I carried her for nine months, our first biological baby. I wanted so, so badly to be able to provide for her, in the way that I had not been able to for her older brother at that age because I didn't know him then. I wanted my body, on its own, to miraculously produce everything she needed, because that is the way that nature is designed. I had felt her every movement be a part of me for three quarters of a year, and I wasn't quite ready to have her detached from me completely. I wanted her connected -- to be able to give her something that no one else could. More than anything, I wanted to enforce that maternal bond in every way possible, because if our adoption taught us anything, it is that the first few weeks of a child's life are more important than anyone will ever know, and they have consequences that are far-reaching.
Sometimes what we want and what we get are different things. I knew right away that something was wrong. It hurt much more than anyone ever told me it would. Nurses talked about the shape of her palate and sent in the first lactation consultant. We talked about nipple shields and how it was normal to bleed. I was given a tiny silicone sombrero that worked like a suction cup. They showed me new ways to hold her. None of them worked.
She was losing entirely too much weight, so they started giving her formula so that she wouldn't starve. In the meantime, I saw more lactation consultants, five in total, and anything they told me I gladly did. I spent extra time in the hospital desperately trying to get my baby to eat. Eventually they added an electric pump and a very strict feeding schedule. The schedule went like this:
Feed the baby for 30 minutes on the right side
Feed the baby for 30 minutes on the left side
Pump for 20 minutes on the right side
Pump for 20 minutes in the left side
Rest for 20 minutes
Repeat until the milk comes in
Weeks later, the milk still had not come in. After all of that nursing and pumping, I was only producing a quarter of an ounce for the machine hooked up to me, and often it was so contaminated with blood that we couldn't give it to the baby. That meant that I was awake indefinitely. I could eat or use the restroom during the 20-minute breaks, and maybe sneak in a little cat nap. I was determined that no matter what, I was going to be a breastfeeding mother. "Breast is best," after all, and there was no way on Earth that I wasn't going to do everything in my power to do what was best for this brand new helpless baby. I Googled all of the dumb teas and "mother's milk" cookie recipes. Nothing was helping.
I was miserable and in the most intense physical pain I have ever felt in my life. There was not enough lanolin in the world to make it go away. I would have given birth all over again and had my wisdom teeth pulled at the same time to make it stop. I dreaded every time she latched on. Twenty-four times a day. I felt like I never stopped crying, and neither did she, because she was always hungry. We weren't allowed to give her enough food to make her satisfied, because otherwise she wouldn't want to latch on for the next feeding session. She never slept well, and neither did we.
All of my time and energy was going into trying to make this failing venture work, even though I had another child who needed me. We used our tax refund to pay a babysitter to help with our son, even though I was home, because how could I also watch a toddler when I was stuck in a chair feeding and pumping for 100 out of every 120 minutes?
A few weeks later my mom came back to visit again.
"Tell me why you are breastfeeding?"
"What do you mean, why? You should know -- you did it, too. Because it's supposed to be the best thing for the baby. Plus, I need to bond with her. It's healthy."
"Really? You think this is healthy? You know, sometimes it is OK to quit."
For some reason, that was all I needed to hear.
No one in my real life ever "formula shamed" me for not being able to breastfeed my baby. My guilt was my own; it was internal. But it was intense and it was real.
If you are harboring guilt because the reality of your motherhood is different from what you thought it would be, it is OK to let that go.
It is OK if you needed medical intervention during your natural childbirth.
It is OK if you let your kids watch two movies today so that you avoided a mental breakdown.
It is OK if you said you would never do something, but then you changed your mind and decided that you needed to go ahead and do it anyway, because now you know better.
It is OK to feel a little bit or even a lot of grief because your child was diagnosed with special needs or an illness and your original expectations are shattered. I know what that's like, too.
And it is OK to give yourself permission to quit holding onto those original expectations. Sometimes they just aren't doing us any good. Sometimes you have to borrow from the poets of our generation so that you don't "lose yourself," and "snap back to reality." (Yes, I did just use Eminem lyrics in this piece all about female empowerment. I guess I am a fan of irony.)
The point is, it is OK to give yourself grace. That means meeting yourself where you are right now and not where you think you are supposed to be.