To Pump or not to Pump? A First-time Mother Reflects on her Journey with Breastfeeding.
How many of us fall into having a family because it’s the next thing on the list?
I was guilty of this very thing, falling into the next phase of my life without understanding what was actually needed and quite possible. It was the relationship, the house, the marriage and… then the baby.
I write this article as the mother of a very gorgeous (and I’m not biased, that seems to be everyone’s description of her) toddler. The induction to motherhood – those first six months were gruelling – although I have a deep love for my daughter, I used to say I would never walk those steps again and I could not understand how women had more than one child. Now I simply say I would do it very differently – hence the purpose of this article.
It is far from uncommon to hear mothers telling first time pregnant women their horror stories of labour or pregnancy with plenty of identification but no actual understanding, or responsibility of why their experience was so intense and horrific. We may as well be war veterans sharing our memories of the trenches. I don’t want to join these veterans and have since reflected on how and why my pregnancy was fairly intense; with morning sickness from week seven pretty much around the clock, living on scrambled egg and original flavoured potato crisps until I made it (barely) into my second trimester and had some reprieve from the intense nausea and weird food choices.
I then arrived in my third trimester where a bizarre nerve pain that nobody, including me, could actually locate or diagnose – it didn’t quite qualify as sciatic pain but it did an excellent job at disabling me and made walking a very risky business. By the time full term came about I was ready to birth and get this baby out!
And out she came! My entire birth was fast – three hours and fifteen minutes fast (I seemed to skip the whole pre-labour part). I remember having my daughter passed to me, so tiny, so fragile and thinking “oh my god…is this real?” Because I hadn't connected to the purpose and all it meant to choose to have a baby when deciding to get pregnant, I was not able to tune into exactly what was needed. Becoming a mum is an intense time and there is sure to be some confusion and overwhelm, but I now know that I was lacking the connection to my inner stillness and wisdom, which was all that was really needed.
I recall being given the baby to breastfeed and having her hungry, sucking mouth latch onto my breast, before I’d had a moment to recover from the trauma of giving birth – my legs were still trembling from the ordeal. As she suckled, her eyes tightly shut, I placed my finger in her very tiny hand and watched. I’d seen this moment on movies, in friends’ photos on social media and even in the pre-birthing classes – an imperative moment for the baby to bond with her mother and although I could feel a magnificent awe at the being in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the hungry sucking mouth latched onto my breast – possibly because I had never related to my breasts in this way.
On reflection and if I’m deeply honest this was the first of many moments where the ingrained ideal overrode my bodily instinct. I “reached” so to speak for the picture of the mother/child bonding moment and forced myself to pretend to be at ease in this moment – “I’m sure I’ll get used to this I told myself”.
Fast track those first three to four days and I was sitting on my living room sofa with my midwife who was orientating me around a commercial grade breast pump and reading the ingredients of the various different types of formulas to me, while I tried to decide which one would be the least damaging. I never expected to have to make this decision and it felt like so much responsibility. My milk hadn’t come in, my daughter had been crying for days, she was frantic, hungry and unimpressed with the supply.
Mothering is riddled with ideals, beliefs, expectations, opinions and pressures from how long your baby sleeps, how often they feed, throw up, burp, how often they poo, how wet their nappies are, how much is correct tummy-time, when they sit up, crawl, smile, clap, when you put your child into care, bottle feed, breastfeed, getting baby into solids etc – these milestones are endless and insidious and contribute enormously to the cacophony of noise around the mother, the same noise that our veteran war stories contribute to – but why? What’s the purpose of this incessant noise – it simply drowns out the connection to stillness, the quality that otherwise allows the experience/moment to be deeply read, understood and then actioned or confirmed by the mother from her innate knowing (that lies within this place of stillness).
Breastfeeding has its own can of worms when it comes to ideals and expectations on the mother and the mother/baby dyad – and I didn’t meet any of them. “Breast is best”, “the importance of the antibodies in the breast milk”, “mother/baby bonding time”, “being all over feeding times and pumping so demand can foster supply”.
It doesn’t matter what you have achieved or who you were prior to having that baby. Somehow suddenly your ability to provide flowing, limitless, nutrient-filled breast milk equates to your entire value as a woman and how much you love your baby.
I recall feeling so much shame that I had to give her powdered milk of out of a can. I had failed as a mother and as a wife – I couldn’t nourish our daughter with one of her most basic needs and what felt like what should have been one of the most natural processes. I felt angry and disappointed at my breasts and my body.
I was taken over by the ideals and beliefs about breastfeeding, losing my connection with my own innate wisdom as a sacred woman. I was put on a fairly intense program of mixed feeding my daughter whatever drops of breast milk (and for the first few weeks it literally was drops) I could produce. I was encouraged to feed her my pumped breast milk from a syringe because there wasn’t enough milk to have from a bottle.
The all-consuming program went: baby feeding ten minutes on each breast, then formula, then pump another fifteen painful minutes each breast, then feed her the previous batch of pumped milk from the last feed, then rock baby to sleep (this sounds lovely but usually involved her screaming from digestion pain for at least twenty-five minutes before she would even start to settle) then sanitise all the pumping equipment and sleep for as long as she would let me until the next round.
Despite my knowing that I needed to honour my breasts, I felt like a dairy cow, sad, extremely tired, unattractive – sacredness, sexiness, stillness and connection to my inner woman was absent. By two months old my daughter completely rejected my breasts, she would punch my chest with her little fists and cry refusing to latch, she knew the bottle delivered more milk and was tired of wasting her energy on the breast. I had to pump (or so I thought) every two hours around the clock. I remember having moments where I wanted to just hold my daughter and cuddle her but was banished to the pump, knowing that if I didn’t do this religiously there was no hope for my supply to increase.
This was how I believed I had to show my love and commitment to her because I had already failed to be able to nurture my daughter. The pump became more of my focus than my daughter and I remember missing her and feeling a sense of loss. It was at this point that I felt this had gone too far and I gave myself a break and allowed myself to put it all down and stop pumping at three months.
It was a relief to have quit – I had earned my badge of honour – “three months is giving it a good go love!” The noise had been deafening: all of this shame, loss and sense of failure and all the things you could do to counter – medication, pumping programs, fenugreek, teas, cookies, smoothies – what if I had just stopped?
On reflection of these initial gruelling and fairly exhausting months I often ponder how could it have been different…I have to ask myself what would have been truly nourishing for my daughter? A mother, steady, available and all-knowing in my ability to truly care for my child? Or the corpse of my former-self, exhausted, disconnected and pre-occupied with the pump as opposed to my daughter some days? To see how the ideal of “breast is best” can create a pressure on the mother that counters the very thing that the ideal apparently advocates for – nourishing and caring for the child – saddens me as it sets up an expectation on the mother and if she cannot, or God forbid chooses not, to meet such expectations then it leaves her to be judged as less whether by herself or others. What if instead we were to question the insistent noise and begin to allow the space-beyond-the-noise to be expressed, as this is where the true beauty and nourishment lies for both the child and her mother.