*For want of a better term

Recently, two posts on a Facebook mum’s group I’m part of caught my eye. In one, a mother asked when other mums in the (very large) Facebook group had stopped breastfeeding their child and started formula. Another described her ordeal as her six-week-old baby cannot be put down for a minute, wants to suck her breast constantly but does not ever get satisfied and go to sleep.

The first post on breastfeeding received a deluge of answers from people who exclusively breastfed, some stopping at 2 years. Among 50 answers, I saw about 3 that said that they used formula. Amazing right? If you read that post, you’d think the majority of mums in Hong Kong breastfeed. In fact, the number that continue breastfeeding beyond 3 months if at all is quite small. Of course, the number among expat, especially Western mums, would be higher. But even in Western countries the continued breastfeeding rate is not high.

We all know that breastfeeding is great and all. But the fact is that many women struggle with it (I do not know a single woman who did not struggle with breastfeeding, despite the fact that it is touted as the most natural thing in the world). Moreover, in Hong Kong where the participation of women in the workforce is high but the maternity leave is restricted to 10 weeks (and you can add a couple more weeks annual leave if you save it all up the whole year and your boss agrees), it’s even more challenging to keep up breastfeeding. So yeah, a lot of women top up with formula or switch exclusively to formula for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they are duped by formula manufacturers.

My problem with the skew in answers to the post was why the formula-givers were so reluctant to out themselves. It was almost as if they were ashamed. And I feel this is counter-productive. It does no service to other mums, struggling to make a decision and keep the guilt in check.

The response to the second post on the clingy baby was even more surprising. The mother asked for solutions that may have worked for people who had faced similar issues. I did go through the same thing with Nene, and to some extent with Mimi (although she was better than Nene, she had colic and I spent a lot of time just slinging and carrying her). The majority of responses, however, were people telling her to read about the “fourth trimester” and to just accept it and go with what the baby demanded.

First, I was surprised at how many people have gone through the same thing. As one woman ( a tad insensitively I think) wrote in response: “So, good news, your baby is normal.” It did seem that a huge number of women had experienced unputdownable babies (and not in a good way). I think this is something that needs to be shared with expecting and new mothers, and anyone planning a baby. The expectation that your baby will feed and sleep and you can sleep with it in this calm cocoon of mother-baby bonding is … wrong, delusional unlikely to be fulfilled. If you indeed give birth to such a angel, thank your stars and make a big donation to charity to pay your good luck forward. Because this rarely happens.

It appears from the responses that a baby that never sleeps, except in its mother’s arms, that wants to suck constantly, is extremely common. This may or may not be so. Awareness that this could happen to you is good.

However, I also think that the glib answers of ‘accept and move on’ are not entirely helpful. It is extremely hard, after going through labour or surgery, to settle in smiling for three months or more of basically never sleeping longer than half an hour stretches, of carrying a 6 kilo weight on you at all times (it’s easier to carry the weight when it’s inside you frankly), of dealing with the crying and the constant worry when there’s no crying, of the psychological stress that you’re not producing enough milk. Most of us aren’t used to hard physical labour, and being woken rudely from sleep just when you’re getting into the deep end of the sleep cycle is a form of torture used by secret police the world over. There is a high rate of Post-natal depression among new mums and it’s not because we are wusses. It’s because this shit is hard, possibly the hardest thing you’ve ever done and frankly you didn’t know this when you signed up for it.

It is natural to seek solutions and relief, even if you accept the fourth trimester theory. And there are some things you can do to make your life easier. Surround yourself with help who are willing to do shifts with you, for example. Check if the baby is latching on right, consult a lactation specialist (if you can afford one). Try using a pacifier. Co-sleep if it comes to that (while doing what you can to ensure the safety of the baby). Invest in the Fisherprice rocking chair. Check if your baby has issues like reflux. See if massage works. Switch around the baby’s bath time. Try Infacol or gripe water.Take it one day and at time and keep thinking “this too shall pass” (and no, you don’t have to “treasure this time because you’ll miss it when they grow up”. I don’t miss it at all. It is quite hard to treasure not sleeping properly for days on end.)

Talking to other mums to get ideas of how to cope with a newborn can be helpful if those other mums, while commiserating can also share the little things they did that helped them instead of hitching up their halos and going “just deal with it.”

I know a few women whose approach to motherhood has been to roll with it beautifully and beatifically, proclaiming everything magical and miraculous and generally putting on a very brave front. Well and good. But most mums slog and suffer through this period and for me at least, getting some sympathy and practical tips did help. It may be normal and natural to go through this, but it is also normal and natural to thinkĀ  it sucks.