Sitara and Artemus (and David)
Today starts month 38 of breastfeeding my nursling. The journey has been unexpected in every way imaginable and I’ve been feeling a need to write it all out. Much like our changing bodies, the trimesters of pregnancies, and our ever so capriciously growing babes; breastfeeding for me has comprised of many stages, and I will present them as such.
Everyone has some idea, or is made to think about how they would like to feed their baby when they are pregnant. Artemus was a total surprise, and I spent most of my pregnancy just trying to come to terms with the fact that I would be a mom, and have to be in graduate school full time. I spent most of my pregnancy working long hours and getting as many experiments done before the baby was born. I also spent a lot of time worrying about how having a baby would change me, and I was really terrified of suddenly being bogged down by an infant. My pre-natal yoga teacher was also a doula and explained that if you were planning on breastfeeding your newborn, you just need to get used to the idea of being a happy cow for a while. This “happy cow” image in my head included sitting on a chair with a boppy and snacks and drinks by your side, in an old lady nightgown, rocking a nursing a baby. Stuck in a room, all alone. What should have evoked happiness and joy, only made me feel isolated. It reinforced the idea of me losing myself to the baby. How would I ever be spontaneous again? How would I be a part of the world, if I were busy being a cow? I figured, my mother was coming to help for the first two months, and would help me learn to breastfeed, because I knew she had breastfed both, my brother and me. I tried to not think about it much. Maybe because I knew it would be hard, and I was already having a hard time. I spent an afternoon reading the breastfeeding chapter from the “What to expect when you’re expecting” book. Worst. Mistake. Ever. It was organized as a set of questions; sort of like an FAQ section if a website. What is mastitis? Is it normal for nipples to hurt? The book served as a great tool for making me sob in bed for 4 hours straight, thinking about all the things that were bound to go wrong with breastfeeding, David, (my husband now, then boyfriend), spent an entire trimester trying to placate me, while I rested my hopes on my mother’s nursing experience to aid in the success of mine.
My newborn baby was here! He was latching well, but had lost about a pound since birth (a lot of that was fluid retention from my long induction, but that’s a story for another blog). I was trying to get used to literally every person just seeing my boobs out. I was so terrified of so many things all the time! Would my big breasts suffocate my tiny baby? Was my body producing enough milk? Why was he not nursing for only 30 mins each session, like my pediatricians lactation consultants said was normal? Why was I crying and singing songs from “Tarzan” on repeat all day? Why did I not care about being fun anymore?!!
The first few weeks were the absolute worst (what I really want to use are some pretty crass and terrible adjectives, but I will try to refrain). We had an ER visit for high bilirubin levels, we had several weight checks for the baby, and we had competing advice from different lactation consultants. We also had a false alarm tumor scare, which led to visits to a plastic surgeon and ultrasounds. I was stressed out about building my supply before I had to return to school at the end of 8 weeks and finding good childcare. What I was proud of though was trying to find solutions. I found a great lactation consultant, who made me realize that my baby needed a nipple shield and also that he was just one of those kids that needed every feeding session to be one hour long. This is what I had been given, and so I just tried my hardest to work around it. David brought the baby over for every feeding and changed all the diapers for weeks and weeks. My mother took care of the house chores and cooking and cleaning. I realize this is a privilege that many do not have. For many weeks it seemed like this was going to be the rest of my life. That my entire life was going to be leaky breasts, a crampy empty womb, and the incessant and urgent search for my transparent nipple shields (those shields need to be glow in the dark and fluorescent orange in color). Then suddenly one day, when I least expected it, my 8 week old baby looked me straight in the eye, snatched the nipple shield, tossed it away and latched all on his own. In that instant I knew that inevitably, this phase was not forever.
2- 12 months
The next phase of our breastfeeding journey was marked by the constant stress of pumping “enough” for Artemus while I went back to graduate school. I was very lucky in that, as a graduate student working in the lab, I had responsibilities only to myself at work, and pumping a few times a day was easy to fit in my schedule. As the months went by, some days I would not pump out as much as others and the constant stress of being away from my baby, but my body being his only source of nourishment, took a toll on me. In addition, my academic advisor judged me for “wasting” my time pumping out milk, and accused me of being a “hippy” and nursing my child past the age of 6 months.
Another aspect of breastfeeding we both had to master was nursing in public. At first I spent a lot of time under a hot cover (he was a peak summer baby) in public, trying to make my breasts into a “hamburger” to shove into his tiny, tiny mouth. Once in a while I even found myself in the ugliest of attire locked up in a trial room at Anthropologie or H&M because my mom wanted to go shopping. The transition from frenzied feeding under covers to sitting around the national mall on the weekend comfortably nursing my kiddo is somewhat of a blur. I made it though!
Life as a full-time graduate student working in a lab, and trying to finish up a dissertation is not your typical setting for having a baby. I had to decide that raising him would not be typical either. I spent long days nursing my kid, driving to work, working, pumping, nursing the kid, driving back, getting dinner ready, cleaning up, getting my pump ready for the next day, putting the baby to bed and then working on my dissertation till about midnight. I tossed the idea of sleep training, and we learnt how to nurse in bed, and co-slept. This was the only way I got some rest, and I couldn’t fathom a few nights of no sleep and having to use my brain all day in the lab.
One of the most unexpected events in my breastfeeding journey was wet nursing! Our daycare provider had a granddaughter who was about 6 months old when her mother had to have emergency back surgery. She had been exclusively breastfed and had never taken a bottle. Her mom also didn’t have any pumped milk. She refused formula and bottles for a few days and was surviving on fruit and veggie purees. Her grandmother was so worried, and the baby was quite hungry! As I was picking up my kid from daycare, I saw the hungry baby and asked our babysitter if she would like me to try to nurse her granddaughter. She was pretty desperate, so we tried it, and just like that the baby latched on! I nursed her 2-3 times a day for about a week, till her mother was back from the hospital.
Before I knew it (scratch that)-finally, after what seemed like forever, we were approaching the twelve-month mark. I knew at once that I would give up pumping at work, but also knew that weaning Artemus would be difficult. He was not ready, and surprisingly I was not either. Once again, the journey had led me to an unexpected outcome.
12 -24 months
Just before Artemus turned a year old he started having ear infections. Nursing him was the only thing that seemed to help with the pain and crankiness. He was by now also reliant on nursing to fall asleep at night and also for naps. Tantrums started early, at about 12 months and nursing helped with that too. I had exactly a year left in my program, and my workload was really ramping up. I was once again sure I was the laziest parent that ever existed because I couldn’t fathom rocking the boat, and taking away the only thing that made me feel sane in this parenting role. A boob in Artemus’ mouth meant he was quiet. It meant he would nap. It meant he would calm down. It meant I could get more work done. We proceeded this way for the whole next year. I actually thought that nursing was finally fun! There was no more pressure on my body to be the primary source of nutrition and I still got all the cuddles and snuggles. My right breast had always produced less than my left breast, so I decided to retire Ms right boob, so I felt like I had half of my boobs back! This might have been the most ridiculous thing I did to feel pseudo “normal” again.
At eighteen months old, Artemus had tubes put into his ears. The ear infections stopped right as I had some travel for work coming up. I thought 6 days away would mean he would likely forget about nursing. However, the first thing he wanted as I walked into the house was to nurse!!! The same thing repeated itself at about 22 months. At this point I was two months away from defending my thesis, and decided that once again, I would not wean till after I was done with school. To be honest, I was always relieved that Artemus was not ready to wean. By this point I had accepted that I was the parent who had never sleep trained their toddler, that Artemus still very much needed to be nursed to nap on weekends and that at least I still had right boob to myself!
24 months-37 months
The last year has probably been the most interesting year in terms of nursing my once baby. I had about two weeks between finishing up graduate school and starting my post-doctoral fellowship. I could have weaned, but at this point I just knew that I did not want to. Instead we tackled potty training with success. I knew my toddler was growing up, and someday he may not need my body for comfort the way he still does. As the year progressed, he became more vocal about his preferences breastfeeding. It was a ritualistic practice for him. I would return home from work, and he would ask me to take my shoes off and sit on the couch, then he would climb into my lap for some milk. He eventually started talking about how he feels about my milk, how it is better than ice cream and how it makes him feel better. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that my baby would be discussing breastfeeding with me!
Since most people do not breastfeed toddlers in the U.S., I was very happy to have a few friends who had, and also a pediatrician who was very encouraging of extended breastfeeding. We are still nursing but Artemus is slowly self-weaning. I still do not know how or when this journey will end for us. For now I will just be a big cliché and say that I am enjoying (most) of our time together, fully aware that someday soon he will no longer need me to be his human pacifier. I will get full body autonomy back, and then probably screw myself over and get pregnant again!