Emails from my boss arose me from my physically exhausted and sleep deprived state, to the reality of work and a life outside caring for a baby at home. Our team lead scheduled a conference call to kick off our new project which coincided with the end of my maternity leave, which was exciting and nerve wrecking at once. Finally when the phone rang, and I was clicked into my first call, adrenaline coursed through my body as I nervously stuck to my secondary mission of keeping the baby quiet. I employed the mute button and was prepared to nurse my baby every time he cried hoping that his cries wouldn’t pierce through serious discussions that were taking place in meeting rooms in multiple countries. I did not want to appear as the team member who ‘disrupted’ the discussions with a crying baby, neither was I willing to give up the newly found cause I was championing with every fibre of my physical being and my mental strength- breastfeeding.
In those early days of motherhood, when my mind was pregnant with all the scientific evidence, and anecdotes about the importance and value of breastfeeding, my short term life goal became just that. Hitting the six month mark seemed an important finish line and I was unwilling to let work distract me. Almost as quickly as the first conference call finished, news of impending meetings where I had to be physically present circulated. I was juggling a schedule that was constantly subject to revision and a husband who was changing his work schedule based on mine to stay home and feed pumped breast milk to our baby. This was encouraging and nerve wrecking at the same time. It was encouraging that my doctor husband was brave and confident to comfort a frequently crying baby who was almost exclusively soothed by the breast, and that he was negotiating with his work colleagues to exchange shifts, but it was nerve wrecking because my schedule was constantly changing and it made it difficult for him to stick to a plan.
My first hurdle was learning to pump milk with a breast pump. The first time I pumped, my yield was a paltry 20ml. Considering the frequent milk intake of the baby, it was hardly a few sips. With each passing day, my stress levels soared as I felt ill equipped to face the requirement of a substantial stash of ‘frozen breast milk’ to be used while I was away.
It was the penultimate Sunday before the week I started work and my husband and I went for Sunday mass as usual. As the baby started crying halfway through my husband and I took turns to soothe the baby at the door. When it was my turn, I met the gaze of another mum carrying a toddler.
She may have seen the desperation and helplessness in my eyes that she smiled and started a conversation with me, and in no time I was pouring my fears about the meagre flow of milk into the pumping bottle. Within minutes, she dispelled my fears, and offered a solution with experience and confidence. Feed with one breast, and save the other for pumping. It sounded simple and easy enough and it worked. The miracle I needed was found. I pumped sufficient milk, and got through the first few weeks of meetings that were upon me, and when it was time to repeat the cycle again a few weeks later, I was ready.
Having frozen milk wasn’t the only challenge we faced. The process of thawing, heating and feeding the baby without wasting precious milk was hard for my husband especially since the duration of my meetings was unpredictable. I attended meetings with my mobile phone tightly gripped in my hand, checking for messages from him. When people didn’t turn up on time for meetings or our discussions rang long, my stomach churned while my breasts swelled. I didn’t know how to estimate the time I’d be home for the next feed, and my husband was helpless trying to prepare milk for the baby. There were days he drove to where my meeting was so I could get in the car and feed in-between meetings. Together, we did it! We got through those first six months, and another 18 more.
Exclusive breastfeeding is a commitment and a journey that requires perseverance and courage, and it relies on the support of many people. The commitment of my husband and I alone was not enough – We needed our ‘village’ to help feed our child, and for that village we are grateful.