Some ewes butt their lambs away from their udders. Some ewes crush their lambs in their sleep. Other ewes become fearless, facing down the dogs. Almost all will follow the smell of their newborns wherever they are carried.
I grew up on a sheep farm. I was unprepared by how much early motherhood and birth would bring back the lambing shed to me. These smells of milk and blood, of iodine and lanolin, are familiar; the sounds of softness and nuzzling, insistent bleating, rattling cries.
I’ve seen the maternal behaviour of over-protective mothers – the things I experienced – in sheep. When my son was three days old, four days old and ten days old, I had hormonal, almost psychotic surges that made me feel I was losing my mind. They lasted only about an hour each and were most comparable to drug experiences, bad trips. The baby was downstairs with his Dad and my heart was beating out of my chest. I had paranoid thoughts and couldn’t be separated from my son. I felt angry at anyone holding my baby, like a ewe when the farmer takes the lamb to spray its navel and ring its tail. I wanted to grind my teeth and stamp my feet, to put my head down and charge. I can see how childbirth, postnatal hormones and sleep deprivation can tip new mothers into insanity.
There are all sorts of individual, complicated reasons why some mothers bottle-feed and that’s fine but I have been lucky to be able to breastfeed and to be continuing it now, with a 14-month-old. Some things happened along the way. I got thrush in my breasts that made feeding painful, and a cracked nipple. Briefly, like many poor ewes on the farm, I had mastitis but dealt with it with antibiotics and pressure.
I bought an expensive, complicated breastpump, a piece of engineering from the dairy parlour, tried it once, thought ‘fuck this’ and never used it again. I breastfeed for the simplicity and closeness. The pump seemed to defeat that.
I’ve fed my son, without shame, in cafes and libraries, on trains, planes and buses. I’ve fed him in the driver’s seat of my car in supermarket car parks, resting on the steering wheel; after a book event, while talking to readers; during a Skype interview with a German journalist; on a park bench under the Eiffel Tower; while walking in the Lake District with the baby in sling; but mainly, mostly, on my sofa and in our bed.
I tried to read novels on my phone while feeding at night but soon realised it was better to stay half-asleep, to not turn on the light or look at the time. In the morning, I can’t remember what happened.
In the beginning, feeding the baby is a full-time job. Day and night, seven days a weeks, the baby was clamped to my tit one hour out of four, and I spent the rest trying to sleep, eat, recover, wash. I veered, multiple times a day, between feeling loved-up on oxytocin with a calm or sleeping baby, then spiking with adrenaline when he cried. I fed until he threw his head back with contentment, until tears came down my face. But, as a friend told me, breastfeeding is really hard then it’s really easy. Gradually, the feeds became less regular and demanding and more pleasurable. They are now calm spaces in the day, invaluable for comfort and sleep.
My experience of feeding has been dimly lit and sensual, achy and tearful and deeply satisfying. This time has connected me with the physical and the bodily. He sucks ferociously. He squeaks and hiccups and snuffles. When he’s falling asleep, he smiles. I’m often wild with joy, then struck by exhaustion – drained.
When I was pregnant, I felt it very important that I mustn’t succumb to blaming things on ‘baby brain’ – I must hold onto my intellect. But the hardest, most rewarding things often involve letting go. I realise it’s okay to have spent a year in a half-awake daze, where days pass, feeding the baby in a kind of happy, tired fog. I brush his hair with a toothbrush and it is so soft. He is my young and I sniff and kiss him.
My son had no eyelashes when he was born and in the first weeks of his life I watched them sprout and unfurl. Weeks watching eyelashes grow were not wasted.
And I leave this with a diary entry from when he was 17 days old:
Babies are urgent and happening right now. Every day he grows and he’ll never be 17 days old again. He bleats and peeps. He crackles and cackles. He was unsettled from 11pm until 2.30am, when I was most tired. He sleeps for 3 or 4 or 5 hour stretches then feeds hungrily. Breastfeeding is hard work. My head aches, my nipples are tender and I’m tired. I’m sensitive and needy and cry often. But at the same time I’m stronger than I thought I was. I’m still the same: still lazy and vain and horny but I’ve been able to feed and care for a baby, keeping a small human alive through my breasts. In the deep night, we pass him silently. I feed him lying on my side, half asleep. Sleeping, he is still and beautiful and content, my little lamb.
By Amy Liptrot, Twitter @amy_may
Photography by Ellen Rogers, Twitter @EllenJRogers
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, is out now.