Before my daughter was born, I knew I wanted to breastfeed her for about a year, but I also knew I would have to return to work when she was just two months old. I wasn’t sure how it would be possible. To add to my difficulties, I worked for three to four days a week at a sample factory in mainland China.
The journey to get there from my home takes three hours, which is too long to do as a commute in one day, so I always stayed overnight. I soon realised that if I wanted to breastfeed, I would have to take my baby with me. But this seemed to pose even more problems. How to do a three-hour journey by metro, train and car? Could she stay with me in my office? Was my rather basic company accommodation suitable for a baby? Who would help look after her while I was busy doing my work?
I discussed my plans with my colleagues and although they were a bit surprised, they soon realised that it was the only way I could continue in my job. I was very relieved when they promised to support me.
Before I left for maternity leave, I started to make preparations. I bought some baby essentials for my apartment in China, I had some blinds and a comfortable chair put in my office so I could breastfeed without interruptions, and I made sure I had a sling and a car seat for travel.
What I still hadn’t sorted out was a carer to look after my daughter while I worked. I asked my Chinese colleagues for help because I didn’t know where to begin but, by the time my maternity leave started, I still hadn’t found anyone.
My daughter, Nina, arrived on her due date and, with the knowledge I had gained from La Leche League meetings, we soon got into the swing of breastfeeding. Those early weeks were tough but special; my husband took a month off work and together we learnt how to be a family. There was just one thing that was always worrying me: how would we cope when I returned to work? The dreaded date loomed closer and closer.
My first trip to China with Nina was when she was eight weeks old. There was still nobody to take care of her while I worked and I didn’t really know what I would do; I just turned up at the office and hoped for the best. That first week I didn’t get much work done, although my colleagues were more than happy to take Nina off my hands for a while. I realised how difficult it can be just to accomplish simple tasks with a small baby, and I felt torn between my work responsibilities and the needs of my daughter. The evenings alone in my apartment were really difficult too.
Then one of my co-workers hit on an idea. Our driver’s wife, A Xia, had recently given birth to a baby girl called Xuan Xuan - maybe she could look after Nina too. We asked her, and she agreed she would try. I converted one of the rooms at work into a nursery so Nina was always close at hand even if I couldn’t be with her every moment of the day. A Xia was also breastfeeding so she understood Nina’s feeding cues and would call me whenever Nina needed me. The only difficulties arose when I had client meetings and had to take a break to be with Nina. I was always honest and just told them from the start that I would need to leave the meeting for a short while to attend to my daughter. Thankfully, they were all very understanding. My colleagues were also great at covering for me while I was away. Luckily, Nina was always a fast feeder, so I could be back at my desk within 20 minutes.
Nina and Xuan Xuan fell into the same routine, and often, as I placed her sleepily into her cot, I would look up to see Xuan Xuan nursing to sleep on the sofa. As they got older they became great friends and played together in the garden or went to the park. Even when Nina stopped nursing during the day, I would still take her to the office with me so she could play and I could spend my lunch hour with her. Xuan Xuan’s dad and grandma also often helped out with looking after them both. It was lovely to see her fitting in so well with a family from a different culture.
I have breastfed Nina now for two and a half years, an achievement I don’t think I could have made without keeping her close to me every day. I have also since noticed a few of my Chinese colleagues bringing their babies into the office at lunchtime to nurse them. I would like to think that my experience has helped to change the culture of the company so that mothers can more easily combine work and childcare.
Close to the Heart Vol. 15, No. 2 (Mid-Year 2014)
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