Feeding our babies looks different for lots of different mamas. To close out August, Breastfeeding Awareness Month, I’d like to share my story with you.
My first daughter, Mazie, was born in January 2011 and nursing came extremely easy for both of us, even though she had a traumatic birth. From the moment she came out, though, she suffered from colic. The only, and I mean only, thing that would calm her down for the first 5 months of her life was nursing. So, she and I sat up in our house for hours every day, nursing. And she grew. By her 3-month appointment, Mazie was in the 97th percentile for height and weight. She was huge! And she had those great baby rolls on her legs. Her belly protruded out and she had a quadruple chin. And I was proud… not only of her, but of myself, too. I grew this baby in my stomach, and now I was nourishing her into being a 6’4” volleyball player (someday).
I nursed her everywhere, too. No one ever asked me to cover up or leave. Maybe it was the look on my face that just dared them to say something… because I was prepared to get big and loud. Instead, people complimented me. They encouraged me to keep up the good work. Friends, family, and even strangers commented that Mazie was growing so big because, “she’s a breast-fed baby,” and so healthy because, “mother’s milk is best.” And my heart soared.
Mazie nursed until she was 18 months old. And truthfully, I think she would have nursed for longer, but I was 6 months pregnant with Violet at the time and Mazie didn’t fit on my lap anymore.
Violet was born in November 2012. And unfortunately, the first year of her life will always be wrapped up with the last 6 months of my father’s life. Less than two weeks before Violet was born, my dad went into the emergency room for the first time, suffering complications from his chemotherapy. He had gotten down to about 140 lbs and the chemo wasn’t working. As his treatments got stronger and he got weaker, the cancer grew.
Those of you who have experienced the loss of a parent know the sense of desperation that comes as you watch that parent slip away slowly, day by day. It was such a strange time because the emotions in my heart couldn’t have been more opposite. I had a brand new, perfect, wonderful little baby, and I was watching my father die. While I tried to keep those emotions separate, at Violet’s 3-month appointment, her pediatrician labeled her as “failure to thrive.” Failure.
Despite my best efforts to compartmentalize my emotions and to still feel the joy of a new baby, the grief and fear of losing my father were taking their toll. My milk supply began to dwindle. I was failing my baby. I drank Mother’s Milk tea. I loaded up on milk production supplements. I read up on old wives’ tales, drank a Guinness a day, tried to pump… all to no avail.
Now before you jump to my defense, let me assure you that my intellectual, rational mind knows that this wasn’t my “fault.” I know that sometimes, life happens. But as I looked at her skinny little legs, her scrawny arms, her petite stature, my emotional mind thought that I should have been stronger. I wanted desperately to nurse her back to healthy. But as time passed, and her weekly weigh-ins continued to show no weight gain, I had to face the fact that I needed to supplement, then ultimately replace her nursing with formula.
In May, the day before her 6-month birthday, my dad died. And two weeks later, I had my final nursing session with my sweet baby. She began to eat solid food. And she drank only formula.
Because I had gotten so much support from others nursing Mazie, whenever I bottle-fed Violet in public, I felt so ashamed. If people were so proud of me for breastfeeding, would they think less of me for feeding my baby formula? I hated putting that powder in her bottle and shaking it up with water. I found myself explaining to people, complete strangers, that I wanted to nurse her, but I had lost my milk in my grief. In that time, I lost so much.
But time kept right on going, just like it always does. I had to learn what our new lives looked like. There were days that I thought of the part in Sleepless in Seattle where Sam tells Dr. Marsha Fieldstone, “Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out…” There were many times that I forgot to take formula and bottles with us when we left the house and I had to make a quick Target detour en route to wherever we were headed. There were (and still are) times when I wished I could just nurse Violet to calm her down. And there were times that I was grateful that I could just hand her a bottle in her stroller and let her fall asleep. But no matter my feelings of guilt or frustration, I continued to do what most of us do… I did the best that I could for my baby.
Although my story might differ from some of yours, I’m writing it to let other mamas who struggle with nursing know that you are not alone. I’m writing to tell you that people might be judging you for putting that powder in the bottle. But YOU know that you’re doing the best thing for your baby. Stand strong in that, as I have learned to do. I’m writing to tell you that even though you feel like a failure, you aren’t. Maybe I’m writing to tell myself that, too. Because I so desperately want to STILL be nursing Violet right this very moment. It is such a magical bond that I feel like I missed out on with her. It’s almost enough to make me want to have another baby. Almost.
I’m also writing to tell you (and me) that Violet is perfect, with or without nursing. On her first birthday, our pediatrician took her measurements, hugged me, and said, “Our girl is thriving!” And I cried. Really hard. And she still thrives. She is quite the opposite of her sister in nearly every way. She is small; at 22 months, she still fits into some 12-month skirts and dresses. She is dark; I often joke with people that she is a little fairy changeling, or, if you’ve read the Mists of Avalon, she’s of the Old Blood and maybe will be come Lady of the Lake someday. She is loud; if she is unhappy about something, she will let you know, and she’s not kidding. But just like her sister, she doesn’t look at me as a failure. She just sees her mama who loves her. She holds my hand and plays with my hair, and when she is sleepy or hurt or sometimes just standing in the living room, she says, “I need you, Mommy.”
And that, mamas, is not a failure.