The Working Mother's Guilt

The Working Mother's Guilt

I was a very busy teacher. Now that I have a child, I am a very busy and exhausted teacher, and also a very tired and guilty mother who wants nothing more than to spend more time bonding with my firstborn and giving him the best nutrition this world has ever known: breastmilk.

After giving birth, my life became very simple. I used to fret over dinner or brunch venues and what activities to do with my friends or my then boyfriend, now husband. Now, all I do every day is to complete my work at lightning speed because every minute saved at work is another minute I get to spend at home with Isaac. I used to leave work at six in the evening just in time to meet my friends at seven (because I love to procrastinate and complete my work slowly). Gone were the good old days of snail paces and a big HELLO to increased productivity! On top of this, it is also because my baby was fussy and did not take to the bottle. So even if he was hungry, he would not drink the full sixty to eighty milliliters of my dispensed breast milk heated up for him. I had to rush home to latch Isaac to ensure he gets the nutrition he needs.

This guilt is very real. Some days I needed to stay really late till nine at night, usually to meet parents. And when I reached home, I am faced with a very hungry, very undernourished six months old baby who only drank about two hundred milliliters - the whole day. It was heartbreaking. Just to put things in perspective, babies need to be fed every two hours, and each feed could be between a measly sixty milliliters and a hearty one hundred. So, two hundred milliliters for a good 15-hour day? You do the math.

But what else can a mother do? I spent many waking hours trying to express milk for Isaac. I knew he hated the bottle so I had to plan my schedule carefully so that I have enough milk for him to latch when I reached home and emptied out my breasts enough to keep the supply up. Sounds simple, right?

No.

Firstly, as a full-time teacher, you don’t get many regular breaks. This has to be the biggest inconvenience of this profession. You have a timetable to follow (that varies by day and week) and it is most definitely not the perfect timetable for a mother that needs to express milk. I have different classroom schedules for odd and even weeks and this fortnightly cycles, in all honesty, is a routine that takes time to grasp.    

Secondly, my breaks were terribly short. For example, after two consecutive classes and factoring the possible five minutes late release, I would rush back to my desk and realise I’m only left with thirty minutes of recess. PERFECT! I only need a maximum of thirty minutes to express my milk. Let’s see. I think I can spare ten minutes buying lunch from the canteen (with too many students) and rush off to set up the nursing room. That gives me twenty minutes. It’s tight, but it should be sufficient to express enough milk for my body to continue milk production. Like a multitasking maniac, I would sit in the nursing room, set up my pumping essentials, press the start button and wolf down my food  (chewing is for the privileged) in five minutes. I down some water while mentally planning for the next lesson and checking the amount of milk expressed. To my absolute horror (sometimes), there were only twenty to thirty milliliters expressed from each breast when usually my full express would be about five times that.

And this brings me to my third point. Stress. Being unable to express quickly is a clear indication that I’m feeling stressed and that my body hasn’t calmed down enough to release the milk. Alright, time check. I have ten minutes left. So I desperately start playing Isaac’s cute videos to stimulate letdown and slowly massaged my breasts to stimulate the rate of flow. Massaging is a very painful experience (contrary to popular belief) because you need to observe if you are massaging or squeezing effectively and this angle of observation hurts your shoulders and neck so badly.

So, I am left with five more minutes and I have only expressed fifty milliliters from each side and of course, I cannot relax and center my qi because I need to be back in class in five minutes. In the end, I store that precious one hundred milliliters of milk in the fridge and run back to my desk to prepare for the next lesson, only to realise, to my horror (yet again) that I have not printed the worksheets for the following class.

Fourthly, a day isn’t always as planned. Let us not forget that we need to pump again after lunch. The problem is that after a whole day of teaching, we are required to fulfill many other duties such as after-school activities, remedial (Oh, tonnes of it!), leadership programs and on our free days, meeting after meeting. Most of the time I would forget about the scheduled meetings and planned to go home, only to realise I can’t leave yet (God bless our poor forgetful mummy’s brain). This would then mess up my pumping schedule and might result in engorgement and reduction in supply.

I was a fantastic teacher. But a mother? Not so much.

Many people already know how busy teachers are, but nursing teachers? Expressing milk for your child has got to rank as one of the toughest job for working mothers. To top off this maternal cow duty, we are like food monsters during this period. We eat more than men. We also spend many waking hours just eating and digesting. It’s frightening. When I was nursing very actively, I couldn’t fathom a past where I was unable to complete a meal back in my skinny model days. How could I have wasted all that food?

For me, a usual lunch included a plate of cai fan or my favourite abalone mee from the canteen followed by snacks such as a chocolate croissant or/and a burger, fried seaweed chicken and some fruits to make sure my little one gets good nutrition. If I was lucky to have a longer lunch break and company, we would head out to the kopitiam nearby and feast on food we could not get from the canteen such as fried hor fun with beef, or black carrot cake and snacks like peanut butter toast or kaya toast. And on those extremely rare, once in a blue moon occasions when we could afford even more time, we would head down to restaurants in Bedok point or Bedok mall and order additional side dishes to keep my tummy satisfied and my appetite satiated.

If I could interest you in a very peculiar fact: even with all that eating, I had the flattest tummy during this journey of nursing my child. You see, breast milk contains a lot of fat. That is how babies grow bigger in such a short period of time and this is also how I managed to shed off the twenty kilos I’ve gained during my pregnancy within five months. The fats from my body literally melted away blissfully into my breast milk.

So, finally, when I get to go home and meet my little one, I would immediately latch him to give him the nutrition he requires. Thankfully, my mother cooks a healthy and nutritious spread for me every day so that it nourishes both my baby and me. It is of utmost importance to take good care of ourselves. Clearly, I didn’t, because after moving out from my mother’s house, I lost even more weight as I was still actively nursing but was not properly nourished. We lose a lot of nutrition, especially calcium, to another living human being through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding mothers need to take supplements to compensate for this loss, so we truly cannot compromise on non-nutritious food such as potato chips or instant noodles (which I love) for meal replacement.

Even though my breastfeeding journey has been extremely challenging, I could not be more thankful or appreciative for having a smooth breastfeeding journey and this opportunity to bond with my child. I personally know of so many mothers who struggle with breastfeeding and had to have a lot of discipline in expressing their milk to get their supply level up. Truly, my heart is with them.

Breast is best, they say, but is it best for the mother? Perhaps. If it’s any consolation at all, the guilt of being a working mother only eggs us on to persevere and do our very best for the child we love. That would have to be good enough for now.

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