I was sat topless on the sofa on Wednesday – babe sucking on one boob, electric expresser on the other churning out breast milk. The repetitive hum of the machine reminded Rich of his days milking cows with his dad. He was laughing. I found it less funny. “I’ve turned into fucking a cow!” I exclaimed.
But at least i’ll be able to go out for dinner without my baby, I reassured myself. So I finished giving Joni her milk from my right breast, and filled a plastic bottle with milk from my left breast to decant into little milk storage pots (laboriously washed and sterilised) which I labelled with the date and lined up in the freezer.
I wondered how Rich felt that night as he walked to the tube station to meet his friends in Hoxton. Would he replay the image of me looking like a human milk machine, lamenting the days when i’d be dolled up beside him? Or would he cast the image from his mind and focus instead on the cold lagers he’d be sinking, while discussing anything but babies with his pals. (There’s a third option, of course: that he’d lovingly recall my efforts to both nurse my baby AND produce spare milk so that I could be all his for one-nite-only. But I’m no idiot).
And it was then I realised how much pressure western society puts on new parents to quickly ‘regain independence’. Parenting author (who has no children) Gina Ford tells new mums to have sex two weeks after giving birth to make sure their relationship doesn’t turn to shit. Women are encouraged to think about returning to work immediately by arranging 10 ‘keep in touch’ days during maternity leave. And we’re all told to make sure we have a life away from the baby.
But why is this? Can you imagine an African tribeswoman expressing milk so she could have some time away from her young? Or a cavewoman dumping the baby on a friend so she could join her man for a romantic candlelit dinner? It wouldn’t happen. And that wouldn’t lead to them falling out of love – because there’s no greater bond than creating life together.
How have we moved so far from this innate need to stay glued to our babies – and to be supported, not resented, by society for doing so? And when did we stop listening to instinct, and adopt this insular, western method of parenting?
In Kate Evans’ The Food of Love, she discusses human beings as a tribal species:
‘…Just as surely as fish swim in shoals and wildebeest run in herds, we have evolved to live in a close-knit, extended family group. There is a common saying in many countries that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and if we were living as we used to live, at least twenty other people would be actively helping you and you partner to look after this baby.’
While I’m perplexed by this urgent need so many of us feel to abandon the baby as soon as possible for some ‘me time’ – I certainly advocate calling in help. So I take comfort in Evans’ tribal attitude towards parenting. My mum, dad, sister and close friends have all held Joni while i’ve rested, they’ve helped with cooking and cleaning and supported me emotionally. They’ve been amazing. But i’ve been a few metres from Joni at all times because she needs me. She’s distressed when i’m not there. And that’s because a mere five weeks ago she was nestled in my womb, oblivious to the big world outside where you have to wriggle and cry and poke out your tongue to indicate your needs (thirst, hunger, tiredness, nappy change, wind).
Babies need their mothers. And mothers need their babies. So the next time I was sat feeling like a milk machine, questioning my motives for all this unnatural pumping, I decided to pull the plug. I’m not saying i’ll never express again, or that i’ll not leave Joni’s side until she’s grown up. But well meaning friends and family offering to take Joni out while I sleep, or to babysit, will hopefully put those offers on hold until she’s a bit older, because right now instinct tells me that we need to be together – and instinct overrides all parenting manuals, advice from seasoned parents, and suggestions from society about how a new mother should behave.
Everyone has their own ideas about parenting and I fully respect other women’s choices. The only way to cope with the hugely demanding job of parenting is to decide what works best for you and stick to it – regardless of what other people think. That will make both mum and baby happy, and that’s the only thing that matters.