To look at me, I am no different from any other run of the mill mother. I am happily married to my husband and we have three amazing, healthy children. We work, we play, we parent, we love. So I’ll continue with this little story of all three of my births and see if you can work out why I’ve been asked to share my particular journey. I conceived my three babies naturally, perhaps a little too easily at times. I was a walking anti-pregnancy advert as I spent much of my three pregnancies vomiting for the duration, but I was active and exercised throughout them all, loved all the beige food and nine months later, when the time came, I pushed those babies out feeling every glorious, painful detail until their hot, cross little bodies burst into the world, were in my arms, we locked eyes and fell in love.
I’ve always been small chested and I did not enjoy that particular side effect of pregnancy and my breasts stayed their same little shape. Despite this my colostrum came in early with all of my babies, my body was ready. But when my children were born, not one of them latched on. We never had the opportunity to try. I was given a pill to swallow to take it all away. But determined as my body was, milk filled my breasts and leaked furiously whenever my babies cried and when I fed them from their bottle. It took long tear filled weeks for them to finally accept their fate and give up. In all this time, I felt this shame and guilt, furiously lying about why my baby was bottle fed, hiding it. Saying that we tried but it didn’t work out, that I didn’t have enough milk, that they couldn’t latch, that I wasn’t that fussed by it, that we were doing a bit of both, that, that, that. Now in truth, I completely believe and support peoples choice to feed their babies however they want to. But I didn’t have that choice. Not because it isn’t safe, necessarily, but that they can’t prove it be safe. You see, all the studies that are carried out about women ‘like me’ are based usually with a poorer, less hygienic, African audience in mind. Not healthy western women with the luxuries of living that we all take as basics.
Let me reiterate. I have three healthy babies. That is enough. I am lucky. I am grateful. I am loved.
My daughters were born in the UK and my son in Europe. My first team of midwives for my first born were excellent, experienced and simply put, lovely. Although everything happened so quickly, and as a result I could not tell you what a single one of them looked like. She burst into the world in a few short hours of labour, leaving me stitch free and just a little shell shocked. We were moved to a lovely little private room. One small perk of my situation, so that people wouldn’t ask awkward questions as to my feeding ‘choices’. She was born on a Saturday evening and we spent a precious, calm night getting to know each other, the wind howling outside. While we waited to go home and the endless interruptions of Bounty people, health care people would enter, and everyone without fail would ask, how I was feeding baby. Each time a dagger in my side. Could you just have a quick peek at your notes I inwardly pleaded.
But this was my penance, I told my self. I deserve this little bit of shame. I am lucky. I have a healthy baby.
With my second daughter, I had another zero to hero experience. But this time I was a lot less lucky with my midwifery care. I laboured mostly with my eyes closed with the intensity of it and arrived at hospital in advanced labour. The midwives were young, I could tell that. The most immediate space available to me was the shiny, new birth suites. But they were not allowed for people ‘like me’ so contracting away, I was pushed on to a trolly on all fours, groaning and pushing through corridors and elevators to get me to a place, ‘more suitable’ (easier to clean I had thought to my self) and within a few minutes I could feel her head making its appearance, burning through me. ‘Do you want me to push or wait?’ I cried out and they said nothing to me. In the end I pushed her out a cool twenty minutes after arriving at the hospital. I needed a few stitches and I remember the junior midwife, looking at me, squinting as I winced through the pain of the stitches. ‘If you can’t stay still, we will have to give you an epidural to do your stitches as you’re really not tolerating this well.’ they said to me. I had just pushed out an 8 pound baby with zero pain relief and was furious and also scolded by this comment. Only then did someone in the room then realise that they had neglected to offer or give me any local anaesthetic for the act of stitching up my sore, torn vaginal wall. Someone then came to us to tell us that whoever was in charge at the time of my daughter’s birth hadn’t read all of the notes properly and so had thrown away my placenta and with it the chance to take some cord blood, so she needed to have blood test, which was pretty traumatic for all concerned made worse by the fact that it could have been avoided and was then mislabelled the sample and so wanted to do another one. Desperate to leave the hospital, emotional and a bit sad I felt that it was not my birth that was rough but more the after birth and what felt was a lack of care. I was again left feeling that this was my penance, that I deserved this because I had a healthy baby. A status above my pay grade so to speak. Once at home, a different midwife came every time, and every time they had to ask how I was feeding my baby, unable to read my notes and see it there in black and white and every time it hurt. They didn’t know my status because they hadn’t taken the time to read my file before they came into my home. So I never felt comfortable to ask any of the questions I wanted. I never got emboldened, just sad and so in the end I was desperate for them to leave me alone.
There are a few things we were told about our birth guidances, no water birth, for baby number 1, she had to be washed before she was given to me, this was not the case for 2 and 3, cord blood sample, blood test at 4 weeks, blood test at 18 months, for the girls they were to have medication twice daily for 4 weeks, by the time my son was born, the guide lines had changed and he required no medication and I spent large swathes of my labour in the comfort of a bath.
My third birth, which happened to be in Europe, was my longest but most empowering and beautiful. I was, like any other woman at the hospital, cared for and supported, listened to and understood. I adored the bath and completely zoned out. I wandered around, hair down, naked and primal in beautiful labour, completely un-phased by the changing of staff and anything around me and amazingly out he came at the same time as my waters broke. He was placed directly on my bare chest, looking as clean and shiny as diamond. A perfect baby boy and beautiful birth experience and I cried many tears of euphoric happiness.
Your own room is not uncommon where I gave birth and every midwife who came to help us couldn’t have been kinder. I loved blending in feeling like one of the crowd. My bottle feeding was normal, supported, helped, understood. They would bring me bottles, warm them for me, tidy them away, mark how much they took. Simply put they cared about how well my baby was feeding. I feel confident that it would have been that way whether it was a choice for me or not. My experience of bottle feeding in the UK was that is was shameful in the hospital. You choose to bottle feed? You’re on your own. You were left to it. It was something you did entirely alone, and yet at the same time under a uniquely unpleasant spotlight.
But in many ways, my story is one of taboo and invisibility. To this day, I’ve never met a woman who is like me in that way. Because despite the wonderful normalcy of my life, my marriage and my family, I am HIV positive. Staring at the words on the page as I type, it still doesn’t feel quite real and at the same time, I remain nonplussed as I look at my life in all its beautiful, gritty, nappy changing, fight marshalling glory, my life is really not so different. But I would implore you, dear reader, to always remember that what you see is a tiny fraction of what you know. And to give people the considerable benefit of any doubt. Try to understand especially in those early days, the emotional journey of those who feel that they would rather or simply have to bottle feed their babies, that it be without judgment and that once the choice is made they are just as worthy of support and patience.