It was 7:00 am on a rainy July morning. It was just her, me, and the pregnant lady chatting on her cell phone on the other side of a very thin, wrinkly curtain hanging from the ceiling. Over the last 2 hours my life had changed and this new life, full of so many unknowns, was ushered in. After more than 24 hours without sleep, my husband and Mom had gone home and I was left to stare in awe at the little face that had just made me a Mother. I tried to close my eyes to sleep, but between the cell phone conversation happening only a few feet away, the beeping in the hallway and the surge of adrenaline that was still swirling through me, there wasn’t much hope. Then she started to stir. One arm, then the other, busted out of the swaddle and her little mouth started to search for food. Then the real work began.
Have you ever done something in your life, only to realize years later the impact it had on you? That’s me and breastfeeding. A few months ago I was sitting on my living room couch doing an interview with a client-turned-friend and we started talking about why breastfeeding photography tugs at my heart. As I was telling her about my own breastfeeding journey I started to tear up. Then I had to work on holding back all out sobs. Until that moment, I hadn’t quite realized (or reflected) on the journey I’d been through with my daughters. In fact, right now, even thinking about it again is resulting in tears hitting the keyboard. It was a journey that was hard, and easy, and frustrating, and exhausting, and exhilarating, and affirming, and emotional. So, so, emotional.
This is my story.
As soon as I found out I was pregnant I morphed into an ambassador of all things natural. The desire to grow and have this baby as naturally as possible was an important one to me. I talked about it so much, that although my husband dutifully nodded, I’m sure he tuned out most of my yabbering about natural birth. I know I must have been annoying! I’d applied to have a midwife, but didn’t have any success in finding one who would accept me (we have a midwife situation in Alberta and I was due in the summer…prime vacation time!). So, I took things into my own hands and became a birth junkie. We hired a doula, I devoured online articles and books about birth and I read (and re-read) the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. To be honest, I’m not sure where all of the ‘natural’ desires came from. I wasn’t breastfed as a baby and it wasn’t something that was regularly talked about in my household growing up. It wasn’t like it was something I always knew I would do, or that I’d actually even given it a second thought, until I was pregnant. But once I was pregnant, it just seemed so obvious. Of course I’m going to breastfeed my baby. And I’m also going to be damn good at it!
And then she was born. Although I’d had a completely uneventful pregnancy, her birth was one of the hardest things I’ve ever endured. It’s another story for another day, but the Coles notes version is that I was induced and the Pitocin kicked in like a tsunami. My doula, husband and Mom were all amazing, even when I was yelling profanity at them to give me the drugs NOW. I can so clearly remember telling my doula that there was no way I could take one more breath and, in my mind, I was going to be part of the rare statistic of women who died during child birth. But I didn’t. And thankfully I gathered the strength to allow my body to do its work.
Then, they placed her on my chest and the next few moments were all a blur. I was stitched, she was cleaned and weighed, and I was finally able to breathe again. My amazing doula asked if I’d like some help having her latch. Yes please. Everything I’d read and prepared for was thrown out the window and I knew I needed to start to feed this little being, but had no idea how.
The first latch went really well. I felt confident and ready for this new adventure ahead of us.
Back to that hospital room with the very thin curtain and chatty lady beside me.
I picked her up out of the bassinet to nurse her again, only this time it didn’t go so well. She wouldn’t latch and I felt so clumsy – no idea where to put my hands or my arms or how to support her. I did the only thing I could think of; I asked a nurse for help. The nurse grabbed my breast, grabbed my daughter’s head and smooshed them together. I was a little taken aback, but then again, everything else felt new, so why wouldn’t this? She latched and was sucking. All was good. Until it hurt. Like hell. It didn’t take long to feel like I hadn’t been respected. Like this world I’d tried to create full of love and nurturing had been violated. I so wish I’d stood up for myself, I wish I’d spoke up and asked for another nurse, and I wish I knew then what I know now.
It was one isolated bad incident, but I let it define my postpartum experience. I wanted out of that hospital so bad and was ready to leave against medical advice. I begged them to sign my release, and thankfully they did. Less than 10 hours after giving birth, I was back home with a very hungry baby. We struggled through the next day or so. I pumped and nursed and pumped and nursed. It hurt and we both cried a lot. One side hurt so bad (I’d damaged it with that hospital feed) that I couldn’t bear to nurse her on it and so I resigned to just pumping. After a particularly bad second night, my husband picked up the phone and called my doula to help (thank God he had the insight to do so as I was a wreck). She talked me through a lot of my problems on the phone and calmed me down. I was determined to not give up, so we powered on. My milk came in, and after exclusively pumping on the one side for a few days, the pain started to subside.
We had our Newborn photos 4 days later. The photographer was so lovely and patient with us as we attempted to look half-human again. Although I can barely remember much of the experience, I do remember that I didn’t want to breastfeed during the 3 hour session. I was frantic the night before ensuring that I had enough milk so we could bottle feed her during the photoshoot. I wasn’t a photographer at the time and I didn’t know how much I’d come to wish I had that time documented. That was my chance and I didn’t take it.
My doula came over for her post-partum visit a few days later and helped me yet again with my latch. She told me that at some point this would be so easy and comfortable that I’d be able to walk around, talk on the phone, and breastfeed. I didn’t believe her! Over the next month or so our breastfeeding relationship got easier. It still hurt at the beginning of every feed, but it was not so painful that I wanted to scream. There were many nights where she’d cluster feed for 4 or 5 hours and I’d turn to my husband close to exhaustion telling him that there was no possible way I could have a single drop of milk left. No way.
After much discussion between my husband and I, we started supplementing with a bit of formula – mostly to relieve the pressure I put on myself for pumping and so I could get a bit of sleep (the lack of sleep was actually making me break out in welts…I thought we had bed bugs….we didn’t. True story.). We carried on with a combo of nursing, pumping and formula feeding for the next 5 months. I never loved breastfeeding, but was stubborn enough that I wasn’t going to give up on it. After being on maternity leave for 6 months, I went back to work (an office job at the time) and my husband stayed home for 6 months. I knew I couldn’t handle pumping at work, so we slowly weaned and my daughter transitioned to solids and formula.
That was it. It was done and I didn’t really give it much thought. I returned my rented pump and buried the nursing bras deep into my top drawer. I have pictures of me bottle feeding, my husband bottle feeding, my Mom bottle feeding, but not a single image of me breastfeeding. After all the struggle and fight, there isn’t a visual record of it anywhere.
Nearly 3 years went by before we were ready to add to our family. After years of sleepless nights we were finally sleeping through the night again, we’d moved into a new house, reno’d the heck out of it and felt like now was the time. It was a quick trip to Target on a cold winter night just before Christmas for a pregnancy test, and then the race the bathroom once I got home to find out we were expecting again.
I went into this pregnancy with a different attitude. I knew what my body was capable of and I’d relaxed a lot about many things over the last 3 years. Although I was determined to stand up for my wishes, I was much more ‘go with the flow’ when it came to my birth and post-partum plan. It was survival mode. I again didn’t have any luck getting a midwife (yet another baby born during vacation time), but I’d researched other options and was confident in my choices. Although my pregnancy was much more challenging (another story for another day!), my birth experience was a cake walk (well…a cake walk with some screaming and swearing). I again had my husband and a doula (a different doula) with me, but without the induction I was able to keep up and manage the pain myself. I listened to Sam Smith blaring through my headphones and blocked out the rest of the world until it was time to push (which actually happened on a gurney in the assessment room because the hospital was full!!). Just as the sun broke over the horizon on a beautiful August morning, I became the Mother of another little girl.
With my doula’s help, she latched right away and nursed off and on for an hour or so – before she was even taken away to be weighed or measured. It was perfect. We were moved into one of the fancy hospital rooms (a make-up for not actually having a birthing room!) and we snuggled in bed until we had a few visitors. We visited, I took photos, I nursed, more photos. All was going well. I again stayed in the hospital for only a few hours, but I felt confident and I was ready to be back at home in my own bed, with my family.
The third night at home I started to realize something was off. She was taking such a long time on each side (45 min plus) and I could hear a sucking sound that just didn’t sound right. It didn’t hurt, but I knew it also wasn’t normal. I kept telling my husband I was over reacting, but he forced me to trust my gut (sane, supportive husbands are the best!), and call a lactation consultant. I watched the clock until I felt it was late enough in the morning to call (7:30 am on a Sunday…totally rational, right?). By 2:00 pm that same afternoon the lactation consultant was in our living room helping us. (Can we just take a moment here to appreciate people who drop everything to help new moms? They are saints. ) Calling for her help was one of the best parenting decisions we’ve made. The consultant identified immediately that my daughter had both a tongue tie and a lip tie, meaning she couldn’t stick her tongue out the normal amount or push her lips out to get a good seal. She gave me a few techniques to make the best of the situation at the time, and we booked my daughter in for laser surgery to correct the ties.
A week later we handed our tiny little baby off to the dentist to have her ties corrected with laser. It was a horrible feeling and I questioned if we were doing the right thing about a thousand times. The surgery took less than 5 minutes, and a few minutes later we were successfully breastfeeding with a good latch and seal (also, cheers for dentists who have nursing lounges in their offices!). We went home with instructions on how to stretch her lips and tongue multiple times a day so that strong scar tissue didn’t form, but the worst part was over. Looking back now, I often wonder if ties were the problem the first time around as it is hereditary.
We carried on exclusively breastfeeding for the next 6 months, until we introduced solids just after 6 months. We had our times of frustration (like when we were in Hawaii and she’d only feed in a dark room…dreams of feeding on the beach all day long quickly vanished), but for the most part it was uneventful. I pumped a bit, but not nearly as much as with my oldest. The biggest difference was sleep. Babies who sleep are miraculous! (And boy did I appreciate it after not sleeping for years). I was getting solid chunks of sleep at a time so I felt able to wake up and feed each time during the night instead of needing my husband to take a shift out of pure exhaustion. Truthfully, I didn’t even mind the middle of the night feedings (when it was just once a night!) as it was time with just me and her, which if you have 2 kids, you know doesn’t happen often. Our time nursing was often some of the only time during the day when I’d sit and rest. The world would slow down for 20 minutes of quiet time, which was a very welcome reprieve in a busy day.
I had dreams of nursing for longer than the 1 year I’d originally hoped for. We had a go-go-go kid and I cherished the time I had with her that forced her to cuddle with me for a few minutes at a time. I wasn’t going back to a regular 9-5 job, so I had the ability to continue on for as long as she wanted. But, as she neared her first birthday I knew that our time was limited. We were down to once or twice a day and she was quickly losing interest.
A week after her first birthday she weaned. I wasn’t ready, but she was. Since that last feed she hasn’t asked to nurse – not even once. I secretly hoped she would, but it wasn’t to be. I had a freezer full of milk that wasn’t going to be used, so I went through the process to donate it to the milk bank. It was nice way to end a journey that started 4 years before; to provide for babyies who were desperate for that liquid gold I’d worked so hard for.
Knowing this was the last baby I’d breastfeed, I set up my camera often to document our time together. It was my proof that we’d both survived. I have images I look forward to showing my daughters years from now when they start their own journeys into Motherhood. I feel guilty I don’t have them documented equally, and that I didn’t enjoy each experience the same. I regret that I was so uptight the first time around and I didn’t ask my photographer to take a few images of us struggling through feedings.
But, my experiences led me to where I am now and fed the fire that now burns to help other Mothers have images they can hand down to their own children. So we can have an open dialogue about what is supposed to be so ‘natural’ but often doesn’t come naturally. That it’s ok to struggle and it’s even more ok to ask for help. I want to show every woman who chooses to breastfeed that there is beauty in it and that their love deserves to be documented. That to our babies we are superheroines. And like all superheroine feats, it’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.