After I had my baby, I had to stay in hospital for four days.
Now I look back and think how long it was that I was stuck in a baking hot ward full of other mums and crying babies and being woken all night – not just by my own baby but the ‘helpful’ staff who had to take my blood pressure every four hours.
At the time, I was desperate to be there. I didn’t know how to take care of a baby or what I was supposed to be doing. I looked up to every midwife and nurse like an oracle – “please tell me what to do, I want to be good at this”.
The same naive yearning for advice stuck with me for the next few weeks as I struggled with breastfeeding. My midwife and a breastfeeding consultant visited me at home but I was so desperate for help that also took on a half hour trek, a train and then a bus journey just to get to a feeding drop-in session. Did I mention this was with a one week old baby and a walking ability best described as hobbling?
But I never felt fully reassured. What I couldn’t understand is that everyone was telling me different things. Different methods, different ‘facts’, different ways of doing everything from holding my baby to responding to her cries and interpreting what she wanted. What I now know is that nobody knew my baby and nobody knew the right way of doing anything for her. It was something that only I – and her daddy – could understand and would learn instinctively each hour and day that we were with her.
But that doesn’t stop people trying to impart their often conflicting advice. The ‘experts’ portray everything they say as FACT. Many were brilliant and just wanted to help me but so many others treat new mums as idiots over the simplest of things. One scoffed at me for the way I was winding my baby (the way which actually worked). Another acted shocked that I was changing a dirty nappy mid-feed (because the previous midwife told me I had to). On day three of our feeding struggles, another sighed at me when I winced in pain, shaking her head saying “it doesn’t hurt” (it DID!)
But it’s not just the ‘experts’ you need to watch out for. When you become a mum, you suddenly find that everyone is a baby expert. Relatives, friends and – worst of all – strangers on the street. All want to give you their opinion.
I remember on several occasions being told that my baby couldn’t possibly still be hungry after cluster feeding for over an hour. So, being inexperienced and lacking confidence, I listened to them and watched as my baby became more and more distressed as I desperately tried to comfort her. I ended up leaving to feed her again secretly – which is what she wanted. Being tired, hormonal and worn out in every way, I felt paranoid that I was being judged and that others thought I was doing it all wrong. And worse, that their opinion mattered more than my own.
Surprisingly, strangers – mainly grannies – would stop me on the street to coo over my tiny baby. I’m not sure how holding a baby gives strangers the right to ask personal, intrusive and quite frankly inappropriate questions on topics from if I’m breastfeeding and how I’m raising her to childbirth and my recovery. And, most helpfully, little gems like how their baby never cried and fed beautifully every four hours.
I understand that having a baby can be a bewildering experience and there’s so much that I wish I knew. I’m hoping that all the people who gave me advice did so with the best of intentions – aiming to guide me and give me tips to make my life easier. But as I’ve mentioned, every baby is different and what works for one baby won’t work for another. I also think that the older generation look back on their parenthood experiences with rose-tinted glasses and don’t remember all of the hard times or when their babies cried for hours. I don’t believe that there was a generation of babies that didn’t cry unconsolably for their parents and that breastfeeding problems are just a 21st century issue.
To be blunt, I wish I’d told all of those people to butt out. It would have given me the opportunity to learn my baby’s cues and how to respond to her much sooner and I could have put all of the energy I wasted worrying that I was doing a bad job into much more constructive things. When I speak to expectant and new mums now, I do my very best to not give any advice. To just reassure them and empathise with how hard the early days are. And that way hopefully they won’t feel that they are being judged, won’t feel paranoid and will find their confidence much quicker than I did.