I was 22-years-old when I found out I was going to be a mother for the first time. I had no idea what sort of parent I would be, but I do remember one thing I was certain of: I was going to breastfeed. I don’t know why it felt so important to me at the time, but it did. And I was insufferably snobby about it too. I read all the books and I knew all the science: breast milk is the best milk. My baby was, of course, going to have the best.
When my son was born prematurely, I watched all my visions of nursing a squishy newborn wash unceremoniously down the drain. But I dutifully hooked myself to a breast pump a dozen times a day while my impossibly tiny infant was sustained by neon yellow TPN administered through an IV in his impossibly tiny head.
Eventually, he graduated to a feeding tube and received tiny droplets of the liquid gold I had painstakingly pumped, stored, and transported to the NICU for weeks in preparation for this moment. For the duration of his hospital stay, my life revolved around providing breast milk for my baby because my baby was going to have the best.
Without a baby in my arms, my milk supply tried really hard to dry up — but I wouldn’t let it. I took so much fenugreek, I smelled like a perpetual pancake. I got a prescription for domperidone. I power-pumped, kept a water bottle by my side, ate oatmeal every morning, and drank a beer every night. I found a lactation consultant, joined a breastfeeding support group, and worked on latching the baby every time I was allowed to hold him. When we finally made it home from the NICU, we camped out in bed for weeks, nursing, bottle-feeding, and pumping non-stop. Shortly after, we ditched the bottle completely.
It never got easier.
He struggled with weight gain, and I constantly battled with my supply until the day he weaned at nearly two-years-old. I was proud that I managed to exclusively breastfeed in spite of our circumstances, but it did not look at all the way I thought it would. I remember telling myself that next time, I would do things right… next time it would all go smoothly…next time it would be the best!
“Next time” was born full-term and nursing enthusiastically two hours later. Everything continued going exactly as planned until he turned six-months-old and I found out I was pregnant again. My milk supply quickly crashed. I sent out a plea to a group of local mothers and found an amazing, superhero milk donor. She filled our freezer with bags and bags of milk and kept my baby fed. I continued to nurse him, but he was receiving almost all his nutrition from someone else. This certainly wasn’t ideal, but I powered through. I told myself that once the baby was born, I would make up for everything! I would nurse TWO babies. I would be a breastfeeding rockstar. It would be the best!
As I am sure you have guessed, things did not exactly go as planned.
Tandem nursing worked for a while — until the toddler began to get jealous and didn’t want to share. It was just a hiccup; I started feeding them separately. But then the baby’s latch slowly began to deteriorate. We did not know it at the time, but our little one had cerebral palsy. As he grew, the low muscle tone in his mouth and throat started causing feeding issues, and he began to lose weight. I consulted his pediatrician and lactation consultants, but we couldn’t figure out what was going on with him. (And we wouldn’t know for two years.) Desperate and unable to find a milk donor, I introduced formula. I continued breastfeeding, but it was incredibly painful, and when he was just shy of one-year-old, I stopped breastfeeding him entirely.
Often, mothers speak out when breastfeeding works for them to explain why “breast is best.” Other times, mothers speak out when breastfeeding did not work for them to explain why “fed is best.” My children were breastfed, formula-fed and fed with donor milk. They were nursed, fed with tubes and fed with bottles. One nursed for over four years, another nursed for less than one. All three of them really like pizza and candy these days. One of them dyes his hair rainbow colors. One of them spends the majority of his time naked. One has ridiculously beautiful eyelashes. They have all eaten dirt and probably bugs. They all have nightmares sometimes. They all get sick occasionally. They are all pretty smart sometimes, and totally impossible at other times. I cannot really tell you if breastfeeding “worked” for me or not. What I can tell you is that when I look at my children, in all their glorious imperfection, I can see now that I gave each and every one of them my absolute best.
If my breastfeeding journey has given me anything, it is a healthy dose of humility. I never assume I know what is best for another mother anymore, or another child. I recognize that every person is on their own unique path full of obstacles that I might never face and priorities that I might never understand.
Seven months ago, a surprise fourth baby joined our family in a rather dramatic way. He spent some time in the NICU and I spent some time with my old friend, the pump. I took feeding him one day at a time. I still do. I know that I have a variety of choices and that I have access to all the resources I need to make sure he is healthy. I also know that he is going to grow up to be a gloriously imperfect person that really wants pizza and candy one day.