I don’t have a straightforward relationship with breastfeeding. Does anyone? Back in 2013, when I was pregnant for the first time, I knew I wanted to give it a go. And then Joseph was born, three weeks early, and we had to stay in hospital for eight days because my blood pressure was high. The midwives told me to feed him every three hours, but my boy was jaundiced and tiny and all he wanted to do was sleep. Sometimes, it took an hour of dripping water onto his face and tickling his feet for him to wake up.
When he was two days old, a midwife told me he’d lost too much weight and insisted we give him some formula. From a cup rather than a bottle, to avoid ‘nipple confusion’. Paul held him and tried to get him to take some drops of milk, and he looked so small and frail, and I felt like a failure.
Over the next few days, a variety of healthcare assistants spent an incredible amount of time helping me to get it right. One day, a woman spent five hours with me, helping me to hand express and sort out Joseph’s latch. I remember being given a syringe that held one millilitre of fluid; after an hour of hand expressing, it was about half full. The whole process was frustrating, painful and difficult.
By the time we went home, I thought we’d got the hang of it. But the next few weeks held cracked, bleeding and blistered nipples and two bouts of mastitis, during which I felt too ill and shivery at times to get out of bed. But I had to, because I was breastfeeding, so I was the only one who could feed my son.
We got through it, and I ended up breastfeeding for almost eight months. Joseph put weight on steadily, going from the 9th percentile to the 75th sustained only by the milk my body made for him. That felt pretty amazing. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of in my life, because it was certainly the hardest. So when I found out that I was pregnant this time, I was more worried about the early days and weeks of breastfeeding than I was about the labour. But there was no question in my mind that I’d do it all again.
And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my surgeon asked whether I had any questions. And before I knew I was going to, I asked whether I’d be able to breastfeed, and she said it was unlikely. I felt crushed. I worried that my baby girl and I wouldn’t bond in the same way that Joseph and I had, and I felt like, before she was even here, I’d let her down.
I’ve asked the breastfeeding question of a number of healthcare professionals in the hope of getting a different answer, but it’s looking like it’s not meant to be. One obvious problem is that I’ve lost my right nipple, and the other is that I’ll almost definitely be having chemotherapy shortly after the birth, and the drugs will be present in my milk.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned this disappointment to a friend. She’s currently breastfeeding her daughter, and she immediately offered to pump and freeze some milk for mine. It was completely unexpected, and probably the kindest thing anyone’s ever offered me.
For the first couple of years that I knew this woman, she was growing her hair so that she could donate it to a charity that makes wigs for little girls with cancer. I said that we might have a problem getting the milk from her to me, since we live quite far apart, and she said ‘If I can send human hair for the children, I can send frozen breastmilk for the babies.’
Since, other friends have offered to do the same. It’s hugely overwhelming. I’m looking into the logistics of transportation. I’m also looking into milk banks, which typically provide breastmilk for premature babies.
So, it’s not yet clear how my daughter will be fed. The only thing that seems pretty certain is that she won’t feed from me. It’s still one of the hardest things about this whole situation for me, but I’m coming to terms with it. I know I have to forgive myself for this thing that isn’t my fault. And it’s given me the opportunity to learn just how kind and amazing my friends are, which is no bad thing.