The Truth About Motherhood: Leni White-Knight, writer

“I’d love to tell you how wonderful it was to take home this tiny new human and nurture it through ‘the most natural thing in the world’, but breastfeeding for us was a bit of a disaster.” Leni White-Knight on a difficult start to motherhood…

Leni White-Knight, 37, lives with her husband Rob and their four-year-old son Albie in Milton Keynes.

“I always planned on having a family, although I had it mapped out in a less than realistic way and probably would’ve kept putting it off forever, had biology not intervened.

Ours was a very short, very complicated journey. We’d only been together about 18 months but had known each other since we were teenagers and got engaged fairly quickly. I was 30 and wanted to reassure myself that we still had another decade of fertility left, so I took a blood test that could indicate how many eggs I had left from a hormone called AMH. From this I found out that my levels were so low, I was basically infertile.

We had to decide very quickly to commence with IVF because we were told if we didn’t there’d be no possibility of having children at all. My hormone profile disqualified us from NHS treatment so we had to go private. I didn’t respond to the drugs in the first round, but in the second they harvested just five eggs (normally you’d expect to get closer to 15). Unfortunately, someone made a cock-up (excuse the pun) in the lab and only one fertilised but that one little embryo is now a wonderful, four-year-old bringer of chaos.

I tend to spend hours researching things online (and I know I’m definitely not alone in that), and birth was no different. I have to say the NHS classes we went to were woefully misinforming considering they were run by midwives – we had to pass around a boob made of wool to demonstrate expressing milk, which was embarrassingly ridiculous.

As much as I’d struggled with breastfeeding, giving it up was heartbreaking

They also told us that raspberry leaf tea – which has no decent research to back up the claims that it ripens the cervix – would bring on labour. Instead of all this focus on the birth itself, I do wish I’d had better support with what was to come after the birth.

My labour started at about 9.30am but didn’t really get going until about 6pm, by which time Albie was back-to-back and I was feeling the need to push far too early. After attempting a warm bath at the advice of the midwives on the phone and realising that just wasn’t going to be an option, we got a lift to the hospital.

The birthing centre was reluctant to let me come in until I was in active labour but it was quiet that evening so they put me in a small spare room and gave me a shot of diamorphine to help alleviate some of the agony of him pressing on my spine (normally gas and air is all that’s allowed before they ship you off to the ward upstairs).

Albie wanted to be held all the time so we both took turns having him in a stretchy wrap

I slept through the next four hours and awoke fully dilated just in time to get into the pool and push him out. It may sound silly but I quite enjoyed that part – my body just did its job and he was out in 30 minutes. I remember him popping out and he was all slippery on the bottom of the pool so the midwives had to help me get hold of him.

Pushing the placenta out hurt more than pushing him out had done because the adrenaline had gone and I just wanted to hold my new baby and relax! It was all very surreal and I had moment of being completely dissociated and watching this happening to myself from above.

Then here was this tiny pink person with skinny little legs and fuzzy blonde hair that had been in my belly but was now outside and much harder to protect.

I’d love to tell you how wonderful it was to take home this tiny new human and nurture him through ‘the most natural thing in the world’, but breastfeeding for us was a bit of a disaster. Albie wouldn’t latch at all, and we only found out almost a year later that he had a lip tie. He would only suck at all with nipple shields, which made it a complete faff to get him on and then he would feed for two hours straight because it was so slow.

Most of my memories of the early days are of being manhandled by insensitive health visitors who were convinced I was just being dramatic and feeling utterly inadequate as a mother. We weren’t able to leave the house because I couldn’t bear the idea of trying to get him on the boob in public and my supply began drying up fairly quickly, despite me pumping constantly when he wasn’t feeding. I had one of those bra tops that hold the pump on to your boobs and I wore that as often as I could but it was a losing battle.

We lived on the first floor with no lift and I couldn’t carry him down the stairs alone in the pram, plus the caretaker refused to allow us to keep the pram downstairs in the hall. It meant either leaving him alone upstairs whilst I brought everything else down or waiting until Rob was home. I spent days cooped up inside, feeling suicidal at times.

Albie wanted to be held all the time so we both took turns having him in a stretchy wrap, which was a life saver – hands down the most essential thing we bought. After six weeks, he finally managed to suck without the nipple shields but it was agonising for me and we’d had to supplement with formula because he lost so much weight in the first couple of weeks so supply was still low.

I kept trying until he was four months old and then finally had to admit defeat when he stopped being interested in feeding from me and pumping wasn’t yielding milk anymore. As much as I’d struggled with breastfeeding, giving it up was heartbreaking.

Motherhood is like wearing the most beautiful necklace that grows more intricate, yet heavier every day, but that you wouldn’t take off for anything.

Albie woke every two hours for milk until he was about eight months old and that was also when I went back to work and began to regain a sense of self, starting part time and then compressing full time into four days. I work for a large global organisation and luckily I’m able to have flexible hours and a lot of autonomy, which makes things much easier.

It was tough to leave Albie for the first time, but we had a friend of mine come and look after him at our home as his nanny. I don’t think I could’ve left him in a nursery when he was that little (not that I’m judging other parents who do) so that extra level of trust really helped and I got back into the swing of working fairly quickly.

Having Albie was very tough on our relationship – had we not found out I was infertile we probably wouldn’t have felt ready to have a child for several years. We’d had a rough ride up to then with losing our first home together in the London riots and we barely had time to process that and get through the pressure of the IVF before Albie was born. Rob was working nights and he only had three days off before I did my first night alone. It was a strain on our relationship and there have been times when we both felt alone in our own experiences.

What has surprised me about parenthood is that I’m the pushover parent. My mother was a head teacher and I had a very strict routine growing up, but I’m quite the reverse and I actually wish I could enforce more of a routine on the days I don’t work. Both Albie and I have a tendency to get emotionally overwrought, so having some structure works much better for us. Unfortunately, I’m not so great at self-discipline and I tend to procrastinate!

If I could go back in time, I would change breastfeeding. If he’d not had a lip tie, we would’ve bonded sooner and nighttime would’ve been easier without 3am bottle sterilisation. Although I did see a guy breaking into a garage when I was pacing on a night feed and managed to get the police there in time to catch him, which was pretty satisfying.

Before embarking on parenthood, I wish I’d been told that I would feel like melting down just as often as my child does… and that ‘me time’ really would be life or death sometimes.

You can ignore most of the advice people give you (except this next gem, of course!), just don’t beat yourself up if your baby won’t latch, doesn’t sleep or still has a dummy aged three. Also bear in mind that some grandparents will have outdated ideas about newborns, and may try to swaddle your newborn in woolly layers in the middle of a hot summer. It’s your baby and you get to call the shots, don’t be guilt-tripped into doing anything you don’t want to do, just try and acknowledge the little moments of joy knowing you’re doing the best you can.

It’s all too easy to torture yourself thinking about how your choices will affect your child in later life, and my biggest challenge has always been my self-judgment. I’ve had various mental health issues my whole life, and only now am I getting to the crux of the causes and understanding and accepting what that means for me as a person and as a parent.

I don’t think parenthood will ever be easy for me for many reasons, not least because I was diagnosed with autism earlier this year, but seeing his personality growing so fast now is an amazing experience. We may not be the picture of a perfect mother and son relationship but we love each other intensely and we’re very alike so we have a shared experience of the world.

We’re not having any more children – both because of my fertility issues and because I honestly cannot imagine being able to love another child the way I love Albie – the desire just isn’t there.

Having a child when you know they may inherit your condition is a difficult decision, and I know in future I may have to deal with the reality of that, so I’m trying to get to a place of contentment with being in my own skin. If I can do that, I can set an example for Albie as he grows up.

What makes it all worthwhile?

The laughter. Hands down. Let me share a few gems from just the last couple of weeks:

“Mummy, I’ve made a ghost vehicle. A ghost vehicle that transforms into a poo!”

“Mummy, which turtle do you like best, Leon-Dando or My-Cat-Angelo?”

“I’m going to ruin the world. I’m going to ruin the world with all my natures. Cos I got robots!”

Albie farts audibly. We all look at each other and Rob says: “Is that someone knocking at the door?” So Albie says: “There’s someone knocking at the door IN MY PANTS!”

When you become a parent you realise farts really are funny…”