I am a well-endowed woman, always have been, although I do think the Girls were a bit more impressive in my twenties when my waist was 10 inches smaller than my bust. I’m guessing I’m not alone in that physiological phenomenon. When I hit 21 and went clubbing with friends whilst wearing black bustiers and mini skirts, my best friend’s boyfriend would subtly introduce me to his friends: “this is Sophie and these are her Breasts.” His introductions would inevitably be followed by a group discussion about the future breastfeeding of my future children. It was generally assumed that once my milk came in I’d be able to feed a small third world country.
I had always planned on breastfeeding. I believed breast was best for my baby’s needs, but I also looked forward to breastfeeding as a way to curb my chances of getting breast cancer and losing the baby weight. Furthermore, after years of childhood sexual abuse, I couldn’t wait for my body to grow a child, push it into the world, and provide him sustenance. I viewed the physical experience of motherhood as a way to reclaim my body for myself.
During my last trimester, I rocked in the glider my husband bought me for Mother’s Day reading to my unborn child, daydreaming of singing to him while nursing in the same glider. Yes, I’d read all the pregnancy books that said breast size has no correlation with breast milk production, yet I’d smile smugly to myself. Why would Mother Nature give me such gargantuan mammary appendages if she wasn’t planning on filling them to capacity?
That question haunted me for years.
I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy nine-pound,two-ounce baby boy after 19 hours of excruciating back labor. He was head down, but sunny-side up and the back of his 16-inch head smashed against my lower back every two minutes causing a spinal fracture. I relented and had an epidural, but it didn’t take. “Didn’t take” means the epidural causes paralysis from the injection site down, but does not relieve the pain. I helplessly lay curled on my side and cried with the occasional barbaric yawp escaping. I never got pastfive cm and never got to push my son into the world. We ended up having an emergency C-section because the labor pains induced a fever of 102 and the baby’s heart rate soared to 200 bpm.
I wasn’t able to put my son on my breast immediately since the doctor had to sew me up, but Luigi latched on like a pro within 90 minutes of his triumphant emergence. The colostrum came in and did its job – he passed all his meconium within 48 hours. However, he didn’t urinate until 36 hours after birth and spent his second night screaming because he was so dehydrated. My gentle nurse took him for a cuddle walk around the ward and gave him 30 cc of glucose water and he calmed down.
The lactation specialists came to see us the next morning. They observed our breastfeeding attempts, then offered suggestions on how to have a more successful experience. I fed Luigi on demand 20 minutes on each side, but even though his latch was good and I compressed my breasts during feeding, he would pull away and worry at my nipple like a small puppy with a big bone. I was heartbroken at his frustration. I added it to my list of things I’d already done wrong as a mother: my stupid body failed in its womanly duties to dilate and push & my son was unhappy with the way I fed him.
Before we left the hospital we attended another breastfeeding class and had two more in-room visits with the lactation specialists. Breastfeeding became my obsession and I did everything they told me to do. I had a baby to feed and, damn it, feed him I would.
We came home on a Saturday night. I faithfully began recording every wet & poopy diaper as well as the amount of time I spent breastfeeding. On Sunday, Luigi had one wet and one poopy diaper and we spent 8.5 hours out of 24 with him at my breast. On Monday he had two wet diapers and one poopy diaper and we spentnine hours nursing.
I was deliriously tired & emotionally spent. I kept waiting for my milk to come in, waiting for the letdown reflex to REFLEX when my child cried. While I waited for this supposedly automatic mammalian function to do its thing, I tried every other trick in the book. I taped tiny tubes to my nipples & attached a wee syringe filled with glucose water to encourage Luigi to suck and thus stimulate my milk production. I took fenugreek, vitamins, & ate currytwo out of everythree meals. When I wasn’t nursing I pumped like a maniac. It was like doing CPR & chest compresses on a loved one who has been dead for hours. Yet I could not give up.
Breast is best. Breast is best. Breast is best.
My wake-up call came on Luigi’s fifth day in this world. After an hour of early afternoon nursing, Luigi finally fell asleep and I jumped in the shower and sobbed my guts out. As I was getting dressed, I heard poor Luigi sobbing too, screaming until he started hiccuping. I rushed out to get him and found a friend of ours who specialized in pediatric care holding him. She looked up and passed him to me saying, “He’s starving!” I used every ounce of willpower I had to not burst into tears. I explained we had just nursed for an hour & of my tardy milk production. I told her about the syringe and glucose water. She said the glucose would just raise his blood sugar, not nourish him, and gently suggested that we use a few ccs of formula until the milk arrived.
After she left, I collapsed in my husband’s arms crying hysterically. I was humiliated by my body’s unwillingness to cooperate with its most basic tasks: give birth; make milk. How freaking hard was that!
When I calmed down, I came to the only real solution in front of me. “I’ve made an executive decision,” I told my husband, “the ONLY thing that matters is that we feed our baby. I’m obviously not doing it, so I want you to go to the store and buy formula.” I tried to sound calm and self-assured, but I wanted to throw up.
At the next feeding I nursed for 30 minutes, alternating sides, and then gave little Luigi 2 oz. of the formula. For the first time ever my son slept soundly after he I fed him. For the first time ever, he’d actually eaten.
In the middle of the night, I took the phone to a quiet room in the house and called the Breastfeeding Clinic to confess my sins. I whispered to the nurse that I knew I was a traitor, a second-rate mom who’d chickened out and took the path of least resistance. I knew I was supposed to stick with the breastfeeding plan longer and that it sometimes took up to a month to get the milk supply regulated, but that I couldn’t listen to my son scream anymore and my nipples were bleeding, and, I did, I fed him formula.
The counselor from the clinic listened to me with a sympathetic and supportive ear. She told me I had done the right thing. “No one should be spending over a full-third of every day nursing a newborn. He needs to eat and you were right to feed him.”
“But what about breast cancer prevention? What about his immune system? What about the lower IQ that he will have because of the formula? What about breast is best!!!” I’d believed all the pregnancy books. I thought the What to Expect When You’re Expecting lady would personally track me down and sear me with an Unfit Mother brand if I failed to provide breast milk.
“Oh, honey. He will be a fine, healthy, strong child. Yes, breast milk has many benefits for both of you, but formula will give him the nourishment he needs to grow, the fat he needs for brain development and will FEED him. You have to feed him. Don’t feel guilty. You are giving your son exactly what he needs.”
“Ok.” I hung up and cried some more. My milk wouldn’t letdown, but I was seriously letdown by my failure to produce.
This scenario went on fortwo more weeks. I went to the Lactation Clinicthree more times and let a dozen different strangers manipulate my breasts and give me more advice, which I dutifully followed. I pumped, I nursed with & without the syringe tube of formula, and I kept going back to the strangers who insisted I keep trying to figure out the breastfeeding technique. At our final visit, the nurse weighed Luigi at the beginning of the appointment, had me “nurse” for 30 min., and then weighed him again. In 30 minutes I had made exactly 5 cc –1 teaspoon –of milk. After logging in 200+ hours of breast stimulation over the previous 2 ½ weeks, the Girls would only make one teaspoon of milk for my son. Bitches.
I plummeted into a suicidal postpartum depression that lastedmore than twoyears. Admittedly, it started within a few days after birth, but the whole breastfeeding thing sent me over the edge, it gave me a focal point for all of my self-hatred. During one morning naptime, I sliced my breasts a dozen times with a small kitchen knife. I referred to myself as The Babysitter, thinking that since I wasn’t the one to bring my son into the world and I wasn’t the one who was feeding him –- that honor went to some mega-corporation –then my job was one any babysitter could do: love, play, teach, train, and bottle-feed a child placed in my care. I took my duties very seriously, but I didn’t think of myself as a true mother. My depressive thinking made sure I didn’t allow myself to feel the joys of being a first time mom. Nothing feeds depressive thinking like a good ol’ focal point on which to ruminate.
My sick ruminations on my “mothering skills” so overwhelmed my cerebral cortex that I attempted suicide twice – a year and a week after Luigi’s birth and a year and a half after that. I thought I was making way for him to get a better, more-qualified, more capable mother. Had I been successful in my attempts, I would have left a beautiful, happy, intelligent, funny little guy abandoned and betrayed by the woman who was supposed to love him best & put his well-being above everything else in the world. I would have taught him that suicide is an acceptable solution to life’s difficulties. I would have left my husband, the most loving and attentive father in the world, my best friend, alone and forsaken. Had I been successful, I would not have found the moment when the Path to Wellness presented itself and begged me to walk and discover myself again, anew. I would not be the mother of another little boy who runs around singing Thomas the Tank Engine lyrics to the tune of Lightning McQueen’s theme song and worships the ground upon which Luigi walks.
I am so grateful, so blessed, that I was an abject failure at suicide and was given a chance to learn that I wasn’t an abject failure as a mom – in fact, I’m pretty good at it, good enough anyway. I am amazed at the multiple chances Life has offered me to try again and again until I got it (mostly) right. Now that I am well, I spend the majority of my time paying back the Universe for the gift of My Life by telling others my story so they know they are not aloneand there is Hope. If you are wandering in the darkness of postpartum depression or know someone who is, please let me share the lessons my recovery from PPD taught me:
1. The only important outcome of birth is Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby. Your child will not give you a medal for not taking medication to ease your labor pain. She will not care if she got her first glimpse of the outside world from the vaginal canal or your abdomen. She’ll just be glad she made it intact. YOUR health is equally important. Healthy MOM, healthy baby.
2. Sometimes breastfeeding is a choice we can make; sometimes it is not. Regardless, all that matters is that you feed your child and cuddle him close even when you’re not feeling the love. How you feed your kid is no one else’s business.Berating yourself for choosing or being forced to choose formula is a losing battle. You will lose it. I can tell you firsthand that formula provides perfectly wonderful sustenance for development. Luigi is in 2nd grade – a straight A student who reads at 5th grade level. Both of my boys rarely get sick and have hearts of gold. I couldn’t imagine a better pair of kids… except when they are totally getting on my nerves and I would like to leave them as a tip for the pizza delivery guy.
3. No matter how your child arrived, you are a mother. Welcome to the sisterhood. My aunt told me a little-known fact about Motherhood during those first, dark, days with Luigi: “motherhood is a state of ambivalence.” The only things you have to give your kid to be a successful parent is the knowledge that she is loved unconditionally as well as basic food, shelter, and clothing. Everything else is gravy. I mean everything. Unconditional love, as best as you can express it — from your heart, not your wallet –is the single most important ingredient to a good kid; nothing else matters. If it takes you a while to develop those feelings of unconditional love, then that’s all right, too. I didn’t have PPD with my second kid, but it took me over two years to actually enjoy him. But he does know he’s loved absolutely and unquestionably.
4. You are the one imbued with the power of Magic Kisses that make all boo-boos better. Dads have pretty good kisses, too; but the Babysitter’s are totally sub-standard. Who knew your lips would one day have the power of pixie dust? They do. Pucker up and Smooch.
5. The family unit is a Petri dish for the outside world. You aren’t supposed to be perfect. Kids learn to navigate their future right here at home. When confronted with a cranky boss, they’ll look back and remember what they did when mom was cranky to make her smile. When they have to deal with a dorm mate who doesn’t understand boundaries, they’ll think about what they learned while dealing with their sibling. Please don’t be perfect. Your kid won’t learn any life skills unless they’re put in a position to actually learn something out of necessity. And, no, lectures don’t count. I’ve tried – in one ear and out the other.
6. Go easy on yourself. Parenting is hard and each kid is unique and you are unique. It takes a while to figure out what will work for all of you. If the system isn’t working for all of you, then it’s not working.
7. Lastly, please don’t compare yourself to the seemingly Suuuu-uuuper moms out there who seem to have it all together, had perfect pregnancies, deliveries, and breastfeeding schedules, the ones that have their 2-year-old old inthree different life-enriching activities, have set up a home-school program, are always perfectly coiffed, volunteer with several charities, run the Mother’s with Gifted Children groups … you know whom I mean. Ignore them and, if you feel like it, nod politely and ignore their advice. They generally have lots of it, most of it completely irrelevant to you and your life. I used to get lectured about my birth/breastfeeding experiences by total strangers and I’d nod politely and then go cry in my car. Better to just nod politely and walk away knowing that they have not walked in your shoes and don’t know jack. Heck, you might want to nod politely and ignore my little list here ‘cuz it just doesn’t apply to you. That’s ok by me. Do what’s right for you and your family. I might be way off your mark. I struggled with trying to be a Super Babysitter for a long time to compensate for my profound depression and lack of self-worth. I worried a lot about how my skills were perceived by others because I was so scared I was doing it wrong and I was going to destroy my kid for life. Then one day I saw Ashley Judd on some interview show and she said something that changed my life. She’s struggled with depression herself and had come up with this little mantra: “It’s none of my business what others think of me.” And she’s right. Don’t worry about what the pregnancy books say. Don’t worry about the know-it-alls out there. Take care of YOU and the rest will follow. Work on achieving your own sense of health and balance and PLEASE do not be afraid to go to your doctor and tell them you feel like crap. You would not be the first woman with PPD to walk in their office. Their help could change your life.
Healthy MOM, healthy family. Keep doing your best and the rest will follow. Much love to all of you & Happy Mother's Day.
Sophia Luna de Los Cielos isthe author of the blog Sophie in the Moonlight. She is a survivor of postpartum depression.