As a pregnant woman, the idea of being a parent was still beyond my understanding. I could barely grasp the concept of lifeÂ with a baby, let alone imagine what our baby would be like in personality and temperament. My conception of motherhoodÂ was theoretical at best, and so I didn’t make bigÂ goals or dedicate myself to parenting philosophies, and, if I’m being honest, I never felt 100% committed to the idea of breastfeeding. I planned to try it, and imagined itÂ to be a sacrifice I mightÂ make for the wellbeing my baby. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out.
When Juniper arrived, breastfeeding was off to a rocky start withÂ latch issues, low production, and discomfort. The nurses would put her to my breast and she would partially latch whileÂ pressing her tongue to the side, sending waves of pain. I would attempt to pump instead,Â and fifteen minutes later the bottle would be completely empty; I would run my finger along the flange to pick up residue and that would be all I could feed my baby. I was discouraged, but the nurses said not to worry, my milk would come in.
Juniper’s latch improved and my milk came in a few days later. The pain wasn’t as severe and I thought things were going well. I loved holding my warm, sleeping baby against my body. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why she would scream partway through nursing. At her first doctor’s appointment, I found out she had lost 12% of her body weight (beyond the acceptable amount) and was crying from hunger. When she would cease to nurse, it was out of exhaustion rather than fullness. I was crushed. I remember leaving the hospital room with a brave face and slipping my sunglasses on in the lobby, hoping they would cover the tears streaming down my face.
I felt incapable. My body couldn’t provide what my baby needed… and what kind of a mother was I to listen to her scream and not understand she was still hungry? I was full ofÂ ugly thoughts. Nobody ever mentioned anything to me about how difficult breastfeeding could be beyond the initial discomfort. I fell into the appealingÂ trap ofÂ thinking breastfeeding wasÂ natural and womanly, and therefore something my body should just be able to do. In my mind, it had simply been a choice womenÂ made – “Are you planning to breastfeed or formula feed?” I was deceived in the same manner womenÂ are when they imagine starting a family to be nothing more thanÂ a decision born of will and fortitude, overlooking challenges they may face like infertility, miscarriage, or simply life not going as planned. But it wasn’t simple, and I couldn’t will my body to do anything. And, if you don’t know already, breastfeeding is f*ckingÂ hard.
I gatheredÂ advice from everywhere I could get it: lactation consultants, pediatricians, nurses, friends, forums. I was pumpingÂ after every feeding and power-pumping at night. I took every supplement, drank every tea, and made every lactation recipe you can imagine. I ate endless bowls of flavorless oatmeal, changed my diet, drank water, and put Juniper to my breast over and over and over again. And guess what… I still didn’t make enough milk for my baby.
The truth is, I didn’t think I’d feel so invested. I imagined that if it didn’t work out, I would feel like it just wasn’t meant to be, cease breastfeeding, and move happily along to formula, but that’s not what happened. And it wasn’t “mom guilt” that kept me going; nobody does something that hard for any reason other thanÂ love. Once we made it out of those initial days of darkness, I found that I loved nursing Juniper. I loved how she closed her eyes the moment she latched and how her whole body would instinctively relax. I loved being skin-to-skin with her and making something that would provide nutrients and antibodies to keep her healthy. Nothing made me feel more connected to my brand new baby. It was my favorite way to love her.
We added formula to her diet to get her weight up and her bilirubin levels down. We started with a syringe, hoping we only needed to supplement a little for a short while. When that wasn’t enough, we used anÂ SNS tube so I could breastfeed and supplement at the same time. And when it was clear that supplementing was going to be longterm (and quite honestly that “supplement” wasn’t even the right word because formula was, in fact, half her diet), we gave ourselves over to bottles.
I wanted to make breastfeeding work, and so I was up in the middle of the night nursing, supplementing, and pumping in succession every few hours. I was exhausted and hormonal, and doing my best while feeling like a failure.
I was surprised by my passion for breastfeeding, and overwhelmed by my inability to produce the amount of milk Juniper needed. It had beenÂ months of trying everything to increase my supply, and with the nurse-bottle-pump cycle, I was starting a two hour routine over every three hours. So I let it go. I let the stress and the pressure go; I let myself get some sleep, and began to considerÂ formula part of our permanent plan. I cried many tears, but I knew Juniper was going to be just fine and so was I.
Breastfeeding is heavy with emotional baggage. Whether you have an undersupply, oversupply, or skipÂ breastfeeding altogether (by choice or otherwise), there is no denying that the feelings associated with itÂ are complicated ones. The babies we grew, who relied on us for everything, are now out and about in this great big world,Â receiving care from people other than us. Breastfeeding can be the red ribbon that keeps us connected just a little bit longer — something only we can provide.
I know our breastfeeding journey will end at some point, whether it be a few weeks or a few months, and when I think about it too much, it’s hard not to flush with tears.Â It’sÂ a reminder that our babies grow up, and motherhood is a lifetime of letting go little by little.
I continue to nurse JuniperÂ on demand and fill the gaps with bottles. Initially, supplementing made me feel like I couldn’t celebrate our breastfeeding milestones, in that same ugly way weÂ women so often feel we are not enough, but I am fighting against that, and celebrating five months with my baby girl.Â Although five months means she is all waving arms and wiggling toes, when sheÂ latches on sheÂ closes her eyes just like she did when she was new and tiny. In that moment, we belong to each other.
Photos above celebratingÂ five months ofÂ breastfeeding in sunny Flagler Beach, Florida.