before the other nurse was happy for him to sleep). She seems angry at our ignorance and proceeds to give us a 10 second lesson in feeding. Theo is half asleep but after being pushed onto Willy’s breast seems to start feeding. The nurse leaves and moments later, Theo is asleep. Me and Willy look at each other. If we had been cartoon characters we would have had question marks for eyes…
The nurse returns after being called and Theo is repositioned. He seemed to feed for a few minutes but then falls asleep again… ? ?
So, breastfeeding… a lot of our stresses and anxieties started with that. Now I know that the health experts say there is no substitute for breast milk and the advantages are many, however, the pressure for a woman to perform this feeding task and the stress it causes, far outweighs the positive effect it has on mother and baby… in our experience.
They would have you believe that nature puts no barriers between the mother, her milk and the baby. However, breastfeeding like parenting is a learned skill and takes practice. When you have a baby who needs food, there is no time to practise.
The first attempts at breastfeeding were a blur of different positions, different nurses, hands on breasts, hands pushing Theo’s head and none of us any the wiser what the hell we were doing. Theo did feed and then slept again. I say ‘feed’, but really we have no idea whether he did or not.
At one stage after a seemingly successful feed, I hold Theo while he sleeps and walk around the room; Willy goes to the toilet: I am on my own. Theo goes still. I touch his face and stroke his head: nothing. I take his hand, but still no movement. I knock on the bathroom door and call for Willy. I tell her Theo is not moving and with a strange calmness she pushes the alarm button. I still try and stir our boy, but nothing. My heart at this point is almost banging out of my chest. The nurse comes in to find two frantic faces explaining their baby is not moving: she calmly puts two fingers on his chest and says ‘He’s all right’. Theo then moves and my heart starts beating normally again. Most parents will be familiar with this scene, either at the hospital or when the baby is home in his cot, lying still. You place your hand on their chest and feel for the rising ribs. This sometimes happens 20 times per night.
The first night may have been the longest night of my life. In and out of sleep, baby cries, sick feeling in stomach, either from hunger or the new sensation of being a father. Mother and baby together, father seemingly unnecessary, but unable to do anything else but be there.
When the morning comes, the day staff take over and there is a freshness in the air. There are wonderfully supportive trainees and experienced midwifes all around. Willy is given more lessons in breastfeeding and she seems to be succeeding in feeding Theo. I really feel for my wife at this point, because she is the sole provider for our son and the weight of responsibility must be enormous. She copes admirably.
The morning comes and goes with no dinner for dad and multiple tests for Theo and mum, and lessons in bathing for us: bathing Theo that is. We know that there will come a time soon when we have to leave our cocoon for home and with each passing moment this thought takes the shape of a massive worry.
Finally the time comes for me to get the car seat and get ready for the journey home. We are signed off by the maternity ward midwife and walk down the long corridor to the exit. The same corridor only yesterday Willy was wheeled during labour. It seemed both like a million years ago and also as if it happened seconds ago. Time during the first 2 months became so elastic and our conception of it altered daily.
I was warned about the drive home from the hospital. I was told that it would be the most nerve-wracking journey of my life… it was. But it was also the most careful I have ever been on the road. I was courteous and calm; slow and cautious. If the old me had been driving behind me, I would have been cursing the snail’s pace being set by this car in front.
We arrived home safely and unpacked our little man into his home. Theo was calm and sleepy and he was placed in his cot. The front door was closed and we officially were parents in charge of our child. When we left the house yesterday we were two; now we are three. There was nowhere we would now go without our first consideration being him. This idea did not seem real at that moment, but as the days went by, the fact was hammered home minute by minute.
Ah, yes, breastfeeding, the story continues.
Bear this is mind before you make any judgements: we were taught and believed that ‘breast is best’. My wife does not let an hour go by that she doesn’t wish that she could have breastfed for longer. This chapter is added to a list of ’why my wife must feel guilty forever’.
The day after we arrived home from hospital my wife breastfed our boy. He seemed to be feeding (after initial problems getting him to latch on) and he was content for a while, but into day two, Willy became sore and we knew something was not right. The midwife visited and we also contacted a ‘breastfeeding buddy’, who came to see us on the Friday (Day 3 at home).
The buddy was very knowledgeable and said immediately that Theo had a tongue-tie at the back of his tongue – a minor tie that could not have been picked up, but would definitely interfere with breastfeeding. She advised that he be referred to the tongue-tie specialist at our local hospital (a rare thing as most hospitals do not have them). A message was left with the specialist and this is when we hit the twilight zone…
We were advised (so as not to give our baby nipple confusion) to feed Theo using a syringe until his tongue-tie could be corrected – bottle feeding is the devil to these breast feeding champions you see. Now, as I write this I am a logical and calm person, at the time I was influenced by experts and wanted only the best for my son. Syringe feeding is not for babies but for animals, is what my logical brain screamed, but my heart thought that this is what is best for my little one. And this is what we did; from Friday and on through the weekend. Never have I been so torn. And never has my beautiful boy seemed so unsettled and inconsolable – my wife and I spent hours holding and walking with him to try and get him to stop crying, but every time you sat down with him he would cry. It was terrible. He would take his milk but never be comforted. It broke my mum’s heart to see this and she wanted to tell us to use bottles, but did not want to interfere.
The last feed at night my wife would breast feed Theo because this was the only way he could get any comfort to sleep through the night (this was in spite of the pain it was causing her). You could tell immediately that he craved this manner of feeding and this is why Willy fought through the discomfort, so he could feel satisfied.
The thing is, that Willy wanted more than anything to breast feed, but when it causes so much pain it is not possible to continue.
After the long, lonely and painful weekend we wait again for the tongue-tie specialist to call us back, but no word. We persevere with the syringe and Theo is okay… we however are not. He is getting enough food and he is not in any discomfort, but you can tell he wanted more than just milk leaked into his mouth. Also at this point you have to remember that Willy is expressing milk using a hand-pump and her day is essentially being milked and then feeding Theo. It is an unhealthy existence for the three of us and every once in a while the full weight of circumstances makes us break down and sob. This was normally shared so one of us was always there to comfort the other, despite us both feeling the same way.
At this point (now into Tuesday), we are feeling the strain and bottle feeding comes up as a real alternative. However, without direct advice from a professional we are not happy to go to the bottle. Still no word from the tongue-tie specialist and on Wednesday morning I call the emergency mid-wife help-line, and almost sobbing down the phone, I ask for immediate help. Thankfully, a health visitor comes later that morning and with me and Willy both in tears she listens to our woes. At this point she says bottle feeding is something we have to consider and whatever decision we make is best for us. So to the bottle we go.
Willy still expresses, so her day has not changed much, but at least feeding is now a happy time and Theo is content as he feeds.
Later that day the tongue-tie specialist calls and says we can see her tomorrow and she can assess the situation. I explain we have gone to the bottle, but she still says we should consider coming to see her. She also apologised for the delay getting back to us, explaining she has been away and only just returned and no one else was able to see us. It was just bad timing for us it seems, as most babies are seen within 48 hours – we have suffered over 5 days.
At this stage, we really were not going to see her as we thought his tongue-tie was not a major issue and he was feeding happily now.
We slept on it.
The local mid-wife called the day of the appointment and gently advised us to go see the specialist, and if we didn’t want anything done, to walk away; but at least we would have had the chance. After reflection, we went. We had made up our minds only hours before the appointment.
That story will wait until the next instalment.