I’ve realised something lately. There is always a justification story. Some yarn you tell over and over to justify something. Something you’re probably not sure of yourself. A bad choice maybe. Or a choice you’re ok with but assume others won’t be. So you build a story around it. A fable. A legend. Of justification.
Let me explain.
Throughout my twenties, when I was going for jobs or, say, sitting in a work canteen, people would ask, “what university did you go to?” Some would ask out of genuine interest, but usually it was just small talk – as in, the person asking didn’t really give a crap about the answer. But instead of just saying where I actually went, I launched into my justification story: “Ahh, well, I got two As at A level (and a D, in history, I blame the teacher ;)*) and got into my first choice. But during the summer, I fell in love. My first true love. And then I went away; far, far away. And we couldn’t stand to be apart. So I ended up transferring after one term, just so we could move in together.
“And that’s why I went to one of the bottom five universities in the UK (at the time). Because, like Meatloaf, I would do anything for love.”
As I got older and out of my twenties, the legend of true love started to fade as people stopped asking me where I studied, thank God. I mean, does anyone really care? When I’m a pile of ash in a chintzy old urn, is anyone really going to give a flying fuck where I read (or didn’t, in this case) Proust?
Still, I felt the need to recite my story, over and over.
And now, deep into my thirties, there’s a new justification tale in town. And it’s usually prompted by the question, “Are you still feeding her?”
Breast feeding. It’s a minefield, let me tell you. Before I had a baby, I assumed I’d be padding around our kitchen, barefoot, cooking eggs, with our baby on my hip suckling happily from my full, seeping breasts.
Here’s how it actually went. After a few hours of prowling round a room, naked, heaving and puking and splashing blood everywhere, I gave birth to a tiny little girl, and then a massive placenta (you have to push that out too! I know, man!!) And, despite the fact the NCT teachers tell you that if you lay a new baby on your belly, it will smell your milk and somehow use its brand new turned-in feet to crawl up your body and latch onto your enlarged nipple, my baby just slept.
I had to stay in hospital overnight, and every hour or so a midwife came and squeezed my nipples so hard I thought they might drop off. And then, when I got home, a breastfeeding counsellor came and sat on a stool in front of me and stared at my boobs and told me I was doing everything right. And in the night, me and my husband spent hours attempting to wake our baby, even trickling cold water on her little warm body, to try and make her feed.
Every day, the midwives and health visitors and breastfeeding counsellors said “don’t worry, your milk hasn’t come yet, it will come, you will know when it comes.” And other mum’s would say, knowingly, “oh God, day three, your milk will come, and you will KNOW.” “Day five, your milk will come.” “Day seven, that’s the day.” “Day ten, mine came day ten. I was squirting milk across the room like an arcade shooting shack on day ten. It will definitely come on day ten.”
It never came. Or it did, but there was no Katie Price moment. There was some leakage and horrible, dirty, delirious milk sweats during the endless, hot, dark nights. But my boobs barely changed shape or size. I used to sit with two pumps attached to my aching tits, desperate to drain some sort of fluid from them. I’d get ten millilitres after an hour. It was soul destroying.
Then one night we ended up in hospital after three hours of trying to wake our jaundice, skinny little baby. And nurses watched me feed her. And then a brash and plain speaking consultant told me to just give her some formula. “For God’s sake,” she said “what are you trying to prove?”
At least that’s what I’ve been telling people, as part of my justification story. But actually that’s what a consultant said to my friend when she went through something similar, but much worse, a few years back. I’ve only just realised, writing this, that no consultant actually said that to me. But there was a brash consultant. And she did tell me to feed our baby some formula for fear she might shrivel up. So I did.
Anyway, apologies if I have lied to you and given you that other version. The rest is true. I think.
And let me tell you, the whole breastfeeding thing is complex and controversial and, as a new mum already laden with the weight of trying to keep this little thing alive, it’s hard. I fed her for four months, and supplemented with formula. And I felt guilty sometimes and like a failure a lot of times, even though I tried so, so hard. But I also felt annoyed that people expected me to feel guilty. Like it was ok that I failed as long as I felt guilty about it. And that’s where the story came in.
I’m pretty sure that I probably could have done it, if I had known to hold out and wait and keep trying. But I was scared. She was turning yellow and losing weight and I was worried her liver would give up if I didn’t put some sort of fluid inside her. Maybe someone a bit less anxious, like the woman padding around the kitchen barefoot and cooking eggs while her baby suckles hungrily, maybe she would’ve known to hold out. To ignore the doctor and do what her instincts told her. And she wouldn’t need a justification fable for anything.
But I did what I did. And I know I would probably do the same again. And in a few years, months even, this justification story can go to the back of the filing cabinet with the rest of them. And then I’ll no doubt need a new one for some failure or another. Let’s wait and see what my forties hold.
Can’t wait guys.
*I know you can understand what I’m saying without the need for a winking emoji. But that’s there in case the teacher in question reads this. So she knows I don’t actually blame her for my D.**
**I do sort of blame her for my D. She had a passion for Margaret Thatcher that was so fierce and alive that I could get her talking about the infamous Tory leader for almost a whole double period if I was clever with my questioning. That’s why I got a D. Margaret Thatcher didn’t feature on the A-level history paper. After all, she was barely history at that point.