Thursday, September 11, 2014

holding on and letting go // a breastfeeding story

You grow a baby in you, and then they come out, and surprise! they have to keep on growing. For me, that was first through one of many miracles of the body—breastfeeding—and then, later, with a good bit of help from another miracle, this one of science and technology and great minds—formula. Nothing could have prepared me for any of it: the unrelenting pouring out of myself, the peaking highs of bonding and closeness and hormones, the lagging lows of exhaustion, going back to work full-time and the subsequent worries over supply. The struggles of hanging on, letting go, moving with the seasons.

Ingrid and I got off to a good start with nursing: she knew exactly what to do, and I knew just enough not to take that for granted. But not long after she was born, I was in quite a bit of pain. I remember at about 10 days postpartum hurting so much and curling up on our bed, overcome by the weighty exhaustion of new motherhood. Tears came quickly as I admitted to myself how hard it was, how much it hurt. It was an aching mixture of joy and defeat.

Lanolin helped but didn't solve our problems: only time did, and there never seemed to be enough of it in between feedings. After 3 weeks of pressing on and gritting my teeth, we finally turned a corner. We began to fall into something of a rhythm; the pain moved from unbearable to not. We took it day by day, hour by hour, and that three week mark got me to the point of feeling like I could keep going for a while longer. Hold on, keep going, hold on, I told myself. And so we did. Even still, I always had a few seconds of toe-curling, foot-stomping pain with every latch until she was about 6 weeks old. And we really weren't doing anything wrong; that's just the way it was for us.

I could talk about the mechanics of it and what worked for us, the mess it made, or figuring out the herculean task of pumping, but what I really want to comment on is the mindgame. There were times that I loved it, that it felt the most natural thing in the world. And then there were other points that it was just draining—in every sense of the word. At best, I described it a labor of love, at worst, I lamented to my husband, "SHE IS SUCKING THE LIFE RIGHT OUT OF ME" and poured myself an extra large glass of vino.

It's a grueling task, one that takes real endurance, and there's no way to prepare, no easing into it. Like motherhood in general, I guess. Getting started is a trial-by-fire-on-4-hours-of-sleep + raging hormones type of program, which not surprisingly, doesn't always yield the best results. The pressure of it all rested squarely on my shoulders, and sometimes I could walk under that weight with strength, grace, and all of the "right" maternal feelings, but there were so many other times that I felt about to crumble. That I did crumble. Which led to a lot of guilt and an overall confusion of how to process loving and hating something that I really wanted to just love—all amidst a sleep-deprived huge life adjustment. It was hard. I wondered how long I could keep it up. 

While I didn't recognize it at the time, looking back, months 2 through 4 were the sweet spot for me when it came to breastfeeding. The pace of life was slow: sleeping in, nursing and napping with occasional errands when they fit in and weren't overwhelming. I was fortunate not to have any supply issues at that point. This may or may not also have been when, with a baby almost always at my breast or in my arms or in my lap, I consumed Friday Night Lights on Netflix and also decided that I aspire to be Olivia Pope, so there's that. It's important to note that this time directly aligned with my maternity leave.

Going back to work turned everything upside down—I simply can't underscore that enough. No more lazy mornings catching up on sleep. Instead of feeling connected to my baby, I felt tethered to a breastpump. I pined for a break, wishing I could just put my body on pause for a few days. It all started to feel like just another stressor, one more thing to fit in to an ever-increasing load—both at work and at home. I'd stare at the calendar and mentally count up how much longer until we'd be done. I longed to feel like myself again.

I had my first work trip out of town when Ingrid was turning 6 months for two nights. I pumped on my trip, including in the airport (such a pain) but came back with nearly the amount of milk she drank while I was away. Ok, I thought, that was doable. I had another work conference coming up—this one for 4 days—when Ingrid was turning 8 months. Standing over our chest freezer in the garage, I counted milk bags and figured that if I could just maintain the pumping and nursing status quo, I'd have barely enough socked away in the freezer for that upcoming trip.

Only the next week, she hit a growth spurt. A big one. We had to dip in to the freezer stash. I pumped furiously, took fenugreek, put nutritional yeast on everything I could find, and yet by the end of the week, almost half of our frozen milk was gone. I knew then and there that there wasn't a realistic way for me to make up the deficit before my next trip. I couldn't keep up. I was exhausted and feeling like I just wasn't enough. There wasn't enough milk in the freezer; there wasn't enough of me to go around anymore. I panicked, felt overwhelmed, and panicked some more.

A day later, I came upon one of the hospital freebie bags tucked back on a shelf in Ing's closet. I'd long forgotten it was there. In it were two small cartons of ready to feed formula. Without a second thought, I marched downstairs, ripped off the top of one, poured it in a bottle, and popped it in her mouth before allowing myself the time to hesitate. After tasting it twice, she drained it. As she did, I began to feel some of the weight lift from my shoulders. It was a deep, gushing sense of relief. She was six and a half months old when I loosened my grip on exclusively breastfeeding and in a moment of true surrender, reached out for that bottle of help. Let go, let go, let go. 

In the days that followed, I began to rise out of the fog—a haze I hadn't realized had been so thick. I quickly came to realize that for me to be the wife and working mother I wanted to be, I needed to be emotionally well, and since then, formula has happily been part of the equation for us.

As we come up on a year, we're still nursing a tiny bit. The funny thing? After all of this time of counting the days until we'd be done, I still find myself creeping into her room every night before I go to bed. I lift her out of her crib and nurse that sweet, small baby in her sleep. That last feeding of the day, which for all practical purposes should have been the first one to go, lingers on—and not for her sake, but for mine. I'll get there, I will. But for now, I'll remember that sometimes what we profess to want doesn't turn out to be quite the thing we need, and until it's time to let go, you'll find me here, holding on.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely way to end a sweet sweet time of your life. I missed that relationship so much when my babies weaned.