Exclusively Pumping: Not What I Intended, but What We Need.
My baby is crying in hunger and my breasts are noticeably full of milk for her. This seems like the most intuitive and natural exchange of nutrition and energy between my body and hers. It’s amazing how we are created with this way to immediately provide for our children. Except sometimes, the exchange doesn’t work that way. This time, my baby can’t breastfeed.
Although the act was painful and challenging, one of my favorite things about having Emerson was learning the dance of breast-feeding together. He was able to breastfeed for over 16 months and I have so many cherished memories from that time. As I looked forward to having my daughter, I imagined that experience with her. I anticipated the struggle in the beginning and I imagined all the different ways we would try and practice to get into a groove together. I imagined not caring where we were or who was around but prioritizing her needs and her nutrition and being able to directly provide that for her.
While I don’t remember a lot about the first moments after my daughter’s birth (there were some other difficult things happening in those immediate moments), I do remember that she had low energy and wasn’t rooting. Those first couple of nights in the hospital she wasn’t latching and she was hardly taking in any milk- it broke my heart. It broke my heart when I realized that the reason for this was that she had in undetected cleft palate that made it really hard for her mouth to make the motion necessary for successful breast-feeding. It didn’t take long before I realized that more than likely, we would never have that bonding experience I had dreamt of.
It was a little harder each time a lactation consultant came by asking if I intended to breast-feed. Well yes, I intended to but… no, it didn’t seem likely. It was hard to see her on an IV pushing dextrose (sugar water) into her and to eventually see the nurses insert a feeding tube because she wasn’t getting enough. Those first couple days – not only was she unable to get milk from my breast, but she wasn’t able to get milk from the bottles they were giving her. She would work so hard- using up her energy- and get so little. Part of that is normal newborn expectations, but a large portion of that was because of her palate. Watching her struggle and yet not being able to fix it for her left me feeling helpless as a mom.
We tend to gravitate towards what we know and what we have experienced, and we perceive it as the “best” truth. For me, that was direct breastfeeding. I saw it as the best way to bond with your baby and the best way to provide nutrition. I saw it as vital for the relationship and if I can be completely honest, I often saw babies getting bottles and wondered why someone didn’t try harder to make the best thing work. It’s funny how much you “know” before you experience the other side of the coin, isn’t it?
So for me, this is postpartum. It is being hooked up to these tubes and flanges. It’s the constant sound of the pump. It’s working double time- first pumping the milk and then transferring it to a bottle to feed it to my daughter. It’s a labor of love, yes, but it is a labor.
I don’t know how long we will be in this dance. Sage has open heart surgery slated for 4-6 months into her life and every single doctor has told me how helpful it is for her to receive breastmilk throughout that time. It’s flu season, and I’ve been consistently reminded that the nutrition she receives from my milk is the most helpful defense I can give her. She will have a second surgery at 11 months to fix her cleft palate and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be able to switch to direct breastfeeding then.
It’s a whole new dance of memorizing milk storage times and alarms to wake me to make sure I’m consistently pumping to keep up my supply. It’s an unexpectedly new dance… even as a repeat mother because a subsequent baby doesn’t ensure that we’ll be doing things over again, for we may be doing things much differently.
That bond I was worried about… it’s not missing, it’s just different. What was hours of skin to skin with my son and the pride of connecting so directly has turned into a bond built on pride and advocacy for my daughter and her health, growth and needs. The bond has come to us in the form of connecting for the bigger picture- for her wellbeing- for having something in me that can contribute to that and support her needs. Does it still make me sad when I can’t immediately answer her needs with my body? Yes. But am I less of a mother for it? No.
Mommas- this stuff is tough. Maybe it’s all brand new to you. Maybe you’ve finally gotten it down once only to be surprised the next time around. Maybe you’ve met resistance and shame from comparing yourself and your baby to others… or maybe that judgement has been blanketed upon you unfairly. My reminder to myself, and my wish to you, is to leave the ideals behind. Latch on to what is powerful and good in your relationship with your baby. Take pride in the ways you are mothering and all the things that are unique to that relationship. They say comparison is the thief of joy and as a momma, you have a lot of joy to claim.