I don’t remember which day it was when the lactation consultant came into our hospital room to see how things were going with breastfeeding.
We had entered the hospital Saturday morning so that I could be hooked up to an IV and filled up with Pitocin to convince my reluctant 42 weeks pregnant body (and the bigger-every-day-boy-inside) to get the show on the road. I had a dreadful, deep down certainty that this process would end with a C-Section—because of which I had spent the last few days sleepless and drinking castor oil, to no avail—and I was right. When I was told, empathetically but firmly on Sunday at 11:30 am that it was “time”, I burst into tears of frustration, exhaustion and grief. He wasn’t even born and I was already a failure.
Alden was out, washed, weighed, poked, dressed, and asleep before I saw him, and then from the side. I was hustled next door because my blood pressure crashed and the next thing I remember I was being handed my son and asked if I wanted to nurse. Holding him to my chest felt so very awkward, so very strange, so very tiring.
The next few days were a haze. Little sleep. I barely noticed that the pediatrician looking in on Alden wasn’t even the one we’d chosen and happily met with the month prior. I didn’t stand up until Tuesday and Josh changed every diaper and we took turns holding our almost-ten-pounds, healthy, hungry son. I hoped Alden had a better instinctive handle on nursing than I did and I hoped that, even though I couldn’t feel it, something was coming out when he sucked, and that it was enough.
No Formula, I said, exhausted but resolute. I was not going to give up or give in. No Formula.
We went home on Wednesday (I think). I was still gamely placing my son at my breast when he rooted around, cried, pretty much whenever it seemed like a good idea, but I was becoming increasingly suspicious that anything was happening. Nothing seemed to be coming out, but what did I know? I had read about “milk coming in” but nothing dramatic seemed to have happened to my boobs as of yet, and we were going on five days after birth.
Thursday night we reached a desperate, worried breaking point and, nearly in hysterics, we took an acquaintance (a lactation consultant and a doula) at her word that it was “ok to call her anytime of day or night.” We called her at two in the morning. We poured out our worry, frustration, and fear. There was no milk. Our baby was stressed and starving. He wouldn’t stop crying. None of us were getting any sleep. With great patience, confidence and love, she told me to hang in there. That advice made my husband a little bit crazier, I think, but for some reason, I clung to it like a lifeline. Hang in there.
On Friday afternoon, my milk came in, and although it was pretty astonishing to see my normally large soft breasts take on the proportions of the Hindenburg before the explosion, the relief was unbelievable. Milk! The milk was real. There was milk. Baby would eat. I could do this.
It turned out, at first I could do it only with support—literally. My breasts seemed to weigh as much as a gallon of milk, each. The kind of effortless nursing I’d seen so many Missoula moms do looked like an unfair party trick to me. I needed both hands and a pillow, and for the first few weeks it took FOUR hands, as Josh helped me position a breast shield and used an eyedropper to drop a few drops of water on the shield while I used one hand to hold up the enormous boob and the other to support Alden’s humorously-tiny-in-comparison-head. I injured my wrists after several months of nursing (“We see this in waitresses and nursing moms,” the walk-in physician told me cheerfully.)
But I was resolute. This was going. To. Work. No Formula. And I gradually gained ease and confidence nursing—after all, practice makes perfect, and I certainly spent enough time doing it. Alden slept at most two hours at a time, and I nursed him every time he woke, which meant I was nursing at least 10 or 12 times a day. With that kind of frequency, I simply rejected outright the idea that I could pump as well (so as to provide milk that my husband could feed him, thereby allowing me to do something besides nurse. Like maybe sleep.)
My determination to breastfeed should have done something to relieve my sense of wrongness about the birth itself—but every time Alden was weighed (which, between the monthly well-child checks common at this stage and the monthly WIC appointments we had, was often) I was crushed by doubt and guilt. He wasn’t gaining weight at rates that made anyone feel confident. Everyone had suggestions. “Nurse longer at a time.” “Always switch boobs.” “Nurse on your side.” “Make sure you’re relaxed.” “Drink more water.” “Nurse in the tub” (That one in particular was, in fact, highly relaxing, and resulted in a tub full of baby poop and a panicky retreat.)
If I was worried, Josh was beside himself. With nursing, there is no way to know how much food the baby is or isn’t getting. “On demand” is not a very satisfying measurement, and holds no reassurance at all when your baby drops to the 25th percentile in weight, then the 15th, then the 10th. When I did start trying to pump, it took so long to produce such tiny amounts—which Alden would devour seemingly at a gulp when he DID bottle-feed—that Josh needed no further convincing. Breastfeeding was not providing enough nourishment, and it was MY dogmatic need to exclusively nurse, not Alden’s needs, that were driving the bus.
We argued about it, but I would not give in. The pride I felt in checking “exclusively breastfed” on the form at the WIC office overpowered any doubts (and any sneaking jealousy about All That Formula WIC would have paid for!). When he started trying foods, he did finally start to put on weight more quickly and everyone kind of relaxed.
In the end, weaning was the easiest, most seamless part of nursing. At almost a year, Alden started sleeping longer periods, and nursing became a once nightly, then a once-or-twice-a-day, then a “first-thing-in-the-morning” interaction. And then one morning, when he was just about 18 months, I realized that it had been a few days since we had nursed—we had snuggled up in the mornings, but hadn’t nursed. There was no grand decision or wistful “last time”; we just mutually came to a place where we both knew, it had been enough.