“We need to get him to eat,” I could hear this through the fog of an early morning haze as I awoke from what seemed like years of sleep after the birth of my son. The years were only hours and this was only a short nap. When I opened my eyes I could see the nurses trying to get my little one to “lap-up the formula from a tiny cup like a cat.” With his blood sugar levels and temperature plummeting since birth, they were trying to do anything they could to get him to eat more. Only hours after birth, my breast milk hadn’t really started to come in, which is fine in normal circumstances, but in this case he needed more to sustain what were considered normal sugar levels. By nightfall on the day of my son’s birth he was in the NICU attached to machines and in an incubator as the formula was not enough and he needed a sugar drip to help stabilize his sugars. I was told to try pumping (expressing breast milk) to see if that would help.
I truly could not imagine myself breastfeeding and was so scared to admit this, as it was something that seemed to define motherhood, something seemingly “natural” that I might not be able to do.
Before the birth of my son, the idea of breastfeeding was incredibly intimidating for me. I didn’t think I would be able to do it and was always very insecure when people brought it up. Simple questions like; “will you breastfeed?” or “how long do you think you’ll breastfeed for?” terrified me and my response was always, “I will try my best and see what happens.” I truly could not imagine myself breastfeeding and was so scared to admit this, as it was something that seemed to define motherhood, something seemingly “natural” that I might not be able to do. Letting go of these preconceptions, that breastfeeding is something I could or couldn’t do, that I am the “type” of woman who breastfeeds, that I should or shouldn’t feed in public, or that breastfeeding somehow defined what “kind” of mother I was has taken me a very long time, but I am finally able to see my experience as a learning process and one that I want to share. Yes, there are a million and one medical reasons why “breast is best,” and yes, this kind of language is what makes new mothers so worried and stressed about making the right choices, so instead of offering those facts, facts you can read up on anywhere, I am going to share my story of a breastfeeding journey that begins with fear, moves towards burden and stress but ends with a beautiful bond. My hope isn’t that this will make you choose the right decision, but to give new mothers something to relate to or even some comfort as you come into your own.
The first time I tried to nurse my son the experience was far from natural, the nurse helped me to try and teach my son to latch at around 5 am on the morning of his birth. It felt awkward and incredibly uncomfortable. I tried a few more times that morning struggling and feeling very uncomfortable the entire time. My son was eventually able to latch, however, I was not producing the amount of milk he needed. Later that day, as my son’s blood sugar levels began to plummet, the nurses began to try formula instead. This didn’t upset me as I was not set on breastfeeding and I just wanted my son to eat. What changed my mind was when I began pumping (expressing breast milk) and noticed that as a result of this my son’s sugar levels started to stabilize.
I began to realize, or think that I had the power to help my son, if I could just produce the milk he needed.
Women always talk about this maternal instinct, something that kicks in when your children need you, and this was my first experience with this. I began to realize, or think that I had the power to help my son, if I could just produce the milk he needed. So I pumped and pumped and pumped. Finally, between the pumped milk, sugar drip and formula supplements, my son’s sugar levels slowly began to stabilize. And later, after a few visits with the lactation consultant, I learned how to nurse semi-comfortably.
This however, was only the beginning of the process. A few days later, once my son was released from the hospital and we were at home, the challenges continued. Breastfeeding is a lot like long distance running; it doesn’t come naturally right away, but once you can push through a series of walls (barriers that can make it incredibly difficult) it can become easier and begin to feel somewhat natural. There were so many of these “walls” over the course of my breastfeeding journey; worrying that he wasn’t getting enough, my personal struggle with public feeding, clogged ducts, and of course many external pressures. But looking back, this year-long journey would never have happened without the support of my husband, family and friends. It really does take a village to raise a child and that village is also the same support system mothers need as they come into their own.
The initial stages of motherhood, and often that whole first year, are filled with moments of light and dark. There is a beauty in the bright moments that words can hardly describe, the pure, raw and incomparable love that you feel for this little human who has forever changed you and your life. And then there is also a darkness that comes with the insecurities, uneasiness and daily struggles of trying to keep an infant happy and healthy. Breastfeeding fell into both of these categories for me. The struggle and insecurity came first and, to my surprise, being very sceptical of the mothers who told me how beautiful this bond could actually be, it became just that, a beautiful bond between me and my newborn baby.
This bond, as beautiful as it did become, was not something that came easy and not something that came without struggle. For many millennial mothers, the stresses of outside pressure can sometimes outweigh our strongest support systems. The pressure to be a “specific type” of mother who is always doing the “right thing” can sometimes make the simple daily tasks that come along with motherhood, like breastfeeding and maintaining nap/sleep schedules, seem next to impossible. These pressures created added stress that made my own breastfeeding journey a challenging one. It felt like even if I tackled one element of the journey, like feedings at home, I was still struggling with the public feedings and felt immediate stress as soon as I was out of pumped milk and needed to feed in a public setting. This stress was something my son could obviously feel, because the feeding always turned into a huge mess. He was hungry, I was stressed, but neither of us was comfortable enough to make it work. I never did push through this barrier; something I hope might change with my second baby. Instead, I became a pumping machine; making sure I always had pumped milk whenever we were leaving the house. In many ways, this put more stress on my breastfeeding journey as I felt like I needed to be overly prepared for any situation and leaving the house started to feel like an event, but in the end, while I wouldn’t recommend this, I think this did help to ease the transition from breast to bottle when I had to go back to work.
Sometimes the biggest frustration that came with breastfeeding was the burden I would feel as a result of the feedings being my sole responsibility. This created a kind of tension between my husband and I when I was tired or if we were out socializing. As a result of this, whenever he would try and support me and help me to stick with the breastfeeding I would be wondering if it was a ploy to get out of the night feedings. Looking back, I know now that this was not the case at all and I am so grateful that he stood by me through these difficult moments. The socializing element of this that was hard for me goes hand-in-hand with my fear of public feeding. I would often go to a bedroom or have to leave if I needed to feed my son and this made me feel like I wasn’t able to socialize during the few outings we did have in the first year. As an incredibly social person this was very difficult for me, I didn’t feel like myself to begin with, motherhood being one of the biggest transitions of my life, and adding this to the situation made me feel even worse, at least at first.
Breastfeeding became a break from the chaos of motherhood, the tension of social situations and a way to connect with my son without all the noise of expectations buzzing in my ears
While the journey from burden to beauty was not a linear one, the struggles came and went and the burdens eventually became blessings, I did arrive at this point partway through. The burden did become a beautiful bond and what was once a source of stress actually became a way for me to unwind and de-stress. Breastfeeding became a break from the chaos of motherhood, the tension of social situations and a way to connect with my son without all the noise of expectations buzzing in my ears. It became our time, just us, and I now look back on it as minutes of calm amidst the chaos. It began to bring me peace. Instead of fighting to make a public feeding work, I began to see this private time as a break from our day. I could escape a busy social situation for 15-20 minutes for a feeding and my son and I were always much calmer afterwards. I began to enjoy these times, because we were on our time and this became our escape. As a new mother I was very heavily influenced by the words and suggestions of others, constantly questioning my own choices and decisions, but I began to find that when I was on my own, just me and baby, I was able to make my own way, become in tune to my son’s needs and we could connect. The feedings gave me just that, the time I needed to connect and create a bond with him and I no longer felt like I was missing out or alone, this time was something I began to look forward to. And this was something that helped me learn how to be me in motherhood.
So in the end, my hope is that whatever choices you make as a new mother you are able to find that place of peace, create a sense of calm amidst the chaos and become you in motherhood.
All images in this post are done by Heather Coughlin (Photographer) at Calluna Studios https://callunastudiosblog.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Parent Life Network or their partners.