Thursday, April 07, 2011
When I was pregnant with my first child, someone gave me a book called "Misconceptions," which told the real truth about making "unnatural" parenting choices, like opting for a c-section or giving your children formula versus breastmilk. Now, after having my fourth c-section, I'm quite aware of how far out of my control are many of the choices around what type of birth experience I will have, perhaps as out of control as what type of personality my children will have, what they might choose to do for a living, or what mistakes they will make as they go along in life. And like those things, as much as I might like to have the illusion of some control over those things, I really have none. Likewise for having all four c-sections (two of which after nearly 30 hours of extremely intense labor), as well as how to feed my children. With my first daughter, I stopped breastfeeding after 10 weeks when I realized the amount I was able to pump wouldn't likely feed my cat, let alone my rapidly growing daughter. (At 8 years old, she is now 4' 8" tall and wears a women's size 7.5 shoe.) I was all geared up to have to nix breastfeeding again with my second daughter, and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was able to breastfeed perfectly within minutes of making her appearance, and never gave me a lick of trouble. She would latch perfectly every time, feed for about five minutes, then drift off to sleep for anywhere from 2-4 hours. When I went back to work and people asked me how I was sleeping (the same people who I'm sure slowed at car wrecks on the highway), I surprised them by declaring that I was sleeping better than I had in years. The baby slept with me, and I could breastfeed on my side, never having to fully even wake up before she was done and we were both happily back asleep. So of course, when I had baby #3, I considered myself to be a natural, and old pro. I took complete and total credit for how well breastfeeding went the second time around. Silly, naive, mommy. I have since come to realize that the only thing I can truly expect from parenting is that things won't go anything like what I expect. I suffered from mastitis, cracked and bleeding nipples, all kinds of breastfeeding horrors, and after a month of crying on the shoulders of my husband, my lactation consultant, my friends and of course, my midwife who finally told me that if I didn't stop calling her so often she was going to have to officially diagnose me with post-partum anxiety. I think mothers should be told how difficult breastfeeding is. I remember hearing how good for you it is, how worth it, what a bonding experience it is, cheaper, always the right temperature, even bordering on magical, the way that breastmilk adjusts to what vitamins and minerals the baby needs. No one ever said that even the most seasoned mother will be forced to endure toe-curling pain before getting to the point of being comfortable with breastfeeding her child. In fact, every time I complained of any nipple pain, I was told that the baby's latch must be wrong. Well, with this child, baby #4 in case you haven't been paying attention, his latch was perfect from the start. Far from having another pain-free experience, my nipples were almost immediately torn up. Apparently, he has what's called a "vacuum suck" and is constantly hungry! Determined to nurse him on demand, I gritted my teeth every hour or two around the clock to allow him to feed. When Max developed jaundice around day 4, the nurses were concerned he wasn't getting enough to eat so they asked me to pump to see how much I was making. At 2 ounces, I was making four times the normal amount of milk for day 4. Apparently, the around the clock feeding was working! Unfortunately, I was terrified every time he came near me. In an effort to get things back on track, I went right from the hospital to the Breastfeeding Resource Center to make sure Max and I weren't doing anything wrong. When I showed my poor gnarled nipples to the lactation consultant, she shrank back in alarm and gently suggested I "pump to heal." I burst into tears, confessing how much it had been hurting and how determined I was to make it work. This is my last child, after all, and after the wonderful experience I had with my second child, I was determined to enjoy one last breastfeeding experience before I hung up my nursing bra. Sent on my way with a massive hospital-grade pump and a newfound sense of hope, I began to express milk and bottle feed. It was lovely, actually - I could share the feeding experience with my husband (and have him take the first five hour shift of the night). My breasts started feeling immediately better (despite the fact that I soon developed vasospasm on top of the existing damage). We are still expressing milk - I've tried putting him on the breast a couple times. Sometimes he won't take it at all (which freaks me out and makes me think maybe I've totally caused nipple confusion) and other times he nurses so vigorously it's immediately evident (he recently gave me a blood blister in under 10 minutes). I'm sorry for the graphic description of this stuff, I think it's really important to give the real picture. A couple weeks after Max was born, I went to the bus stop to pick up the girls after school and was talking to another mom, telling her the short version of our breastfeeding drama. She said what I had heard so many moms say before, "Yeah, I couldn't do it." And in that moment, it hit me - of course, so many women give up. No one tells you how hard it is. All you see are these beautiful images of moms with babies attached to their bosoms with sweet little open-mouthed kisses, never one of them gritting her teeth or scrunching her eyes up in pain. Truth is, the more I talk to women, even those who have breastfed all their children for months or years, they have all agreed on one thing - the beginning of breastfeeding is incredibly painful and difficult to endure. Maybe if we talked more openly about that, women could make a more informed decision about whether or not they can do it. Maybe they'd still decide not to, but at least it wouldn't be because they thought they were incapable. I think knowing it's difficult for all of us makes me much more likely to keep trying to get it right. I guess that's sort of parenthood in a nutshell, though, isn't it?