Motherhood often arrives with an intense desire to nourish a baby -- mentally, emotionally and physically. The iconic image of a voluptuous woman breastfeeding her child is the epitome of maternal bliss and security. In many cases today, as women are pushed to return to work after six weeks, the breasts are replaced by infernal pumping devices and broom closests masquerading as pumping rooms. Still, progress is being made, as breastfeeding is strongly recommended in our culture.
When first-time parenthood knocked on my doorstep, I was primed to feed. I was hungry for knowledge on the most stimulating activities, safest materials and cutting-edge parenting guidance. I re-Google-searched everything -- literally, everything. And I brought all of my professional and personal diligence to bear on my new adventure: mommyhood.
After two-and-a-half months of hospitalized bed rest with only toilet privileges and a looming risk of premature delivery, I thought that I had won the battle when I gave birth to two relatively healthy identical twin girls born at 32-33 weeks. However, a new battle had just begun.
At about three months of age, one of my daughters would no longer breastfeed. For around 24 hours, it was nearly impossible to get her to suck or take anything at all, by bottle or breast. In desperation, between tears, I stuck a bottle in her mouth in her sleep, and, magically, she began to instinctively suck. I spent the next 24 hours switching between the common spaces in the home and a quiet and mostly dark room to feed her. And for at least the next six months, she did not drink most of a bottle ever while awake and never went back to breast again. Within a week, my other daughter experienced something very similar. She only fed in her sleep, but could take both breast and bottle.
There had been earlier signs of their discomfort while drinking, such as frequent vomiting. However, our doctor chose to first give it time, as the girls were premature and to then explore allergies by recommending an altered diet for me. The girls were not gaining sufficient weight, and I questioned my ability to feed my children. Maybe there was something wrong with me in that I was not able to nourish my babies, the most basic of motherly duties. Some ignorantly questioned whether or not I was dieting, because stress and less intake resulted in rapid weight loss for me, and I'd always been typed as looks-conscious.
Yet, when the girls simply stopped eating, I was asked to stop feeding for awhile, and medications were introduced. Only at that point, over three months into the difficult feedings, was the culprit -- acid reflux -- explored. All along, my motherly instinct had told me that the pediatrician was being too relaxed and this was more than just something that might require a diet change.
I spent the next six to nine months mostly homebound -- in a subterranean yet nice urban condo -- due to the girls' feeding. My unpaid maternity leave extended from a few months to a full a year. In other words, for about nine months, I did nothing but put the girls to sleep every four hours and feed them -- using techniques ranging from music, to rocking, to the breast. Luckily, I had the help of family. As they grew, it became even harder to put them to sleep, as it's just not natural for a growing baby to sleep every four hours.
Parents with healthy children often lose themselves and their lives over the first years of their children's lives. For me, this was all-consuming -- and it is not a choice, when one must feed like this daily, as food is essential to survival. Thinking about my own diet, well-being and interests were a luxury. And I am convinced that I lost a part of myself that year that I may never regain. That first year -- marked by its moments of intense joy -- was dark and lonely. I never got the break of work or anything to take my mind off the feeding.
We were fortunate in that the girls' development seemed to be progressing well. No other more severe conditions were suspected. That gave me solace and hope. Yet, with this came the complication of explaining it to others -- my family, friends and colleagues. There were people in my intimate circles who clearly judged me for not breastfeeding. It was as though it was my fault. There are friends who I know still haven't forgiven me for "disappearing like everyone else when they have children." And there were many at the workplace who said, "Good luck getting the kids to eat," with a "Is this a real issue?" in their voices, or questioning my desire to return to work after being an intensely dedicated professional. The year I was away was counted as unproductive time for me at the firm and held against my progress.
And then, of course, I heard a million times, "If a child is hungry, she will eat."
Acid reflux just seems so innocuous, due to its spectrum and mild forms. Yet, the effect that this had on our girls is life-changing. More recently, I met a man on the airplane who must sleep upright as an adult and whose breathing is still impact by Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
We were told that as the girls began eating solids, the situation would be better. Further, acid reflux is not an issue for "80-90 percent of babies" after age one... or so we were told with such strong conviction. We took them off the medication only to find that the next year would be a battle of closed mouths and intense feeding sessions to get them to eat anything at all. The pediatrician did not raise it and was convinced it must be something else because it's rare for acid reflux to continue. But, I questioned whether or not acid reflux was back, and we found that it was.
All of the research that I did on persuading toddlers to eat was directed toward picky eaters. The general guidelines on how to create a healthy attitude toward food had obesity in mind. I had to target resources dedicated to children who were not gaining weight and borrow techniques from articles about children with particular developmental delays. There was little about a "simple" psychological block or conditioning.
After more intense searching and a long wait of several months, as well as a result of a fortunate medical reference, we finally found some relief. Thanks to an interesting food protocol, meals were finally reduced from hour-long battles to a more predictable cadence. Yet, the girls still do not express hunger regularly.
This did not come without a cost. Apparently, many insurance companies push back on coverage of such therapies. Our out-of-pocket was $2000 for one session. This made me think about how inhumane it was not to have such therapies accessible to all -- regardless of socioeconomic class. There's a "missing middle" when we talk about whole new categories of ailments that walk a behavioral -- or psychological -- line. And I am convinced it's a work-in-progress or a matter of time before people will demand some reconsideration of this gamut of "diseases."
Being an intensely private person, I paused for a long time before sharing. But, then again, I just had to debunk the myth and request people think twice: when a child is hungry, she will not necessarily eat. Please understand this. Psychological disorders or blocks are just that, and they are powerful impediments to our well-being. This is something that our healthcare system, insurance companies and people alike must realize.