Once upon a time, a woman sat in her new boss’s office and she told him that she was pregnant, that she was expecting twins that summer, and she braced herself for displeasure and unease and she tried to prepare herself to be edged out of the door, because she was only three weeks into the new job and still in probation, and who really wants to take a chance on a personal assistant with a high-risk pregnancy. She spoke the words in a voice that trembled a little, because the pregnancy had been dearly fought and paid for, but her family needed her to be in work more than it needed two new additions, because if she lost this job she knew that she would also have to lose the pregnancy. And she loved these babies already.
And he told her that he was happy for her. And it was as if he had lifted a sack of bricks from her shoulders. The next breath she took was the deepest breath she had taken in weeks.
I learnt a valuable lesson that day. I learnt that if you want to guarantee employee loyalty, take a chance on somebody a little less employable. Offer them your hand.
When my first set of twins were born, I took maternity leave from thirty-six weeks and returned to work after three months. With the girls, I was escorted out of the office twelve hours after my waters broke and came back when they were sixteen days old. As somebody who had been with the company for a mere seven months, who still had so much to learn, who had been too baby-befuddled, too anaemic and exhausted, to give it my all for all of the time, it felt important not to take too much of a break from the office. I wanted to be there. My return to the office was my decision and I will always stand by it being the best thing for me, for my career and ultimately for my family.
It still felt like a plunge in to icy water. It felt like being held there, kicking, until my lungs and my heart screamed.
My memories of those first few weeks are, in retrospect, fuzzy. I can’t tell you how much I screwed up even as I tried to pour myself back into it, how much my colleagues must have strained to show patience and kindness as I tried my best but ultimately couldn’t quite keep up. And they were kind, and patient. They held me upright and kept me going and they put their faith in me, as they always have. I am so grateful for that.
But at the same time, there I was in the office seventeen days after the birth, leaking through my dresses, bleeding for weeks, psychologically concussed from the birth experience. That was hard. Really hard. And if I step outside of myself and I think about that woman, standing on the train during her commute with her legs shaking and her smile fixed in place, I feel so sorry for her. She was a mess. But sometimes these things have to be done.
Last year, before the twins were born, I took on a brand ambassadorship with Medela as a Medela Mum. I thought at the time that when I came to write my review it would be about the feeding relationship with our babies as a two-mum family. I thought that I would write about expressing so that Kirsty could give them bottles, so that Kirsty could feed them my breastmilk using the supplemental nursing system. And I did that, and she did feed them with bottles and with the SNS.
But actually, my relationship with my breastpump ran deeper than that. Much to my astonishment, I fell in love with breastfeeding. I fell hard.
Breastfeeding the boys was never easy. Breastfeeding meant a hospital stay with Balthazar, the indignity and humiliation of it never quite working, of being hooked up almost constantly to the breastpump, of fighting with my body to produce enough, enough, enough and of watching, physically constrained to the machine, as Kirsty held the boys close and fed them from a bottle. I didn’t want any of that again, but I wanted the girls to have the best and breastmilk seemed best for them, and so I signed up to be a Medela ambassador as a mother who wouldn’t breastfeed but would pump, and whose babies would drink her milk from a bottle. That was the plan.
Then I had two babies and one was satisfied with a bottle in her mummy’s arms and a snuggle in the wrap, and one was Polly, who wanted boob, boob, boob, to feed for nourishment, to feed for comfort, to feed to sleep. Polly, who slept every night still latched on to my nipple, who raged when I returned to work but was a different baby entirely at the weekend. Polly, who needed me. Me. And my Medela breastpump became about more than just nourishment. It became about me and her and a bond that relied on maintaining an adequate supply.
Medela sent a massive parcel of goodies when we first agreed the ambassadorship – a Harmony handpump, the Freestyle electric breastpump, nursing pads and freezer bags and oh, other things too, but we promptly lost the other things because we are that sort of family. This is a story but it’s also a review, so I’ll get the boring bit over with quickly so that we can get back to the story: the freezer bags were used to store colostrum expressed before the birth, which the girls devoured in the first couple of days. We didn’t replace them because I was never the sort of mother to have an enormous stash of milk. The breastpads are still floating about somewhere; I mostly relied on dark clothes, long hair and colleagues who knew when to glance away.
When I started disappearing to express during the day, my colleagues gave my trips a little pet name: “Visiting the farm.” We laughed about it. They covered for me when I was away. When I accidentally dropped 8oz of breastmilk down the loo whilst dancing jubilantly with the bottle, I cried first at my colleagues, then at my partner, and then at the internet as a whole. I used the handheld Harmony for trips to the farm and expressed one breast at a time, because whilst my office would have honoured the legal obligation to provide a private place to express, I didn’t fancy using one of the glass-panelled rooms and opted instead for the bathroom. It took twice as long, but it worked.
After a while I developed a little system with the electric Freestyle. Don’t laugh. I chopped holes in a sports bra for hands-free expressing, hooked myself up, popped the machine in my bag and used my hours’ commute each way as a chance to increase my supply. You can laugh. Imagine me, shaped strangely under a big coat, loudly vibrating on a bus, a train and the Underground. But when you work long hours and you have two babies to feed, you have to do odd things. It worked. I had other tricks with that Freestyle too – a way to lay on my side with the bottles dangling off of the bed so that I could express in my sleep. It wasn’t a deep sleep, granted, but my goodness, it felt good to be able to shut my eyes knowing that when I opened them again, those bottles would be heavy.
I feel proud that Olympia and Embla drink my milk, even if they have had formula at times. When I see those bottles lined up in the fridge, I smile. At the moment, Polly is going through a greedy-baby phase where she too prefers expressed milk in a bottle to the breast; it’s less effort, I guess. My supply is suffering for it and I’m not sure whether this means the end of the road of whether it’s something from which we can recover. But they are almost eight months old and we are well into weaning, which relieves some of the pressure.
Before I became a mother, I imagined that I would have the traditional breastfeeding relationship with my children. And after I had my first set of twins, I imagined that feeding future babies would involve formula all the way. But this? This has been a beautiful, unimaginable journey. And Medela has played a big part in that.