Becoming a Mother: how I learnt to tune in to wisdom, love and my babies

This is an excerpt from a speech given by Birth Journeys editor Leonie MacDonald at the 2012 ACT/Southern NSW Branch Conference of the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). Leonie was invited to give the welcoming speech for the conference.

I vividly remember the first time I encountered breastfeeding. I was 10 and my piano teacher had recently given birth to her third baby. During my lesson in her home, her baby began to cry, so her husband brought him in to her. She asked me if I minded and then she began to breastfed him while I played the piano.

This scene of a gentle and loving mother nurturing her baby, while I played a Mozart minuet left a long lasting impression on me. Unfortunately, it was NOT a positive one!

I remember thinking “What is she doing!? Is she allowed to do that?!”

I was confused, shocked and mortified.

I had no idea where to look so I stared firmly ahead at the black dots on the page and played my music with fierce concentration.

Like birth, breastfeeding wasn’t visible in my world. My mother never even mentioned it to me. So that first encounter with breastfeeding was a huge shock.

When I became pregnant with my first son, the thought of a baby suckling on my breast was repulsive to me. How surprised I would have been back then if I could have taken a peek into the future!

My feelings about breastfeeding suddenly changed when I saw my baby in an ultrasound. I couldn’t wait to hold my own precious baby in my arms and to nurture him at my breast with my own milk. It suddenly seemed like the most natural and beautiful thing for me to do.

I researched breastfeeding and learnt as much as I could. I wanted to breastfeed and I was going to give myself the best chance to succeed.

After my son’s birth, he was placed on my chest and he began rooting for the breast. It was amazing to see. He soon began to breastfeed. I was uncertain and anxious but completely love struck with my precious baby boy.

On my baby’s first night in the world I had a powerful initiation into motherhood. In the middle of the night, I asked the midwife to help me breastfeed. She suggested that my baby’s head bumping on my chest meant he was tired and not hungry for milk. She offered to rock him to sleep so I could return to bed and rest. She could see how very tired I was and she felt that it would do no serious harm. I reluctantly handed him over and went back to bed.

I felt like a school girl who had been gently but firmly told that I was not the expert on such matters. I had been sure his head bumping meant he was instinctively rooting for a breastfeed and now I couldn’t sleep.

About 20 minutes later, a peacefully sleeping baby boy was returned to my room. After the midwife left, he woke crying loudly. I picked him up and said quietly “See! I knew you needed a breastfeed.” While he happily drank and fed back to sleep, I cried and cried. I promised us both that I would listen to my baby and my heart from now on. I realised that even though I was no expert, no one knew my baby like me.

In the weeks that followed, I developed an abundant supply of milk and a very fast let down reflex. Despite all my reading, I was unprepared for this and it was difficult. The let down made my baby gag and pull off the breast screaming. Milk sprayed everywhere and in such a hot summer it was sticky and uncomfortable. We needed beach towels whenever I breastfed!

Advice from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) was invaluable during these early weeks. By 12 weeks my supply settled down a bit – now I only needed a few face washers to soak up the extra milk. We had a few bouts of mastitis and breast refusal along the way, but we continued through these challenges.

As I eased into mothering, I realised that breastfeeding was more than a method of feeding my baby. It was central to my relationship with my baby. It provided wonderful benefits, including comfort and nurturing. It enabled my baby to grow away from me at his own pace and always return to the safety of my lap and the comfort of my breast when he needed reassurance.

The women I met through the ABA, online and in Canberra became my community – they became my friends. My baby was about 8 months old when I hosted my first ABA meeting. One of the mothers was breastfeeding her 3 year old and I was rather surprised. I couldn’t believe how big this child looked compared to my baby. I secretly thought “Three is TOO old!” I couldn’t imagine breastfeeding a CHILD!

But I always returned to the importance of listening to my baby and my heart. In a world that encourages premature weaning - I decided that I wanted to let my baby self wean. He weaned slowly and gently during my second pregnancy – by the age of three he had forgotten how to breastfeed. I was a little sad at the time, but I had a new baby coming soon, and I was pleased with the gentle and respectful way our weaning had unfolded.

Three years have passed since then and I am now living the joys and challenges of breastfeeding my own 3 year old (my second son). He is not keen on the natural weaning I had envisaged happening at around this age. He is very attached to breastfeeding and he’s not about to give it up just yet!

For me breastfeeding has always been about love. The oxytocin rush I still occasionally experience when we breastfeed gives me an overwhelming, deep feeling of love for my son and it helps me to reconnect with him and be a better mother. He receives this feel-good hormone through my milk and it makes him feel fantastic. Jeanine Parvati Baker, a wise midwife and teacher, once wrote “My heart melts and flows into my baby as breastmilk.” My little boy still needs and desires this very physical experience of his mother’s love – he will let me know when he is ready to stop.

My choices have been surprising, even to myself! As with birth, I have come up against negative and discouraging comments and these still have the power to shake my confidence in my mothering and my choices. It is much easier to tune into my heart and trust my wisdom and intuition when I feel supported and respected. It is easier when I know that I am not mothering in isolation.

There are many ups and downs with birth, breastfeeding and parenting. The experience is not always perfect. It can be difficult when our expectations and dreams are not met and the reality turns out to be quite different. What helps most – and what all mothers need – is access to quality support, given with love, compassion, humanity and respect.