I had one of those mornings.

Parents everywhere will know. There was parents’ meeting at the 7-year-old’s school last night so bedtime rites and passages began a little later than usual. The 3-going-on-13-year-old routine was already up-ended, and in protest she had skipped a nap. She slept badly; I slept badly. The 7-year-old and my husband didn’t fare much better. Our son had a nightmare woke them both up in the middle of the night. The morning was accordingly chaotic and the usual battlegrounds were more hotly contested than usual. Our toddler struggles with separating from us on an easy morning, but today was on another level. After the tantrum she threw when her father and brother left for school; after her third screaming fit, pitched because I refused to let her spread toothpaste all over her person, my phone lit up with a text. The neighbourhood text group: a neighbour heard the screaming, remarked on its daily occurrence. That’s all it took. I shut our front door, and then dissolved into a meltdown of my own.

In-between tears and a sob-filled call to my best friend (a fellow comrade in these early childhood battlegrounds), I responded:

I’m sorry. She’s three. Doing the best I can.

Then, I left the group. There are so many arenas in which motherhood serves up fresh kickings of my sorry ass. I don’t need more from a group I rely on for updates on when the garbage removal truck is nearby, or at what hellish level of rolling blackouts we are expected to continue to operate.

My son was born at a hospital that, like many hospitals and birthing facilities across the globe, subscribes to UNICEF and the World Health Organisation’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, or BFHI. In order to improve breastfeeding rates, or “protect breastfeeding” as they absurdly put it, UNICEF and WHO recommend, amongst other things, that birthing facilities:

  • Facilitate immediate and uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact and support mothers to initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth.
  • Support mothers to initiate and maintain breastfeeding and manage common difficulties
  • Do not provide breastfed newborns any food or fluids other than breast milk, unless medically indicated.
  • Enable mothers and their infants to remain together and to practise rooming-in 24 hours a day.
  • Support mothers to recognize and respond to their infants’ cues for feeding.
  • Counsel mothers on the use and risks of feeding bottles, teats and pacifiers.

In my case, that meant being left alone overnight with my newborn, struggling to feed, and snatching minutes of sleep with my baby in my arms, and both of us in a hospital bed in which I couldn’t recline sufficiently. Luckily, this was pre-pandemic, and my husband was allowed to stay the first night, when the post-surgical morphine-haze made everything fuzzy and confusing. I am not sure how I would have coped if he hadn’t been present.

I was brutally reminded of my stint in the hallways of a BFHI institution when a colleague told me about an Italian mother who, after being left alone with her newborn, she woke up to be told the baby, who had been in bed with her, was dead. The mother tells of being left alone with her infant, after a 17-hour labour and an emergency C-section. Her partner asked for the baby to be cared for in the nursery so she could rest and recover, and was told that this was not possible. The next thing the mother remembers is waking up, without her baby, and being told he was dead. Of course, I am not suggesting that the BFHI strict rooming-in policy is to blame. But I recognise the insidious fingerprints of this practice. Surely rooming-in immediately after birth only makes sense when birth has been uncomplicated and the mother has a birth companion who can stay with and attend to her even when nurses cannot. Given that this mother had a complicated birth experience, and no one to watch over her, I fail to see how strict adherence to BFHI principles were clinically appropriate. Thousands of Italian mothers have reported similar instances of post-birth clinical ‘abandonment’. An investigation is underway, hopefully asking questions about whether the hospital was understaffed, and the systemic shortcomings that sanction leaving a tired mother alone with her hungry infant, under the guise of encouraging bonding and feeding.

Maybe it’s the spirit of tough love tacitly encouraged by the BFHI. Maybe it’s the health system still recovering from the damage wrought by COVID-19. In this story, I saw a little bit of my own lonely, isolated moments of motherhood reflected. A combination of a system that assumes there is a singular way to teach mothers to feed their children, and a society that expects so much of mothers and asks that we bear the burden of tasks in private, in silence.

My neighbour apologised. He was worried, he said, at what he interpreted as distress in my child’s voice. I wish he’d said that. Child screaming – is all ok? I would have smiled through the tears that would have come anyway and responded, Just a regular 3-year-old expressing herself. It’s tough. Thanks for asking.


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