Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Triumphant Tuesday - Breastfeeding through Domestic Abuse

Breastfeeding is seldom a breeze, but what if it becomes yet another stick for your abusive husband to beat you with? That’s precisely what happened to the mother in the following story. Trapped in a controlling relationship, thousands of miles from her home country, this new mom was subjected to incessant emotional terrorism at the hands of her husband and his family, which gradually escalated to physical abuse.

Yet throughout it all, this mom held onto one of her most cherished goals: breastfeeding her baby girl. Despite the challenge of breastfeeding - or perhaps because of it – she found the strength and courage to escape her nightmare. For this mom, breastfeeding was empowering. It solidified the bond between mom and baby, a bond that no amount of bullying could demolish.

“I have been preparing for a long time to share my story on The Alpha Parent. I hesitated because I was not sure whether I wanted to reincarnate these memories or not. But then I realized my story may help others going through similar struggles.

How I met my abuser

I met my (now ex) husband while we were both working in Japan. He is from Mexico and I am from Estonia. Ironically, we met while practicing Aikido in Japan - the art of harmony, of non-violence. The emotional violence started from the very beginning when now I realise that he liked (and provoked) the situations where I started crying. Looking back, it was an ill-match from the start: Catholic-traditional-family-centered-Mexican, and Atheist-scandinavian-modern-individualistic-Estonian. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. 

My first question when I found out I was pregnant was regarding baptizing, whether it was important for him. Myself an atheist, I would have opted out, but since he is Catholic, and said it was very important, I agreed, thinking that the worst disagreement we could possibly have had been evaded. Silly me.

The pregnancy

My pregnancy was quite average, but the morning sickness lasted for the first 7 months, from morning, till next morning. It was also more difficult because all the foods I really craved (Estonian traditional black rye bread among the others) were nowhere to be found in Japan. Without being able to eat much of anything due to the nausea I somehow managed to gain 10 kg by the third month, which, as I was told by my very pleasant doctor in one of the biggest and most modern hospitals of the country, is the maximum allowed weight gain in Japan. Women there, when they find out they are pregnant, actually go on a diet! 

Me in the Japanese delivery room
I was very nervous about giving birth and wanted to know that no matter what, the hospital staff would understand English and would be able to revive me (and the baby) if any emergency should arise.

My Mexican in-laws did not understand my wish for natural birth (c-sections are practically the norm over there), and since my husband was to have a business trip at around the due date, they also did not understand why I did not choose a planned C section with a scheduled delivery date. The hospital in Japan, although very modern, was fortunately all-for natural births without any pain relief. I am glad for that because I am not sure I would have had the strength to not ask for relief when the baby was coming. My baby woke me up a few days before her due date at 3am, and was in my arms by 3pm. We called her Sophie. The first half of the 12 hour labor was a piece of cake, but the last three hours was so horrible that I actually only remember 3 minutes of it. Everything else is wiped out of memory, although I was fully conscious at the time.

Establishing breastfeeding

I had asked for delayed cord clamping but had no strength to fight for it when the moment came, so Sophie was taken out, cut off, put for a few moments next to my face and taken out for measuring and cleaning. It took an hour before I got to feed her, but fortunately everything was alright there. In Japan, everyone stays in hospital for a full week in case of natural birth (and 2 weeks for C-section). I was glad for that, but unable to eat the very traditional Japanese hospital food, so my husband sneaked in some ‘human food’ for me.

Sophie was feeding very well, non-stop on my breast. The first 6 weeks were very painful for me, cracked and bleeding, but then I got a hang of it. I thought she latched on perfectly and the hospital staff said the same, so maybe the pain was only because of her very strong suction and non-stop feeding. (The norm in Japan is to separate mothers and babies but they are also used to the crazy demands of foreigners like us to have the baby in the same room with the mother). 

When we were finally home, my mother came to stay with us to help with the babycare. My friend, an Indian pediatrician, who had breastfed her lovely seven year old daughter for the first 6 years of her life, told me that it should not be so painful. She also helped me to understand the idea behind ‘extended’ breastfeeding.

Sophie and I slowly settled to normal life and my mother went back to Estonia when Sophie was a month old. Then my husband’s parents from Mexico moved in for three months (without anyone discussing this with me beforehand) and the nightmares began… 

Undermining and overtaking

Whether it is due to the position of a wife in Mexican culture or our own relationship problems, the fact that I was only informed about my in-laws arrival after the plane tickets had already been bought shows the level of importance my opinion would have had on the whole decision. After that, without any support from my husband (who sided completely with his parents), I had to start protecting my beliefs and practices and intuition against bullying orders. Examples include:

  • Giving tea, water and porridge to a newborn
  • Being told how harmful exclusive breastfeeding was
  • Being told to feed in intervals
  • How my baby would die if she wasn’t given formula
  • How she would die if the belly button is not forced inside by some special mechanism
  • How it is not normal that her ears are still not pierced (fortunately she wasn’t a boy, with forced circumcision and what not)
  • How she should sleep on stomach or at least side, not back
  • How she should not go outside in Japanese cold 18 degree Celsius weather
  • How the temperature in the room needs to be 30 degrees and she herself in blankets all the time
  • Etc…

I was not allowed to bathe my baby, as it was deemed my husband’s mother had so much more ‘experience’ and know-how, having raised ten children (including relatives), and I was merely getting my information from the internet. My husband and his parents told me that I was going through post-partum depression and turning crazy. They said I was disrespectful, inexperienced and plain ‘blonde’.

Since I was still in shock after my horrific childbirth experience, it was hard for me also to realise how wrong things were going. I was only able to dream how nice it would be if there would be only the three of us, with me taking care of the child based on my own beliefs and without continuous harassment  Only later, from distance, can I see how distorted it all was. Somehow it sneaks up on you, even though an onlooker might understand it quicker than the people involved.

Since I tend to be quite persistent when I know in my heart that I am right, the result was that we had constant daily arguments in the house. However I knew that the most important here was my child’s health and her future so I made no compromises. Having ploughed deeper into the theories and science behind child-raising such as the Virgin Gut concept and other related health positions, I felt compelled to stick to my guns. 

Fortunately my daughter was ‘on my side’. When my in-laws tried to give her a bottle of my expressed breast milk, under the premise of helping them to ‘bond’, she only suckled for a few minutes (nicely captured on the photo below) and then pulled-off and rejected bottles from that moment forth. Same for pacifiers, smart little girl!

Estonians are known for their stubbornness. They consider it good trait. When I my husband would blame me for various ill-deeds, he of course took this trait as one of my worst. We also had a lot of financial arguments, disagreements about friends and basic values. Sadly in our case, as in many others, my husband’s emotional harassment finally, perhaps inevitably, led to physical violence. He often prevented me from exiting rooms, holding me captured while I held the baby, and similar situations.

I could have handled the in-laws and their bullying if only my husband had sided with me, or showed some kind of basic respect to my opinion. Instead he attacked my positions and the psychological harassment intensified so that finally there was no other way out but divorce. It took me some time to realise this, and is only now fully clear when there is some distance between these events. There was really no other way. 

Long story short, I escaped this nonsense when my daughter turned two months, literally took my things and stayed with a friend for a few months until the Japanese court processed the divorce and custody case. Being soft as I was I even considered getting back together, after all court proceedings had finished and things calmed down. Sophie was 10 months and we went to Mexico, but in the end, I ended up on the floor from his violence, at then there was no way back…

Picking up the pieces

My ex now lives in Mexico and I returned to Estonia. I am thankful for this because had our previous plan of moving to Mexico taken place, the results would have been even more damaging and most likely he would have been awarded child custody in the end. In Japan the whole procedure was very complicated and expensive, with threats of child abduction, international laws and embassies involved, but fortunately it is also a country that protects the mother’s and child’s interests and only in very extreme cases is mother separated from the child, therefore I got full custody. 

Winter in Japan

Winter in Estonia

Winter in Mexico

International relationships bring their own difficulties and I have even heard a statistic that as many as 9 in 10 of such marriages end in divorce. For us it was good that it happened so soon, as no child should have to grow up in such environment - an environment that pays so little respect to a woman’s position in the relationship, especially if the child is a girl herself. I am also glad I do not live in Mexico as was our original plan. I do not like the idea of kindergarten children wearing full makeup and false nails (which is what I observed during one of our trips there), or the level of sexualising woman in the culture in general.

My ex now sees us through Skype and when we visit each other (though there is no such legal requirement) and our meetings still tend to end in disagreement. However since he is her father and she is part Mexican, I try not to shut out this part of her life.

Full-term breastfeeding

On a happier note, Sophie contently continues to breastfeed. She will turn three years old very soon. Although so natural, breastfeeding at this age is unusual in Estonia. It will hopefully be easier when Sophie has babies of her own, having had such memories from her own childhood. I will continue to breastfeed her for as long as she wishes (and yes, I am using the joke of ‘until university’ with my own relatives who constantly question this).

My advice to mothers is to look into the actual science and research, and trust your own instincts, even if they clash with the doctors’ recommendations. My Estonian doctor told me to stop at 1 year (and most people here take heed as physicians are the highest authority, especially in a post-soviet culture).  Contrary to some, I also do not hide the fact that I still breastfeed, and then the first question from the doctor is inevitably: does she eat any other foods? Duh. Remember, she is almost three!”

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