Every year for the last three years, it’s rolled around and I’ve had many, many feelings.
But mostly, I feel shame.
Before my son was born, I planned to breastfeed. I took all of the classes, bought all of the nursing bras and tanks and Bamboobies and nipple creams. I even had phone numbers for two IBCLCs.
I was scared but determined.
I was ready.
My son was born at the crack of dawn and latched quickly. It hurt, but it was okay. He nursed all day and then into the night. Then he vomited profusely, covering my husband and me in colostrum and amniotic fluid. Then we all slept.
The next morning, he wouldn’t nurse. He was tired. I was tired. Sitting upright to nurse was extraordinarily painful for me, and I felt every ounce of the 3 liter blood loss I suffered during his birth.
That second day, I pumped colostrum and my husband fed it to our baby with a dropper. He perked up, but not much. Soon after, my newborn baby stopped breathing while feeding at my breast.
He turned blue.
As a trained medic, I knew what to do. I breathed for him. We called 911. He began breathing again.
The ambulance came. He stopped breathing again and continued to stop breathing every 10 minutes for the next 16 hours.
Our tiny baby boy had suffered a stroke.
Over the course of the next week, we would learn that a clot traveled through his body to his brain and destroyed cells in two areas in his right hemisphere. I would sit painfully upright in a wooden chair next to my son’s bed in a tiny NICU room where he teetered between heaven and earth.
And I pumped. Every three hours. I willed my body to make milk to feed him because when he decided to stay here with us, he would be hungry. That was a thing I could do. That was THE THING I could do.
The stroke left the left side of my baby’s body weak and slow to react. We did all of the home therapies the hospital showed us. I tried to latch him to my breast but he was unable to form a seal with his mouth because of the muscle weakness.
I was relieved. Deeply, shamefully relived. Because every time I held him to my body, I felt the terror of his near-death shoot through my body like ice water. Holding him to my bare breast sent me into a silent, self-loathing panic and all I saw was his tiny body turning blue.
So, I pumped. Every three hours around the clock.
When he had recovered enough muscle tone to nurse, he looked at me with fear in his eyes and screamed. He was terrified, too.
I passed him to my husband and pumped.
I accepted this breastfeeding failure. And the inadequacy began chipping away at my soul.
A few months later when he was diagnosed with a rare food allergy syndrome and it became clear that he would need my milk for many more months, I cried. Huge, selfish, shameful tears rolled down my face and onto my chest. I could not fathom pumping for another week, much less an undetermined amount of time.
As summer came, so did chronic mastitis. My boobs were done. I did all the things I was supposed to do to prevent it, but after 13 months, living on a 12 food elimination diet to keep my son’s profound food allergies in check and unrelenting stress, my body wanted to be done. But my baby wasn’t. I was still his sole source of nutrition.
Even if I wanted to quit, I could not.
I put a sticky note on my breast pump. It said “One More Day”.
That was my mantra in the morning during my first pumping session. It turned to “one more pumping session” and “5 more minutes of pumping” on hard days.
I watched my son grow as I sat on the couch and pumped. As my husband and friends fed my son the precious gold that came at a very dear cost to my mental, emotional, and physical well-being. I wanted this part to just be over.
And I felt the shame wash over me again.
My final pump session was not the wild, freeing, jubilant affair I believed it would be. After 21 months, I put that electric bastion of failure and disappointment in the closet and whispered “fuck you”.
Then I whispered it again.
To the pump.
To the closed closet door.
To my breasts.
To my kid.
To the stroke.
And then I put it all away.
This week, I opened up that closet and took out my pump. I looked at it with indifference. It was a tool, it was not my captor.
Then the ghost of the shame I’ve been carrying around all these many months reminded me that our story isn’t over yet. There is redemption in this. My pump made it possible to take exquisite care of my baby. It gave me a reason to continue living.
It was a literal saving grace in the midst of the most traumatic time of my life.
The shame is transforming, and transitioning into pride. I did that. Every three hours. Every damn day. For 21 months.
The “fuck you” has turned to deep, unspeakable gratitude. Gratitude for these breasts, that pump, and my healing, thriving 3 year old. Gratitude to God that I get to be his mom.
To all of you mamas making great sacrifices for your babies, no matter what those sacrifices are, you are unbeatable warriors and tidal forces of love. The world and your sweet babies are lucky to have you.
You can do this.