“Is that your baby?” the woman says to me while I wait in the pharmacy the other day. “It looks like you’re holding a soft toy.”
Though it’s tempting to ask whether she takes me for some sort of loon who walks around with a soft toy in a baby carrier, I smile and explain. She’s nearly four months old, I say. She was premature and that’s why she’s so small.
Today, four months ago, Raphaela Ragini Pillay was unceremoniously yanked from her comfortable, warm abode and brought into the world 10 weeks ahead of schedule. After five weeks in NICU, she came home. I spent that first week juggling a new baby and a new business pitch before finally settling down to get to know our daughter.
I’ve come to know her faces, which range from Alabaster Angel to Angry Red Tomato. My names for her include Raphaela, Ra-Ra, Nunu and the Nunu-est of Nunus as well as Droolie Andrews, Grumposaurus Max and Fiddler Crab.
Her eyes are slaty grey with a hint of green, like a distant hill on a rainy morning. She frowns when she’s concentrating on suckling. I think she gets that from me. “Focus,” I tell her when she fusses and spits out the nipple. “Focus on the task at hand.”
She’s smiling more now. Oh, I live for this smile.
We listen to lots of Mozart, mostly the piano concertos played by Daniel Barenboim, with the Bach French Suites to mix things up a bit. We’ve also started play with the toys I bought her from Baby City, which are designed for babies’ limited vision.
Ra-Ra has developed quirks. Her rigid routine established in NICU is a thing of the past. She’s into cluster feeding these days, which means she’d be attached to my boob the entire day and half the night if she could. When she was younger, we regularly took her out to restaurants with us in the evening, but I can’t see that happening again any time soon.
Ra-Ra has lots of friends. There’s the original and greatest, Loquacious Mancini the zebra from Brooklyn. There’s Muncho the monkey (named by Mia), Taneekwa the African-American doll, Lorenzo Mancini (Loquacious’s flashy Italian cousin), Ralph the rhino and Bev the elephant. Just this morning, Ra-Ra also met Bruno the bear who speaks to her in French.
I miss her terribly when I’m away from her. Last week, my husband and I went to Emperor’s Palace to watch the Jazz Epistles. They were remarkable and the show was wonderful, but for every moment of it I felt a great ache at the core of my being: that I wanted to hold my baby, and just then I could not.
Happy four months of being in my world, Raphaela Ragini. You may be small, but you’re the biggest thing that has ever happened to me.
It’s Thursday, so I thought I’d indulge in some delving into the past. My life today – happily married with a baby – is very different from how I imagined it when I was marooned in the middle of severe anxiety and depression. Nearly six years ago, I wrote this after hearing of the birth of my ex-husband’s son:
Should I not crave the act of procreation? Should I not fantasise about nappy cream and gurgles and saving for school fees? Why is it that I always joked about how I’d only consider having a kid when my ovaries were screaming — and there hasn’t been a peep?
I couldn’t imagine having a child of my own. “I like children,” I wrote
but find babies faintly horrifying in their fragility and their otherness, and whenever other people bring theirs into the office I hunch my shoulders over my laptop and hope that I won’t be asked to come and coo over the child or — heaven forbid — have to hold it.
I’m certainly over my fear of babies now; nothing forces one to confront fragility and otherness like a premature baby less than half the size of the average newborn.
Back then, I also wrote that I regarded my books as my children. So I must be honest with myself, and you, and report that I failed to finish any of the several I started over that time. I would start with great enthusiasm, and my productivity would be astounding for two weeks over the December holidays, and then real life would intervene and the project would grind to a halt.
One of the reasons that I’ve gone back to my old blog posts is to jog my memory of the post-divorce years. I’ve been meaning to write a memoir of what happened when my life imploded, and h0w I managed, contrary to all expectations, to get an amazingly happy ending. It is a good story, I think. Many people have said that my experience gives them hope. And, as I’ve said before, “In the end, all we have are our stories, and all we can do is tell them as best we can.”
A pet name is important. It’s not the same as a nickname (or Ra-Ra would suffice). A nickname is public, available to everyone; a pet name is more private, intimate. Only very special people get to use a pet name. When it comes to such things, I am not a fan of unoriginality. I would never dream of calling my husband “Babe”. (Inspired by Kipling’s Just So Stories, we refer to one another as Best Beloved.)
The very first pet name I ever had for my daughter was… Zygote. That’s what she was when I first found out about her. She remained Zygote for a few months until I felt it didn’t really reflect her or the fact that on my gynae’s screen she possessed fingers and toes.
After that, we went through a period where I didn’t have a pet name for her. I considered Puggle – a baby monotreme and a nod to my Twitter handle @Anatinus, which was inspired by the platypus I saw at Taronga Zoo in Sydney – but somehow it never caught on.
Then I saw her in her incubator for the first time. I hardly dared touch her. She was so impossibly tiny. She was so… nunu. “Nunu,” I breathed in love and wonder, and she has been my Nunu ever since: the standard South African term for anything small, young and cute. Occasionally I’ll vary it by calling her Nunu Pie or The Nunu Pie or, to get really creative, the nunu-est of Nunu Pies. It’s only when she’s in a bad mood that I call her something quite different, Grumposaurus Max.
The first time my husband heard me use her pet name, he raised his eyebrows in alarm. I don’t think he approves – Nunu is perilously close to “Babe”. Still, when we are alone, Ra-Ra and I, and we share secret looks between us, she is my Nunu and I am Mom, and nothing else matters just then.
I remember it with startling clarity: the first time I experienced boob envy. Not in the aesthetic sense (many’s the time I’ve seen a shapely pair and thought, idly, that it would be nice if mine were more like those). No, this sort of envy was much more functional. At the time, I sitting with another NICU mother in the corner of the maternity ward reserved for expressing breast milk. We were huddled around the Medela Symphony breast pumps, their rhythmic sighs filling the silence, and I couldn’t help but notice the torrents of maternal largesse gushing forth from her nipple. Then and there, I wanted her superboobs rather than my pathetic, underperforming lot. “Oh, I’m not planning to breastfeed my baby once he’s out of hospital,” she said later and I thought: how shocking! and also: bloody hell, life’s not fair.
Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I have ever attempted, and that includes the pole dancing classes I once bought on Groupon (there was chafing as well as other indignities; I lasted one session). Before I had my baby, I assumed that breastfeeding just… happened. You whipped out your boob, plugged your nipple into your newborn’s mouth and away you went. I marveled at the notion that women might need lactation consultants. Really? Surely, if anything comes naturally it’s this? As it turns out, no.
This has been a steep learning curve for me: the emotional stakes are so high, after all. Breastfeeding is loaded with good intentions and guilt. It is quite literally a matter of life and death – if you can’t produce enough breastmilk, your baby starves. Breast is best is one of the most effective slogans ever coined, and if you’re not breastfeeding you’re not giving your kid the best shot at life. No wonder there’s an inverse correlation between breastfeeding and post-natal depression.
Apart from boob envy, I have learned other new things during the three and a half months that I have been breastfeeding.
First, a word on terminology. “Breasts” is so formal; “tits” is far too Benny Hill. “Boobs”, on the other hand, has a cheery informality about it. That’s the word I’m choosing to use for a subject that is both very personal and – as I’ve discovered – necessarily public.
I am two boobs attached to a body. My life quite literally evolves around feeding Ra-Ra. I’m either breastfeeding her, expressing breast milk or sterilising the equipment I use for expressing. As her consumption has increased, I’ve battled to keep up, to the point where it feels as if the day is one long feeding session, with one feed morphing into the next.
My moods are directly correlated to how much breast milk I express. On good days, I’m elated. On bad days, I’m an anxious mess, wondering how I will cope once my maternity leave is up. Breastfeeding while I’m in the office simply isn’t an option.
Yes, it is possible to spray yourself in the face with your own breast milk. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting with a client with glasses covered in a fine spray. (I managed to lose track of an hour, ran horribly late, and had to rush to get there. It was like driving with a dirty windscreen.)
I’m deeply appreciative of antipsychotic medication. Who knew that a drug developed as an antipsychotic would stimulate lactation? Thank you Eglonyl.
I live on Jungle Juice. Ask any South African mother about breastfeeding and she’ll say, “Are you on Jungle Juice?” Yes, I am. I spend a fortune on Rehidrat and Schlehen Berry Elixir, and recently stocked up on fruit juice from Pick n Pay Hyper at R12.90 a litre. It is important not to confuse this kind of Jungle Juice with the alcoholic American party staple. (This recipe includes 5.25 litres of vodka amongst other ingredients.)
I’m developing repetitive stress injuries from expressing. A couple of weeks ago, the Medela Swing breast pump I borrowed from my sister – the smaller sibling of the Medela Symphony – stopped working as well as it had been. From 100ml in a 20 minute session, I was down to less than 50ml. So I’ve switched to using a Philips Avent manual pump, also loaned from my sister, or expressing by hand. Both methods are hard on wrists and thumbs.
I could probably write a PhD thesis on hydrodynamics. I can tell you, for example, that the plastic used for the Philips Avent breast pump is better than the plastic used by Medela because it prevents the dispersal of droplets which then go to waste. When every single drop counts, waste of any kind is heartbreaking,
I’ve breastfed during a meeting and a couple of dinners. As Ra-Ra’s demands have increased and I’ve battled to keep up, I’ve had to overcome my reluctance to breastfeed in semi-public settings. When she cries, and the only thing that will keep her quiet is Boob, I do what I must.
As a result, my relationship with my own body has changed. Once upon a time, I would never have dreamed of showing my boobs to anyone except my husband. But now that they have become almost purely functional, manufacturing facilities devoted to the feeding of my baby, I don’t particularly care who sees them. (If you are inclined to be shocked, or titillated, that’s your issue, not mine.)
Most of all, I have learned that breastfeeding is fraught with massive anxiety. I would like to keep breastfeeding for as long as possible because I know that it’s so good for the baby. But, despite last week’s experiences, having a baby clamped to one nipple is not compatible with attending meetings or maintaining a professional demeanour in the office. Once I go back to work, the kind of routine I’ve been maintaining will be impossible to keep up. I know that at some point I am going to have to accept that I will not be able to keep her going purely on my supply, and that is going to be very hard.
Whoever said “don’t cry over spilled milk” never tried to breastfeed.
Today I did something I’ve never, ever done before. I went along to a mommy blogger group for a coffee and a chat. I’d seen the Mom’s Morning invitation on Twitter and decided to take the plunge, telling myself that this would be good research for once I’m back at the office and working on influencer strategies for clients.
I felt really intimidated at the prospect. Driving to the venue in Fourways, I worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I told myself I would sit alone and have a cup of coffee before fleeing back home.
Moms in numbers, you see, are not my comfort zone. Not at all. Before I fell pregnant, I was quite literally afraid of mothers in groups of more than two. I was convinced they would detect alien, non-breeder me in their midst and reduce me to a blubbering wreck with talk of poo and linked sleep cycles.
But now that I am the mother of a baby, I’ve had to accept that yes, I am quite possibly a Mom. Not a typical mom by any means – for one thing, I’m so much older than most other first time mothers – but a mom nonetheless, who deals, as it happens, with poo and sleep cycles.
What do mommy bloggers talk about when they get together? Not, as it turns out, how adorable their children are, not about what products they use and definitely not about which brands give them free stuff.
They talk about sex, blogging about sex, birth control after birth, and horror stories about siblings born 10 months apart.
They talk about how much of their reality they share online, and what kind of photographs of their children they feel comfortable with uploading.
They talk a lot about schools, especially how expensive schools are and how difficult it is to get your child in if you don’t put their names down as soon as they’re born.
In-laws also feature, especially the kind who interfere and try to tell you how to be a parent.
They also talk about rape culture, about the Brock Turner case and how to train your children – boys and girls – about boundaries from an early age. As one mom pointed out, the problem is often politeness: we tell our children to accept hugs and kisses from strangers because it’s the polite thing to do.
I felt mildly terrified, especially during the schools conversation, but not for the reasons I thought would be (I need to put Raphaela’s name down for a school sooner rather than later, it seems). Moms in numbers, it turns out, are quite capable of talking about the more serious issues we grapple with. The only major difference between them and any other group is that it’s perfectly acceptable to haul out a boob and start feeding your child – something I was grateful for, because Ra-Ra started wailing almost from the moment we arrived. All in all, it was a very pleasant morning listening to the ebb and flow of conversation and discovering that I fitted in far better than I had imagined I would.
Before we left, Laura generously distributed gifts. I was the lucky recipient of a muslin receiver from Baby Sense, a brand I know well and rate highly, and a chewy teething blanket from one I had never heard of before today: Toofi Tots.
Like any good influencer, I’ve posted a picture on Instagram and I’ll report back on the products once I’ve used them.
Now that I’ve met other mommy bloggers and discovered that they’re not quite as terrifying as I thought they were, I may even become one of them. Time, I think, to write all those overdue posts.