It’s pretty unusual for me to share anything painful or personal on this blog – it’s more about sandpits and sarcasm round here. But Reuben’s nearly 8 and sooner or later I knew I’d write down what happened in the first two days of his life. And Mumsnet’s Campaign for Better Postnatal Care has inspired me to finally do it and share my experience. I covered some of it in this post but I only really skirted round it. So let’s cycle back to Monday 15th June 2009, when my child was one day old.
I was exhausted. I had woken up on Sunday morning at 6AM in labour and by Monday evening I’d been awake for nearly 40 hours and was facing my second night alone with a newborn. I’d thrown up all the way through labour and the hospital was suffocatingly warm in a June heatwave so I was horribly dehydrated. Needless to say, feeding wasn’t going well.
Reuben was screaming. I was crying. My husband and mother were being sent home because we weren’t allowed overnight visitors. A lactation consultant told me to strip off to the waist and she would come and help me feed. Then she went off shift and I never saw her again so eventually I put my clothes back on. At some point, I let a midwife give Roo some formula, which they insisted on doing in a cup. It spilt all down his vest so 10 minutes after they’d swaddled him and settled him into the bedside cot, he woke up wet and grumpy. His clothes got soaked in the rain yesterday and so I can confirm that’s still something that makes him grumpy. Nowadays though, I have parenting a little more figured out.
Back then, I’d written the whole enterprise off. I had failed. It wasn’t working. I could settle him to sleep in seconds perched on top of me on the hospital bed, but with no sides on the bed and a hard floor that was hardly safe. I could settle him standing up but by midnight I was so tired I almost fell asleep standing with him in my arms. I just couldn’t settle him in that darn plastic crib. Every time I put him down, he woke up and screamed. Again, he still doesn’t like sleeping on anything hard and plastic.
I was worried about waking up the other mothers on the ward, so I took him out into the corridor but I got told off whenever I wandered too far. I rang the bell for help with feeding but none came. Remember that I still hadn’t slept since giving birth – Sunday night had passed in a kind of post-labour haze, aided by brusque midwives who came and latched the baby on to me forcefully. Now, in the early hours of Tuesday morning I had no clue what to do next. I couldn’t feed him without assistance and there was no assistance coming. I needed sleep and help but neither of those were forthcoming either.
Around 3AM, an angel of sorts appeared. She was an Australian midwife called Rachel and I can’t even think of her without welling up. She saw how distraught I was and offered to take the baby for a few hours while I slept. I could have hugged her but I think I just managed a weak smile before falling into three hours of blank, oblivious sleep. When I woke up again, feeding still wasn’t going well but as the dawn broke Roo and I finally got our act together and later that day I was able to take him home. Home, where food and drink were on tap and I had Nathan and friends and family to take shifts while I caught some fitful sleep. Baby life still wasn’t easy – we had months of broken nights ahead of us – but I never once felt as powerless as I did those first two days of his life.
There’s something about being alone – SO alone – with a newborn that’s screaming for milk and not being able to do anything about it that breaks you completely. All the skills I had learnt in my 28 years of life were useless in the face of this tiny creature. I thought I was pretty strong and determined and wiley. After all, I had managed stores in crisis, I had recruited through a recession, I had completed my degree while working my arse off amid piles of popcorn in the cinema….but nothing had prepared me for those first few hours.
Some small things could have made all the difference. Support with feeding when I needed it. A space for a friend to stay. Water and food whenever I needed it. And a little bit of understanding when it came to the complete shell shock Reuben and I both felt. After all, he was only three days past full term when my waters broke and neither of us were expecting any of this yet. So that’s why I’m joining the Mumsnet campaign – to see if I can make the difference for other women and other babies.
As a postscript, my experience with Eva - in the same hospital – was a world of difference. Good 40weeker that she was, she popped out fully ready for the world and was feeding within the first hour of her life. If only she would eat so well now. We were allowed to stay in the birth suite – Nathan, Eva and I – and the three of us shared a sofa bed, with the approval of the midwives. I slept lightly, feeding her when she needed it and we woke up at first light, ready to start her life on a positive note. I’m no longer so positive when I see her at first light now.
Here’s that Mumsnet link again. See how you can help – share the campaign page on Facebook or tweet your own thoughts and experiences using #BetterPostnatalCare. It’s painful but cathartic so come on, let’s share.