On what was to be my third and final night at the hospital I wrote these words:
Just woke after a three hour Panadol/Voltane sleep thinking it was morning! Refreshed. Delighted. This morning we’re going home! And oh look there’s sun outside. But then…strange… how cold I am. Pick up mobile phone, planning to ring C am astonished to see time – it’s not even one oclock.
Because I have given birth a couple of days previously to writing the above, I am knackered.
My body is awash with strange hormones. I have hemorrhoids, abdominal muscle separation, a fucked back and what feels like an entire embroidered tapestry of one of those creepy weeping clowns stitched into my perineum.
Also I have a baby.
This makes me very happy, very tired, very sore, very excited, very fearful and very ambivalent about cross stitching all at once. I am a badly blended cocktail of emotions, served with a bowl of salted mixed metaphors. In short, I am mere snotty putty in the Evil Midwife’s hands.
For the first two days there is no sign of Evil Midwife. Instead, a parade of bespectacled Reasonably Nice Midwives with English accents and sensible shoes march in and out of my room. Half of them are barking mad but all of them are cheerful.
On the first night, a few hours after my baby is born, they tuck me into the post natal ward, send C home (apparently his work is now done) and leave a sheaf of helpful How To Be A Mother type notes on my bedside table. The Reasonably Nice Midwives, much like School Prefects in an Enid Byton book, tell me everything I need to know to ensure I do well at St Hellacious; the mealtimes, the classes, the best way to fold a nappy. I tell the Reasonably Nice Midwife From Cornwall that I feel like I am in an English Boarding School and she smiles politely as she smoothes down her pigtails and waves her lacrosse stick about.
Let’s humour the post partum woman, her smile seems to say.
Early on it seems that I am going to fail Breastfeeding 101 or at the very least have to do Breastfeeding Detention.
Throughout the day the prefects come in and encourage me to squeeze the bejesus out of my breasts. A few tiny golden drops of colostrum appear but they wouldn’t feed a gnat let alone a baby. One prefect tells me, comfortingly, that for now baby will get his nourishment from the brown fat between his shoulder blades. This is both disgusting and fascinating and probably the only time anyone thinks kindly of backfat.
On the third night, I realize that man cannot live on backfat alone.
Moments after writing my impressions of experiencing a full night’s sleep in just three hours a new midwife entered the room. She seemed Cheerful. She seemed Blyton-esque. She didn’t have an English accent but she did seem Reasonably Nice. I told her how well I had slept and how good I was feeling. She admired the baby, told me his jaundice would clear up soon and expressed surprise at his birth weight - quite substantial despite his Nearly Four Week premature status.
“He doesn’t look premmie at all” she said. I told her that I wanted to go home the following day and she did a double take.
“But he’s jaundiced” she protested. “And, he’s premmie.”
Like my MS during the birth, the prematurity of my baby will be brought up whenever I attempt to do something the midwives don’t agree with. Something strange and radical like…going home.
Probably in an effort to gain approval and a Get Out Of Hospital Free pass I then agreed to “have another go” at breastfeeding. Perhaps oddly, this wasn’t something I had worried too much about. I felt fine. I was sure it would happen soon, I just needed to practice a bit more. I also told myself that if I couldn’t breastfeed I wasn’t going to freak out about it. Yes I wanted to breast feed but if for some reason I couldn’t that was ok. In fact, I had decided, formula feeding wasn’t the end of the world.
After all, I had a baby. He was healthy. He was absorbing his own backfat. Yes he had jaundice and a little sticky eye and tiny furry ears but to me he was lovely. Everything else was gravy.
In retrospect I can see that this was to be my final ‘happy thought’ at St Hellacious.
The breastfeeding coaching session begins at 1.15 am. It goes for an hour and a half. In this time I go from feeling “fine” to feeling “completely and totally fucked.”
Breastfeeding was not something I would learn with practice, it was a mystical and highly technical science which I should have started preparing for at the age of six. Like playing the piano or learning ballet, I had missed my opportunity and now I and my malnourished, jaundice ridden, hairy little sticky-eyed monkey baby would pay the price.
Over and over again I tried to coax him to latch on, over and over again he would mash my nipple into a variety of intriguing shapes. All wrong. All completely hopeless. The midwife tutted and clicked her tongue and asked me stupid questions like: How does that feel?
How does one answer a question like that at 2am? I have never breastfed before. I have never attempted to breastfeed before. How does it feel? I want to say "it feels like the worst foreplay in the world" but I am scared that this sounds pervy and weird, not to mention impertinent, and be grounds for taking my baby away and giving him to someone with proper nipples.
Finally, after yet another attempt, I realise my nipple is bleeding. A small bloody gobbet hangs from my son’s lip. I stare at the damage, aghast. I am so obviously incompetent I don’t even realize it when a section of my nipple is destroyed by my baby’s equally incompetent technique. We both suck.
The midwife asks in an incredulous voice: couldn’t you feel that?
My mouth opens and closes I can’t think of anything to say.
Yes of course it hurt but how am I meant to know that it was the wrong way to feel?
We try both breasts, we try different positions. I try and stay calm. Finally she decides I need to hand express into a little cup because otherwise my baby will starve.
She does the expressing and I try not to feel like a cow. She manages to get two and a half mils but then loses almost half when she tries to draw it up into the wrong syringe. I stare at the precious golden drops wasted and grit my teeth. Unsurprisingly he spits half of it out. At this point I ask about whether I need to supplement with formula. She hums and ha’s and purses her lips. She tells me that first of all the baby’s blood sugar level will need to be checked. She also says that we should have another breastfeeding session at…oh, five o’clock this morning.
I agree to this because I am starting to get scared about my ability to look after my baby, because I am tired and emotional, because I am intensely hormonal and because she is an Evil Midwife with special Mind Powers no mere mortal can resist.
Around 3am, a second midwife enters. She is also Evil and may even be drooling a little and sporting fangs. Vlad The Impaler is tall and stern and here to check my sleeping baby’s blood sugar level. She grabs a foot and pricks his heel with what can only be a rusty bayonet left over from WW1.
He screams and my heart nearly stops. I have never heard him scream. I have never heard him cry like this. I am paralysed with horror. What in God’s name have I agreed to? Vlad squeezes his foot hard and remarks on how little blood he seems to have: Most babies have a lot… she corrects herself…Normally babies have no trouble…. She smears some of the blood on her hand as she tries to make it register on her little Torture Machine. Mmmm, no, no good, I’ll have to try again.
She grabs his foot again and I leap out of bed. I beg her to try the other foot. Vlad scowls at me. I was going to stay on one foot in case we had to go again… oh whatever… She grabs the other foot and pricks him again and he screams again and cries and cries… and again there’s not enough blood to register. She picks him up, puts him over her shoulder, and I, shrinking, desperate, utterly miserable say to her in a cringing little voice: maybe I could…and gesture at him.
Vlad seems to find this offensive and flounces out of the room calling over her shoulder as she does I’ll have to send the head midwife because I’ve done it twice now and it hasn’t worked.
I am shocked. The only crumb of comfort is that in my arms my baby calms down again and some residual spark of myself shouts in a tiny defiant voice: you see! I managed to calm my baby. I am a GOOD MOTHER. You are a CUNT.
In comes the Head Midwife, not Evil per se and possibly even Reasonably Nice in other circumstances. She speaks pleasantly, she warms my baby’s foot, she manages to get more than enough blood in one prick and his blood sugar level is 3.3 which is perfectly fine. Now, finally, I burst into tears. My baby has enough blood. Not only that, his blood sugar level is “fine”.
Vlad the Impaler hovers by the door. Did you have ‘problems’? she calls out. His feet were cold says Head Midwife shortly. As I seem to be incapable of doing anything other than quietly weeping on my wailing infant’s head, HM leads me back to bed, tucks me in and herds Vlad out of the room. I sit up in bed with my baby pressed against my skin until at last he falls asleep.
The time is 3:15 am and instead of trying to sleep myself I am so distressed that all I can think of doing is digging out my journal and writing the whole fucking awful thing down. And I do. And I do feel a bit better. And I even get to sleep.
And at 5am in comes Evil Midwife 1 and the whole breastfeeding session starts all over again.
This time she manages to milk another syringe of colostrum from me. She also has to leave, her shift is over but she will send Another In Her Place to continue her dark work. There is no word of encouragement, no ‘keep going, it’ll get better’ or ‘you’re doing a great job, don’t give up’. There is no more said about the supplementary feed and I wonder why my baby was subjected to Vlad The Impaler in the first place. I’m left feeling fifty sorts of shit.
Waiting, waiting, waiting…finally a new midwife appears. She is slightly warmer but perhaps this is because the dawn has finally broken and the truly Evil Midwives must return to their underground crypts and hang by the toes until midnight strikes once again.
At 8am I wander forlornly into the meal room to have my breakfast. I tow my child behind me in his plastic sided bassinet. I have already rung C to tell him that I can’t come home after all, I am incapable of feeding and our baby is sick and nearly didn’t have enough blood. My mobile phone is bathed in snot as I blubber incoherently to him.
I continue to blubber all through breakfast which is substantial because I am starving. While eating my third bowl of weetbix I overhear a woman talking to another new mother about leaving the hospital today and I realize that this is someone from the Home Midwife Service. I nearly bathe my baby in breakfast cereal in my haste to catch her. Yes I should be able to go home today (previous midwives had assured me there was no way I could go because I hadn’t ‘booked in to leave’), she would get someone to see me this morning.
When C arrives I am able to tell him the saga of the previous night. N also arrives. Her advice is that I must come home and not be subjected to any further bullying and fuckwittery. I will have access to the Home Midwife service, I can hire a Lactation Consultant, there is nothing more I need from St Hellacious. I must say, firmly, that I am leaving at five that afternoon and would they please arrange the paperwork to suit. The 'please' is optional.
From here, I turn a corner and drag my way back up to normality. The HMS midwife is more than nice, she’s actually helpful and encouraging. I have a list of things that need doing before I leave, tests, checkups for me and for my baby. The very act of writing a list makes me feel better. C and I also attend a half hour lecture by a neonatologist. He talks about the biology of breastfeeding, the evolution of human childbirth – it’s interesting, stimulating and…I take notes. Again, the act of writing stuff down is incredibly comforting. When we speak to him following the lecture he looks at my baby and agrees that I should go home if I want to. He also gives me the phone number of a Lactation Consultant.
Finally I can face the St Hellacious midwives and ask (politely but firmly) for my paperwork, for a physiotherapist to assess me, for the pediatrician to check my baby (please).
They try to thwart me by citing his jaundice, his premmie-ness, his sticky eye and lack of latch. They try everything but his tiny furry ears. I prepare to launch myself at them and beat them about the head and pigtails with their lacrosse sticks but finally they relent.
And at five oclock I am finally released. It’s pissing with rain and freezing cold but I am nearly faint with joy and relief.
If it wasn’t for my piles, stitches, fucked back, and weak stomach muscles I would do a little happy dance in the lobby.
Instead, like in all good Enid Blyton books, I settle for a chocolate brownie and lashings of hot chocolate in the café, to build up my strength up for the long three minute drive home.
And the following day, my milk comes in and there's more latching than an entire girls' boarding school worth of dormitory doors.