Dear Lily June,
Of everything that happened with the pregnancy and your birth, what still haunts me even to this minute is what happened with breastfeeding. Some days, it sends a stinging wave through my memory so fresh, I feel as if I am drowning all over again, and I lay awake, as I did last night, and weep with the feelings of shame and failure and heartache to have lost such a precious physical bond with you (though I swear, I’ll let nothing break the emotional connection we’ll create over the course of your lifetime, if you’ll let me get, as I want to, Gilmore Girl close).
It starts, like most things in my life do, with a whole lot of reading and studying. I read online and in print religiously about how good breastfeeding was for me and you. From hormone regulation in my body and saved expenses in my wallet to the physical immunities for, and emotional bond with, you, I was sold: The plan was to breastfeed until you were at least one. When I went back to work, I would pump.
But I got overwhelmed quickly by diagrams of techniques and the constant threat that if you weren’t latched correctly, it would tear my nipples to hamburger meat and starve you to death. That didn’t end up being an issue. You took to nursing like a fish to water immediately, Lily. I remember reading, once upon a time, that lovers’ bodies produce a chemical that allows their lips to find each other in the dark. It was like that; some part of you just knew what to do so that even in the midst of my clumsy football and cradle and cross-over holds, you were able to latch almost instantly and get the milk while the getting was good.
And while we were still in the hospital, lactation consultants and nurses would constantly check me, and they approved. All, at least, but the last nurse we saw before we left, who told me I was doing it wrong, and I was starving you, and who was so pushy, she fed you formula to calm you and hooked a supplemental nursing system to my boob (for additional feeding through a tube) almost before I could get my wits about me to refuse. She was the first hitch in my confidence that you and I just naturally knew what to do.
After all, I couldn’t see the colostrum–the earliest milk produced, supposedly thick as a golden stew but only excreted by the teaspoon–so I didn’t trust that I knew my body better than a neonatal nurse did. That was the first thing I did wrong.
On the night we came home from the hospital, I turned calmly to your dad and said, “You know this is going to be the hardest night of our lives, right?” For some reason, I thought acknowledging it would give us a leg up on the situation and would lessen the feeling of fear when you first started wailing, and we weren’t surrounded by a team of experts ready to correct our swaddle and encourage our cuddle and such. It did not make that first night–caught as we were by the grip of pure, unadulterated panic–easier in the slightest.
So terrified was I that you were starving, we even took some of the supplementary formula the pushy nurse had pushed us home with and gave a bottle to you. That was my second mistake, but we’d tried everything–singing, rocking, shushing, a swaddle that, if you were a baby burrito, would have left you strewing lettuce and tomato everywhere in your midst–and nothing worked. Nothing calmed you.
In retrospect, you probably looked deep into the eyes of your parents, two loving but sleep-deprived and terrified deer in headlights, and were rightfully scared to be left alone with us. Despite all of the books and all the classes, we were a parenting slapstick routine right from the get-go, only without all the grace. Again, in retrospect, I have this advice to offer you, should you have children, about that first night you take the baby home.
Remember, at all times, to repeat these mantras during the course of that first night alone with your baby:
- It ends.
- It ends.
- It ends.
Not keeping that in mind was my third mistake. At the time, that first precious night felt, sincerely, never-ending, and between your screams and my pain and daddy’s fear and any permutation of that combination, I didn’t know how we would make it to morning. But somehow, someway, we all did, kid.
And then, about a week after being home from the hospital (where I’d had to have a catheter in for four days straight), I got an infection. The OB/GYN prescribed first an antibiotic that would be dangerous to use while breastfeeding. Your dad, double-checking with the pharmacist, found this out after he’d already paid. No refunds, no exchanges. I called my doctor and asked for another script, which he dutifully called in. This one was Keflex, a prescription known, in a percentage of patients who are allergic to penicillin (like I am) to create a bad reaction. In fact, the pharmacist, knowing my allergy, didn’t even want to sell it to us.
So there was my choice: Take a drug that could send me back into the hospital (but was safe for you) or take a medicine that could harm your development (but was safe for me). It wasn’t a fair decision but one I made nonetheless: I unhesitatingly picked the one that was safe for you and kept breastfeeding, ready at any minute for my skin to break out into hives or for my throat to close up or for me as a whole to just drop dead. Somehow, I didn’t, and we kept breastfeeding like all the books and all the classes and all the doctors said we were supposed to.
And then, from lack of sleep, I got some serious hallucinations. I was feeding you about every two to three hours–not long enough for this anxious light-sleeper to catch so much as a cat nap. By my calculations, I was awake for a solid eleven days straight. My brain would take micro-naps with you snoring on my chest, but my body would jerk back awake when I would hear the threat whispered by an unknown new voice in my ear, “Don’t fall asleep. You’ll crush her.”
On the couple of days during that second week when I was able to get more rest, my dreams were mostly of flattening you accidentally as I rolled on you, or mistakenly losing you in the blankets in our bed (where you never even slept since you had your own bassinet, but only ever nodded off when I was in the recliner and you were on my or your dad’s chests). It got so dreams were too stressful a place to retreat to.
From the lack of sleep and the inferno of anxiety, my supply took a hit, and my breasts were no longer producing like they were supposed to. I ordered fenugreek and lactation cookies, but I didn’t have the patience or the peace to let them arrive. Suddenly, at your weight checks twice a week, you plateaued. Then, horror beyond explanation, you began to lose weight.
Your dad started feeding you a supplementary bottle at night, and you got a bit more shut-eye, but I was as nervous as ever, watching your body as if, just by scrutiny, I could telepathically put the weight on you. Trying to witness you add an ounce was like trying to watch paint dry: It drove me insane, and it didn’t add anything to the process.
It got so I was setting an endless stream of timers on my phone–one to start feeding you; one to switch breasts; one for the next feeding; one to change you. I was trying to cram your life and mine into some semblance of order. I was trying to predict when you would cry and cut it off at the pass. In trying to organize the calls of nature of a newborn baby, I may as well have been nailing Jell-O to a tree.
And all the while, there was advice from your dad’s and my well-meaning mothers; there were strategies from nurses and doctors; there were paragraphs on websites and in books; and there was the most useless advice of all: that I “follow [my] instincts.”
For someone with OCPD, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, my instincts are always to panic. It’s like there’s an alarm ever-present and itching, just under the skin, to go off in me. The same instincts that cause a deer to pause, mid-headlight in the middle of a highway, as a semi- comes barreling at them; these are the ways my cross-wired brain fires.
In addition to Murphy’s Law (which states that anything which can go wrong, will), I was now functioning firmly under Segal’s Law, an adage which reads,
“A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.”
Only I was surrounded by watches, literal- and figuratively. Between friends and family, what I’d read and what I’d been taught, I was being inundated like I was strolling down a buffet line of cuckoo clocks deciding which times should fill my plate. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?!) And the stress of trying to decide what was right for you and me, what would keep us both sane and alive, was crippling. My IC (interstitial cystitis) flared up as a result of the coffee I started drinking again to stay alert and awake (and alive!), and I just couldn’t take it anymore. The clock had to stop for a minute.
After three weeks of struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety (and the guilt of having postpartum depression, too; look it up online, and all you’ll find is article after article about is how getting PPD will essentially ruin your child for the rest of her life) with no sleep and chronic pain and a bad supply and a lot of love for you and fear that you wouldn’t be able to thrive, I made the judgment call to give breastfeeding up.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because I adored the snuggling and the cuddling and the cozying up with you. I loved knowing it was my body that had been keeping you alive. I loved the ritual and the bond and following all the rules like “Breast is Best.” I felt more like a woman, a mother, and a feminist than I ever have before or since. It was an experience that was beautiful and powerful like a tidal wave that would eventually come to crush me if I stood too long in awe. I had to, very begrudgingly, step away.
I still, I admit, don’t know if what I did was the right thing to do. That’s what hurts the most. Should I, Lily, have tried harder or faster to fix myself for you? Could I have if I wanted to? I usually feel so certain of my opinions in these letters, but on this one, Lily, I just don’t have a clue. I am, for all of this, so sorry.
What I am certain of, because I put it up on Facebook the day after it happened, is a memory. On June 5, this was my online status:
After three weeks, I was devastated to have to give up breastfeeding. Yesterday, the first time I was the one to give “Lily” her formula bottle, I wept big alligator tears onto her back, as the hormones and disappointment poured out of me.
And my precious daughter reached her little fist up and gripped my finger. She “held my hand” the whole time as if to say It was all okay.* Among her many talents is teaching me how to be a more patient, loving, and (self) accepting mama.
For that moment, as for every one we have gotten and will get to share, I am immeasurably grateful, Lily. Thank you, my little love, for being my daughter.
*P.S. Incidentally, yes, that’s the story behind the image, horribly distorted I know but deeply meaningful, in my Gravatar profile. I keep it as a symbol to remind me.*
- “Nursing area sign” by Pete unseth – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nursing_area_sign.png#/media/File:Nursing_area_sign.png
- “Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895 FAIL” by Publication of the original photo attributed to Levy & fils per  – Original uploader of this modified version was Epheterson at en.wikipedia.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895_FAIL.jpg#/media/File:Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895_FAIL.jpg
- “Fawn in Forest edit” by Veledan – English Wikipedia, original upload 27 August 2005 by Veledan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fawn_in_Forest_edit.jpg#/media/File:Fawn_in_Forest_edit.jpg
- “Watch Mechanical Quartz Comparison” by Hustvedt – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Watch_Mechanical_Quartz_Comparison.jpg#/media/File:Watch_Mechanical_Quartz_Comparison.jpg