The best-laid plans…

After three years of trying for a baby and finding out the odds were stacked firmly against us, we gave up and decided to get a puppy instead. We still wanted a baby, and if it happened one day, it would happen, but in the meantime we would move on with our lives.

The meantime didn’t last very long. Two months, in fact. Then Lizzie was pregnant.

I hadn’t planned to have a one-year-old puppy and four-week-old baby at the same time, but these are the cards we’ve been dealt and the hand we have to play. It’s hard, stressful, and exhausting, but Izzie will grow up with a devoted companion and within a couple of years our spaniel Ozzie will have a friend to play with who has roughly the same ball control skills and ability at maths. Who is to say that the way things have worked out aren’t better than the plans we made?

When you’re having a baby it’s normal to make plans. What I’m discovering, however, is that plans don’t survive contact with babies. The tranquil water birth turned into an operating theatre, the baby harnesses that worked so well with a teddy bear are rubbish for real babies, and ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ is only good advice for people who can afford cleaners and endless takeout.

The biggest change we’ve had to face is over breastfeeding. Everywhere you look you see posters exhorting that ‘breast is best’. There are countless books, support groups and websites providing practical advice and encouragement; midwives congratulate you for choosing to breastfeed as though you’ve decided to donate all your money to help build a new birthing unit; and random strangers slap you on the back and tell you, ‘Well done.’ Well, not strangers so much as acquaintances – if strangers came up to a breastfeeding woman and slapped her on the back, it would probably end in handcuffs and a public apology.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated, the flipside of all this focus on breastfeeding is that women who formula feed are looked down on as lesser individuals, unworthy of praise. Worse, they are failing their children by giving them an inferior product. Before the birth, we were warned that not all women could breastfeed, and with typical arrogance we pitied these unmotherly wenches who couldn’t feed their own children because, of course, we would be breastfeeding ours. Problems happen to other people.

We have stopped breastfeeding. It was a long, arduous journey to come to the decision, but it is what’s best for all of us. There were many reasons that it wasn’t working, not least that, after losing so much blood during the birth and having two transfusions, Lizzie’s milk doesn’t have the fat content to give Izzie the calories she needs. We had to top up with formula after every feed, and once Izzie realised she could get more milk with less effort from the bottle, she treated the breast as the appetiser before her main meal. Less stimulation meant less milk being produced. So that was that.

From an objective point of view, it is the right decision. Mother and baby were becoming increasingly stressed by the whole thing; Izzie is now putting on weight; I can feed her any time of the day or night and give Lizzie a rest; it’s easier to feed her in public; and she got the colostrum, the important stuff, in the early days so Lizzie did her job.

But you cannot look at breastfeeding objectively. It’s an emotive issue, and regardless of how much you know it’s for the best, it’s impossible not to feel that you have failed.

Lizzie is taking it particularly hard. We had always planned to breastfeed, and the fact we are using formula makes us feel like poor parents. As I keep trying to explain to Lizzie, and myself, the odds were always stacked against us: her mother didn’t create much milk so there might be a genetic basis; Izzie had a traumatic birth and forceps babies don’t feed as well; she spent four days being fed formula through a naso-gastric tube so was used to a full belly with no effort; Lizzie has to use nipple shields, which make it more difficult for Izzie and provides less stimulation to the breasts; mother and baby were on different wards for four days after the birth so everything was delayed; and this is before we mention all the trauma Lizzie suffered. Under the circumstances, that she managed to breastfeed at all is commendable, let alone for over three weeks. There really is nothing to feel bad about.

I think the key to surviving a baby is realising that ‘plans’ are actually ‘preferences’. Then, if things don’t go as expected, you haven’t failed: you’ve simply had to adapt to reality. And that is the best that any man, or mouse, can hope for.

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