Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Introducing Raphaël! (Also, a rant about breastfeeding)

Hi! Anybody still here? I’m not sure how to begin this post. “It’s been a long time” seems like the understatement of the year so far. But I’m sure you can guess what’s been keeping me away:

Meet Raphaël, born on October 2nd, 2012. Laurent and I feel blessed everyday to have this little guy in our lives. I’m sure every parent says this, but he really is the sweetest little baby in the world! At four months, he’s been sleeping through the night for quite some time now (despite a three-week holiday trip to Europe and the ensuing jet-lag). He never went through his “inconsolable crying phase.” In fact, he hardly ever cries unless there’s an easily identifiable reason – usually that he’s hungry, gassy, or tired. And he just smiles and chatters all the time! We love him to pieces.

I recently had a conversation with a young woman who was saying that she didn’t feel emotionally ready to have kids yet. My answer was that, even though having a baby was a hundred-percent planned in my case, I never felt ready either! I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I wanted to have them sooner rather than later. But does that mean I was prepared for everything being a mother entailed? Absolutely not. I still have trouble thinking of myself as a mother! But the thing is, I never expected to be completely ready: becoming a parent has always seemed like such a huge, life-altering event, that I figured I would never be entirely ready for it, no matter how much I prepared for it. I read up on the basic health-related topics, but for the most part, I knew I was probably going to have to ad-lib my way through it.

And that’s the way it’s been. There’s a moment I think every new parent goes through: it’s when you get home from the hospital, with your baby in your arms, and you look at each other and think “Ok, what do we do now?”. Obviously, nothing will ever be the same. But how exactly do you navigate that? So you put the baby down and you watch him sleep for a while, and then you start wondering if you’re allowed to go do something as mundane as have a cup of tea, or read the paper. Of course, this state of uncertainty doesn’t last long: the baby soon wakes up crying, and you’re off trying to figure out what’s the matter and what to do about it. And just like that, you’re a parent. You eventually figure out that you can still have a cup of tea while perusing the paper (in fact, moments like that eventually become essential to your sanity), but now a huge part of your life is dedicated to caring for this tiny, completely dependent being. The challenge is balancing everything.

I didn’t do a great job at balancing things in the beginning. I’m very lucky that Laurent was able and willing to take over pretty much everything in the early days: shopping, cooking, cleaning, he did it all, while I devoted myself to Raphaël. So, even if I’d had time to blog, I wouldn’t have had much to blog about: I didn’t touch a skillet or mixing bowl for months.

All newborns are very demanding in the beginning, but in our case there was one aspect that complicated our first weeks together, and took up nearly all of my time: breastfeeding. I know this is technically a cooking blog, but mother’s milk is, after all, our first source of nourishment, in most cases. And the breastfeeding experience has taken both me and Raphaël for quite the ride. I thought I would share it today, to stall for time while I get my butt back in the kitchen. Those of you who don’t feel like reading about it can just scroll through the chronological photos of the baby. :-)

There was never any question for me that I wanted to breastfeed my baby. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. I don’t think formula is poison, as some breastfeeding advocates do (in fact, I’m quite grateful that formula was invented, you’ll find out why in a minute), but mother’s milk has always made the most sense to me: our bodies make it specifically for our babies, after all. So when the nurse teaching our prenatal class did her shtick on the benefits of breastfeeding (“It’s free!”, “It’s easy, no equipment required!”, “Antibodies!”), I was already sold. Plus, it seemed like a nice bonding experience.

Some friends of mine have complained that nurses here in Quebec are too militant, and try to promote/push breastfeeding onto mothers too aggressively, making them feel like bad parents if they choose to bottle feed. “Not everyone is able to breastfeed,” said one friend, whose mother had been forced to wean her early after her milk supply dried up. I nodded, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that. After all, I was going to breastfeed, and I wasn’t going to have any problems, and it was all going to be super.

Except it wasn’t. Raphaël was born a healthy 3.5 kg (about 7 pounds), after 26 hours of labour. I did everything to ensure a good start to breastfeeding: no epidural or medication of any kind, skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth, and a first feeding less than two hours after the birth. I was so exhausted by then, I honestly can’t really remember much about that first feed, but everything seemed okay, as far as I could tell (which wasn’t very much, given that I had never done this before). 

After that, a nurse would come into my room every three hours to see how the feedings were going. That’s when things started to get weird. I knew that, contrary to popular belief, not all newborns cry when they’re hungry, so you have to feed them on a schedule at first; I also knew that, sometimes, newborns are too sleepy to feed and you have to wake them and get them to nurse. But Raphaël was wide awake when I tried to put him to breast – and yet, he wouldn’t feed. He was staring at me with eerily expressive eyes that seemed to ask: “What on earth are you trying to do to me, lady?”, and he simply refused to open his mouth. Even the nurse, who was used to seeing newborns do weird things, was stumped. This happened several times, until the nurse insisted that we give him some formula, to give him some energy and get him started. After that, he finally agreed to feed, but it remained difficult: he would only nurse about half the time, and when he did feed he seemed to never want to stop. I was beginning to dread feedings. Each time, I feared he would refuse to eat; at the same time, I was so exhausted that part of me couldn’t help but feel distraught when he did latch on, knowing I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep for a long while.

When we got home, things seemed to get better. Raphaël started to let me know when he was hungry, and I was feeding him on demand, whenever he needed it. But each nursing session still lasted a very long time, and often he would clamour for more soon after. So I was basically spending my days breastfeeding. But I took it in stride, telling myself that every baby is different, and that if he needed to feed so much, well, that was just the way he was. At least, with all that nursing, he had to be putting on a lot of weight, right?

Except he wasn’t. At his two-week check-up, his doctor found that his weight gain was borderline insufficient, and asked me to feed him more often. This was very disheartening to hear, as I was already spending so much time nursing, but I did it. After a weekend of nursing practically round the clock, I saw a lactation consultant, and we found that, not only was he still not gaining weight adequately, he had actually lost some.

By definition, my lactation consultant was very pro-breastfeeding, but in this case, even she had to order formula supplements. This was a hard blow for me. It had never occurred to me that I would not be able to feed my baby. I love to make nourishing food for the people I care about. Few things make me happier than to see someone enjoying the food I prepared for them. And yet, here I was unable to meet my baby’s needs. I couldn’t feed him in the most basic, essential way. I was heartbroken. In fact, I burst into tears right there in the consultant’s office. She handed me some tissues and sent me on my way with a promise that she would help me.

We did the breastfeeding and formula routine for a few weeks, while the lactation consultant decided that my milk production was probably too low, and set me to trying to get it back up. I took pills. I rented an electric breast-pump and pumped after every feeding. The schedule was insane: between breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, and pumping, and accounting for the time it took to clean out the pump, not to mention all the times Raphaël threw up or pooped all over himself and required major cleaning himself, I would usually end up with about twenty minutes of free time before having to start the whole thing all over again. It was horrible. Then I started getting recurring plugged ducts (which hurt like hell), and even a bout of mastitis, an infection that required antibiotics. It was, in short, not a fun time.

Finally, six weeks after the birth, Raphaël’s doctor took another look at him and determined that he was tongue-tied. This basically means that the membrane under his tongue (the frenulum) was too tight, and prevented him from moving his tongue around as well as he should, which interfered with his sucking. This was actually one of the first things the doctor had looked for during our first visit, but apparently Raphaël’s tongue-tie was of the sneaky, posterior variety, and thus hard to spot. Soon after, the doctor performed a tiny, anaesthetic-free operation on him, and from there on things improved a lot.

So, after all that, we’re doing well. Three months ago, I was afraid I would have to give up breastfeeding altogether. But today, he’s getting mostly my milk, with only minimal supplements. He’s gotten way better at feeding, as I’ve gotten better at reading his signals. Feedings are now a fun, cosy time for both of us.

But with hindsight, I really wish someone had warned me beforehand about how difficult breastfeeding can be. It’s actually a complaint I’ve read in a few different places online. Everywhere, people are making such an effort to promote breastfeeding, they seem to gloss over the unpleasant parts, and make it seem effortless and breezy by focusing on just the positive points (“Free!” “Easy!” “Antibodies!”). I get why they’re doing this. But I don’t think it’s the best strategy.

Around the time I had Raphaël, there was an advertisement going around. It showed a Quebec actress in a cocktail dress, nursing her child, and it read: “Allaiter, c’est glamour.” “Breastfeeding is glamorous.” In French, this sort of plays a pun on “glamour” and “amour” (love), but it went right over my head the first times I saw it, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one (granted, I was incoherent from sleep deprivation at that point). What I can tell you is that glamour was the last thing on my mind during those early weeks with Raphaël – hell, even today, I consider it a victory when I manage to blow-dry my hair and rub on some body lotion in the morning.

I pointed this out when I attended a breastfeeding meeting, during which this ad came up: “My baby just threw up on me. I don’t feel glamorous.” But the nurse just brushed it off: “Well, no, but in a few months, breastfeeding will come so easily, you’ll feel just like the woman in the ad.” A few months. How is that supposed to comfort the sleep-deprived, worried new moms who are dealing with plugged ducts, a colicky infant, low milk supply, bleeding nipples, breast infections, and all the other things that can go wrong with breastfeeding? To me, that’s like saying: “Well, yes, labour hurts. But it only lasts a few dozen hours, and then it’s over, so it’s fine. Don’t dwell on it.” Prenatal classes prepare us for the pain of childbirth, and they don’t sugar-coat it; on the contrary, they tell us to expect the worst kind of pain, and prepare us for anything that might go wrong. So why not do this for breastfeeding? Are they afraid it’ll turn women off, discourage them from sticking with it? But this strategy is counterproductive. Because what happens is that, when women hit an unexpected bump on the breastfeeding road, they’re surprised and unprepared, and that much more likely to quit. I was determined as hell to breastfeed, and even I came close to giving up. 

Anyways, all is well that ends well, in our case. And, to give credit where it’s due, that’s all thanks to the amazing professional support I’ve received. Yes, those same people who over-promote breastfeeding and gloss over its difficulties are also really great at helping you get over those hurdles. Admittedly, some of them tend to forget that you’re a person, not just a milk-producing device, and don’t realize that spending every waking minute feeding or pumping is just not a sustainable way of life. But if you want the help, they’ll give it to you. And I, for one, am grateful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go feed my baby. We’ll return to adult food in the next post!


  1. Oh he is too cute. When do we meet him? Yeah I have no experience in the field but I have heard it is not as easy as it sounds in many cases. Glad things are more stable now, for all three of you.

  2. What a gorgeous little guy! I'm glad that nursing has become easier for you. it will make life so much easier for the 3 of you. I hope your week is off to a great start. Have a good day. Blessings...Mary

  3. Yaaay...the official introduction! I was hoping it would come soon. He is so gorgeous and I loved reading your post as new Mommy. I only missed it initially because after a bout with the flu, I caught a really bad cold/cough/throat 'thing' and my online activities have been limited to pinning (no thought involved, just click lol) Geesh...can I get a break? That said, there was a girl in my HS class who was 'tongue-tied' and it wasn't fixed until she was 14! She spoke fine, albeit the words dragging a bit at times. Anyway..looking forward to more posts from you about this little guy and I miss your gorgeous, delectable goodies!

  4. What a gorgeous baby boy! CONGRATULATIONS! Love the photos. They are so adorable and also a couple of hilarious ones! There is nothing as miraculous as childbirth, is there? It opens up another part of your brain. A new way of knowing and a completely new depth and breadth of loving. Breastfeeding? I got blood blisters on my breasts. OH yea! It was not easy. But, I was determined and I am happy I did all I could to provide the healthiest start for my child, too. It didn't even dawn on me to think about why people hadn't said it could be difficult. It just seemed that everything was difficult and a pleasure all at once, at the time.
    Much love to you and your new family!

  5. What a beautiful looking baby boy! Raphaël is a lovely name too! :)

    Thanks for sharing with us !! xxx Have fun with him, brand new mom!