Life lessons on pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows

I still remember the moment, about two months after we were married, when the cows made their first appearance in the discourse of our relationship. I can’t remember what we were debating now, but it led to the following exchange.

“You know who you remind me of?” Mike asked in a tone of mingled frustration and admiration. “Ivy, our second smartest cow on the farm when I was growing up.”

What?” I said. “Who was the smartest cow?”

Photo: Martin Cathrae, Flick

“That was Emmy. She was awesome. She was the sweetest cow ever, so bright, and so gentle. She was the queen matriarch of the herd. All the other cows followed her everywhere.” Mike got slightly misty eyed at the memory. “She was my favorite. She was everyone’s favorite.”                   

“What was Ivy like then?” I asked.

“Ivy was smart all right, but boy was she ever obstinate,” Mike said with grudging respect but a total lack of misty-eyed affection. “Ivy was the only cow that ever figured out that if she wriggled right under the electric fence it would only hurt for a little while before she would be through to the other side and she could have a whole, untouched pasture to herself. Emmy was smart and used it for the good of all. Ivy was smart and used it for her benefit alone. She was a determined, stubborn bugger. And she kicked.”

In a rare turn of events I was momentarily speechless.

“Ivy was my second favorite, though,” Mike added quickly after glancing at my face. “You couldn’t help but admire her even if she was a bugger.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I remind you of your second favorite, second smartest cow.”

“There were 40 cows in the herd, honey,” Mike said. “Second isn’t bad.”

It took a long time after this exchange before I grew to appreciate the cow stories. I certainly wasn’t amused the night I woke up with cramps at 3AM and Mike told me that he thought midnight cramping may be part and parcel of the female mammalian system because he’d noticed over the years that pregnant cows usually went into labour in the early hours of the morning. And I didn’t particularly appreciate the subsequent descriptions of how he had to help hand-deliver the calves (in some cases, using chains to pull them out) when labour didn’t progress.

“Oh, Ivy was a good breeder,” Mike told me when I inquired, with mingled sarcasm and curiosity, about my bovine doppelganger.  “I don’t think she ever had trouble delivering. And whatever else you can say about her, she was a very good mother. If her calf ever started bawling she always came running, usually looking to bite someone.”

Slowly, however, over the two years that we’ve been married, the cow stories have started to make me smile. And just the other night, for the first time, I wondered whether those cows haven’t helped prepare Mike for marriage and parenthood in important ways.

The other night we were out to dinner with friends who have just had their fourth baby. Hannah was telling me about some of the things she wished she had known before she delivered her first baby.

“I wish I’d known how hard breastfeeding could be,” Hannah said. “I had no idea about even basic things – like the fact that some women produce more milk than others, and that flow rate can be different. For some women the milk spurts out so fast the babies practically choke on it. For other women it comes out really slowly.”

“OK,” I said slowly. This was news to me.

“Anyway, having trouble breastfeeding was such a shock,” she continued. “Holton just wouldn’t latch on for ages, and then my milk didn’t come in for a long time, and then I got cracked nipples, and then mastitis, and then – because we were here in Laos and didn’t get to a doctor quickly enough I think – I developed an abscess in my breast.”

“Huh,” I said, feeling horrified in that way you do when you see a car accident and you’re secretly glad that it has nothing to do with you. I am still, on some level, clearly in denial about the fact that I am pregnant and will be giving birth and attempting this feat called breastfeeding in less than five months.

“Breastfeeding is just not as easy as you would think it should be,” Hannah said. “I’m happy to show you some tricks. Western women don’t often get the chance to see breastfeeding up close, so how are we supposed to know how to do it in the best way?”

“That would be good,” I said, thinking that she had a point. How were we supposed to learn in a society where women are fairly shy about whipping out their boobs in public and inviting detailed scrutiny of the whole process?

Well, apparently one other way to learn some of this would have been to grow up on a farm.

“I had such good filters tonight, honey,” Mike said triumphantly after we got home from dinner. “I was going to say all sorts of things during the breastfeeding discussion, but I didn’t.”

“You were going to talk about cows, weren’t you,” I said.

Mike ginned.

“Alright,” I sighed. “Tell me about the cows and breastfeeding.”

“Well,” Mike said. “Everything Hannah said makes sense. Our cows also used to vary dramatically in terms of how much milk they’d produce and how fast it would let down. And some calves, oh my word, some of those calves were so dumb. They just couldn’t figure out how to drink – you’d have to spend hours out there coaching them.”

“Really?” I said. “They didn’t just know? How do you teach them?”

“First you’d prod the calves in that direction and hope they’d figure it out. But if that didn’t work, eventually we’d have to milk the cows and put it in a bottle and hope that the calves would made the connection between what comes out of the nipple on the bottle and what comes out of the nipple on the cow. But some really struggled to make that quantum leap. We had one calf we thought would die it took him so long to figure it out.”

“And I know all about mastitis because the cows used to get it,” Mike continued while I took this in. “Sometimes the calves would develop a preference for only one set of teats – usually the forward ones because they were easier to reach and the calves were lazy. Then the back ones would get full and blocked up and infected.”

“What did you do?”

We’d have to massage and hand milk them on those teats, and sometimes they needed antibiotics.”

As far as I can see so far, Mike’s farm background has substituted quite well for older sisters in preparing him to deal with period cramps and breastfeeding challenges, as well as equipping him with skills in the area of assisting in the delivery of baby mammals (skills that both he and I fervently hope he does not need to employ later this year). And I will admit that I’ve grown quite fond of the cow stories, even if they involve Ivy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all other animal analogies are fair game.

The other day, when I recalled some random (probably useless) fact, Mike asked me, amazed, how I’d done it.

“I have a good memory,” I said modestly.

“Just like an elephant,” he said. “You’re my elephant.”

“Careful,” I said. “Thin ice.”

“Oh, honey,” Mike said. “Instead of the second smartest cow you can be my smartest elephant.”

“What was that I just heard?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, a big splash.”

What about you? If you’ve had children, what is one thing you wished you’d known before you had your first? If you haven’t had children, what questions or observations do you have?

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37 responses to “Life lessons on pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows

  1. What an excellent post! Your husband sounds like a smart man 🙂

  2. Laughing my head off! And missing you…! :/ How goes it sweet, pregnant (soon to be lactating) friend? We must talk. Email forthcoming…

    Lots of love and hugs,

    • It goes pretty well, though my back’s been killing me this week. It’s on the mend though I think. We go to Thailand tomorrow for the ultrasound so hoping all news is going to be good and that we get a competent technician (selfishly, preferably one that also speaks English). Hope all is going well on your side of the world. Desperately wish we could go out of coffee (or, you know, two days in a cabin in the middle of nowhere) :).

  3. Your conversations just crack me up 🙂
    I’m recovering from a 2 hour sleep last night (thanks, Evie) so I’m not very good at putting sentences together, despite morning nap… Ahhhhh 🙂
    I’ve had a rough battle with breastfeeding but fed up to a year with Anna and still going with Evie. I am more than happy to give advice if needed. But the best thing I ever wanted to hear was- the difficulties don’t last and it gets much much better. big hugs, Amy

    • That IS encouraging to hear (as was my sister’s input via skype yesterday when she assured me that I WOULD love the baby when it arrived). Sorry about the lack of sleep! Hope you manage to stumble through the day with everything and everyone still in one piece.

  4. What I wished I had known, and did not, was that I would not have the baby and be ‘pre-baby’ thin right after. What a shock to still look 6 mouths pregnant for weeks after having the baby. Needless to say, I slogged out of the hospital in my fat pants…

    • Thanks Sue! Hmmm… Not fun, but good to hear. Yes, some of the books I’ve been reading sternly warn against expecting the Elle McPherson effect – being back on the catwalk within a month of giving birth, I think it was. Not that I’ve ever been on a catwalk. Well, except when I was 12, dressed in a jaunty nautical outfit with a side ponytail, for a local fashion show in the middle of a shopping mall.

  5. I would like to lend some encouragement in the area of breastfeeding. I didn’t have any problems. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that you will.

    One thing that really helped me was some advice my sister gave me. She said that you can’t make a baby sleep. That really took the pressure off. All I could do was provide the best sleeping environment that I could and the rest was up to Andrew. 🙂

    The other great advice that I got was from my cousin. She told me that no matter what was going on with Andrew… wait six weeks and everything will be different.

    One thing I wish I had known was how tired I would be between weeks 3 and 6. Those were the toughest for me and I wish that I would have had some help then… not at 8 and 12 weeks when I did.

    I love, love, love this post. So fun. My Grandpa has a farm. He no longer has dairy cows, but he did once… so I can definitely relate to the cow references. Hilarious. Second favorite cow…

    • Yeah, “second favorite cow” has become a phrase that Mike uses occasionally when he’s teasing me and trying to get a rise (which it usually does). Thanks for the encouraging words on breastfeeding, and also the interesting insight on your experiences in the early weeks and the good word about waiting six weeks! I’ve enjoyed seeing you so in love with being a mum via your blog. Hope all is going well with the prep for the move.

  6. One thing I wish I had known is how foreign my baby girl might seem to me as she was first thrust into my arms. I think I was in some sort of shock, because although I knew she was mine and I would have defended her with my life, for almost half a day I didn’t cry happy tears, or count her toes, or smile broadly at the beauty of her. She was born at 12:41 pm, and suddenly at about 10 pm she was MINE. I can’t really explain it, I just wish someone had told me that it doesn’t necessarily come right away, and that it was all right.

    • Good to know. It’s funny, isn’t it? You hear some stories of people instantaneously being overwhelmed by emotion, and it takes a while for others. If I had to guess I’d say it’ll take me a while – I tend not to get overwhelmed by emotions all in a single instant. We’ll see.

  7. Hilarious!

    I just wanted to encourage you in the breastfeeding area as well. I didn’t have any problems. I got engorged once in awhile, but my baby (now 13 months and still nursing, while I’m pregnant again) latched on just fine and although it was a lot of work and time, it was pretty much smooth sailing from there. It’s so convenient and relaxing to nurse – I say convenient just because you don’t have to prepare anything, and now that he’s eating solid foods I miss the days of just being able to nurse and be done. And it’s relaxing because you can just sit there and get a lot of reading done! 🙂

    My only advice? Find something to watch for those middle-of-the-night feedings. You’ll probably adjust way easier than many moms because you’re used to jet lag, but when they’re newborn they usually nurse for so long at night that it helps to just wake up a little. I had Gilmore Girls queued on my laptop, and during the 2-3 (or more) middle-of-the-night feedings, I really enjoyed being distracted from the reality that I was awake, yet again.

    Oh, and another thing – your baby may not sleep through the night for awhile (mine didn’t till 9 months), but the wakings get so much briefer, especially if he’s just waking to feed – you nurse for 5 minutes instead of 30. I was so tired of nursing for 30-40 minutes in the beginning, but they get much quicker within a couple months.

    • Thanks Anna. Gosh, your life is going to get busy for sure! I think as a kid I would have loved being very close in age to my siblings (we were pretty close as it was, at 2.5 and 3 years apart) but there must be something extra cool about being within two years I reckon. But I also reckon it means the parents have their hands full for a while! Hope you’re doing well.

  8. Oh boy! I just lost what I wrote! Try again. I loved breastfeeding. Loved the closeness and cuddlesomeness (new word!). It had my babies in ’75 and ’78. My husband bought me “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” (La Leche League). I checked and it is still available in the umpteenth edition in paperback from Amazon. If you’re going to be someone who leaks when you so much as think about baby, make some towelling rounds to put in your bra, so you don’t mess up your dress. My first was weaned at about 10 months (I was teaching). My second hung on for dear life until 15 months. I tried to wean him at 14 months but he’d have none of that, so I thought “Why fight it?” I was still producing plenty. Then at 15 months he weaned himself and went straight to a cup. Never had a bottle. Breastfeeding is very convenient; you never have to sterilize or find a place where you can warm the milk and you don’t have to worry about BPA in bottles (Although I hear they are going to ban these in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012 or so). I think you’ll enjoy it and you’ll do just fine. If more mothers fed in public there wouldn’t be such a mystery about it. God designed us to feed. It’s the best food a baby can get and will provide the necessary antibodies for him/her to fight any diseases. Have fun!

    • Hi Alida, Gosh, I think last time you commented I must have assumed you were my friend from California Alida (the only other Alida I have ever met) and probably left some totally confusing and overly chatty reply. But when I got to the part about you having babies I did a double take. Thanks for sharing, it’s encouraging to hear some of the good stories, just as it’s enlightening to hear about some of the difficulties!

  9. I knew that breastfeeding was much harder than it seemed. My own mother couldn’t breastfeed us kids and she is so cheap that if she had to pay for formula…? My goodness, it must be nearly impossible! But I decided to give it a try. Thank God for Lactation Consultants!
    My son latched TOO well. And wanted to nurse like 12 hours out of 24. And it hurt! BAD. And my mom watched and as I was crying and pounding my foot on the floor in agony as he happily suckled away, she quietly said, “See, this is about when I stopped.” Again, I say, thank God for Lactation Consultants. Have one on speed dial (you are delivering in Australia, right?) and don’t be afraid to go in and make them watch you even after you go home from the hospital.
    My problem? First, I, like your husbands favorite cow, favored one side because it hurt less. Consequently, I never had the volume needed from the other side. Second, because I had to have antibiotics after delivery, I developed a yeast infection in that one bad side. Sadly enough, the Nurse Practitioner thought it was mastitis and gave me antibiotics, which of course, made it worse. Again, it was the Lactation Consultant that saved me. She identified the yeast infection and got me on the right treatment, which improved very, very slowly. It wasn’t until my son was over 3 months old that I was able to nurse without pain.
    That said, my son was never sick, which I contribute 100% to the fact that he got my immunity via the breast milk (this was during the H1N1 scare).
    Another thing I didn’t anticpate about breast feeding was how much time it took. I, for one, was never good at juggling books while nursing. The Kindle was better once I got that…
    As soon as you can, figure out how to do the side lying position. That is absolutely the best for night time feedings. Then you can get a bit of a snooze while the baby is feeding. Just put down a little waterproof pad in case he spits up…
    Best of luck! Once you figure it all out it seems ridiculous that it was as hard as it was!

    • My lovely sister and brother in law bought me a kindle for Christmas precisely for this purpose. Well, actually, they didn’t know I was pregnant when they bought it but it will come in handy during feeding, I’m sure. Thanks for sharing your stories. There seems to be such a range with breastfeeding experiences, but we don’t often hear people talking openly about real challenges – or, at least, I hadn’t until recently. Hope you’re well!

      • I don’t mean to scare you or detract from the experience, but your friend is right. Here in the Western culture, most of our mothers were encouraged to bottle feed, and the art of breastfeeding, which used to be passed down from mother to daughter and so on, has been largely lost.

        I just meant to encourage you to keep going if the going does get rough. Most problems can be worked out. And maybe you’ll be one of those lucky ones who just figures it all out immediately! 😉 And maybe the Laotian women will say, “Hey honey, do it this way…”

        Looking forward to hearing about your experiences!

  10. You’re such a great writer! This had me laughing!

  11. hiya!!! can’t wait to hear the news! 🙂 as for the breastfeeding, after the initial days of stressing over it, just try to relax. i know that sounds hard because it IS but it does make it easier. and being somewhere where you don’t have to be as modest will make it easier on you….. all the things posters said are so true….. i let down wicked fast and totally drown my boys. T had no issues and learned to eat in 5 min, literally, from 2 mos on. that ROCKED! no hours of feeding in the middle of the night. little Will coudln’t handle the deluge and just sputtered and cried for the first few months of my showering him with milk. but alas, being relaxed the second time around and being too cheap for formula, he figured it out. the breastpads are 100% key tho. they keep you from getting chapped and raw and embarassing leak stains; as i always let down on both sides so while one side was feeding the other side was soaking my bra. i will send you some if you need them out there! the other comment about giving your babe the best opportunity to sleep is so true! you know we were sleep tyrants with T and it worked! tried with Will and he’s just a lighter sleeper. the rules have paid off finally and we get our grown up time and some better naps, but he was v unpredictable for months….. and they DO change their m.o. every 1-2 months, so when you think you can rely on something, you can’t! 🙂
    and huggies wipes are way better and thicker at wiping poo than other brands, dunno if you will have that option out there! 🙂 and you will be most sleep-deprived whacko tired at 6-8wks post delivery, not immediately after (still hormonally high in a good way) or later (3-6 mos, you’ve got it figured out). 6-8 wk mark is the time when you think you will toss the baby with the bath water and just never answer hubby again….. so scream uncle and have Mike help you the most (and other family if you’re in Aus) at that time. that’s when you’ll need it! 🙂 hugs hugs hugs! 🙂

    • Very interesting – particularly the 6-8 weeks and the breast pads. I don’t know if we can get them here in Laos but I’m sure I can pick up a supply in Australia while I’m there. I also think the benefits of fast let down outweigh the disadvantages from what I’ve heard (not that I’ll have all that much choice in the matter). Fast feeding seems to beat hanging out for 45 minutes every couple of hours. BTW, the news on gender’s up on the blog today. Looks like some of those little leftover clothes will come in handy :)!!!

    • I just came back to read some more comments (love this thread!) and I completely agree with the 6-8 week thing. I’ve also heard that’s when the baby’s fussiness tends to peak.

      • Well, if all goes according to plan then Mike will miss that stage (lucky bugger) as he’ll be back in Laos for the month of September, returning in early October to pick up little Mango and me. It’s my poor parents who’ll get us both ratty and over-tired right at the end of my four month stay. Lucky them. I hope my Mum isn’t reading all these comments 🙂

  12. Gosh- so much advice. I just wanted to say hope your Thai scan experience was good. Mine was very thorough – which was both good and bad as they got a little stressed out of perspective at some stuff. Josh wasn’t with me so am glad Mike is with you. Pleased to have done it though.
    Even though this is number 2 I am worried i have forgotten how we managed with Sam. Hoping it all comes back. I would just second the take advantage of Aus whilst there approach… I had huge issues producing sufficient milk – and really didn’t want to use formula – so spent a lot of time at the lactation clinic attached to the hospital borrowing electric pumps, getting advice and stuff to get things flowing more. The first 6-8 weeks really are the roughest… things do settle down after this we found. Which is good – as we were in Cambodia by 10 weeks (planning only 4-6 weeks this time) and then busy with house hunting, settling in etc.

    • Interesting about the 6-8 weeks thing. If the baby comes approx on time I’ll be in Australia 8 weeks from birth, if it’s late, less. So good to know 6-8 weeks can be a rough time. Yeah, I would imagine everything gets a tad more complicated with planning when you already have one little one in the mix as well.

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  14. Hey Lisa, I’m a friend of Mike’s from way back in Atlanta. You had me laughing out loud! I had my second little one last July, and like some others have had no real problems nursing either one. Little man is 8.5 months old now, and about a month or so ago, nursing started to hurt something fierce. After a stressful, emotional day where I couldn’t take the pain anymore, the lactation consultant (on the phone no less) made me feel SO much better! She often gets calls from women with babies that age because the babies are now rather distracted when eating, turning their heads, etc, and can pull your nipple “across the room” so to speak. Sometimes they can cause little tiny tears in the skin, which hurt like big gaping wounds….pain lasted a few days, then better. It’s back now, but I know it shouldn’t last too long. Get yourself some 1% hydrocortisone ointment (NOT cream) – it heals tears, cracks, etc, is safe for the baby, and works better than lanolin (which doesn’t actually heal – just prevents trauma). Actually my firstborn didn’t like the lanolin (feel? taste?) and wouldn’t nurse when I used it. No such issues with the ointment.

    I wish I had read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child before my first was born. Sleep is so much more important than we sometimes give it credit for – just as important in a baby/child’s development as eating is. He gives very helpful, insightful – and medically supported – advice on sleeping (and feeding) your baby. Good stuff.

    Blessings to you two on this adventure!

    • Thanks Katie, I had no idea I would learn so much as the result of comments on this post from people the world over. How fun is that?? I passed along a hello from you to Mike and he smiled. He loved his time in Atlanta.

  15. Lisa – what a fun post!

    One thing I learned early on was to pump my milk in between feedings and refrigerate the milk. Then my hubby would get up for the 3:oo am feeding, warm up the “mommy” milk in a bottle and feed the baby while I tried to capture those illusive moments of sleep. She adapted well to the bottle (she was hungry, but still tired enough to not be picky about how she was fed), but always prefered the “natural” method.

    I once sat down on a couch in the middle of Sam’s Warehouse and nursed my little munchkin – was hilarious to watch people’s faces when they would realize what was taking place in front of them! She was hungry, I had the “food”, the couch was there, so…why not!

    You will do fine – and any help from LeLeche is wonderful – they really do know how to help a new mom work through all the issues associated with getting a newborn to nurse, and help a frantic mom settle down! 🙂

    • Hi Margie, lovely to hear from you. Yeah, good idea about the pumping. I may take that idea up for the early morning feeds. I figure I might do middle of the night but I’m sort of hoping that my early bird husband will take shift anytime from 5:30am to 7ish.

  16. Pingback: Breastfeeding lessons from cows, take two | Wandering. Wondering. Writing.

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