[originally written in August, a couple of months after having my kid]
Where have I been?
I had a kid! Having a kid was a plan. My husband and I wanted to have a child, but it took a while and medical help to make it happen. So, here we are with our now 9-week old. He is an ongoing mystery to us. He keeps us guessing from day-to-day. I’d say the first month was the biggest challenge in adjusting to his demanding nature. Things you hear from other parents: “This is all normal,” “It’ll get better,” “Stay off the Internet,” “Being tired is your new normal.”
Before he was born, I was imagining life down the road. Being a toddler, his head able to hold up on its own, pointing, yelling a few words at a time, and just a joy. I had completely and maybe conveniently, but maybe subconsciously, omitted the reality that is waking several times during the night, breastfeeding difficulties, body aches and pains I never thought I’d ever feel until I was in retirement, and mood swings I could not control, even with years of therapy. I did not anticipate a medical complication days after being discharged, feeling resentful, how bonding took some time to fully build, and wondering if this had all been a huge mistake.
To those without children, this might all sound really horrible. Why would you think having a kid is a mistake when you wanted one and worked so hard to have one? To those with children, I’m thinking you all get how we see down the road and hope/dream for the reward of having a person in your life that is some reflection of you and your partner (biologically, or not); watching them grow and flourish and be a good human being. But these optimistic feelings do not cancel out sleep deprivation, a sudden loss of freedom, or grieving the life you had before having your child.
How’s it been?
This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my entire life. When things started to even out with the day-to-day it appeared my emotions had not. They talk about the baby blues and how it lasts about two weeks after birth. My blues continue to linger, and my existing anxiety and depression have been aggravated, taking on new worries and panicking moments. With just enough energy to function and keep my child alive and fed, and my marriage intact, I haven’t been able to go back to regular therapy sessions just yet, and every decision I make for my child, every worry I have, is done with a slight panic and a huge dose of self-judgement. But of all the challenges that have just hammered me into the ground, breastfeeding has been the biggest one of them all.
What does “best” mean?
Breastfeeding was our goal for how we wanted to feed our child, following the advice that “Breast was Best,” I knew I needed to be realistic if it wouldn’t work out. Our thought was “Fed is best.” I was ready to accept formula, if for some reason I couldn’t produce any milk. But breastfeeding was my preference because it’s been my hope that this route would keep my baby from developing atopic dermatitis, a chronic and irritating skin condition that I’ve had to manage my entire life. Feeding my baby breastmilk was one thing, but that action was detached from all the other things that go into getting that milk to him.
During our stay in the hospital, a lactation specialist came and helped us navigate the crazy world of breastfeeding. I think we used every pillow in the room to get into a good position. My body was producing that golden milk. When baby was asleep, she helped me figure out how to express the milk from me. She also showed us to use a syringe to suck up the milk from my breast if for some reason he couldn’t latch properly. I can hardly remember what all else went on in the hospital for the two nights we were there. He must have fed from me, but I remember using that syringe a lot to get milk from my breast. We ended up doing that at home and not pumping.
Two days after being discharged from the hospital we woke up for one of those 2:00 a.m. feeds. We were exhausted, blurry-eyed, and fumbling with pillows to get Milo into position for his meal. After feeding a few minutes on each side, I started to feel funny. I could hear my heartbeat in my head and it didn’t sound normal. I had a sharp headache and felt off. I started to shiver and eventually hyperventilate. We went to the ER. I was shaking pretty violently and was scared. They hooked me up to an IV and I calmed down. They tested my urine for protein (none) and performed a CAT scan. They called the OB Gyn on call and he let me know I had postpartum preeclampsia with hypertension (high blood pressure), and that they wanted me to stay overnight for observation.
The stay was grueling. I was bedridden for most of it, needing assistance to use the restroom, having my blood pressure taken every hour, and limited on how much water I could drink because of the magnesium sulfate they were pumping into me. The magnesium sulfate also made me really drowsy and sleepy. When I was there for a few hours, one of the nurses asked if I’d wanted to pump since I was away from my baby. I hadn’t even pumped at home yet, but I knew how to use the machine. I had let down that very day, and I was engorged, so pumping seemed a good idea. She said to do it every 2-3 hours. My mom was with me, so she helped me out with the machine and pump parts. We refrigerated what I expressed to give to baby later. At the same time, I needed rest to keep my blood pressure down. My husband took baby home and fed him formula.
For some reason, we were feeding him via syringe because we were afraid that if he used a bottle he’d refuse my breast, so like we did when he was born, we fed him with a syringe. Probably sounding completely ridiculous the nurse inserted her opinion and said “No. You need to use a bottle.” We were tired. We did that, and it made all of us much happier.
Recovering from my cesarean section surgery and postpartum preeclampsia, I was told to “take it easy and get rest.” This is easier said than done when you’ve just birthed a hungry little newborn. He was born three weeks early with a tiny mouth. And developmentally, because he was so early, the mechanics of nursing did not come easily for him. I had to help him out. He understood where his mouth needed to go, but staying on and getting a good latch was difficult. When he couldn’t figure it out he’d get frustrated, and I’d panic, resulting in mixed results. And it meant that he wasn’t getting food in a steady or efficient way. I don’t know how many pillows I’ve used to try and prop him up in a way that was comfortable and effective for us. I had neck pain that radiated down my back for days. At one point, I couldn’t turn my head from side-to-side, and that pain made me a not-so-nice person. Every time he got hungry I got anxious thinking about how to arrange the numerous pillows needed to make it comfortable to feed him and how it might or might not work. I had help sometimes, but how would I make this work when I didn’t have help and was on my own? Why was I so confused? I took the breastfeeding class and knew he’d need to feed a lot, but I don’t think it registered that it would be so incredibly demanding on me both physically and emotionally. I mean, when you feed, you’re basically trapped under your baby for most of the day. You wonder why some mothers don’t get to shower daily, this is probably the biggest reason why. Breastfeeding is a full-time job. I read somewhere that it’s like a 35-hr a week act.
So, we wanted to figure out what we could do to make this experience better. We consulted a lactation specialist when he was two weeks old. She had me try various positions for him to get the optimum amount of milk. She placed warmed towels on my breasts to encourage milk flow. She positioned him how he was supposed to be positioned and it was so awkward. Nothing felt completely comfortable and every funky position had me paranoid that I was going to cause another spasm in my neck. She suggested that we do mouth exercises, including sticking our fingers in his mouth massaging his gums, massaging his jaw, and pushing our finger down on his tongue. And she wanted us to do this before every feed. She wondered, though a little early to call, of he might be tongue tied, which means the skin that attaches the tongue to the bottom of your mouth was too long and preventing him from sticking his tongue out enough to suck well. Babies who are tongue tied sometimes get a frenotomy, where they snip that little piece of skin so that their tongue can move more and extract more milk from the breast. I know a bunch of babies who have had a frenotomy. It did eventually make it easier for them to feed. We checked with the pediatrician, and she felt this was not necessary, so we left it alone. Though the lactation consultant was actually very nice, encouraging, and doing her job, even gave us a hug before leaving, I was not feeling very good about how this was going to work. We were asked to come back in a week. I did not make that appointment.
We did try the exercises as much as we could and when he wasn’t screaming/crying for food. When my back and shoulders were sore, I’d pump and we’d bottle-feed him. My husband was able to bond and give me a break. I was worn out. We supplemented with formula. Baby did not have trouble with going from breast to bottle or from breast milk to formula. To me, nursing, bottle-feeding breast milk or formula was working. My OB and the pediatrician supported whatever worked for us. What mattered was that baby was thriving. This was reassuring to me in my mind, but not in my heart.
The amount of time spent nursing decreased as I found time to pump when help was available. After everything that happened, my parents visited frequently . I took advantage of the help and kept up with pumping. I felt comfortable seeing specific amounts being expressed and consumed by my baby. But I felt guilty about it. My mother spent time with me and I think watching me try to breastfeed made her anxious (I was fed formula). She’d ask “Do you think he’s getting enough? How do you know?” Or, sometimes she’d talk to my baby after he’d detach from me and and say “You didn’t get enough, did you, baby?” in a cute way. But to me, it stung like I was doing a bad job, which meant I was being a bad mother. At one point I snapped and said “Mom. I’m doing the best I can.” But I honestly didn’t know if he was getting enough, even though I knew he was able to get an ounce in 10-15 minutes. She just did not understand how we’d know how much he was getting, and we always ended up feeding him a bottle of formula afterward. So why breastfeed?
In time, I noticed that my milk supply began to decrease. I made efforts to try and squeeze in pumps regardless of how much came out to encourage milk production. On my best days I’d express 2 ounces (60 ml) in a day. And that amount just decreased over time. This depressed me. Every day that passed I felt horrible that I was not able to produce enough milk. That I wasn’t nursing like I should. It was always a struggle to find a position that worked. I struggled with reading his cues on time and him crying by the time he got to my breast, making it difficult for him to latch. It was frustrating and discouraging most of the time for the both of us, it seems. After a long weekend at my parents house, pumping as much as I could, I literally only expressed half of an ounce. I felt that depressed feeling wash over me once again. The words “This is not working” became to “This will not work.”
What’s been working
At this point, my baby is now solely formula fed. Trying to feel good about this, feeling confident that I did my best, has been a huge struggle. Even with every friend’s assurance that I am still a good mother regardless of how I feed him, I have not been able to internalize that as true. And though supportive and well-meaning, this has come from mothers who were able to breastfeed longer than I did and are expressing a steady and healthy amount of milk. I basically feel that I’ve let my child down. I’ve also felt that I’ve let my husband down for not feeding our child in a way that we’ve been told over and over again is the best way to feed our child (he does not feel this way, by the way). And despite knowing mothers who chose or had to feed their babies formula for whatever reason and knowing their children are healthy and happy, the judgement I imagined I felt/feel from other mothers which are not substantiated, and my own self-judgement, continues to linger.
But one mother’s story specifically helped me see my journey as totally okay. She told me that in the first few weeks of her child’s life she was so focused on trying to breastfeed that she felt she didn’t fully enjoy her child. The cycle of nurse, pump, bottle feed, wash pump parts and bottles, repeat, was exhausting. She accompanied these words with a picture of her healthy and happy baby with a bottle in his mouth and said “Here’s my little formula fed baby!” This was a story I felt I could relate to and feel good about. Because one of the things that my husband and I felt, it was that baby could read our emotions. And if I wasn’t happy, he very well could be picking up on my anxiety, and we didn’t want that to happen, either. Instead of worrying about pumping and quantity, I could spend that time truly bonding with my baby and not worrying about numbers, aches and pains, pillows,
So, breastfeeding has not been unicorns and rainbows. I have never had a moment where I saw myself through a dreamy camera filter in soft focus, my baby smiling from ear to ear with my teets in his mouth (and I don’t think any mother has). What I did find myself doing was tearing up at restaurants when I saw women freely breastfeed their babies with ease as I gave my baby a bottle of formula in his stroller wishing I could do the same. I’ve found myself sitting at my breast pump machine sobbing uncontrollably when less than an ounce of milk total would fill the vials. I’ve found myself running to the pump during my baby’s naps only to sit for a few minutes before he cried out for my attention and I had to stop. I’ve felt feelings of disappointment when I’d bottle feed my breastmilk to my baby, only to have him spit up a lot of it and thinking about how much effort went into squeezing that milk out of me. I’ve found myself developing rashes and exacerbating my eczema, from pulling the makeshift tube top I used to keep the breast shields in place on-and-off so I could be hands-free while pumping. I’ve found my myself rubbing arnica gel on my arms and hands hoping to ease the joint pain from squeezing my breasts so hard so that I could get every drop of milk out of me to fully drain so that it would signal my body to produce more milk. No. There have been no unicorns or rainbows in sight.
It is sad. I am happy for the month or so that I was able to give my baby my milk, and I am proud of that effort. But for my sanity and my well being, I’m afraid this time has come to an end. Feeling “let down” by my breastfeeding experience is only one of the things that has made being a new mother feel like I’m fighting the war of my life. But as some of my mom friends have pointed out, this is just one battle I’m going to fight. There are more ahead and I’ll need my energy for those moments, too. Currently, I’m rocking my baby in a carrier, strapped to my chest. He’s been fussy and clingy, and think he’s going through a developmental leap or growth spurt. He’s snoring and breathing heavily. I press my cheek lightly on the top of his head and breathe in his baby smell. They say to savor this time because they go by so fast. I’m seeing that, so I will. The pump can sit while I enjoy this moment, even if he wakes up screaming in my face.