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As you guys know, I've been working with the Sisterhood of Motherhood campaign for the last three months, sharing some of my experiences with parenting. My first post talked a little about the project itself, as well as what I'd learned transitioning to solid foods for Essley last year, and I shared some of our favorite baby food recipes. In the second installment, I got a little more personal and discussed the common occurrence of judgment among parents, along with some ideas I had for supporting other moms and dads through acts of kindness. For today's post, the final in the series, I've decided to really break down the walls and share the details of Essley's and my breastfeeding journey. Some of these details are sparkly and endearing. Others are painful and ugly. But they're all here.
I'll start out by saying that although I enjoy sharing bits and pieces of my life (obviously; I'm a blogger), I do choose to keep the majority of my family's and my life private. The journey of feeding a baby is an profoundly personal one. The experience of every parent and baby is different, and the struggles and triumphs that accompany it can be highly emotional. Unfortunately, I've found that the judgment that I've discussed here in the past seems to be at its greatest when it comes to feeding. Parents are scorned for giving their babies formula instead of breastmilk. Mothers are frowned upon for stopping breastfeeding early or for continuing to breastfeed their babies beyond what is considered socially acceptable in this country. Dirty looks (or worse) are given to moms who breastfeed their babies in public settings. I was shocked as a new mother when I realized how opinionated people were about this subject, to the point that, at first, I was scared to even discuss my personal experiences. Almost a year and a half later, I've decided to open up about our journey. I'm well aware of the potential of judgmental response to this (because, as you will learn more about in a minute, I'm still nursing a toddler who many Americans would consider to be too old to still receive breast milk). But my hope is that by me being transparent about all aspects of our experience, other parents might realize that - regardless of their own feeding journeys - they're not alone. So here we go.
When I was pregnant, I pretty much immediately made peace with the fact that however my baby was fed, I would do my absolute best to make sure she was getting proper nutrition, because that was all I could do. My mother breastfed both my sister and me, and many of my friends had breastfed their babies, but many had successfully used formula as well. I was completely open to formula, either as a supplement or as the main food source, but my ultimate goal was to breastfeed for six months - and if I made it that far, for one year. I took a breastfeeding class, watched a ton of breastfeeding videos, and bought a breast pump. I also purchased some formula and bottles. I was prepared for whatever came my way. Or so I thought.
In late December 2013, after 30 hours of draining, soul-sucking labor, my daughter was born. I was crippled with exhaustion, and although overjoyed to finally meet her, I was terrified that I simply didn't have the energy to breastfeed this first time - the time that you're repeatedly warned is so important. I was also worried that she wouldn't know what to do. Once the nurse placed her on my chest though, her instinct took over, and she began rooting. It was beautiful and amazing, and also painful and awkward. She did not latch well, and I felt like I was no help. It didn't feel natural like I'd hoped - I felt like I was positioning her incorrectly (everything I'd learned at breastfeeding class went out the window), my nipples ached, Essley was crying, and I was shaking so hard from intense labor and lack of sleep that I could barely hold her up. The nurses had to repeatedly guide me, and at several points, I wanted to give up. Eventually, we made it work. But I wasn't sure if it was going to work long term. It felt like 90% struggle, 10% joy.
The week that followed Essley's birth was riddled with feeding struggles, mostly due to my own anxieties. We left the hospital on a Monday evening, and I made an appointment with a lactation consultant for Thursday afternoon, the soonest I could get in. In the days before the appointment, I can't tell you how many times I called the hospital labor and delivery department with questions, mostly fueled by my intense (and admittedly irrational) fear that I wasn't feeding my baby properly. She'd lost weight at her first doctor appointment, and although she seemed to be latching properly, I was convinced that she wasn't getting enough milk. I also attempted to pump (I wanted to get used to it early, and also wanted to stockpile some colostrum), and that was its own special nightmare. Thanks to after birth hormone changes and a whole lot of sleeplessness, I was already a mess, and that first time pumping felt so foreign and strange that I full-on ugly cried the entire time I pumped, only stopping for breaths long enough to moan about how I felt like a cow. Oh, and when my milk came in that Tuesday morning (aka the biggest my boobs have ever been, times, like, a million), I was in horrendous pain for a good two days. After nine months of pregnancy that included serious issues in the final weeks, an insanely long labor, and the act of birthing itself, I had hoped that, aside from the massive lack of sleep that accompanies having a newborn, things would feel pretty damn easy. I just wasn't expecting this. It was really difficult to process all of the uncertainty and anguish when it came to feeding.
Thankfully, after that first week, the entire process slowly improved. My lactation consultant did a test while we were there that involved weighing Essley directly before and after I nursed her, and it turned out that she was getting plenty of milk. Phew! Just knowing this allowed for an intense sense of relief, and with some of the pressure off, things instantly felt more natural. We practiced different positions for holding her while feeding, which allowed me to learn which ways worked best for her and for me as well. I also started to pump once a day so that I could freeze some of my milk, and that began to feel less awkward as well. With time and practice, Essley and I both began to genuinely enjoy breastfeeding. I can't really put into words the immense bond I felt while nurturing my little girl in this way, and as time passed, it became better and better. I'll never forget all of those sweet, truly extraordinary moments where Essley and I looked into each other's eyes while we nursed. It was really, really special.
The story doesn't stop there though - and I won't pretend that it was all butterflies and rainbows from that point. It got easier and I learned to appreciate our nursing sessions once we got the hang of things, but breastfeeding is not pure bliss. First, I developed a condition called forceful letdown, when during certain times milk is overproduced. Essley would start to nurse and the milk would literally shoot out so intensely that she would gag and cough. Good times! I was lucky to never experience excessive nipple pain, but there were occasional instances when things got chaffed and cracked, which made the act of nursing agonizing. Then, of course, was the disaster known as the constant nighttime feedings of a cranky newborn. My daughter is as easygoing as it gets during the day, but man, this kid is a handful at night, and has been from day one. For months (and months), she wanted to nurse every hour (or more), all night long. And although my husband was able to eventually occasionally bottle feed her my breast milk (our lactation consultant was a big advocate of starting on a bottle from time to time at 6 weeks so that the baby could get used to it as an alternative to the breast), he was gone for weeks at a time for work, so there were many periods where I had no choice but to constantly wake up to nurse her. (And sleep deprivation is no joke. Yikes.) My issues with oversupply also made getting sleep a challenge, because even when Essley was bottle fed, I still had to pump or my breasts would become engorged. Then came the emotional side of breastfeeding - and I don't mean the sweet, blissful bond I described above. Breastfeeding requires serious dedication, and especially in the months before baby is used to the bottle, the mother is at the mercy of the feeding schedule. For a long time, I couldn't be away from Essley for more than a few hours. Ever. I was a slave to her and to the pump, and I won't pretend that there weren't times I wanted to hop on a plane to the freaking Bahamas for a week of solitude and fruit infused alcohol. When things got really hard, I tried to remind myself that a year wasn't that long. We just had to try to make it a year.
On December 28, 2014, Essley turned a year old, and thoughts of the weaning process began to enter my head. She was eating mostly solid foods now, and she guzzled bottles of almond milk, so I was confident that it would be an easy process. The timing was great too, as I was leaving on New Year's Eve to meet my husband in Atlanta for the band's NYE show, and would be spending the night away from her (two nights, actually) for the first time. Well she took her bottles from her grandparents like a champ, but when I returned, all the kid wanted was boob. I didn't want to force her to stop before she was ready, but I also felt pressured to wean her soon, because weaning at a year was the thing to do, or something. I mean, I'll admit I have some hippie roots still lingering in me from my tour-the-country-in-a-van years, but I was not gonna be that super granola mom with a five year old kid hanging off her breast. I told myself we'd take things slowly, and attempt to gradually cut out feedings, and increase her bottles of almond milk and organic cow's milk. The decrease in feedings worked, and eventually we were able to eliminate all daytime feedings except for the occasional nap time nursing session when she wouldn't fall asleep. But after about a month, we were hit with another obstacle - Essley suddenly decided, like out of nowhere, that she was totally over bottles. Like, over them. It was sippy cups or boobs, man, and if you tried to get a bottle near that kid's face, it was met with a swift swat of a tiny hand. It was a setback, but we kept at it until, at 15 months, she was only nursing once before bed and once in the morning. (Okay, and sometimes once in the night too. Because to this day, the kid still hates sleep. Sigh.)
At this point I'd been officially breastfeeding for 1.25 years, and although I felt like a seasoned pro, I was now faced with a whole new issue: judgment. While I got plenty of encouragement and 'you go!'s from those who genuinely supported how long I'd been nursing, I also got my fair share of rude looks, 'oh wow, you're still nursing her, craaaazy' type remarks, and plentiful unsolicited advice on how to wean this child immediately before she became a clingy, overly dependent wreck. While I felt confident in almost all of the choices I'd made as a parent, and was well past the point where I cared what anyone else thought about them, those feelings of insecurity from my early days of breastfeeding resurfaced, albeit in a different ways. In reality, although I was ready whenever she was for our nursing journey to come to an end, I never stopped enjoying it, and clearly Essley didn't either. Our doctors had assured us that it was still beneficial, and that there was no need to stop until I decided it was truly the right time. But I still found myself dodging the subject when around others who weren't very close friends or family as a mean to avoid feeling judged. I kept telling myself, 'when she turns 16 months I'll force this to stop. When she turns 17 months I'll force this to stop.' But then she turned 17 months, and that night, she wanted to nurse before bed, and that was that. I decided right then and there that I was going to follow the same mantra I did for all other aspects of my parental journey and do what was best for us, period. And I breastfed my toddler to sleep.
And that leads me to today. Essley will be a year and a half old on Sunday. (What? Wait, how?) She now usually falls asleep without even a suckle of breastmilk, and often wakes up in the morning ready to get right down to some serious toy playing, without even a thought of the boob entering her mind. She still nurses, even if just for 30 seconds, at some point almost every night - but it's slowly becoming less of a regular occurrence. I've completely given up on pushing the issue. It all feels very easy and natural now, and I'm grateful for all of it. I'm even grateful for the judgment, because it's allowed me to realize how much judgment exists around baby/toddler feeding choices and methods in general, which has thus enabled me to be more compassionate and empathetic myself.
Like the other triumphs in our breastfeeding journey, this, again, is not all fun and no suffering. Just try nursing a toddler as you're being smacked in face, with a foot jabbed into your ribcage, your other nipple being twisted by a tiny, sharp fingernail before that little mouth switches frantically to the other breast, ya know, in case its missing something. Or experience for yourself the joys of being at the grocery store and feeling a little hand reaching into your bra as you lean over to grab a box of cereal off the shelf while onlookers either laugh or shake their heads. (Hey, she may only nurse at night, but my cleavage is her still her 'safe place' at all hours of the day, regardless of appropriateness of location.) But less-than-stellar aspects aside, as I watch our breastfeeding journey slowly reach its final period, I am able to look back over all of it (present moments included) and feel like it's been a fulfilling, mostly joyful experience. And when it comes to the twisted road of parenting, you can't ask for much more than that.
Are you still reading? If so, high fives and sincere thank you's for allowing me to share this very personal experience with you. If you're currently feeding a baby or toddler, and have felt any doubt about your own journey, I hope that reading this has enabled you to see that regardless of how or for how long we breastfeed or formula feed our babies, as long as we are nurturing them to the best of our abilities, we're doing it right. Period.
Thank you for following along during my time working with the Sisterhood of Motherhood project! It really has been a pleasure to be a part of this campaign, and it has motivated me to want to continue to write about parenting and support among parents here on the blog from time to time. For even more inspiration in the quest of kindness, watch this amazing video for the Sisterhood of Motherhood. And if you have a feeding journey of your own, I'd love to hear about it!
Similac partnered with bloggers such as me for its Sisterhood of Motherhood Program. As part of this program, I received compensation for my time. Similac believes that consumers and bloggers are free to form their own opinions and share them in their own words. Similac’s policies align with WOMMA Ethics Code, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines and social media engagement recommendations. Find Similac on Facebook here. #SisterhoodUnite #ParentsFirst #sponsored
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