The First Six Weeks

Thursday, January 22, 2015

You go through big chunks of time where you're just thinking, 'This is impossible — oh, this is impossible.' And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.
—Tina Fey on motherhood

Whenever I experience a hardship of any significance I debate about sharing that experience; specifically sharing it on this corner of the Internet. Like most, I would rather hide the hard parts. Gloss over them by putting on a pretense, shrug my shoulders and sigh, as if to say Oh, it wasn't that bad. When, in truth, it was.

But because I would like to be more authentic on this space, and in my life in general, I want to share something that happened to me as a new mom. This story might not resonate with you (full disclosure: I talk about my breasts here) and that's okay. I still need to write it. To uncover a portion of my vulnerability, thus honoring, owning, and remembering my story.

I should have known better than to think a smooth pregnancy would translate to a smooth transition to motherhood. That I would be tired, certainly. That my life would never be the same, a given. But breastfeeding? No one told me about breastfeeding.

Or perhaps I should more accurately say that I never took it upon myself to find out what feeding a baby from my body would mean. Mistakenly I thought it would be natural. That my body would know what to do and how to do it. That my baby would be nourished and we'd develop that mother-child bond so formative in the first few months. That I would stand in a field and get a crown. Unfortunately that's not how things turned out.

Looking back on the moments after Amelia's birth I think part of the reason for my trouble was that I didn't nurse right away. Not until that night in fact. Luckily, when I did, she latched on right away. Holding her was a little trickier. After carefully positioning numerous pillows I managed to figure out the best cradle for us. And though I knew it would be a while before my milk came in I felt confident from that first connection that we were set. Then we left the hospital.

Because Amelia had to come home on a bilirubin paddle due to some jaundice, the nurses sent us home with several bottles of ready-to-use formula. Just in case. Our pediatrician even recommended that we would likely need to supplement until my milk came in, which I desperately didn't want to do. Days after being home from the hospital my milk still hadn't come in and my breasts were engorged. Suddenly my once supple breasts felt like they were made of concrete with hot lava pulsing through them. The pain sent me into a panic and resulted in a 3:00am hospital phone call. Horrified that I would not be able to do the simplest mammalian task I explained my situation to the nurse. She recommended ibuprofen and ice for swelling and a pump to stimulate milk production.

But I only had a hand pump and no feeling in my right hand. Which meant that I had to use my non-dominant hand to suction my breast into a little plastic horn in the middle of the night. Squeeze after squeeze and nothing. I kept at it. Nearly an hour later I had less than an ounce of liquid. Defeated I had to admit there was no way around it, Amelia needed formula to survive.

Finally, nearly a week after Amelia was born, the engorgement subsided and I started to produce milk. After using the worthless hand pump I decided it would be better to try a mechanical pump. Luckily our insurance company covered this benefit but I had to wait a week for shipping (pro tip: look into this before you have a baby.) Meanwhile we found a local company that rented breast pumps which I was able to use in the interim.

Aside: This isn't a treaty on breast is best and formula is evil. Whatever you decide to do for your child is right for your baby. I'm not a nursing expert nor an evangelist, I just wanted to breastfeed my baby. Sadly, no matter what you decide— breastmilk or formula — most mothers will experience some level of guilt. I wish this wasn't the case. However we've been socialized to feel one method is superior to the other. 

As is common for many women one breast started to produce more than the other; which was also the side Amelia gravitated towards. When Amelia didn't gain weight like she was suppose to I felt additional pressure to give her formula. Still I kept nursing. Despite being blindsided by the pain.

Horrific pain.

Every time I needed to nurse Amelia I cringed. My body tensed bracing for the pain. Tears stung my eyes as I wondered what I was doing wrong. This happened 8-12 times a day. Every day. Each time she latched on I tried different techniques to get through that feeding. I focused on my breathing. I clasped my breast tissue with my other hand smashing it into a flat sandwich, trying to relocate the pain to another part of my body. By week three I couldn't take it. Standing in the shower I remember looking at my bleeding nipples, skin dangling off the tips and thinking This is so HARD. I can't do this. What was I thinking?

It was then that I decided to take a few days off nursing to pump exclusively (that unavoidable bovine humiliation) and give my breasts time to heal. It was also around this time that I worked up the courage to attend a nursing support group. The support group was held at the same store I had rented my breast pump. There were thirty women in a large circle each holding children from newborn to 16 months. I felt completely intimidated. Had I attended the group when my emotions weren't so volatile I would have likely returned. As it was I found little consolation in the unsatisfactory answers I received, but I did discover that this was something I could have attended prior to giving birth. Again, something I should have investigated.

When I went back to nursing the pain returned. The mental battle of whether to keep nursing or just go to the bottle was exhausting. I just wanted to feed my baby from my body but I felt betrayed by my biology. It went on like this for days. Between grimaces I kept wondering when it would get better. Just get through six months I told myself. You can do this for six months. Then I would indulge my imagination by picturing some sort of luxurious vacation as my reward for enduring this uniquely maternal millstone. During much of this time I was fortunate to have Ken by my side. Having him off work for an entire month was nothing short of a blessing.

Then, as hard things do, it got easier. Six weeks passed and air whooshed back into my lungs. Breastfeeding was no longer torture. It felt like a miracle. A much needed miracle. That's not to say it was a cakewalk from that point forward. In truth it became hard in other ways. Moments when Amelia would refuse to take my swollen breast and eat only from a bottle. A kind of rejection that was difficult to not take personally. After she finished her bottle, I would unhooked my nursing bra, remove my soggy nursing pads and pump for another 30-45 minutes.

Even as I recount these memories my shoulders tense at the thought. Those first six weeks were rough. Now, six months is just around the corner and I still hope I make it. My supply has started to dwindle and nothing I do makes up the difference, which means we're back to the beginning. Feeding Amelia formula bottles once or twice a day. Except now she's eating solid food to help keep up her nutritional intake. Even though nursing was the hardest part of becoming a mother I feel some sort of strange pride that I kept going. Pride that I faced the physical pain. Over and over again. But even if I hadn't I have a suspicion that Amelia would have turned out just fine either way. In the end I suppose that's all that matters. Meanwhile I'm still working on making peace with how the rest of it all happened.

Ps. Thank heavens for this salve

Also, I think this documentary (which you can watch on Netflix) should be mandatory viewing for all women, mothers or otherwise—I wish I had known about it six month ago. 

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