I talked with a friend this week, who contacting me for some breastfeeding tips. Her sweet baby is in the NICU, and she thought I might have some insight, as I was able to successfully nurse a NICU baby.
I thought through what practical advice I could share, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that breastfeeding tips were not what she needed to hear. You see, she’s had a rough go of this whole motherhood thing. On top of having a baby in the NICU, she was readmitted to the hospital herself, and very ill. At one point, the fear that both mom and baby would be lost was very real. Both are on their way back to health, praise God. But she needed to hear something in the midst of her struggle to breastfeed, so instead of tips, I shared my story with her. I’ll share it with you, too.
Emmy was born sick. She spent 10 days in the NICU, which is a very short amount of time compared to most NICU babies, but a very long time when you’re a brand new mommy. Breastfeeding wasn’t possible at first, so I pumped like crazy. Once she started being able to nurse, I still had to pump an extra 10 minutes after every feeding session, to keep my supply up. I was nursing AND pumping, and running back and forth from the NICU every 3 hours. Even when we got home, I continued both, so I’d have enough for her. She never nursed “correctly”, despite many, many meetings with lactation consultants, and every single nursing session made my cry in pain until she was 3 months old. Every single one. I started resenting every feeding, as it brought so much pain and did not help me bond with my baby, like I had heard it was “supposed” to. After 3 months, we finally found some kind of rhythm, and breastfeeding became manageable, even enjoyable. A short 4 months later, I lost my milk and could not get it back. So we stopped nursing around 7 months, and fed her from my pumped stash for another month or so. I was sad to not make it to a year, but also a bit relieved to be done.
Nathan was born healthy. (I can’t even express what a blessing that was.) Our newborn experience with him was very different, as he never left my side. He nursed right away, but had a hard time gaining weight for a week or so. Again, we met with many lactation consultants, and this time, we got things right. I nursed him happily for 3 weeks. And then, I got sick. I was hospitalized with not one, but two pulmonary embolisms, blood clots that had traveled through my heart and landed in my lungs. I was in the most intense pain I’d ever experienced, and I should have died. By the grace of God, I survived, but spent 3 scary days in the hospital and came home on 4x the amount of pain medication that I had after my c-section.
While on the pain meds, I couldn’t nurse Nathan (hello, morphine!), but I continued to pump, hoping that when I was off of the meds, he would be able to pick up nursing again. In the meantime, we had no other option but formula. I was heartbroken, as I had been determined to make it to a year with Nathan. But there was no way I could give him my med-filled milk, and I couldn’t breathe without the meds, so that was that.
I was also put on a blood thinner that would keep me from throwing another clot while the current clot healed. This med was rumored to “probably be okay” for breastfeeding, but I wasn’t okay with “probably”. I did my research and the studies were very minimal, with inconclusive results. So, for the 3 months I’d be on the blood thinners, I was not comfortable with nursing my baby. I planned to pump through that time, and then hopefully pick back up where we’d left off.
Except within a week, I was told that I’d actually have to be on the medicine for 6 months, not 3. And truthfully, the work of both bottle-feeding and pumping (and dumping) every 2-3 hours would be rough on a healthy momma. On me, it was the most intense exhaustion, which led to even more pain for my recovering body. I simply could not keep on.
That was an incredibly difficult truth for me to accept. There’s a lot of guilt associated with formula-feeding in our culture today. The inability to breastfeed is looked on with pity. But the choice not to breastfeed? It feels shameful. I didn’t want to be judged, didn’t want to feel like I’d failed as a mother. I didn’t want to let go of the one thing I was determined to provide for my son. It took the counsel of wise family and friends, over a period of a few weeks, to help me make that decision, and it was the very best decision I could have made.
The truth was, my body was shot. I had almost died, for goodness sake! I needed time to rest. By giving Nathan formula, I was able to let others feed him, so I could rest and start the very long healing process that my body needed. This also gave Jon a chance to bond with Nathan earlier on than he ever did with Emmy. Nathan was loved on by so many dear people in our lives, and he is a very happy, well-adjusted baby today. Not to mention healthy! And as I took care of my own body, I was able to be a better mom to my son. In fact, I was able to enjoy him more. I bonded with him while feeding him a bottle and looking into his eyes. I still rocked and snuggled him to sleep (and still do!). I still fell desperately in love with my son.
I am so grateful that wise people spoke into my life and gave me permission to stop trying so hard to be the perfect mom who does it all. I am so grateful that I found the freedom to make that impossible decision. I am so grateful that I stopped breastfeeding. In my situation, I am a better mom for it.
Here’s the thing that I think we all need to hear:
Breastfeeding does not define motherhood. YOU define motherhood.
You, momma. You, who work tirelessly and give all of yourself for the life of your little one. You, who would do anything for your sweet baby.
Our stories are different, but our hearts are the same. Our sacrifices are different, but we all sacrifice for our babies, amen?
You are a momma. Nothing can change that. It’s not defined by the way your baby comes into this world, or how you feed that baby, or what material you use to catch their poop.
Can we get off our cause-driven soapboxes and agree on this one thing? God has made us mommas. He has filled us with wisdom and intuition and an intense, desperate, all-consuming love. We would do anything for our babies. God has given your child to you, and given you to your child. Your place as his momma is a divine appointment, and you can trust that He didn’t make a mistake!
Our stories are different. Our decisions are different. And that’s okay. Your baby needs YOU, a mentally and physically healthy you. You do what you need to be your best, so that you can care for your baby the best you possibly can.
There is freedom in Christ, and there is freedom in motherhood. We can use the wisdom and intuition He’s given us to make decisions that are the best for our family. We can deliver naturally or have a c-section. We can breastfeed or formula feed. We can cloth diaper or buy diapers in bulk from Costco. We can stay home with the kids or go to work to support our family.
There are a lot of different ways to mother, but I’d venture to say that there’s no one right way. Maybe, instead of pushing our own agendas, we can start pushing one another towards Christ, and the freedom He brings.
You’re doing a good job, Momma. Keep pushing on. You’ve got what you need for this journey.