Thoughts on baby feeding 

So apparently it’s national breastfeeding week. I can remember after Sam was born, my first national breastfeeding week, the feeling of being part of an online community and sense of solidarity etc – and the awareness that for others national breastfeeding week isn’t that at all. Three years on it’s different, I didn’t notice this one sneak up, I don’t think much about breastfeeding these days in all honesty, I just do it. Don’t have much time to think between two smalls, one pooch, and one preschool run.

I have often wanted to write about breastfeeding but stopped myself because the words are many, the pain is real, and the situation tense. It’s easy to put words out there, but it’s hard to know the right ones.

I lie here feeding my daughter and I think, how do we judge each other over this? I know we do, I used to, before I had my son. I particularly cringe remembering how I used to judge mums who fed “too long”… before I became one of them.

When we love our babies, when we nourish our babies, as we watch them grow, we give them life. We need to be given life ourselves to sustain that; we need to be loved, love comes from love, love breeds love. So many parenting books are written with advice for parents but few with advice for the rest of humanity. What does it matter if a mother follows all the rules set out for her if she has no love surrounding her from which to draw?

I know that when I have been loved enough so that I had more to give out, that felt like being set free to be the person I am, felt like being set free to make my own decisions, felt like being trusted. In my experience, it is so hard to feel that as a new mother. The world comes at you with it’s own agendas, with it’s own set of rules, all the voices seeming so sure and so competent at a time when you feel so totally vulnerable. Everything saying “pick me, pick me, choose me, choose this way”. And you feel so unsure, so unready, and all the voices tell you that the stakes are so high.

All this to say, I breastfed my first baby for 2.5 years, and I’m now feeding my 7 month old. I love feeding my babies. I had help to conceive my babies, I had help to birth my babies, but my babies I am physically able to feed all myself and that has meant a great deal. Breastfeeding helped – still helps – me reconnect with and love my body after IVF, forceps and C-section.

I chose the help to conceive gladly, we jumped at the chance. My translocation granted us access to NHS funding as a first port of call, instead of having to try for a while first as is standard with IVF funding in the UK. With me having a balanced translocation and severe PCOS there didn’t seem much point in waiting to see if we needed IVF, and that decision probably saved us a lot of heartache.

And then there’s birth. I dreamed of natural births. I researched birth for years before my son was conceived. I had tokophobia when I was younger – birth phobia – I used to have nightmares about unexpectedly being 9 months pregnant and going into labour. When having a baby became the most important thing in the world to me, in order to overcome the fear, I researched and researched birth and slowly began to long for the day I would deliver my own baby. I was so proud of myself after the birth of my son (forceps), but I did hope, always, that I would get another chance… and with that my beautiful water birth. Instead, my waters broke and labour didn’t establish, and after 3 days I opted for a C-section instead of an induction. And it WAS beautiful. It is one of my favourite memories. It gave me everything I’d hoped for in a water birth – serenity, connection, joy, a feeling of being totally in the moment. And I remember it, which was what I most wanted, having been too out of it to remembers Sam’s. But at the same time, it wasn’t a water birth – it wasn’t my body doing it alone, it was a team of people working on me, just like with IVF.

In complete contrast, breastfeeding has given me no problems at all – second small’s fairly minor tongue tie notwithstanding. And with my first especially, having felt let down for so long by a body that struggles to bear a baby, there was something magic in that, something so validating.

When I look at the different stages of my journey to parenthood – conception, birth, infant feeding – I think there’s something of life reflected back. Messy, unpredictable, a vivid tapestry of different ingredients. Sometimes we jump straight to accepting intervention as the most obvious course of action, and we might be overjoyed to have that option. Sometimes we try our hardest at something but it doesn’t work out, and hopefully we find peace and joy in the alternative. And sometimes everything works out just as we could have dreamed.

I have found magic in every different stage of this stage of my life, from the operating theatre at my IVF clinic all the way to Sam’s last toddler feed in his bedroom, with fertility drugs already working in my body to make the way for Eleanor.

I have found at every stage that I need to let go, step forward, and trust.

I found that from when I trusted the doctors, to when I trusted my instincts in labour, to when I started taking steps to wean Sam. I found it when I read articles by other Christians, who disagree with IVF PGD, but took that leap of listening to what I believed instead. I found it when I trusted that if I was wrong in that, I would be forgiven. I found it when I continued feeding Sam beyond the age others around me were. I found it when we trusted our newborn Eleanor, wrapped in swaddling, to a doctor with a pair of scissors. I have found it with every ‘first’ – when I gave five months old Eleanor formula, when my babies started solids, the first time I left them. I find it each and every day in new and different ways.

I think in our culture, if you breastfeed for a “long” time, you’re meant to have either really thought it through, and have really good proper scientific reasons that you can defend vigorously; or you have sort of got trapped and don’t know how to stop. But what if you carry on just because you like it? Just because it means something to you? Just because you think women should be able to use their bodies as they see fit and you fancy a quiet act of revolution? And you don’t really care how your friends feed their babies, but you do care that they are heard, that they have choices, that their bodies are their own too, that they don’t feel embarrassed to feed their babies in public.

I often think that breastfeeding made me a feminist but on reflection I don’t think that is true. I think feeding a baby made me a feminist. I imagine that if I had fed my first baby another way – pumping, formula – I would have experienced much of the same that prompted the decision: judgement, corporate ownership of my body, the expectation to conform to someone else’s alien narrative.

I worry about where new mothers are likely to find each other at a time when, in my city, sixty out of seventy children’s centres are being closed. When library hours are being reduced. When antenatal classes are mostly only available to those with a couple of hundred spare quid to pay for them. I look back on my very early motherhood and I think, what kept me sane amongst all those – very well meaning – voices coming at me were the real new mothers I met, face to face. Real women navigating their own way through this strange transition in life. Real women doing things similarly and yet differently to me. Friends I keep in touch with now that those newborns are turning four.

I’m training to be a breastfeeding peer supporter, and the closing of children’s centres means that we will have fewer places to meet with new mothers. When I was pregnant with Sam I went to a breastfeeding class run by peer supporters at a children’s centre. I don’t know if I’d have breastfed without it, and then I might be feeling very differently about the help I had to conceive and birth, I might have entered motherhood feeling differently about myself. I’m training to be a peer supporter so that I am equipped to give other women that same support I had; because I think no mother should have to breastfeed, but that if she wants to, she should have the support to.

I hope that we would all find the support we need in making our new motherhood choices. I hope for a trust to grow between mothers and for mothers. I am grateful that the choice I had to make was how I fed my baby, not whether. And I share my story not because I think my choices are the ones you should make, but as an offering towards a time in which we can all share our motherhood stories without shame. And whatever yours is, I support you in that, too. I believe you are enough.

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Wait

I’m sitting on my sofa, eating Ben & Jerry’s even though I have been (mostly) vegan for six months, and you know what, I can’t bring myself to care. I have nothing left. A world divided over a killed gorilla, rounding on the mother & child; attacks all around the world; wars all around the world; governments who lie; governments who seek oil and power instead of our future – instead of my children’s lives. A world in which we still have so much and yet cannot see it; and at the same time those who are by an accident of birth are elsewhere cannot eat, or lose their children on crosses. A world in which we despair and commit suicide, despite having so much. And I have nothing, nothing left to give. Nothing left in the face of such pain.

People campaigning against Brexit; people campaigning for political parties; people arguing for political leaders. People fighting against war; against nuclear weapons; against greed and climate change. People fighting for asylum seekers; people going out on the streets every day and loving; people loving the poor and the needy and the vulnerable. 

And me, I got nothing.

Emptiness. 

And it’s OK. 

It’s OK to sit in the dark and wait for Love to come. 

And I sit and I wait. And I know. Every time I have been here before, He has shown up. Every time, He has shown me a way through. 

Sometimes life hurts.

And it’s not OK. It’s not OK that the world is like this. It’s OK to feel that is not OK. Nothing is wrong in feeling like everything is wrong. Everything IS wrong.

We just have to wait. For the Love and the passion and the Power and the drive to show up again. To stir in our hearts. So we can Be The Change, Be The Change once again.

It can’t be rushed. The pain, feeling the sorrow, it can’t be rushed. True hope cannot be found in a glass of half-drunk despair. 

And one thing I know. I look back over my life, at all the times I’ve been here, and I know. It always showed up before. 

It’s going to show up this time. 

Because there’s this time. 

There’s the moment after Jesus died on the cross, before he came back to life. And everything seemed lost. 

There’s the time in Gethsemane, when he wondered, can you ask this of me? 

There’s the time when a woman labours and thinks she can give no more. The time we call Transition. 

The time before the rebirth and the resurrection. 

The time for sorrowing. 

The time the Earth waits. And the darkness seems too much. But we wait anyway. 

The times before It happens. 

We wait for the improbable and the wonderful. 

And maybe we can sense that coming. And maybe we can’t. It doesn’t matter. Just hold on. 

“The darkest hour is just before dawn” – Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wait for the dawn.

What is so wrong with autism anyway

It’s become a bit of a bogey man in our society. 

Throughout the last century traits were gradually gathered together and given a name. And along the way, the name has evolved into this label that nobody wants; so feared for our precious offspring that on occasion children aren’t vaccinated out of fear that they may end up like me. 

But why is that? 

I believe that autistic people have always been among us. Why are we so afraid, now that we have given it a name? 

We think of autism as overdiagnosed / we say “my child has…, it’s definitely not autism” / we publicly give our children diagnoses we are unwilling to contemplate for ourselves / we talk about having “autistic traits” but don’t call ourselves autistic. 

And I won’t lie – coming out as autistic was way harder than I ever anticipated, despite having prepared for it for almost a year. I thought, I’ve come out as having a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, how hard can this be?! But it was – and continues to be – way harder to come out as autistic than it was to come out as BPD. 

And it was hard to adjust to the label, too. I realised I fit the criteria for aspergers eight months before my diagnosis. The first few months after realising turned my world upside down. I cried all the time. I questioned my relationship with God. Almost everything in my life that I held dear could now be categorised as a symptom of a disability, from a certain angle. So I get it. I get why people don’t want to identify that way themselves. Why I have had so many people say things to me like “I’m not autistic, but… I have friends on the spectrum, etc”. (My BPD diagnosis never once triggered a “I don’t have BPD, but…” reaction.)

And I get why people grieve for their children. It’s hard to come up against something that society fears so deeply and have it thrust, unasked, into your life. It’s hard to contemplate children never speaking, or toilet training, and it’s hard to come to terms with a way of being about which very little is really known. I didn’t ask for my label and I had no idea it was coming. I had had 30 years of living in this body, and still it made me doubt everything. So I do get it, I do. And I also know that I have a certain privilege, to be able to live a life that is reasonably “normal” in the eyes of society and be autistic at the same time. 

Depression, anxiety, even more ‘severe’ mental illnesses – it’s become almost socially acceptable to share our stories of these kinds of struggles. But still autism is seen as something so ‘other’. I wonder why it is so much more feared than these other labels, when such identification has so much potential to teach us about the roots of mental ill health within society, if only we have ears to hear.

When I look at the people I know who are or who could be defined as autistic, I see so often a commitment to truth, to honesty, to a new way of being. I see people who recognise patterns easily, who are naturally skilled in research, who are integrous & loyal, who don’t avoid the truth for the comfort of others. Who are natural problem solvers. Who can sometimes have a pronounced spiritual inclination, or even what might be termed precognitive awareness. I see people who look at something and see what is possible rather than what is. And who fight for it. Who agitate for necessary social change tirelessly, often to seemingly deaf ears. Who can be passionate, and single minded, and sensitive. Unusually perceptive through that sensitivity. Who often like calm and order and seek out ways to create it. Who dream.

And I wonder, how could it be that these people have become the bogeymen of society? How can it be that, for many of us, this diagnosis is the thing we so grasp at finding ways to avoid for our child? 

I’m so glad I realised I’m autistic. It changed my life for the better in a myriad of ways. I see the things I am good at now. I see where I need to give myself allowances, and I allow myself to do that. I don’t waste time trying to do things I’m not made for, and I am more confident in doing the things I am. It showed me ME, and in a really wonderful way. I feel beautiful, intended, and special, probably for the first time in my life.

Autism diagnoses can highlight our strengths & validate our weaknesses in a world that often doesn’t, and they can be a tool for positive self recognition, clarity, & mental wellbeing. Just because society has come to assume disability along with the word, it doesn’t mean this way of being has to be always disabling. We are typically mostly wrong along the way to effective change; the human race is always learning. 

And this is not to say that autism is not often disabling. When you have a more sensitive nervous system, things like being asked to change frequently – house, job, school, or city, as we are more frequently asked to do in Western contemporary society – can be disabling. If your hearing or sense of touch is more sensitive, to have to stand for extended periods of time in a large crowd of children running around – as we ask of our school children daily – can be disabling. If you have dyspraxia, to be put in a position twice a week where you have to catch a ball publicly – again, as we ask of our school children – can be disabling. If you have a verbal processing delay & find it easier to communicate in writing, to be put on the spot and asked to answer a question verbally can be disabling – again, something we often ask of our school children. (Just as contemporary society now largely understands that it is not easy to ask a dyslexic person to communicate in writing.) To have it implied consistently that you do not know your own mind – to be told that you should push through & overcome your revulsion towards certain foods, or fear of staying away from home, for example – can be disabling. 

But – just as we adjust to dyslexia, we can learn to adjust to these needs. We can learn to listen to and believe autistic children and adults.

And I wonder what life would look like if as a society we encouraged ourselves to do this – how much less disabling autistic people would find their neurology? 

How many fewer people would battle depression, anxiety, self harm, and eating disorders? 

How many more researchers, authors, and social activists there would be? 

How much more, in that world, would autistic people be able to offer of the strengths that come with our neurology?

How much clearer could our understanding of autism become if the stigma around it dematerialised? If adults did not shy away from such identification for themselves or their children? How many more autistic people could then be accounted for – and thus how much fuller our picture of autism could become? How many more children would grow up with less harm, more able to offer the world all that is true and good within them? How many more adults could learn to cherish and respect their own uniqueness, for the first time ever? 

I just wish everyone could see what I see when they think about autism.