On Tuesday, November 7th, I felt overwhelmingly guilty. Maci came home from the hospital the day before that. I never gave her formula, never pumped, and spent the entire day and night holding her while attempting to breastfeed the colostrum I was producing, just like I had while we were still in the hospital. We showed up at her first appointment on the 7th and discovered she had high levels of bilirubin. She had jaundice and dropped to 5 pounds and 10 ounces, losing the full 10% of her birth weight. We were immediately being sent to the NICU at Cook Children’s Hospital. It took everything in me to not completely break down in front of Bobby and my mom as I frantically packed our bags. I felt like it was my fault. I had forced her to breastfeed from my breast the small amounts of colostrum I had been producing, placing drops of it into her mouth since she wasn’t latching properly and would fall asleep on me every time. I felt as though I had starved her. All for my own selfish reasons to bond through breastfeeding the way I had assumed would be natural and so easy. On the way to the hospital, I sat in the back of the car next to Maci as Bobby drove us through evening traffic. I stared at her tiny face with her hand tightly wrapped around my finger thinking about these things and wondering how I could have let this happen to her and how I could be so selfish to not just pump or at least give her formula while we learned how to breastfeed together. I felt so guilty and like I was already failing as her mother.
While we were in the NICU, the nurses showed me how to pump and feed her through a bottle. I would attempt to breastfeed for a few minutes before feeding her with my pumped milk, which was just colostrum at the time. She would always fall asleep when at my breast, couldn’t open her mouth wide enough and could never latch. It was hard enough for us to get her to drink 50 milliliters. I decided to pump every 3 hours from that point forward while we were in the NICU. Anytime she was being bottle fed by Bobby, I would be pumping. She was only supplemented with formula a few times before I had pumped enough to keep up with her. I could tell this was going to be so much harder than I had ever imagined. The second night, she was no longer under the lights and I could finally hold her again outside of feedings. Even though I hadn’t slept much and was swollen, I sat and held her in the dim light while she slept and we listened to the low rumble of Bobby’s snores on the couch next to us. I just stared at her. The nurse walked in a few times to check on us and eventually asked if I was doing okay. I teared up as soon as she asked. She was so sweet and sat next to me reassuring me that it was okay. That pumping my breastmilk for Maci was okay. That pumping IS breastfeeding. That I was doing everything right. She was a wonderful nurse.
By the time we were discharged from the NICU, Maci had gained a few ounces and was consistently drinking 2 ounces at each feeding every 2 1/2 to 3 hours. I continued to pump when we got home, but also continued to attempt to breastfeed her with the same results. She was still having difficulties latching. I was still questioning why this was so hard. Why I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know how to properly breastfeed.
Seven weeks later, Maci still hasn’t latched. She also hasn’t had formula since she was in the NICU. She only drinks my breastmilk (5 ounces now!) and I pump every 4-5 hours. Luckily, I produce enough milk to have several bags in the freezer and at least 6 fresh bottles in the fridge at all times. But let me tell you, exclusively pumping and never supplementing with formula is HARD. It’s hard emotionally and physically. Especially when all I want is to be able to breastfeed her straight from my breast. Not just for the convenience and to avoid the endless bottle and breast pump washing. I would love to bond with her in that special breastfeeding way, but I have to tell myself that she still drinks my breastmilk and I’m still providing her with the best thing there is for her. She’s just receiving it from a bottle rather than directly from my breast. It can be a hard pill to swallow.
Physically, pumping is exhausting and my nipples were torn apart the first few weeks. The skin literally peeled right off and completely freaked me out. (Thank goodness for the Lansinoh HPA Lanolin cream that has saved my life!) I’m sure something very similar happens when baby gets ahold of them, but good grief. I can see why some mothers who may go through something similar to me would give up on either a) continuing to attempt breastfeeding, or b) exclusively pumping to breastfeed, and just resort to formula. I would be lying if I said it hasn’t crossed my mind once or twice when I’m pumping at 4am after spending the last two hours feeding her and getting her back to sleep. Sitting there pumping alone while sleep deprived with sore nipples can do that to you. But the truth is, I can’t really imagine giving up. I attempted to breastfeed her earlier this morning. It was another failed attempt, but she did get a decent latch for a few good seconds. Its crazy how even just those few moments with each attempt bring me so much happiness.
This all got me thinking. After I gave birth, the lactation consultants were so certain that Maci was going to easily latch before we were discharged. Almost like it would be shocking if she didn’t. My Instagram feed was full of moms who were successfully breastfeeding. I didn’t even know anyone who expressed their struggles with breastfeeding, just seemed like everyone easily managed it. It wasn’t until I really started searching that I found other moms who went through the same struggle, who exclusively pump and share similar stories. But these moms weren’t the ones showcased on social media or praised for their dedication to still providing their babies with their breastmilk even if it meant spending countless hours a day pumping. I wish I would have seen more of that before I had Maci so it was less shocking and scary for me as a new mom. I just never knew it was such a touchy subject to bring up with mothers until now. I guess I’m probably different in a way since I love to share and discuss the tough stuff. I would feel so much more alone had I not found a few other mothers out there who decided to bravely share their imperfect breastfeeding experience.
And, honestly, all types of moms should be celebrated. Whether it’s breastfeeding straight from the breast, exclusively pumping by choice, exclusively pumping by circumstance, providing formula by choice, or providing formula by circumstance, all of these result in your baby growing and being loved. Not one of these will make one mother better than another. Like everything else I’ve discovered about motherhood, it took me a while to realize that.
The guilt I once had ended up taking a while to begin to subside within me and it still lingers at times. I’m not afraid to admit that. I just have to continue to see the positivity in my situation. I always think back to that last night in the NICU and my talk with the nurse. She said pumping is breastfeeding. And that stuck with me. My body is able to produce more than enough milk for Maci. She gets the benefits of it all. Mostly in her chin(s) and cheeks. That’s really the most important thing, right?
I would do anything for those cheeks. Even if having my nipples ripped, sitting through endless pump sessions at 4am, and the occasional “cry over spilt milk” is what I have to do.