Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Babies, Our Lives


As a newborn photographer, and formerly as an obstetric and nursery RN, I have met many parents – all dedicated to providing their children with the happiest and healthiest environments possible.  Though we seek solutions based on sound principles, there are many factors that impact our decision-making when it comes to childbirth and infant care.   Our methods are as diverse as our different cultures and economies.

My only child was born abroad, in a developing country, where choices were limited.  In retrospect, this turned out to be very beneficial for us at the time.  At least I avoided many stressful decisions!  

Expectant mothers were encouraged to eat a high-protein, high-calorie diet.  I loved expresso coffee -- which was everywhere -- but I couldn’t tolerate its aroma.  I only wanted grapefruit, so my husband’s family was tasked with securing bushels of this scarce fruit.

Anesthesia was not routinely administered for uncomplicated labor and delivery, so I had “natural childbirth,” as I had planned.   I promised myself I’d be in total control, calm and focused – not like some laboring patients I had attended.  A few seconds after strong contractions began I readily broke that promise.  Fortunately my son was born only three hours later, safe and sound.  My next meal was sautéed whole fish and fish broth, believed to be ideal food for new mothers.  That, and a mixture of malta and sweet condensed milk.

Baby formula was only readily available for newborns for whom breastfeeding was not an option.   I had planned to breastfeed especially since the water supply was unsafe.  My sister had sent to me the largest breastfeeding bra she could find.  What seemed huge at first became just the right size!

I did not know then that the World Health Organization recommended breast milk exclusively – no water, no food – for the first six months of life.  Withholding water for six months was easy, but food was a different matter.  Despite frequent feeding, my son always seemed hungry.  An elderly grandmother, a rather imposing lady, lived on the same floor of our apartment house.  She insisted my son desperately needed food.  One afternoon, she made a puree of malanga, a tropical tuber, and entered my always open door, bowl and spoon in hand.  Before I could react, she had taken my son in her arms and was feeding him.  He loved it and everyone set about to obtain more malanga for him to eat.

My son seemed to breastfeed frequently throughout the night.  I confess I’d inadvertently fall asleep with him in bed sometimes.  But when he was in his crib, I would calm him by sleeping with my foot extended through the railing, and he’d hold my toe for security.

Neighbors and strangers never refrained from giving advice.  I had a front-loading corduroy baby back pack and, one day on the city bus, everyone was certain that my son was too warm and couldn't get enough air.  I had to disembark and walk home!

After returning to work when my son was six months old, I’d manually express milk into bottles that were used the next day.  I was meticulous about the cleanliness of the bottles.   Years later, I learned that my son’s grandmother would pour out the milk, heat it separately, and pour it back into the same bottles that she also washed!

Arriving home from work, my son would greet me, shouting “Teta, teta!”  When he turned about 18 months old, I became very ill with an infection requiring antibiotics.  I could not give him the antibiotic-laden milk.  Rather than discard it and resume later, I decided to stop breastfeeding.  My mother-in-law counseled me to paint my nipples with mercurochrome so that my son would also conclude that it was time to stop.  I was so exhausted I took her advice; he agreed with very wide eyes and little protest. 

Of course, besides being bright red, my breasts became very engorged and painful.  I decided that I would manage by wrapping myself very tightly with towels.  After a few days, when that didn’t work, I decided to visit the doctor and request medication.  I barely stated my request before the doctor began a passionate lecture about the benefits of breastfeeding.  When she paused to catch her breath, I simply stated:  “He’s 18 months old.”  Speechless, she took out her prescription pad and ordered injections.

Everyone, everywhere, means well, especially when it comes to our babies, our lives.