From a distance, it’s hard to conjure up exactly how overwhelming the first weeks of parenthood are.
Six years on, when I’m trying to separate my gangly first-grader from her Beanie Boo collection, it’s almost impossible to remember that I was once a woman sitting up in bed, topless, blood running from my breasts, sobbing.
It’s hard to fathom that as I tried to weather the pain of another failed “latch on” technique, as I wrestled with crescent-shaped pillows and cushions and ‘football holds’, as my tiny, tiny baby’s perfect rosebud pout failed to clamp around my nipple in any meaningful way, I questioned whether I was fit to be a mother.
But what I do remember, is picking up the phone and calling someone.
Asking for help is the first towering obstacle standing between addled new parents and some sort of peace.
It does not come naturally to many women, myself included, to admit that things aren’t going well, and we need to reach beyond our immediate circle to reset.
For me, those early days of breastfeeding, or rather, of failing to breastfeed without being in absolute agony and a certain amount of despair, was my flash-fire introduction to the contradictions of parenthood.
But this was the most natural thing in the world, right? Babies just do this, yes? My body should know how do do this, surely?
So why am I cracked and bloody? Why, every time my girl was due for a feed, was I steeled to flinch with the agony of a badly gummed breast?
Why did she only want to feed from one side, leaving the other boob lumpy, bulging and painful to touch?
I’m sorry if you’re trying to eat your lunch, but this is the sort of shit new mothers wade through, and they need all the help they can get with it.
Which is why, when I was contacted by the office of the Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King about the Government’s proposed funding cut to the National Breastfeeding Helpline, that version of me, the one who was sitting on the bad, shaking with sobs as a squally baby wriggled beside me, came rushing back.
Because somewhere in that mess of information that every parent leaves hospital with – the blue book, the fridge magnets, the interminable leaflets, I found the number with the National Breastfeeding Line, and I called it.
You know, I can barely remember what the woman who answered told me to do to solve my bloody-nipple-bulging-boob conundrum.
And I am certainly not some sort of hard-line, breast-is-best proponent who was averse to doling out the formula.
But I remember that the woman I spoke to was called Anne. And she was kind. She didn’t know me, so I was trying to prove nothing to her. I had no investment in stopping her from worrying about me, or wanting to project an image of being in control when I so clearly wasn’t. She didn’t dismiss me, or make me feel silly for being so sad about what I perceived as the first major failure of my parenting career.
The important thing was that I was at my wits’ end trying to do something that everyone was telling me was best for my baby but my body seemed entirely unable to achieve. The point was that at that moment, my baby’s latching technique was the single biggest problem in my world, looming over everything I did, pointing out to me at every turn that I clearly wasn’t cut out for this parenting business.
Anne made me feel better. And she sounded like she cared, and she offered me some suggestions, and she told me what was normal and what was dangerous, and she told me I could call her back any time.
Anne, and women like Anne all over the country have been helping women like six-years-ago me for years.
WATCH: Alissa Milano talks about her “controversial” breastfeeding photos. Post continues below.
Volunteers have given examples to Catherine King’s office of what made women call the Helpline, and their circumstances are as varied as they are familiar:
#1. One mum had just moved to a mining camp in NW Western Australia a month ago to be with her husband. It’s too hot to go outside (40 degrees most days) and she’s worried that her baby is a bit dehydrated and wants to boost her breastmilk supply. The doctor in town is booked out. We talked through some strategies. I could hear how isolated she was, and let her know about an ABA online forum to contact other mums in her situation.
#2. Another mum who had just returned to work was struggling to get her baby to take a bottle of her expressed breastmilk from the childcare worker. She was expressing milk at work a few times a day – and said she was losing pay to do this – so she was really worried about her ability to work and continue to feed her baby.
#3. Another mum was at home a few days after a caesarean birth and trying to work out how to stop her milk ‘coming in’. She was in pain and didn’t want anything to do with breastfeeding.
- From the office of Catherine King MP, Member for Ballarat.
The helpline, run by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, receives funding from the Federal Government to the tune of just under $1m a year. In the current health budget, its funding is due to run out in June this year, and the line will close down.
One million dollars a year. That’s what it takes for an estimated 88,000 women a year to get the help that they need – sometimes desperately – when they pick up that phone.
Six-years-ago me wasn’t used to asking for help. Dialling that number and talking to Anne was a bold move for me and my sad nipples.
And it was one of the best things I did for myself in those first, mind-bending weeks.
I want more women to be able to talk to Anne, and women like Anne.
And $1million to make that happen sounds like money well-spent.
Holly is the host of Mamamia’s podcast for parents, This Glorious Mess, and you can follow her on Facebook, here.
Listen to This Glorious Mess, here: