When I was pregnant with my first child (my daughter), I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into. And please trust me when I say that I don’t use the word literally when I really mean figuratively. I had the confidence of ignorance. An image in my head of an ideal – an ideal birth, an ideal child, ideal parenting…perfection, based on a set of unfair and largely unachievable expectations. Hopes, dreams, plans. I often say that parenthood is 100% different than I thought it would be; both 100% better and 100% more challenging.
What happens when our hopes and plans are replaced with a reality that is less than ideal and less than perfect? And what happens when the other parents we know put up a front of perfection and shame those who parent differently or are unable to achieve the ideal?
Confusion. Guilt. Shame. Feelings of inadequacy. Feeling less than.
If you are lucky, you adapt, you ignore the mean people on the internet, you move on, you adjust your expectations to reflect reality and surround yourself with imperfect, snarky supporters (people, you know who you are). You still feel shame, fear and inadequacy, but you allow yourself to also feel tremendous joy, love and fulfillment.
Shortly after my second child (my son) was born, I was diagnosed with Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). Basically, I didn’t have enough of the right kind of breast tissue necessary to produce enough milk for my babies. Depending on who you ask within the lactation field, this condition impacts less than 1% or as many as 5% of women. Probably more, as many women choose formula from the start or give up breastfeeding without a diagnosis. I have always wanted to be special (kidding). I find it ironic that the name of this condition matched how it made me feel – insufficient.
In a way that diagnosis was also freeing. I wish I had been diagnosed with it when my daughter was a newborn. I finally knew what was wrong with me. I could finally let go of some of the stress and shame.
After my daughter was born, I wasn’t able to produce enough breast milk. She had to go to the NICU for weight loss (20% of her birth weight), dehydration and jaundice. With formula supplements, she quickly started gaining and became a healthy, beautiful baby. However, my life became about feeding her. Each breastfeeding session took an hour – filling the supplemental nursing system (a bottle with a tube to feed her at my breast), getting her to latch, inserting the tiny tube and then switching sides. After each feeding, I pumped. And then a little while later, we started again. I took several herbal supplements and a prescription drug for which I paid about $200 a month from a compounding pharmacy. My midwife would only prescribe two months’ supply. My life became feeding baby K and building my supply. I ate all of the foods reputed to boost supply, drank my weight in water and tried to get enough sleep.
It seemed like my supply issues could not be overcome, and I was driving myself crazy trying. Then, I got plugged ducts and mastitis. I spent so many nights crying over what was, or was not, coming out of my breasts and got very little sleep. I hated every minute, especially pumping, and I never got more than a couple of ounces. I was miserable. Constantly seeking this unattainable goal – Exclusive Breast Feeding (abbreviated EBF on internet forums) and the ability to stop supplementing with formula. Eventually, when my prescription ran out, my supply diminished greatly to the point where I was barely producing anything.
It never occurred to me that I could combo feed (both breast and formula feed) long term. And I blamed myself. I felt like I had failed her. I was sure that my supply issues were the result of something I had or hadn’t done.
Why? Because the internet forums, websites and the local La Leche League all told me it was my fault. I didn’t drink enough water. I took a Benadryl to combat a severe allergic reaction. I didn’t nurse or pump enough (as if 12 times a day was not enough). I didn’t try hard enough.
I eventually gave up. I switched to formula and almost immediately had a better relationship with her and myself.
When I was pregnant with my son, I promised myself that I would try breastfeeding, but also that I would not be hard on myself if it didn’t work. Luckily, I was able to connect with one of the best breastfeeding resource centers in the country. The physician medical director and her lovely team of health care professionals provided me with my diagnosis, but also resources, ideas and support. With their help, I was able to redefine success.
After the first month, I was able to ditch the pump (at least until I went back to work) and find a rhythm to life and getting to know my son. I nursed and then supplemented. Snuggled and nourished. It was so freeing to get to know my newborn without the added stress of trying to achieve the impossible and empowering to set realistic, attainable goals and to achieve them. I went on to breastfeed (and formula feed) my son until he was 7 months old and went on the great nursing strike of 2013. When I stopped nursing, I felt little disappointment and shame. I was badass. I had achieved success.
I wish breastfeeding was the only area of parenthood about which I felt or feel insufficient, inadequate and powerless. There are so many others. And I imagine every parent has their own areas where they feel as though despite their best intentions and planning, things aren’t turning out the way they expected or hoped.
Now that I am a single mom (something that was never a part of the plan), I am finding sufficiency in a less than ideal situation. And even though it is not what I expected or wanted. Even though being a single parent was not something I conceived during those blissfully ignorant moments of pregnancy with my first child, most days it is pretty awesome. I am comfortable with my imperfection. My insufficiency in breastfeeding gave me something completely unexpected and something completely amazing – resiliency.