When Susie, a close friend, asked me to be with her for the birth of her first baby I jumped at the opportunity. At the time, I needed a bit of a shake-up. After decades of advising parents on the same old problems of sleep, breastfeeding, crying and poo, I was turning into a talking doll. Press the button and off she goes.I was sure that leaving my secure suburban practice and plunging into the great unknown of a homebirth in a remote and faraway place would not only test me and my guru advice, but bring me back to my day job revitalised and renewed.
Several months later, thrilled and excited but also harbouring a secret, niggly crisis of confidence, I flew out of my comfort zone to a rainforest in North Queensland.
I wasn’t worried about the birth. Susie and Tom had an
excellent midwife lined up for the birth.
It was the afterwards that was occupying my thoughts. That first ten days after the baby arrives is a tricky time. Emotional and exhausting
Susie and Tom were very capable and self-sufficient. I was sure that the idea of any major hiccups hadn’t entered their heads but thanks to my job I was very much aware – probably too aware - of all the possibilities.
For starters, Tom and I didn’t know each other that well. Maybe we wouldn’t get on. He might think I’m intruding. Quite possibly he’d already had moments when he wondered why Susie wanted me around.
I suspected he might be thinking it would be cosier with just him, Susie and their baby tucked away in the house he’d built in the middle of a rainforest surrounded by sky and birds.
Chances were we might all get on each other’s nerves and have a big falling out.
Apart from that depressing thought, what would it be like stuck in the middle of a rainforest without the Sydney resources I was used to having available a phone call away?
Even though I was a guru who knew all about sleep and settling, not to mention the mysteries and intricacies of breastfeeding, what would I do if the baby cried all night and the ‘ sleep and settling ’ techniques I glibly sprouted from behind a desk didn’t work?
No sending them off to Tresillian or passing them on to a paediatrician for the laying on of the hands.
No going home at the end of the day and leaving them all to it.
And then there was the breastfeeding.
It’s all every well to quote statistics as in, ‘ 98% of all women are physiologically capable of breastfeeding’.
Or murmur soothing platitudes as in, ‘ if breastfeeding was that difficult humans would have died out’.
Or give brisk simplistic reassurances as in, ‘ all problems are solvable with the right advice.’
The truth is that in contemporary life, for a multitude of complex reasons, breastfeeding turns out to be problematic, even disastrous, for a considerable number of women.
Many problems can be sorted but there are times when it can be tricky to get the breastfeeding show on the road and keeping it happily rolling along.
Formula wasn’t an option for my rainforest family. Apart from Susie being horrified at the very thought, there was no fridge, and stores selling formula belonged to another world a million miles away. Formula, bottles, teats, disinfecting equipment – the whole paraphernalia – didn’t fit in with rainforest life.
So, fingers-crossed the breastfeeding would be, as promised in the brochures, easy and pleasurable, sensual and emotionally satisfying.
Susie and Tom’s house, a work in progress, had only one big room so I was installed in a tent set up in a leafy clearing at the edge of the rainforest. A shallow creek and a jumbly network of trees and vines, separated my tent from the house.
Apart from the whispering mozzies, living in a tent in the middle of a rainforest was an entrancing new experience. From the house, the tangle of trees and foliage look impenetrable but sitting in my clearing with forest either side I could see spaces of darkness and light between the trees where thick vines wandered and looped like rope.
Way up at the top, bursting layers of fresh leaves shimmered and twinkled in the sun. Down where my tent was pitched among the shadows and tree roots, the undergrowth was subdued and somber. Solitary leaves drifted down spinning and turning in chinks of light.
The forest was full of soft noises that took a bit of getting used to, especially at night. The first few nights the rustling and snuffling and things falling on the roof had me sitting bolt upright, heart athump as I flashed the torch around the tent certain there was someone in there with me.
I calmed down and was soon able to identify the sound of leaves dropping, the ping of twigs, the slither of cane toads, the chirps of rainforest birds, the thud of roos and the thin sonar calls of bats.
I could pick up the ripple of a gathering breeze before it swooped in and quietly faded, the swish of owl wings flying low and the faint scratching of the resident peahen getting about her business.
The homebirth option wasn’t available when I’d given birth. Even if it had been I doubt I’d have been a candidate, but after Maxine’s birth I did wonder what I might have missed out on.
Thankfully, hospital births are enormously different now to the era when I was a midwife, and from the time I had my own babies. The old insane, inhumane practices have largely been abandoned but hospitals are still places where staff tend to hover, touch and examine.
The ever-present faint clatter of stainless steel has never been entirely eliminated and even if the space where the woman is birthing is private and comfortable with music playing, incense burning and candles flickering, strangers will inevitably be involved.
It might be the woman bringing in the lunch right in the middle of a tidal wave contraction. Or a resident doctor learning the ropes. Or a new midwife at change of shifts.
Here in the house that Tom built there was only the four of us not saying much but making lots of eye contact. No stainless-steel clatter. No muzak. No well-meaning strangers barging in. No ‘no worries, have a nice day’, social chit-chat.
Just the wind in the trees, the thrum of crickets, the sound of Zelda, the black labrador, sighing and flopping around on the deck and the vibrations of the cello CD bouncing off the timber floor.
No staff change-of-shift palpations to check where the head was or how far apart the contractions were.
Just Paula, our midwife, who seemed to have an inner system connected to Susie’s body that told her exactly what was going on without talking or moving much from her observation post by the window. From time to time, she went to where Susie was walking back and forth, pressed a cold flannel to her forehead, anchored her with her eyes for thirty seconds and returned to her seat.
The birth was normal and beautiful. As Maxine glided smoothly into her father’s waiting hands we were all euphoric, the room full of laughter and warmth.
The memories I had of hospital births from my midwifery days were of piles of bloody linen, massive bundles of instruments and tubing, big bottles of white antiseptic cream that kept crashing off the trolleys and overflowing bins.
Here in our little world there was no mess. Apart from the bundle Susie was holding in her arms it was hard to know a birth had taken place.
After the birth, the days whizzed by and without a hint of discord we settled into our roles harmoniously humming along as if we’d been living together for a million years.
Susie mooned over Maxine and practiced breastfeeding under my watchful eye. Tom became a dab hand at bathing Maxine and doing the sleep and settling routine following my technique to the letter. I cooked up nutritious dinners using a lot of lentils which we ate accompanied by a good red.
Maxine thrived but by day three it was obvious we had a problem…
She had some sort of mental block about taking the breast. If she didn’t grasp the nipple well on her first attempt she gave up and screamed. I could get her on but often only after a lot of messing around where we all got tense and sweaty as we slipped and slid around in the heat trying to anchor baby to breast. Or maybe breast to baby. It all started to get confusing.
Maxine went on well for Susie at some feeds but other feeds turned into nerve-wracking ordeals until she’d suddenly decide to close her jaws around the nipple and start pulling and swallowing and gulping the milk down like she’d been never been fed.
Before we realised what was happening Susie and Tom were depending on me to get Maxine onto the breast for most of the feeds.
Including the night feeds.
Down in my tent I’d automatically wake at two in the morning and sit waiting.
Soon I’d hear Maxine’s cry trailing across the rainforest. I’d cross my fingers and urge her on whispering come on Maxine, be nice Maxine, please don’t give us a hard time at two o’clock in the morning Maxine.
But the cries would crank up getting increasingly frantic. I’d hear the creak of the back door and see the light from Tom’s torch dancing through the trees.
‘Robin,’ he’d call, ‘she’s not connecting.’
I’d leap out of bed and be up to the house in a flash
where Susie would be holding Maxine and weeping softly. We’d try a bit of this
and a bit of that and finally get her going while Tom made a pot of tea.
Breast refusal is devastating for a mother. It’s hurtful beyond words. It’s as if her baby is rejecting her. The unpredictability of not knowing whether a feed will be dreamy and pleasant or a bloody nightmare is exhausting as is the thought that it could go on for months.
It’s easy to get stuck in a fixated state of nagging anxiety: Why me? What am I doing wrong? Is it my milk? Is it my anatomy? Worst of all, is there something wrong with my baby?
Despite her mysterious attacks of apoplexy about taking the breast, Maxine was thriving and healthy but foolishly I’d let us get to a stage where my help was now crucial for most of the feeds. As I was going home in a couple of days, this wasn’t good.
Was I so close to them that I was missing something basic?
Swallowing my pride, I called a fellow lactation consultant in Sydney. She was someone I’d had a few ding-dongs with over the years (breastfeeding is surprisingly political) but she was also someone whose opinion I valued. I knew she’d see things with a cool and clinical eye
I appreciated her getting straight down to business without a lot of curiosity and carry-on about why I was calling her from a rainforest in North Queensland.
She went through a brisk diagnostic list.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘there’s plenty of milk.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with her nipples.’
And so on.
There was a considered pause, before she cut to the chase.
‘And when are you leaving them?’
‘In two days.’
‘You are putting that baby to the breast how many times a day?’
‘Four or five.’
Her silence spoke volumes.
‘It’s hands off,’ she finally said. ‘You’re not doing them any favours. They have to manage the feeding themselves. Back off.’
She bade me farewell and hung up.
Susie, Tom and I had a conference.
‘From now on I’ll leave it up to you,’ I said. ‘Tom you’ll have to help.’
I showed him the basics and explained what to do.
‘Don’t try to put her on while she’s crying. Calm her down first. You don’t have to do exactly what I do, figure out your own technique. From now on it’s up to you and Susie to work it out’.
We hung about self-consciously, doing chores or reading, waiting for Maxine to wake up. Soon she started squirming, sucking and making little half cries.
‘I’m taking Zelda for a walk,’ I said brightly, ‘see you all later.’
As Zelda and I started for the rainforest, Maxine got into full throttle. I walked past the tent and took the gently curving track that ran along the floor of the rainforest. Maxine’s cries faded behind me as I left the track and walked steadily up the creek into the furthest hidey-hole I could find.
I sat on a mossy stump in a patch of sunlight that had found its way through the canopy overhead. A spider web floated in front of me and I could hear the slipping and slithering of the little people who lived in the tree roots. I controlled an urge to go racing back, take charge, rescue the situation.
‘That’s the trouble with gurus,’ I said to a spider hanging by a silver thread, ‘they don’t know when to walk away. They have to be indispensable and show everyone how clever they are. If I’d backed off last week we wouldn’t be in this pickle now.’
It was very soothing sitting there with my feet in the dead damp leaves smelling the sodden roots, looking up at a patch of sky hovering lake-like through a space in the leaves on top of the soaring trees.
Eventually my backside started getting numb and I called Zelda. As I followed her back to the house I became conscious of a presence. I looked up and there were two large owls, yellow-eyed and silky, perched on a branch not far above my head.
‘Twit twoo guru’, they called, staring down their beaks at me as I passed by underneath.
All I heard as I approached the house was the creak of the back door as Susie put her head out. There was a lilt to her voice and a shine on her face.
‘She’s been fed?’ I asked super-casually.
‘Yup. Bit of struggle but Tom quieted her down and slipped her on. She had a good feed and now she’s quietly alert .’
We both started laughing.
Later Tom showed me the technique he used to calm Maxine. Holding her out in front of his belly he did a sort of gentle father-bonding jig around the house singing ‘a-shooga, a-shooga, a-shooga.’ It seemed to hypnotise Maxine and before she knew it she was on the breast.’
By the time I was due to depart, Maxine was taking the breast well for most feeds. Any problems were being managed most capably by her parents.
On the day I left, Susie walked across the floor breastfeeding Maxine as if she’d been doing it all her life.
I saw them still there, outlined behind the mesh door, as Tom and I swung down the track to the airport.
I recently found a photo of the four of us taken on the day I left. The three adults are wild eyed and the baby is yelling but you can see the bond there.
You can tell we have shared something amazing and here we are triumphant and smiling, and just a little bit smug.Exactly the sort of sabbatical every guru should have.