The first rule of Motherhood is: Survive.

Looking back, I never thought the moments that would change my life forever, would occur in the toilet. But five years on, and two kids later, it all makes sense now. Because, as a mum, those two pink lines that appeared on those fateful pregnancy test sticks represented all the hope and love in my heart, but ultimately and undeniably, were soaked in urine. Which is rather apt considering that I’ve lost track of the number of dirty nappies, vomit-covered sheets and urine-soaked undies, I’ve changed, yet never lost sight of how much I love my two kids.

So toilets are kind of key to my experience of being a mum. And in my case, my two ‘special’ dunnies were international. Yes, both of my pregnancies were confirmed outside of New Zealand, the first being on a flash toilet in Canberra in 2009 and the second being on an even flasher toilet in Hawai’i in 2013. In both instances, I remember briefly considering keeping my positive pee-stick tests as souvenirs and then thinking twice as I envisaged a New Zealand Customs beagle sniffing out the offending articles at Auckland Airport. So both sticks went in the bin – but at least I’ve got the children to show for them!

Now while some people might think that talking about the loo is a rude way to frame a discussion about motherhood, from my perspective, there’s no better place to start. Because motherhood isn’t romantic and for the most part it’s completely different to what one imagines it ‘might’ be like. And I’m not just talking about the 24 hour spew-bugs and the “I hate you mummy, I don’t love you” tantrums or the precious moments that are so poignant, so heart-breaking that no amount of spew or poo or any other spurious smelling liquid will ever stop you from loving that child. No I’m not just talking about those moments. I’m talking about the way in which your life morphs into something you could never imagine possible.

I’m talking about days like yesterday, when I got up at 3am in the morning to feed my ten-month old baby then jumped in the shower, got changed, packed my breast-pump, caught a 6am flight to Wellington, attended a 10am meeting, grabbed lunch, ducked into a private room to ‘pump’ baby’s milk, then caught a 3pm flight home to Auckland, all in time for dinner at 5pm, baby’s 6pm feed and both kids 7pm bedtime. Yes this is my life. And all in the midst of kindergarten runs, projectile vomiting, plunket visits, suspected-rotavirus, playdates, first words, grocery shopping, tantrums, twitter rants and juggling family commitments with a husband who works a two-two-two roster – that is two day shifts, two lates, two nights and then four days off – in other words: a-roster-that-encourages-divorce (although that ain’t gonna happen!)

Now I might sound like a super-mum – and some days I do think about going out and buying a cape from the $2 shop (just for fun) – but in truth, motherhood has turned me into a survivor. It’s rather frightening to think about the number of people who have looked at me, leant over and knowingly said ‘sleep deprivation is a form of torture, you know’ nodding their heads sincerely, as though somehow comparing what I’m going through with horrific acts conducted along enemy-lines is going to make me feel better? Um, sorry, but no. Yes I do have bags under my eyes and yes I am accompanied by two under-fives but the sleep deprivation is actually manageable. I mean, that’s not to say it’s easy to deal with, but the truth is, for me the tough part has been breast-feeding.

So here in Aotearoa / New Zealand we are all about “Breast is Best”. Well at least in the last twenty or so years we have been, for as my mother reminds me, in the 1980s formula was the way to go – and I was a formula baby. But, as I say to my mum, times have changed. The research tells us that breastfeeding a baby from birth through to at least twelve months is the best option for their development. Yes, the Ministry of Health’s Public Relations campaign is paying dividends with a whole generation of us – me included – who believe wholeheartedly that breastfeeding a baby is the best way to go. So much so that some of us, put our own wellbeing and mental health to one side in order to make sure we adhere to breast is best. So here it comes, here’s my war story. Well actually ‘stories’ because I’ve been through it twice.

With my daughter (aka baby number one) I was determined to breastfeed. But, for some reason, despite me having LOTS of milk, she kept losing weight even after four weeks of me doing everything by the book. And so I took her to Plunket and a friendly lactation consultant suggested I try using a breast-pump and give her ‘top up’ expressed milk (that I had pumped) after each feed. Well, this seemed to work and my daughter started to gain weight. But very soon I found myself in a vicious cycle where I was sacrificing an hour of my own precious sleep time in-between my daughters sleeps to pump my milk, sterilize the bottles, clean them and prepare for the next time I had to pump (in three hours). So in the end I was only getting an average of four hours sleep a day. So while my baby was thriving, I was struggling to function. After five months, surprise, surprise, my GP diagnosed me with post-natal depression and suggested I stop expressing and put my daughter on formula. Which I did – to save my marriage, as well as my mental health. As it turned out, the decision was a marriage-saver. Baby was happier, I was more rested and my husband was relieved. We somehow made it through the breastfeeding warzone and after a while life eventually started to settle into a happier routine.

So given all of this, you’d think four years later when I had my son I would have just put him straight on formula? Ah no. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This time round I was determined to find a way to do it the ‘natural’ way – that is, without the pump. And the first few days were great. My son latched on easily and seemed to be gaining weight and was really happy EXCEPT my poor boobs looked and felt like they had gone through World War Three. My nipples were absolutely destroyed – bloody, cracked and painful. The midwife told me that it must be a problem with the way baby was latching, but she couldn’t pinpoint the problem with his positioning.

And then the Plunket lactation consultant said it was because I had bifurcated nipples. ‘Bi-fur…what?’, I said. “Well, it means, your nipples have dimples in them” she said very matter-of-factly. Oh no, I groaned to myself, how was I supposed to explain to my family that the reason I was having problems feeding my baby was because my nipples were a funny shape? Cripes. And so I dusted off the breast-pump. But this time, instead of just heading straight into The-Land-Of-The-Pump at full-speed, I decided to use the machine strategically. I alternated baby’s feeds between my funny-shaped nipple/breasts and then used the pump only when it was so painful that I couldn’t handle it. I tried different positions, even pretended I was an acrobat at one stage, getting on all fours and lowering my breast straight into baby’s mouth and then holding it there, hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much. I’d count as I lowered my boob in, and my gorgeous little boy would look up at me with his mouth gaping open just waiting for his feed. After taking a deep breath, I’d quickly scoop the boob into his mouth, wait for him to latch, move through searing pain and then it would all be ok as the milk started to flow. Phew, I’d think each time, I did it, I made it through. And every time my midwife or the lactation came to visit, they would look at me in surprise when I said I was still breastfeeding him. I guess they’d just assumed I would have given up when the going got tough.

For weeks I persevered, barely left the house, didn’t take my four year old to preschool (put her in front of the TV) just so I could breast-feed my baby. And then one day, it all just fell into place. I decided to put the pump away and to my surprise (and probably his) everything worked. I was breastfeeding without pain – and I still am. But oh boy did that experience change me. For no one, not my husband, not my mum, not the midwife or lactation consultant – no one could understand the significance of getting to that point, except me. And it was then that I truly felt like I’d earned my place as a survivor, a mum who could have easily given up but who chose to persevere through physical and mental obstacles just to breastfeed my baby. So yes, I do believe that Breast is Best but I also think mums could do with a heck of a lot more support – for a start, all mums need to be able to access a lactation consultant easily and affordably (which currently isn’t the case – e.g. the LC at Birthcare charges about $50 for 30 minutes of her time and the LC at Plunket is booked weeks in advance)

Ten months on, things aren’t as dramatic as those first few weeks but they’re still a challenge. There are some days when all I want to do is cry because I feel utterly exhausted, useless and anxious. Every day throws up unexpected curve balls and most days I feel like I drop at least one of them. But every time I feel that way, it’s my kids who remind me that it’s ok to make mistakes. Whether it’s through the beauty of watching my daughter learn to read and write, or the fun of observing my son take his first wobbly steps. They’ve taught me that the journey is more important than the starting point, even if it is a toilet, and that unconditional love is real.