Following the trending conversation on breastfeeding earlier this month, I made a call for African women to share their experiences breastfeeding for an article. Cynthia* was one of the women that reached out to me, she told me her baby rejected breast milk and was sick at birth so I asked more questions. Here’s what she told me.
I met Osaze* in 2015 at the construction firm in Abuja where I worked as an accountant. We dated off and on until 2018 when we became serious. I introduced him to my parents, and he introduced me to his. Soon after, he proposed, and we started planning a wedding for late 2019. I wanted to take things slow, so when we found out I was pregnant in June 2019, I called off the wedding. I didn’t want to be pressured into it. In the end, I was grateful I did.
The first slap came when I was four months pregnant. We had gone to visit a relative of mine, and when we got home, he started shouting at me, saying my relatives were rude to him. I said, “No” and was trying to have a conversation about why he would think that when he slapped me. I left the room and refused to talk to him for the rest of the day. In the night, I told him I couldn’t be in a relationship with him anymore, and I wanted to get an abortion. He started begging me. I agreed to stay on the condition that he would never hit me again. We continued our relationship as usual after that incident.
When our daughter, Hope*, was born, the doctor diagnosed her with hydrocephalus — her head was slightly bigger than that of a newborn baby. I moved in with him so we could manage our baby’s health together. At two weeks old, she had a shunt operation that allowed the water to flow from her head to her intestines. It worked — the size of her head reduced. We had to do a CT scan every two months to make sure the stunt was still draining the fluid from her head. The whole process cost us about a million naira.
From day one, my baby girl rejected breast milk. I tried to force her, but she would just refuse to swallow. I tried expressing the breast milk into a bottle for her to suck, but she didn’t like that as well. The only thing she liked was formula. She knew the difference between breast milk and formula in a bottle — she would spit out breast milk immediately. I kept trying until she was six months old and eventually gave up.
The worst part was that she wasn’t gaining weight even with all the food she was eating. She couldn’t sit or hold her head by herself, so the doctors suggested physical therapy. I don’t remember how much we spent trying to make sure she was okay.
Osaze blamed me for everything. He believed I was the cause of our daughter’s health issues. On some nights, I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I would stay up watching our baby. All he did was complain and blame me. When she was about six months old, he hacked into my Facebook account. He saw my chat with a guy I was talking to before we started dating. He also read my messages to my friend where I told her what I was going through with our daughter and my mental health. The next day was a Sunday. After church, I was setting up to bath our baby when he came into the bathroom and confronted me about my messages then asked me to leave his house. I didn’t argue with him because I knew what could happen. I went to the room and packed my stuff along with the baby’s stuff. He started dragging her with me. He told me I couldn’t go with her. I told him he couldn’t take care of her well. Before I finished my sentence, he slapped me. Blows followed — one after the other. I had to leave the baby with him. I ran to the police station close to our house.
The police wanted money before they made any moves, and when I told them it was a case of domestic violence, they said they couldn’t interfere in family issues. I ran to my pastor. He set up a meeting where he told us to apologise to each other and move on from the matter.
I didn’t want to wait for the third time Osaze would hit me, so I moved out of his house one day when he went to work. I stayed with my mum for a few days before getting my own apartment. He wasn’t surprised I left. He just asked to see the baby, and I never denied him of that. He was always welcome to see her at my house. Sometimes, I dropped her off at his place.
We started physiotherapy as the doctors recommended, but it was a slow process. She could only manage a strong grip, and she couldn’t even hold on to her bottle. Her head hurt sometimes, and she wouldn’t let anyone touch it.
She had such long, curly hair — the kind that any woman would want. I was grateful for little things like that, or when her diet transitioned into solid food and bread and tea was the only thing she liked to eat. I stopped working because she needed more attention. After weeks of physiotherapy, nothing really changed. We continued our routine visits to the hospital and tried to feed her more at home. About six months later, we went for another CT scan and found out that we needed to do another stunt operation on my daughter. Hope was a year and five months old at the time.
We started to raise money for the surgery, asking our families and friends to pitch in if they could. One morning, about two weeks before the surgery, I woke up by 7 a.m. to buy bread for her breakfast because I had forgotten the day before. I didn’t find it in any of my usual spots, so I walked around for a bit. When I found bread, I returned home to feed her, bathe her and coo her to sleep. Since the day was still young, I decided to clean the house and do our laundry. I had my bath when I was done and joined her in the room. On my way in, I banged the door by mistake, and I noticed she didn’t move, which was very unlike her — every sound makes her jump. I rushed to her side and the minute I saw her face, I knew she was gone. I called my neighbour to help me confirm, but he was too scared to touch her. I got dressed and carried her to my mum’s house on a bike. Her body was lifeless. I couldn’t tell my mum anything when I saw her. I just gave her Hope to hold, and she screamed. We called her dad later that evening to tell him. He rushed over immediately. He knew she was struggling to survive, so he didn’t fight it. He buried her himself that night.
I didn’t cry until a month after her death. My cousin invited me to Lagos. We got drunk, and I started crying. Everything hurts; I still can’t believe I lost my Hope. It’s been seven months since she died and I have been struggling with my spiritual life — I don’t pray anymore. I know I need help, but nothing makes sense.