For the purposes of this mini-piece, I have tried to imagine that I am a bearded, 5’9”, slightly-introverted, new father. I will be channelling my husband and trying to see the last 11 weeks of our baby feeding experience from his perspective. There are lots of blogs out there on the impact of breastfeeding on mums and mammaries … I wonder if any of this rings true for the dads out there?
Firstly, we made the decision together that we wanted breastfeeding to be the aim for the baby I was growing. We made sure that the right bras and pads were bought and invested in a pump for those times when it may be needed. What else was there to do? Wait for the baby to be born and then start the milk-to-baby process. How hard could that be? It’s been happening that way since the primordial soup and it’s what my breasts were designed to do. Of the endless decisions we had to make, this one seemed like a slam-dunk! Hi-la-ri-ous! We definitely encountered some unexpected snags along the way.
The gadgets suck – every time we hit up a Mothercare or went to a baby event, I could see his eyes light up a little when we passed the Tommee Tippee Perfect Prep machine. Here was the wonder-gadget for the modern parent. A way to make feeding your baby a shed load easier with buttons and lights and beeps and science and EXACT QUANTITIES, and this poor soul had to march past it EVERY TIME! There just isn’t quite the same appeal in discussing milk pouch systems – he doesn’t get to play with those!
The boobs are off limits – so no, he couldn’t have an array of fancy bottles and machines to play with, but the original fun bags he did have access to had taken on a life of their own since about about week 7 of the pregnancy. They had swollen and plumped and filled and after birth, they ballooned and bulged and here was my husband watching as before his very eyes, the sensible Ford Focus he had invested in, morphed into a Mustang. Itching to take it for a spin, the answer was a repetitive and monotonous ‘no’. No touching, EVEN accidental. No interfering. No cuddling too tightly. No sleeping in the same way. No pressure. No contact. There are few passion killers quite as effective as ‘mind my boobs’.
A baby’s hangry cries may as well sound like Mummeeeeeeeeeeeee – when you have useless man nipples. No matter how much you may want to help, a hungry baby gets passed to its mother to be fixed! Your job then consists of: repeatedly getting up from your comfy seat on the other side of the room and … topping up the water flask required to refill the boobs, passing pieces of cake that are JUST out of reach, cutting food into fork-sized pieces, reorganising the support cushions (wrong normally), passing the remote control, plugging the mobile in to charge (but making sure it’s within reach) and, once the farmyard noises have finished, burping and changing afterwards. I, on the other hand get to just sit there and plug in the baby and then pass it back as if I were a glorified charger. It doesn’t seem like a fair division of the work. Emphasis on ‘seem’.
Helplessness in the face of the pain. Fierce animal instincts kick in at a variety of points throughout the process of new human production and one of those, especially for fathers is an intensely protective one. His aim is to prevent harm to me and his offspring. The speed at which that man moved when I squealed after a particularly nasty toe-stubbing incident in week 14 of the pregnancy proved that his instincts were sharply honed from the beginning. Watching me in the first weeks crying with pain over our inability to nail the ‘latch’ with or without a shield made him leave the room several times. Watching me sob as I couldn’t feed the baby enough in the first weeks and we were put on a feeding plan left him devastated. Watching me wipe my blood off the baby’s face because a mistimed cough had resulted in a very unfortunate nipple clamp, made his toes curl. Watching tears stream down my face as the now ‘fixed’ latch occurred on a nipple cracked and broken by the efforts made him angry and frustrated, especially when it was my Mummy that I cried to about it. The problem is that in all things related to the pregnancy and birth, we’d been a team but for this he was helpless, on the outside, just watching the two people he loved most in the world struggle and suffer and it truly sucked.
Bed space usurpation. The purchase of a pregnancy pillow in the second month of the pregnancy marked the beginning of this process. Bed was not for us as a couple any more. At least 60% of the surface area was taken up with pillows and support. Then my ever-expanding form was wedged into the carefully padded nest and finally he got to cling onto the edge of the mattress alternating between having the entire duvet because I was an oven and having none because I was freezing. The arrival of the baby made that arrangement look palatial! Her own sleeping space in the form of a snüzpod was firmly clamped to the side of our bed. This increase in the surface area SHOULD have made things easier. It didn’t. There were ‘the feedings’. Elbows and knees and pillows and iPads and snacks and muslins and water bottles and changing mats and wipes and shields and nipple creams and accessible tops … these all took priority over him. Who cared that he had work in the morning, the baby must be fed and that process inevitably involved me putting my most pointy joints wherever he was busy being comfortable. There have been a number of nights when we reached dawn ‘topping and tailing’: each of us in a prime position to feed or rock or change or sooth the teeny tiny human who now took up an entire king size space in our lives.
Imprisonment: the fact that the baby’s food supply is firmly clamped to my torso means that any days out, or in fact any excursions longer than 3 hours require my presence. In the early days before we introduced a bottle for expressed milk, this meant that even a trip to the supermarket was either a solo affair or a full-blown outing. It’s a lonely process for both partners. Things you used to do together with ease take on a whole new significance when you have a baby in tow. A simple ‘let’s pop to the shop and see what we fancy for dinner’ now involves a trolley and a pram and timing around feeds and the detour via Home as the muslin wasn’t picked up (despite ‘someone’ being reminded twice). The result is that one of you goes. Alone. This also means that any chance of me getting a break for more than 3 hours is not possible. A little soup of joint resentment builds up when all he wants to do is take the baby out and give me a break and some space AND all I want is for him to take the baby out and give me a break and some space and yet we can’t. So he either feels trapped in with the baby and a mildly resentful wife OR the hassle of getting everyone loaded up for a trivial task is not worth it OR he ends up flying totally solo. Not great choices!
Feeling shunned. No matter how hard breastfeeding is, there is a moment when these little hungry eyes lock with yours and stay fixed on almost like a targeting system. It’s incredible. In fact, babies seem to do that with anyone who feeds them – possibly part of their secret plan to make sure they’re always too cute not to feed? Lots of our new parent friends shared pictures of this awesome moment with partners and new babies and bottles. Dads looked besottedly into the eyes of these wrinkly little humans whilst they fed. He didn’t get that moment. As previously ‘touched’ on, boob holding was a no-no so that wasn’t going to happen. It was six long weeks before he gave our daughter her first expressed bottle. She gazed at him in total adoration (she does that a LOT) and he melted. But a month and a half of waiting for that was still hard. It still depends now on supply and expressing and sterilising not only bottles but all the pumping malarkey that goes with it. It means that he gets those moments only when the stars align and we time everything JUST right! That said, I doubt I’ll get much of a look-in at tea-time when we’re weaning!
So what do I take from the process? This wonderful partner, man and father felt incredibly left out by the joint decision we’d made. We weren’t expecting that at all. We made the best decision for the three of us and yet it bit us on the bum in ways we weren’t prepared for. So we introduced and engineered bonding experiences for the two of them. Bedtime stories are predominantly a Daddy zone – we don’t care that she doesn’t understand them yet (or that they evolve into Dr Who re-runs sometimes!). Bath times often don’t involve Mummy taking the lead, there isn’t a soother like her Daddy if the baby is over tired or fractious; the way he can breeze in and laugh at her whingeing for food an hour after her last feed is enviable. He can also distract her wonderfully and remind her that she is full and dry and loved and wouldn’t she rather spend time making silly faces with him or playing aeroplanes or hearing him narrate a mission on the X-Box while she’s transfixed by the colours and sounds than crying. And then I sit there, feeling useless, wondering why I couldn’t get her to smile at me first and why I can’t settle her to sleep like that and why I am so inadequate. Or I spend some time on me – staring blankly into a phone or dozing in a bath or re-stocking my bedside snacks basket. And then eventually, she does need feeding again and I’m back in the picture. It’s actually worked out pretty well – it turns out that we absolutely need one another to parent our daughter. He cannot cope with an interrupted night’s sleep like I can. I cannot convince her to settle when I smell like an ‘all you can eat buffet’.
So did we make the best decision? There have been top-up formula feeds, expressed feeds, easy feeds and painful feeds. There have been days in bed and whole days out. There have been emergency feeds at the side of the road and planned feeds in relaxing family rooms. But the baby is fed and that is what is best!