You can do a surprising number of things while breastfeeding. You can work- I racked up hundreds of hours as a postnatal counsellor while feeding my own baby, either sitting on the phone at home, or at baby groups in the Children’s Centre. You can study- I qualified as a personal trainer, a counsellor, and an infant masseuse, all while holding a baby. You can exercise, go to the toilet and cook when required. You can even play the piano. However, for just about every reason- health and safety, ergonomics, volume- you cannot play the electric guitar while breastfeeding a baby.
Here was a fairly fundamental stumbling block which I hadn’t considered- when would I have time to practice? Scheduling in a weekly one-hour lesson was hard enough, finding time to practice in between was going to be a huge challenge. There is no shortcut to musical prowess. Talent counts for something, and practising effectively, rather than just playing the fun and easy bits, is important, but putting in the hours is key.
I practice when I can, carving minutes into the day here and there. I eschew the accurate tuning with which you are supposed to start a practice session, so I can get playing as quickly as possible. I set up my breastfeeding area right next to the guitar and amp, with my laptop at hand so I can study the tabs and learn the notes off by heart, so that as soon as the baby is finished I can put her in her Fisher Price bouncy chair for a few minutes and plug in, without the constraints of reading the music.
I practice while the baby was in her Jumperoo bouncer- once she’s strapped into it I can have a five-minute window of her rocking happily before she gets bored. Its tinny calypso tune accompanies my Megadeth riffing, but no matter. And as long as I’m smiling at her and making eye contact, I can still tell myself that I am parenting even though I am also playing a song called ‘Mandatory Suicide’.
And there is always more time to be gleaned from the day. Four hours a week, split into two two-hour sessions, I volunteer on the National Breastfeeding Helpline as a trained breastfeeding counsellor. This involves waiting for the phone to ring and then helping callers with anything from sore nipples to postnatal depression. Some sessions involve back-to-back long and emotional calls, while others you can sit back and get lots of other things done in between callers. I’m far less diligent than some of the other ladies on the team, but I do my four hours a week and feel good about it. However now I have other things on my mind; I decided that these sessions would become the perfect opportunity to practice the guitar in between calls. Previously I would set myself up for the counselling session in my home office, baby sent out for a walk with a babysitter, phone, laptop, notebook, useful phone numbers and medical textbooks at the ready. Now I set all this up on the floor in the basement, next to the Peavey and with my trusty Ibanez all tuned, plugged in and strapped on.
When the phone goes you only have four rings before it hits the helpline’s answer machine, and while this may not be disastrous for the majority of callers who just want to chat about a breastfeeding issue, it could be a matter of crisis or not for the odd caller who was really in a desperate situation. So we are morally obliged to answer, and as soon as the phone rang now there is a farcical dash- first I have to actually hear the phone over the racket I’m making, then I have to get to the amp, switch it off, and quickly turn my frame of mind from axe-wielding metal goddess to caring, empathetic health professional. There’s not enough time to unwind myself from the guitar so the Ibanez remains on my lap throughout the call.
It’s very difficult to put yourself into some tearful new mother’s head space when you’re annoyed with her because she interrupted your rather excellent rendition of Dissident Aggressor (Slayer version). It’s also difficult to sound convincing when your guitar is still feeding back on your lap because you haven’t switched it off properly. And it’s difficult to talk expertly on the finer points of which antibiotics are compatible with lactation when you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor with a guitar strapped around you.
I have found myself signing up for the graveyard helpline slots, when I know there will be fewer calls coming through. I find myself mentally swearing at the caller when the phone rings, and daring myself to let it go to the answer machine. That’s when I realize that my proficiency on the guitar, as well as being inversely proportional to my parenting standards, is also inversely proportional to my dedication as a counsellor.