Mothers’ Groups

A little caveat before we dive in. Loads of my foreign friends in Denmark have liked their mothers’ group after they had a baby. It’s the luck of the draw.

In my kommune, the health visitors set you up with a group of local women who have given birth within a few weeks of each other. They leave you to it after that. My health visitor asked if I wanted to be part of one and although I was hesitant, I thought it might be nice to meet some of the local families with babies of a similar age to mine.

Usually, they try to match up first time mums and have second (or more) timers in their own groups but that didn’t happen with ours, so half of us were first timers. This changed the dynamic a bit. There was never any “omg, I don’t know how to make baby work!” for example.

My expectations versus the reality were probably what did for me. I expected that we would meet up, go to the couch and have one drink and one cakey/pastry snack whilst chatting for about an hour and then go home.

How long have I lived here?

The reality was this: we met, went to the dining table and then had Danish breakfast for three or four hours. Of course we did.

On the very first meeting, we were having the suggested group discussion of our birth stories and stuff about our families. When it was my turn to talk about the birth, half of the mums walked away to change their babies/prepare a feed. I tried waiting until they got back, that did not fly at all.

During the second hour, I went into a panic. I could never have them at my house. There was no way I could lay on a spread like the first mum had done. Danish breakfast consists of bread rolls (several types), cheeses, hams, jams, juices, hot drinks etc. I might have half of that in the house at any one time and I don’t drive so I could never just pop to the bakery and pick it all up. I would need to do it in advance and at that stage of newborn life, I was barely doing things on time let alone before I needed to.

Her house was immaculate. All of their houses were immaculate. My house was far from a disaster zone but getting it up to spec would have taken several hours. When would I find the time? My front windows looked like we had used privacy film on them. Our back garden looked unkempt and unloved.

Plus, I have a clingy dog. If I had any chance of keeping her from howling the place down if kept separate from the new guests, I would need to tire her out before they came. When would that happen? I was breastfeeding all the damn time. The baby took unpredictable cat naps.

Where would they put their prams? There was nowhere to put them! I didn’t really use ours and certainly not for outdoor naps like they would expect to do. Where would they put their carrycots inside?

I explained to the group that I would not be able to host but could we instead meet in town? Have a coffee? See a movie at the babybio? There was a mixed reception to the idea but in the end, I swapped “my” day with the mother with the youngest baby who was not feeling up to it which was totally understandable. But then they acted like it was never my turn and we would always meet up at their houses. I was starting to go invisible.

I skipped a few meetings here and there too. I had just had a baby, a baby who woke up several times in the night but slept in sometimes until 10am. They always met at 10am. Obviously, I would be using my second language. On no sleep. Although they were all in my village, it was a good 30 minute walk to any of their houses each time. And I’m foreign, so I cannot just jump in with a witty interjection, I have to really weigh up my words and think about what I want to say for ages which means I do not do a lot of talking at all because the conversation moves on. A group of six is too much for me, even in English sometimes.

One mum was super kind and sweet, and texted me to say I should not feel like I could not come because I could not host and I was always welcome at hers. That meant a lot to me.

But whenever I came, I would just end up talking to my baby. If they were showing photos on their phones, it never got passed to me. If my baby was trying to interact, it was only ever two of the mums who would reply to her. The cloak of invisibility was extending to her too, and I did not like that one bit.

The final straw was after coming one week, they decided to take the group photo of all the babies the next week when we were not there. It is such a little thing. Trivial. But it stung and the message was received and understood. She was not part of the group. Because of me. Again, the super kind and sweet mum texted me to say she was sorry I was not coming back. She is a good egg. And that’s not to say that the other mums in the group were not. They were fine. They just did not know how to be inclusive. They did not know how to deal with diversity.

It seems to me that Danish mother’s groups inadvertently enforce certain standards of being Danish. If your house does not fit, if your face does not fit, if you are not using the “right” brands (they all had the same baby monitor, for example and no one was surprised), if you don’t do the same things with your baby (within a set tolerance range of acceptable practices), then you can start to become unwelcome.

In contrast, my international mother group is still kicking along. We meet in cafes and library playrooms and the cinema and bars. We meet semi-regularly and no one is on the outs if they cannot make a meet up or three.  Everyone has their own way of doing things and inasmuch as we discuss it,  it’s basically to get inspiration material. For example, did you know, you can cut your child’s fingernails more easily if you put a pre-schooler show on the tv? Did you know you can make porridge fingers with oats and bananas if your baby does not enjoy eating porridge from a spoon?

My Danish mothers’ group were not openly judgemental about me but they also had nothing to talk to me about because I was so different. I did not even tell them that I had been putting the baby on the potty when I thought she needed to go, with great results. We were already too different, you know? They were probably all going to start weaning at four months, and I was going to wait until the NHS recommended six months. These tiny differences that make my international mothers’ group so enjoyable, were massive chasms that separated me from the Danish mothers.

And that’s just my impression of it. I am sure they have their own impressions of me and why it did not work out.

Breastfeeding

There was a “class” about breastfeeding in the birth prep they offer you. They told us this: newborns have tiny stomachs, very very few mothers can’t make enough milk, trust your instincts.

The baby came out and after a brief consultation with a doctor was put at my breast. It stung a little bit but it was manageable. It seemed to be okay if a bit ouchy.

In Denmark, first-timers are offered a couple of nights in the “patient hotel” as a couple (free for mum, a few hundred kroner a night for dad/co-mum), but we had planned a homebirth and made our peace with the idea we would not have the chance to stay. We compromised and stayed for one night.

The first night, the baby wanted cuddles and to feed the whole time. The nipple pain was much more by then and every time she indicated she was hungry (which was a lot), I would cringe. I had a lot of adrenaline but I did need at least some sleep. I think I dozed off in the nursing chair with her in my arms and maybe caught some zz’s in the patient bed as well with her in the cot beside me.

To get discharged, the nurse had to come see her feed. She fed for one nurse, then another. They were satisfied but kept trying to flip her top lip out like a fish with her pinky finger and called it a “bad habit” that her top lip was not curling. No one checked her for lip tie. They kept going on about “hamburgers”. I could not get the hang of anything they were saying.

We went home. I fed on demand.  My nipples hurt like billy-o. She was voracious. It was full on. But she had a tiny tummy and almost everyone could do it. So I thought it was going okay.

On day 3, we had to make a special trip into the hospital to have us both checked out.

She had lost nearly 10% of her birth weight and was extra sleepy. Even the heel prick test was barely annoying for her and it took ages to get all the blood out. The midwife checked my breastfeeding and said “she’s not drinking”. “Does she always fall asleep so quickly?” Apparently you can tell by the sounds they make and see swallowing behind their ears. No one had told me that. And by telling me that they had small tummies, I had expected her to fall asleep super quickly, I didn’t realise I needed to keep her awake for a full feed. I thought that was it. We asked about her snake tongue, shaped like a heart. An obvious sign of a tongue tie. The midwife rummaged around the mouth and said she was fine because it was only a slight tongue tie.

In the evening, the midwife called to check on me and based on what I was saying about nappies and how sleepy she was, recommended topping her off with formula.

I had been told this was the death of breastfeeding. I had been told that I would lose my supply. She would get nipple confusion. Everything was over before it started.

The midwife called a nurse to double check her advice and rang back. I gave the phone to my husband. He was sent on a mission and he came back from the all night pharmacy with hypoallergenic formula, “medicine shot glasses” and a hospital grade pump. We had nothing to sterilise anything, so we ended up sterilising a teaspoon and a glass coffee cup in our biggest saucepan. We made her some formula and I felt like a complete failure.

My husband gave her it drop by drop from the shotglass while I pumped. It was still colostrum at this stage, so basically nothing was coming out of me and that was normal. But we had strict instructions to pump as much as we put in, so I was there for ages. And no one told us that you didn’t need to turn the pump up to the highest setting to get the most out. My nipples bled and spoiled a batch. I cried and cried.

I had to sit down on my stitches to pump. I had no back support. I could not sleep while the baby slept. All the time, I tried to get her onto my breast but she was refusing. Hungry and crying but not latching on.

The health visitor came and I cried again.My milk was starting to come in, so I was extra emotional.  She was so kind and gentle. She could see that my husband had had enough of the shotglasses, so she gave us a recommendation for bottles that would not be too confusing for the baby. She recommended using a nipple shield. And that is how we had to do it. The baby could suddenly latch and get milk out of me. But we were afraid it wasn’t enough, so she had a couple of bottles of formula every day. I pumped and pumped to try to encourage more production. We gave her that milk too.

There was no nipple confusion. She loved bottles and she loved boobs.

I read all the internet sites about breastfeeding, over and over while I pumped. And at the time it felt like the most important thing in the world. I felt like a total failure because I was still supplementing. The “supportive” websites that I was consulting for help with latching were telling me that formula was literally poison and that I was hurting her by feeding her.

 

And then I hit my stride. I fed her with the shields. She catnapped. I pumped. Over and over all day and all night. Sleep when the baby sleeps! Like hell. One evening feed, I could hand over to my husband because I had banked enough milk. It got easier. One day at 6 weeks, I tried giving her the boob without a shield after pumping and she took it. Another time, a few days later, it worked again and I could ditch the shields for good. I stopped pumping.

Occasionally, I would get this feeling of intense creepy crawly itchy unease when my milk let down. Thank god that didn’t last very long. It would be several minutes of just wanting to run away. I couldn’t stand my own clothes against my skin and had to peel my socks off so I could feed. No one tells you that about breastfeeding.

Now breastfeeding is the easiest thing. I was walking back with shopping yesterday with the baby in the carrier. She let me know she was hungry, I pulled over, did some adjustments and then I could carry on walking to the bus stop whilst feeding her. I can get her back to sleep at night without much effort. But those first few weeks were a nightmare and I don’t understand why organisations set up to promote breastfeeding need to make mothers feel guilty about using formula. It’s just food.

If I had decided that it wasn’t worth it and I would prefer to feed my baby with formula, in some ways my life would be less convenient and in others it would be more so. I don’t think her health would have been affected much in either direction. I also realised that the midwives and health visitors here give just as bad advice about breastfeeding as they do back home.

The most important takeaway from the whole experience was that things seem life and death close up but almost inconsequential even a few weeks later. It was also a masterclass in motherhood. You get a lot of contradictory advice. You get a lot of bad tips mixed in with the useful stuff. You get told to NEVER EVER by one person and ALWAYS EVERY TIME by another. And you have to make your peace with making it up as you go along. You cannot follow all the advice. You cannot align what you do (or want to do), with your identity. You have to go with the flow. You have to mix and match. You have to find the compromises you can live with. That is how you get through it.