August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week and we have a special extended line up for you! Our writers will share their triumphs and tears through their personal recollections of making sure their babies are fed, be it through breastfeeding or supplementation. We hope you connect with these experiences by picking up a few tips or gaining the confidence to do what is best for your situation. Enjoy!
A couple of weeks ago, I nursed my fifteen-month-old son for the last time. I feel both the sadness of letting go and the freedom that his new independence brings me. But mostly, I feel proud of myself because what transpired after I gave birth made it almost impossible to continue breastfeeding.
On November 4, 2016, eight days after my son’s cesarean birth, my husband drove me to the emergency room due to pain so bad I could barely stand up. My milk had finally started to come in strong, as shown by the two embarrassing wet circles on my oversized hospital gown. After a CT scan, multiple blood draws, and a catheter, the bad news began to come in with phrases like “four internal abscesses” and “potential bladder injury” and “multiple infections.” I understood that things were bad, but I did not understand how bad things were going to get.
In my hospital bed with my milk-stained gown, I grieved the loss of many things. I did not have a safe delivery. I had a sponge inside of my cesarean incision that had to be ripped out and replaced every other day. There was a tube through my butt cheek to drain infections underneath my uterus and a tube through my squishy, postpartum belly to drain an eighteen-centimeter abscess filling my abdomen. I had a violent cough from when I aspirated after coming out of anesthesia for a bladder procedure. I had to press the help button on my bed every time I needed to go to the bathroom. My kidneys were so worn out by the medications pumping through my body that they began to shut down. My IV poll beeped incessantly and I could not sleep. Tears soaked my cheeks.
I almost quit breastfeeding.
My husband brought our baby to the hospital each day so I could see him. I maneuvered the various tubes and cords around me as I cradled him. I learned to hold him high on my chest so he didn’t press on the tender wound between my hip bones, the same wound he was lifted out of just over a week before. It was not a graceful process and I felt terrified my newborn might grasp the IV in my hand and pull it.
In this awkward position, I tried to nurse my son. Most of the time, he screamed and cried hysterically as I attempted to help him latch. My nurse inevitably walked in during these times and I knew by her facial expressions that she thought it was stupid of me to try to nurse.
“Better get you pumping more,” she’d say without looking at me.
For reasons I can only attribute to my stubbornness, her doubt in my ability to breastfeed motivated me. I wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted, and needed, to show myself that I could still fight for something I wanted out of this experience.
And I did.
I began pumping as often as my energy and hospital procedures would allow. I ate as much as possible—both to heal my body and to help me produce milk. My medications made me quite nauseous, so eating was an additional challenge. Pumping felt meaningful and it gave me something to do at the hospital besides wallowing in sadness. But as I produced mere droplets of breastmilk, my heart sunk. It felt impossible. I texted my friends to pray for me, and I prayed the staccato prayers you pray when you’re deeply overwhelmed. God, help me.
On November 15, 2016, I was finally released from the hospital. I was still not well by most measures. My white blood cells were still elevated from the infections. My kidney numbers were almost normal, but not quite. The c-section incision would take another two months to heal. I still had a violent cough from when I aspirated. Both of my arms ached from IV sites that became infiltrated. My muscles atrophied terribly from being immobile for so long and I lost thirty-eight pounds, more than I gained during my pregnancy, in a frighteningly short amount of time. But, despite the long road ahead, I insisted that I might as well go home to do the rest of my recovery.
As I recovered at home, I got into a rhythm with breastfeeding—something that was not possible at the hospital. Every time my son cried or appeared the slightest bit hungry, I held him close to my chest and I nursed him. I cherished those moments because I knew what it was like to have them taken away. When he started to get fussy at my breast because I was out of milk, I gave him an ounce or two of formula and then pumped. After a tiring week of this, I recovered my milk supply and I never again needed to supplement with formula. Out of my broken body came all the nourishment my baby needed. No one was more surprised than me that I ended up breastfeeding.
Nursing my son gave me confidence as a new mom. My confidence did not necessarily come from my eventual ability to breastfeed, but from the lessons that breastfeeding taught me. I learned that changing my plans due to unforeseen circumstances is part of what it means to become a mother. I learned the freedom of setting aside ideals and discerning the best way forward. I learned the tension of pursuing something you hope for while knowing it might not happen.
It took so much perseverance to get to a place of exclusively breastfeeding that I put little thought into the day when my son would no longer need my milk. But, like most change, it was happening slowly in ways that were hard to see except in retrospect. Now I see that weaning him was an ongoing process of growing up. Nursing ten times a day turned into six and then four and then two and then, suddenly, you notice what’s happening. The day comes when you nurse your baby for the last time. And you hold him close like you always will, and you let him go.