When my little girl turned 11 months old, I pumped for the last time. I knew it was going to be the last one when I hooked myself up to my nemesis, and my best friend, for nearly the past year. I pumped in the morning while my husband fed her – it was like any normal morning, I didn’t feel any different. I never imagined I would become an exclusive pumper. But when my baby girl was born four weeks early – via an emergency c-section, and weighing in at only 3lbs 12oz (read more here about this unexpected start to new motherhood), I realized that my journey was not going to be how I’d imagined.
That weekday morning, I looked over at my baby girl again, having fun with her dad while drinking her bottle. She was smiling – she is thriving, I thought. She is happy and healthy and cheeky and so incredibly smart. Is this exactly how she would be if I decided that pumping was too hard and transitioned her to formula? Probably. There’s no living life like Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors and finding out the answers to those “What if?” questions but I am sure my little girl would be just as happy, healthy, cheeky and smart no matter how she was fed. Would I have had an easier transition to motherhood if I could’ve nursed? Or if I decided I couldn’t breastfeed at all – pumping, or nursing? Maybe. Maybe I would’ve found nursing too hard, been too ashamed to nurse in public and felt trapped at home, like I sometimes did because of my pump schedule. Maybe no matter how you feed your child, there is anxiety, doubt, resentment, shame, fear and loneliness. Maybe that’s just how motherhood starts.
I had always assumed I would breastfeed, lovingly nursing my child like the woman in the poster at my OB clinic was. I saw my sisters and friends nurse, so it never crossed my mind that I might not be able to; that my baby might not know how to; or might not have enough stamina to because she was too small and too weak and that trying to nurse would burn more calories than what she might actually consume. When we left the hospital, after 17 days in the NICU, I thought I would be taking my baby home and we’d soon be breastfeeding so blissfully, because that’s what everyone does (or so I thought). “Just stick her on your breast, she’ll be so hungry she’s bound to figure it out”, people said. “You won’t produce enough if you don’t nurse, you’ll just dry up”, they continued. We went to countless lactation appointments and I was told to keep practicing. At one appointment, I was told to try nursing for 20 minutes, then give the bottle, and then pump. With feeds every three hours, when was I supposed to eat, or sleep, or just be me? I wondered. I felt trapped. Trapped in this constant cycle of nursing attempts, feeds, and pumps. It was like groundhog day, just every three hours. I cried. Actually, I wailed. I cried while I fed her, I cried while I pumped, I cried all the time. I cried because I felt as though life was unfair. But then I stopped and listened to others. I listened to the mother who had so much milk, her baby would gag every time she nursed so she had to pump before each nursing session. I listened to the mother whose baby lost weight because she wasn’t consuming enough at each feed. I listened to the mom who couldn’t go longer than two hours without pumping because she would be so engorged, she would be in pain. I realized I wasn’t alone in this new mom feeding distress.
My little girl finally latched a month before I was due to return to work – after five months of trying nearly every day. I nursed her when we were home, where I was comfortable as I still mastered my technique. By then, we were in a pretty good routine with the feeds and the pumps and I knew that I would have to continue to pump once I went back. I also felt a little uneasy not knowing how much my little girl was consuming when I nursed. So I continued to pump, and after a while, I stopped nursing. When I returned to work, I liked working around my schedule, not hers. Pumping at work was stressful, so I dropped a pump, and the world didn’t end. My output took a drop, so I supplemented with formula..and the world didn’t end. She continued to thrive, and be happy and I was starting to feel like my normal self again. I dropped more pumps, until I was at one a day – which is where I continued for a month before I decided to stop completely.
So that weekday morning, it wasn’t until I started washing my pump parts the morning of my girl’s 11 month birthday, that it hit me. I looked over at my bathroom counter – another set of pump parts and a basket full of bottles and caps sat on the side. I started at them, and cried softly, then even harder. I felt sad and happy and sad all over again. It was over. It felt like it had only just begun. I remembered that first in hospital so clearly – using my hands to draw out the tiniest bit of colostrum and sending my husband down to the NICU with a small spoonful, to make sure my little girl got a taste. I recall the day the nurse showed me how to hand express, and while I felt like I was being milked like a cow – so painful and so surreal – we watched in awe. I remember the first time I was shown how to connect to the hospital grade pump, a machine that became my best friend and my enemy for days and months following.
There are so many things I wished I had done differently during this journey. Or wish I’d known. I wish I was easier on myself. I wish I knew that everyone’s journey was hard, even if it looked easy. I wish I knew more about people’s breastfeeding journeys, before I embarked on my own. I wish I knew it was okay to miss a pump. I was told very early on, that breastfeeding was a tiny part of motherhood and there was so much more that mattered. I wish I had listened.
Are you having a hard time breastfeeding? Is it not how you imagined? Know that you’re not alone and fed really is best. What’s most important is you – your sanity, your health, and your ability to be the best mom to your little one. I hope this article helped any mamas out there struggling with breastfeeding, and especially those feeling overwhelmed by the ALL THE PUMPING. You’ve got this, and you should be so proud of just being you, and creating your amazing human being.