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“I continued on without giving up hope altogether.”

I had my first child at the age of 41 and my second at age 44.  My NHS sister midwife told me later that if I had returned to England for the births, then they would, in all likelihood have been born vaginally, as I was a healthy woman with a healthy baby. However, in Greece at that time, in public hospitals, any woman giving birth for the first time over 40 was treated as high risk and so both of my daughters were born by c-section.  

My oldest daughter was luckier. She was born in Volos public hospital and I was given an epidural which means I was awake during and after the birth.  After she was born, they took her away.  I was taken to the hospital ward and as I lay on the bed, I could hear the loud cries of a baby. I knew this was my daughter and I desperately urged my husband to go and get our baby so that I could have her on me and put her on my breast.   When she arrived, she was very distressed and as soon as her mouth was on my nipple, she started sucking as if her life depended on it.   Her crying was very urgent in those first few days at the hospital.  I put it down to the c-section birth and her immediate separation from me.  I knew that she needed to cry in the safety of her mother’s arms and at the same time get comfort from being next to her mother’s body and breast. She stayed on my body for the five days we were in the hospital. Strangely enough, ill-informed hospital staff and interfering visitors would urge me to remove her from my body and put her on her own in the cot. They were suggesting that she would be more peaceful on her own and that I was disturbing her tranquility.  Fortunately, I had done all my homework during pregnancy and knew that the best place for a newborn is on her mother’s body.  Despite the cesarean wound and the intravenous apparatus that I was still hooked onto, I managed to keep her attached to me most of the time. 

Through my attendance at the La Leche League monthly meetings and my reading of almost every book in their library, I became highly educated about breastfeeding.  I learnt a few golden rules. Perhaps the most important one was that you do not give a new born breastfeeding baby a bottle of powdered milk.  The reason for this is that the baby becomes full and then doesn’t want to feed from the breast. Also, the mouth movements for feeding from a bottle are totally different from those a baby needs to get milk from a breast. The baby ends up with nipple confusion. I don’t think I managed to stop the hospital from giving my daughter a bottle of chamomile tea as her first drink – I think that was the Volos hospital protocol in 2006, but at least from about 1 hour after her birth, she did not leave my arms and no-one fed her any powdered milks or herbal teas ever again.

I was an oddity in the Volos maternity ward in January 2006. I was the one who kept her baby in bed with her at all times and who breastfed. One young trainee pediatrician came and gave me a long and detailed interview on what I had done during pregnancy. What alternative medical treatments had I used?  Had I used homeopathy or acupuncture during pregnancy? What had I eaten during pregnancy? What had been my exercise routine?  When the caravan of gynaecologists, pediatricians, trainees, nurses and midwives arrived on our second day in the hospital for the routine check, the large group of eyes looked at the empty baby cot next to the bed and then at me. “Where was the baby?” My daughter was lying on my chest and I dropped the sheet to show a beautiful sleeping baby.  It was a peek-a-boo moment.   

Breastfeeding a new born baby was hard.  It hurt. One nipple was split and bled. I cried a lot and I felt desolated. I had wanted to bring my daughter into the world naturally, but the medical system had managed to override my own wishes for my body and my daughter’s and I had had a cesarean against my will. I felt totally alone.  What I did have though, was the goal I had set myself of returning to that breastfeeding meeting with a baby on my breast. I had set my mind on this and that was what I was going to do.  I will always be grateful to an American woman, who was living in Volos at the time and who phoned me about a week after the birth to ask how I was doing.  I was in a sorry state.  Tearful at every feed as the pain was unbearable, she listened sympathetically and told me that it would take 30 – 40 days to get settled into a breastfeeding relationship with the baby.   I gathered a lot of hope and strength from that and continued on without giving up hope altogether.  

When I became pregnant again at the age of 43, I was still breastfeeding my two year old daughter.   Breastfeeding during pregnancy was very painful in the early days.  I often pushed off my little daughter and sent her off to the fridge to drink cow’s milk. I’m sorry I did this, but it didn’t last forever. After a while, the pain subsided and I was able to feed her again, though I think I was producing less milk.   For my second daughter’s birth, I had read up on VBAC and had found a doctor who had done a VBAC in Larissa. As I got close to the birth, the doctor started telling me the dangers of VBAC. He must have been pointing to one of the heating pipes in his office as images of a burst pipe with blood gushing out of it came to mind. 

I also tried my best to give my younger daughter a natural birth. I travelled to Athens to attend a private clinic but I was once again overpowered by circumstances beyond my control. I felt very vulnerable during my last days of pregnancy and during the birth. I was given a general anaesthetic and my little one was born by c-section in a public hospital.  This means I was unconscious during her birth and did not see her until about 4 hours after her birth. This was the policy at the Alexandra hospital in Athens. Some mothers did not see their babies for 12 hours after the birth.  I managed to kick up a big fuss on the ward and got my husband’s sister to insist that my daughter was brought to me. My baby was brought to me cold, alone and fearful on the 4th February 2009 at 4pm.  She was just four hours old. I picked her up out of the cot and laid her on my body.  She was very still and very quiet. Slowly her body warmed up and she fell asleep on the breast. She stayed on me for the two days we were in the hospital. I was totally exhausted after a very traumatic birth which I had done everything in my power to avoid. I lay upside down on the hospital bed, with my daughter on my chest.  I did this so that I would not have the hospital light shining in my eyes as I tried to rest at night.  It also meant that the hospital staff could not see my daughter lying on me, as they felt it was dangerous to have a baby in bed.  My little daughter fed eagerly and easily. She guzzled down the milk and I could hear every gulp!   She was Super Baby. She was born 4.4 kilos and was a fantastic feeder from the start.

Thanks to a conversation I had with my sister midwife who said if I was up and walking about, then I could safely leave the hospital, I got myself signed out of the Alexandra hospital on the second day. I was so desperate to leave the hospital so that I could be with my older daughter, who had just turned 3 and was not allowed to visit me.  I walked all over the hospital, up and down stairs, to get my newborn baby daughter’s paperwork signed and stamped so that I could leave and be with my other baby, who had never before been separated from her mother.

My husband drove us to where my older daughter was staying and I gathered both children and they began to feed together. This was how they met.  I tandem fed the two girls for some years.  This is how I learnt the art of storytelling as I had no hand free to hold a book. I told my own healing stories of dogs and puppies, cats, kittens and mother wolves. I told stories of fairy lands under trees while my two daughters held hands and fed together. They held toy cars and figures as they fed and played together. These are some of my loveliest memories of my two children.  It was mostly joy, laughter and fun.  I have almost forgotten the tremendous tiredness I must have felt as a 45 year old woman taking care of two tiny breastfeeding children.  After my first daughter’s birth, I was overcome by sadness and disappointment at the way I had been treated during the last days of my pregnancy and birth. I felt betrayed. After my second daughter’s birth, I felt the same but I was now aware of the monumental task ahead of me in raising two baby girls with no family support nearby.  My beloved mother in law had died just a few months before, and so I gathered up all my strength and just got on with caring for these two small people.  I was totally absorbed and delighted with my children and loved being with them.   I considered myself very lucky to have had children later in life and I greatly appreciated and enjoyed looking after them. 


Maria McKarthy, Volos

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