Thursday, February 17, 2011


Hopefully people will forgive my long rambling post.  I have a couple tutorials in the works, but my broken camera is slowing me down.  In the meantime, I've felt like I can finally catch my breath after what has been a crazy 8 months or so.  In that time, our family moved several states away, our minivan caught fire while we were staying with family (it was a total loss, and it gutted my in-laws' garage and smoke-damaged every part of their house) and we had a new baby--#6.  Needless to say, I've been needing some down time to process things emotionally for a while.  With a baby who is getting more self-sufficient and easy by the day, I finally feel like I'm coming up for air--and boy does it feel great!  Anyway, here is something I've been thinking about for a few weeks:

Today is an anniversary of sorts.  Two months ago today, I turned in my hospital grade baby scale and hospital grade breast pump after 5 months of intensive use.  The birds were singing, the sun was shining (no really--even in Washington we get some winter sunshine) and all was right with the world.  I called my husband at work to tell him the I had some good news.  He said cautiously "Uhhh...what kind of news?"  Many a conversation about a positive pregnancy test result has started in the same way, so I don't blame him for his caution.  He was relieved that my news just involved the cessation of $45 in monthly bills, although he may not have grasped the full extent of the lightness and joy that I was feeling at that moment.

I have nursed all my children happily until they were two years old.  Yes, I am one of those women.  Minus the sensible footwear and art teacher-y clothing, I am really a total earth mother.  I love nursing--I love the closeness, the forced sitting down and reconnecting with your baby.  I love how nursing gives me time to examine their tiny fingernails (not to mention hang out on the computer).  I love it when they finish feeding, looking up at you with a sweet smile, milk-drool slowly dribbling from the corner of their mouth.  I love knowing that I can give this gift of health and love to each of my children.

Then came Lucy.  From the very beginning, I felt like something wasn't quite the same with her nursing.  I've never been as sore with subsequent children as I was with my first, but usually for the first couple of weeks, an infant's initial latch on makes my toes curl a little with the force of it.  But not with Lucy.  I was completely comfortable.  Uh oh.

However, early on I realized that she wasn't getting enough to eat.  I saw two different lactation consultants who both couldn't figure out what was going on.  In the meantime, she was nursing endlessly and not gaining weight.  I saw our family practice doctor who made me feel like I was failing.

I had to start feeding her part formula because without adequate stimulation, my milk supply had dropped off.  When we started out, she was getting about 1/2 of her calories from formula.  This was very hard for me.  It was hard for me not to feel like every bit of formula she got was a symbol of my failure as a mother.  I knew rationally that mothering is much more than food, but nursing had become such a huge part of how I felt about myself as a mother of an infant.

I had to start pumping after every feeding, since Lucy's nursing wasn't strong enough to keep my milk supply up on her own.  I had to either feed her with a bottle or a nursing supplementer, which allowed her to drink expressed milk or formula as I was nursing.  I was completely obsessed with making this nursing relationship work, but I didn't even know what was wrong.  I wondered if it was me or her.  Meanwhile, all my kids were home for the summer and I felt like I was failing them.  I was tethered to my pump and nursing.  Even a quick outing to the park felt like an accomplishment.

The second lactation consultant I saw referred me to the Seattle Children's Hospital to see an occupational therapist who specializes in infant feeding issues.  Robin took one look at Lucy's tongue and pronounced her tongue-tied.  Both lactation consultants had ruled this out because she didn't have a classic tongue tie.  Basically, you have a frenulum under your tongue, which is a membrane that connects your tongue to the floor of your mouth.  If the frenum is too short, or extends to the tip of the tongue, it is hard for the tongue to move past the gum line and you are considered tongue-tied.  Nursing is usually difficult or even impossible.

Robin referred me to a specialist who also took one look at Lucy's tongue, prounounced it "a perfect example of a posterior tongue-tie" (lucky us) and performed a frenotomy (clipped the frenulum).  I was hoping and praying for an immediate improvement, but instead there was a slight improvement with each thing we introduced over a series of months.  I did facial "exercises" with Lucy to help increase the mobility in her face and jaw.  We tried using kinesio tape on her cheeks to stimulate better muscular strength and coordination.  Through it all, I was monitoring her weight and pumping to keep up my milk supply.  Slowly, she started to improve.

Thanks to a hands-free pumping bustier (every bit as attractive as you might imagine lol), I learned to pump while still being able to keep up (I use the term loosely) with household chores like laundry and dishes.  I even pumped in my car while driving kids to sports practices or on the way home from Costco runs (using a nursing cover, don't worry :) ).

I also realized (through the unblinking eyes of my clear-sighted husband) that people needed to come before pumping.  I realized that instead of seeing every bit of formula as a symbol of failure, that every drop of breast milk was a priceless gift.  I decided to do the best I could with pumping (I averaged 5 sessions a day), but not if it meant neglecting others (or myself).

The breakthrough came toward the end of November when I did a pre/post feeding weight and realized that she had just taken in 3 1/2 ounces of milk from nursing directly.  I monitored it a little more, but gradually was able to cut out pumping completely.  Now, about 1/4 to 1/3 of her calories come from formula.  

Before experiencing this, I had no idea what it felt like to have nursing not work out as you'd hoped.  When I met women who would laugh brittlely and say like one friend, "Oh, the nursing thing didn't work out for us...", I would think, deep down, that they didn't try hard enough or care enough.  Now I know that you can be desperately trying, and it may not work out the way you'd hoped.  I know how agonizing that is when you want so badly to breastfeed your baby.  Sometimes people cover hurt by trying to be blase about something--especially when they probably felt my unspoken judgment.  I am so sorry about that.

Interestingly, when I was deeply discouraged that I might not be able to nurse Lucy, I decided that instead of trying to pretend everything was fine when people asked, that I needed to be honest.  I am usually someone who doesn't admit I need help until my world is crashing around me (and okay, it was, but getting me to admit this was a big step for me!).  The support I received from people around me was wonderful.  I talked with several new friends about what I was experiencing and how miserable I was about it, and both of them confided some of their own nursing struggles and how they still feel sad about it--even years later.  As I was talking to them, I felt such a wave of empathy for them.  I don't think the pre-Lucy me would have been able to have that kind of conversation because I was too convinced that nursing just takes effort and determination, period.

I am so grateful for my hard-earned empathy, but I am even more grateful for the resting place that little Lucy and I have found.  She is eating a few meals of baby food now, in addition to the breastfeeding and formula.  As I'm typing this, she is resting on my chest with milk on the corner of her mouth, having nursed herself to sleep for the night.  It's difficult for me to imagine heaven being any sweeter than this.

Which is why, on December 17, the lightness I felt was only partially about setting down a heavy breast pump and infant scale.  It was only partially about the winter sunshine glistening on the evergreen trees around me.  It was the peculiar kind of lightness you feel when you have been carrying a heavy burden of the soul and have finally been able to set it down.  On that day, I put down my sorrow and disappointment over what I had wished for and felt the lightness and joy of being grateful for what I have been able to accomplish despite the obstacles.

Happy Anniversary, little Lulu.  We've made it.

I'm linking up to Weekend Bloggy Reading at Amanda's Serenity Now:

Weekend Bloggy Reading


  1. Hi, Erin. :) I know that breast feeding/pumping/formula feeding can be a very hot topic, so I will congratulate you on being able to turn the pump back in and for Lucy's special milestone! :) I had to pump exclusively with both of my girls for 6 and 7 months, respectively.

    Every family is different, and my personal frustration over being strapped to a pump for hours each day (I didn't have one of those neat hands-free thingies like my sister has! I had to just sit on the bed, immobile.) was making me unpleasant to be around. We switched over to formula at those points, and I was proud of myself for giving my girls a great start for those first months, but also for knowing that I'd be much more available from then on. ;) Just my story...

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Amanda,

    Thanks so much for your comment! Exclusively pumping for 6 months is amazing. Good for you! It was killing me and my family--I was so grateful that I got to stop pumping and just nurse like a normal person. I don't think I could have lasted much longer. This whole experience taught me so much. Most of all, I realized how important it is as moms to do the best we can, but not to beat ourselves up if things don't live up to our "perfect" expectations. Letting go of those kind of expectations allows me love others more fully as well because I am not judging them and their experiences--it was a difficult but valuable lesson to learn. Thanks again for stopping by!


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