Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Greg, Montélimar, France
A father’s story
My name is Greg. I’m 35 and I’m the lucky father of three wonderful children, and stepfather to a fourth who is actually the first. Still following? My stepson, Melvil, is an 18-year-old big lad whose life I’ve been sharing since he was eighteen months old. Our three other children are Alisée (15), Loane (10), and Aloÿs (22 months). My story with breastfeeding has not always been straightforward, but I think it also shows that nothing is set in stone.
When I first meet my future wife, Sophie, she is already a mum. I’m 18 and I dream of starting a family. What good timing, one child already! It’s a dream come true!
Sophie tells me about this little fellow’s birth with forceps and all the rest of it. And she describes her breastfeeding journey as “tragic.” Really? Midwives telling her that she does not have enough milk, that the little one does not latch well. The result: nipple shields, swiftly followed by top-ups. Breastfeeding ends after one-and-a-half months and leaves mum feeling bitter.
Six months after meeting Sophie, a blue cross appears on a pregnancy test! Alisée makes an appearance nine months later, after I have just celebrated my 20th birthday. What a fantastic present! The question of breastfeeding comes up. What do we do? Sophie experiences a lot of pain during the postpartum period and is traumatized by her first experience. She does not want to breastfeed Alisée! As for me, I am young, I know nothing about it, and I trust my other half. I grew up in a family where breastfeeding was not the done thing, so… (I have to admit now it’s a mistake. But I’ll get back to this later.)
Loane joins us six years later. This time it’s the works: labor ending in a cesarean section, completely thwarting our birth plan. Although Sophie is not in great shape, she feels that her relationship with Alisée suffered from a lack of closeness. She wants to breastfeed Loane and is adamant she will do so against all odds. From the first night, and despite her c-section, she fetches our daughter to sleep with her, and offers her the breast as soon as possible. It’s a “forward-thinking” maternity unit: we expect top notch breastfeeding support, but the advice is the same:
“Feeds are too long!”
“Feeds should be at least one hour apart to allow the baby to digest the milk!”
“You seem to have a low milk supply!”
In short, despite our best intentions, we are told that for our daughter’s health it’s best we mix-feed. How can we make any other choice? Our child’s health is at risk! Thereafter I become a strong advocate of mixed-feeding. Well of course, I am told that’s what my baby needs! Three months down the line, it’s the end of breastfeeding. New failure. In any case, not the success we are hoping for.
Our little Aloÿs comes along in 2014, yay! Two boys and two girls: we achieve parity! I am a happy man. And this time, we won’t be fooled. Sophie gets in touch with La Leche League. I read all the pregnancy and birth books again. We have a great birth plan: I am going to deliver our baby! We are at the ready. Bad luck though, Sophie has to have a repeat cesarean section, as the pregnancy goes way past the due date. Such a pity. But never mind, onwards and upwards! Little do I know…
Two days after the birth, Aloÿs has still not passed any meconium. The big guns are pulled out: Neonatal Unit, helicopter, transfer to Lyon (100 miles away). We feel such a huge burden weighing on us. Moreover, Sophie is not transferred with him. Apparently, there is no space for her in Lyon. And I am not allowed in the helicopter either. I have to let my sweet little baby go alone. Sophie cries, the older kids too, they are scared. I hop in my car and leave Montélimar for Lyon as quickly as I can, trying not to think of what is happening.
It turns out Aloÿs has a genetic disorder: Hirschsprung’s disease (quite a mouthful, I know). His colon does not function. He needs an operation to remove the part of his colon that does not work. We’re ready to do anything, so we go ahead with it.
Sophie is discharged from hospital the next day, and instead of being driven to Lyon by ambulance, her mother drives her to me and our son, phew! Aloÿs is still not allowed to eat. Let us start the breast pump adventure and store the milk at the milk bank. Sophie does her best, but it is so hard. The nurses are not very supportive, “Is that all you managed to express? You’ve got your work cut out!” It feels like riding an emotional roller coaster. We live to the rhythm of the pump. I struggle. In any case, I don’t offer Sophie enough support. I worry about my son, I am scared.
Aloÿs has his operation on day 15, and we can finally feed him. That’s great news! However he can only take 10ml at a time. So we go back to the milk bank. Hang on, it seems like the tide hasn’t turned after all: somebody threw the milk away! A new setback. Never mind, we’ll find another way. We weigh him every couple of minutes to gauge how much milk he’s taking. It’s horrible, but it’s the only way to resist all these people urging us to give him a bottle. In the end, we are left with no alternative. Some nurses give him a bottle while we take a break outside the hospital building…
Aloÿs comes out of hospital, and we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. He is being mix-fed. We go every two days to the health center to weigh him. This is where we meet a fantastic team, all of whom take an interest in Sophie’s breastfeeding. “What would you like to do with regards to breastfeeding?” a nurse asks her.
Now Sophie has Aloÿs at the breast constantly. I am filled with doubts. I am worried about the little one’s health, I am scared. However, Sophie is back to breastfeeding Aloÿs exclusively! The only remaining top-up bottle is the evening one, “daddy’s bottle.” (I find this outrageous now, but I did not have enough information at the time, I was afraid.)
Unfortunately, Aloÿs has ten more surgeries until he is nine months old. An ordeal for him and a tragedy for breastfeeding. Sophie’s supply seems to be dwindling. We are too tired. The purpose of the last hospitalization at nine months is to put an ostomy in place, as our little man is still not passing stools. Up until then, we have been draining the waste three times a day via a catheter. I can’t take it anymore. Being in hospital is an additional blow to Sophie. The nurses are harsh, “Nine months of breastfeeding, that’s enough!” This is a huge blow. Despite Aloÿs being our fourth, at times like these, it becomes hard to keep up the fight. We just don’t have the strength.
Sophie keeps going for two more months and we give up at 11 months. Another failure. Well, not so much.
Four months later, Sophie makes a decision. She tells me she does not want to stop there: she wants to relactate. My first thought is, “!!!???~#\¥+%|>|!!??+.” She manages to relactate through sheer strength and determination. She expresses her milk relentlessly. I think she is a bit mad. I don’t understand why she is doing that. For the first time, we are on different wavelengths and no longer in sync. We argue a lot. I think I am afraid, I worry about my son. Having said that, what Sophie says sounds right, “Why fear the most natural thing in the world?” I am worried about her too, how tired she is. She is exhausted but wants to carry on. Once again, I am not being very supportive and I am aware of it.
Then she tells me to join the “Papallaitants” (breastfeeding dads) group. She says the group can give me answers, help, and above all make me feel less lonely. For breastfeeding can often feel lonely, which seems crazy for such a natural thing.
So I give it a go. I admit I’m skeptical, but I want to keep an open mind. I ask to join the Facebook group. I introduce myself to Pascal. I meet all the members online. Everyone is so welcoming, kind, and friendly. They read my story, do not judge me, and assure me they are here for me. Wow! I am indeed no longer the only one wondering how to juggle my various roles of husband, father, friend, and man. And here we are having a drink together via Skype, the way we would on a café terrace. And now we’re thinking of organizing a real-life get-together with our respective families, nothing less!
In the end, Sophie stops her relactation efforts after four months. A new setback when Aloÿs refuses his mother’s milk. But a huge victory for us nonetheless. A victory for Sophie because the relationships she built with her children through breastfeeding endure. A victory for us as we were able to reconnect despite the rough ride.
Nowadays, I consider myself a fully fledged Papallaitant. I am a staunch advocate for breastfeeding. I often stand up to negative criticism and prejudice from anyone who see us as backward thinkers. I am actually surprised by the number of women who don’t approve of breastfeeding. I work in a male-dominated environment, where few dads look after their children.
It is often complicated, sometimes exhausting, very often irritating, but always fulfilling. I consider this to be part and parcel of being a Papallaitant.