By Lisa Walshe
Looking back at life often brings understanding. As I look back at my life as a mother, I have more questions than answers. I don’t really know what made me mother the way I did, and I know at the time it often seemed I was swimming against the stream. However, I felt there was no other way to approach it.
Researching Parenting Approaches
It was 1981. I was living in Melbourne, Australia, and expecting my first child. My husband and I had moved back to Australia the year before. I had met my husband while he was flying to Sydney, and he was living in Papua, New Guinea. I followed him to New Guinea for six months before he decided it was no place for a young wife – just 21 at the time – and we returned to suburbia in Melbourne. Within months of being settled in a home of our own, I felt a huge need to have a baby. I was always into researching and set about finding out all I could about having babies and raising them. It was hard to find much information – sadly, no internet then – and even harder to find any books I agreed with.
Even then, I had some ideas on how it should be. Attachment Parenting (AP) had not been heard of in Australia at that time – not sure it was being talked about anywhere. Having been briefly in New Guinea, I was aware of how simple life with a baby could be if they were breastfed and being carried in some way. Even the poorest children seemed happy. It was actually illegal to sell formula in New Guinea without a prescription! This had been introduced by the World Health Organization to save the babies’ lives from a suspect water supply.
Beginning with Breastfeeding
I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I had suffered from terrible allergies as a child, and in order to reduce the chance that my child would develop allergies, I wanted to breastfeed for at least six months and hopefully longer. My mother had only breastfed me for the then-prescribed three months, and whether or not this was the cause of my allergies, I believe it may have contributed.
Armed with my well-read Nursing Mother’s Handbook and a will to succeed, I set off to hospital full of hope and expectation.
Nothing really went as planned with the birth, and once I had a healthy little boy, Guy, in my arms, I found that although the hospital was encouraging breastfeeding, it was by no means really supporting what my was told to me in the book. I found that although rooming-in was allowed, babies were whisked away if any sign of problems occurred and given complimentary formula feeds to settle them down. The nurses were much more concerned with the welfare of the new moms than the babies. I became obsessed with keeping Guy with me, only leaving for a shower if my husband was there. I escaped the hospital as quickly as I could – five days back then!
Once home, I felt free to do what felt right: I put him in our bed and relaxed. Our son was thriving; he hardly slept and fed almost continually! Feeding was a challenge, as Guy decided that he would only feed from one breast at a time, and for the first few weeks, he sucked so hard that he created blisters and one breast was constantly engorged and leaking. I was constantly feeding: He would sleep for 30-minute intervals and would feed again. I just accepted this, and we slept together – when we could.
Choosing to Co-Sleep
Co-sleeping was not considered a good idea. People in those days said it was unhealthy and the child would not get over it. Also, husbands were supposed to be threatened by a baby in the marital bed; my obstetrician warned me it would break up the marriage. So, I just did not tell anyone I was doing it. The baby health nurse was of the old school and told me to put my baby into a cot and let him cry, that he would soon learn!
This nurse also suggested, at six weeks, that I should give him orange juice. When I asked why – after all, he was putting on a pound a week and was happy – she just said that is what we do! I ignored her and found another community nurse.
My husband was often flying at night, so he did not really care how I managed, so long as I did. And when he was there and sleeping in the day, my husband was happy when Guy and I would join him for naps. The rest of the time, I found that the easiest way to cope was to wear Guy in a sling. All was peaceful. If my husband came home at 4 a.m. and found a baby to play with, this pleased them both.
Other mothers around me adhered to schedules, and their babies must have read the right books, as they slept much more than mine did! Or maybe they just kept up the story to be good moms?
Encouragement from an Unlikely Source
The next year, we moved to Houston and found that people there were even more hostile about nursing babies. Most mothers nursed briefly, if at all. The fact that Guy was nearing his first birthday and still happily nursing I kept to myself. I was even told by some mothers that it was indecent to nurse babies of that age! I did not even bother to tell the doctor until Guy got pneumonia and I managed to nurse him though the whole thing, saving a trip to the hospital and an I.V. drip. The doctor said I probably saved his life!
That doctor gave me some good advice, saying: “A mother knows her child better than anyone, and if the doctor does not understand that, find another doctor!”
I nursed Guy until his second birthday, when one day, I suggested that big boys do not nurse and he promptly stopped. I was shocked and a little sad.
Guy continued to sleep with us most of the time until after his fifth birthday when his little brother arrived. In his first five years of life, we moved six times and lived in three different countries. I am not sure he would have coped with all the moves and changes to his life without the security of sleeping with his parents. He was, by this stage, an extremely sensitive, mature, and intelligent child! He had been high need and would continue to be for many years, but he was a delight to know and be with.
The Beginning of a Cultural Shift, Sort of
During my pregnancy with my second son, Dean, I found a book by Dr. William Sears, Nighttime Parenting. Finally, someone who agreed with what I had done instinctively.
This time, I was having our son in Brisbane, Australia. Everything had changed! Suddenly, my ideas were greeted with support, and I was considered an enlightened mother. Wow, it felt good to be appreciated and even better not to have to hide my beliefs.
My husband was now working in Hong Kong, and two weeks after Dean’s birth, I flew to Hong Kong with the baby and a five-year-old. Hong Kong, it turned out, was not at all friendly toward breastfeeding. The first few days there, I went to a doctor for the beginning stages of mastitis. This doctor was embarrassed by my condition, refused to look at my breasts and prescribed me Valium – even though I had explained I was nursing!
Very few mothers in Hong Kong nursed babies. There was a small group of La Leche League mothers, but they lived in another part of the country. Everyone around me bottlefed. Breastfeeding women were removed from restaurants, and there were no mothers’ rooms available anywhere.
Once again, I was back in an environment where what I was doing was considered all wrong. At least, this time, I had a book that agreed with me. If only we had had the internet back then…back when fax machines were new.
I did not really care what anyone thought. I was exhausted and prepared to do whatever I needed to do for my survival. I was lucky to find a doctor who agreed with my ideas – sadly most did not. Dean happily slept with us and fed nearly all night for more than two years.
Today, my husband and I have been married for 29 years, and we are enjoying being a couple again, although when the time comes, we would love to be involved and supportive grandparents. I am always hoping that young parents will choose to experience the joys of what is now commonly referred to as AP.
I spend my time giving young pregnant women lots of good information from my experience and through books I have collected on birth, breastfeeding, and parenting in general. There is so much more information available today, so many more studies and experts proclaiming the benefits of all that I instinctively knew was right. I like to think it is easier for mothers to follow their instincts these days, but there are so many other pressures competing for their time that I know that AP is just as big a challenge as it was in my day.
Attachment Parenting had not been heard of in Australia at that time – not sure it was being talked about anywhere. Having been briefly in New Guinea, I was aware of how simple life with a baby could be if they were breastfed and being carried in some way. Even the poorest children seemed happy.