Graziella faced an unusually steep set of challenges when returning to work, but with all three of her children she managed to fit breastfeeding into her schedule.
Sitting on an hospital bed in December 2008, I had a mixture of feelings: trepidation in the wait to see my baby, worry about the operation I was going to have soon and anxiety because we had not been able to “turn” him as he was breech. A few hours later he arrived safely and took to breastfeeding as a duck to water.
A few months later and my priorities had changed: I was loving life with a newborn and, above all, the wonderful emotions and feelings that come with breastfeeding, and I was not looking forward to going back to work. As a university researcher at the time, many of my colleagues were keen to go back to work after their maternity leave; I was not. I could not bear the idea of being separated from my baby boy. I remember that one of my colleagues had told me “You’ll be ready to get back once your maternity leave is over” – well, I wasn’t looking forward to it. But my husband was unemployed at the time and I needed to go back to work.
I wasn’t happy with my position at the time and, looking around, I found a job in publishing, a nine-to-five job that would fit my family commitments better. It was in London, though, and I lived in Bristol. I applied with mixed feelings and got the job. My employers agreed to let me work two days a week at home but I would need to be in the office for three days a week whilst we found a house closer to my new job.
Not only I was not looking forward to having to leave my little boy, but I was also worried about our breastfeeding relationship. He was six months old at the time and still exclusively breastfed. We had only just started baby-led-weaning but more for fun than anything else. My little boy and I had enjoyed going to our ‘Breastmates’ group since he was about six weeks old. There we found breastfeeding support, friendship and lots of like-minded mums. I was dreading having to express whilst at work: I had never been good at it, it was (and it has always been) so much easier just to feed at the breast! Some of my friends there suggested that I didn’t need to do it: I could just leave my boy with water during the day and feed him before and after work.
I needed to go back to work when he was just nine months old, and he was still breastfeeding a lot day and night. However, by the time he was about eight months he started taking to solids in earnest and I was more confident that he would be able to eat and drink in my absence. I did not do any preparations in advance of my return to work: no bottles, no expressing. I simply followed his natural progression to solids and encouraged him to eat as well as breastfeed. When he was nine months, I started my new job. The three of us – my husband, our baby and I – would leave our house in Bristol at 5.45am to be at the station by 6am. Then they would go back home and I would kiss them again at 6pm, on my return from London. My husband was still unemployed, so he could look after our baby in my absence.
Roan, my little boy, did really well on just solids and water and would make up for my absence by feeding a lot in the evenings and at night. At work I had to express for just a few weeks. I did not have a pump, I would just hand-express a little, enough to relieve my fullness. My body adjusted remarkably quickly and well to the new routine. It was able to produce the right amount of milk on the days I was at home full time with him, and on the days in which I was at work, away from my baby 12 hours at a time, my body would again produce the right amount. Soon after returning to work I started not to feel full when I was away from him. I now know that at nine months my supply was well established and very flexible – our bodies are amazing ‘machines’!
Those were very hard days, I did not like being away from my family but I loved the closeness, bond and reconnection that breastfeeding allowed. I am sure overall he did not take any less milk when I was 12 hours away from him.
Fast forward two years and our lives had changed again: my husband had found a job in Finland and we had all moved there. I went on maternity leave again as we were about to move to Finland and gave birth to our second boy about two months after we had arrived. So, for the first year of our life in Finland, I was on maternity leave with my little toddler and newborn. My husband’s contract was only a two-year temporary one though, so I had to return to work. Working in publishing, I thought I could work remotely but my employers were adamant that my contract was office-based. After my request for flexible working and the considerable negotiations that followed, we had to agree that the most acceptable solution was a fortnightly commute from Finland. I would work one week from home in Finland, Monday to Friday, and the following week in London, Monday to Thursday doing compressed hours. This would mean leaving both my children with my husband in Finland on a Sunday morning, travelling all the way through central Finland and the UK and arriving in London late in the evening, spending the week there. Then, on Thursday afternoon, I would travel back through the evening and night to kiss my children at about 1am on the Friday morning whilst they slept peacefully. How was I going to keep on breastfeeding?
When I went to the Finnish train station that first Sunday, I cried for a good part of my trip: the most important people in my life had been left behind, and I hated that. I think I must have been in denial of this fact, as I did not even think about my breasts for a second. Someone had even lent me their breast-pump in preparation for my return to work, but I had ‘forgotten’ it at home, back in Finland. Eoin, my second son, was one year old at the time and still exclusively breastfed – at the breast. He was not feeding much during the day as he was a very active young toddler and, although he was still feeding at night, I assumed he wasn’t taking much. How mistaken I was! That first night, in my lonely hotel room, my breasts were really engorged and I was sore, emotionally and physically hurt. I phoned my tutor (I was at time studying to become a breastfeeding counsellor) and she told me to get out and buy a breast pump! So I did. I went to the local pharmacy (luckily being in London it was only a five minute walk away) and bought a pump.
After that first mistake, I always carried a pump with me in my subsequent journeys in the following nine months in which I travelled, every other week, to London. In the first three months, I kept on expressing at least once at work, and then in the morning and evening. I was expressing on one hand to relieve my engorgement, but also to keep my supply because I did not know whether my body would keep producing milk when I was breastfeeding on alternate weeks. Needless to say, after the first few months, my fullness started to disappear and I gradually dropped all of my expressing, although I kept the evening expressing until the last month before the start of my third maternity leave. In truth, I don’t know whether my fullness went away because my body adjusted or because I was pregnant with our third baby – however I believe that our bodies are truly amazing and capable of adjusting to the strangest arrangements.
Eoin, like Roan before him, was eager to breastfeed when I was back and, surprisingly for me, Roan found it harder than Eoin did – probably because he was three years old at the time and could notice my absence more than his one-year-old brother. I had tandem fed them for only a short time, so by the time I was back at work in London, Roan was no longer breastfed. For the second time in my life, my breastfeeding relationship with my son was such a wonderful way of reconnecting that I don’t know what I would have done had I not been breastfeeding. Breastfeeding my children has been the most amazing achievement of my life and especially through the difficult moments, when I was away from them (and never for a moment I wanted to be) it kept us connected in a special physical and emotional way that has meant everything to me.
I am now a fully qualified breastfeeding counsellor and hope to be able to empower other mothers to be able to believe in their ability to breastfeed.
This story was originally published in issue 203 of Breastfeeding Matters (Sept/ Oct 2014)