Theatrics and Chaos of Pumping and Nursing

One thing I knew before but am ever more aware of is that every pregnancy, labor, mother, and child are entirely unique. And the combination of each of these unique pieces coalesce into an experience and relationship that can only be truly understood from within. With that preface, I will try my best as I write to share the chaotic beauty of my experience of motherhood and nursing. I do not want to create comparison but to simply lay my journey out there, vulnerable and real, so that we can relate – to some or to much – of this crazy, identity shaking transformation that leaves us wrecked and worn with the deepest of loves.

I was completely unprepared for breastfeeding. I mean, we all try to be prepared for labor and birth and everything about parenthood only to realize we knew so little… or to realize that we completely over packed for our hospital delivery! (I actually used my exercise ball in the hospital so… ha!) Perhaps I couldn’t be prepared for everything breastfeeding related anyway. But the truth is there are just some things I wish could have been different.

Pregnancy was a miracle I would relive over and over (You can see our maternity photos at Sheep River Falls here!). Labor was… well… labor. As my friend said it so well, “I have never done something so painful that had so much purpose.” Adam, our son, was born and placed on my chest. I was desperate to get a glimpse of his little face but terrified I might hurt him if I tried to lift him. I didn’t know how. He was so little. After my mom and the nurse helped lift him up for me to see, they laid him back down and there we rested, Adam hiccuping on my chest. It was surreal and yet exactly how it should be. It was so right for Adam to be here. Then the breastfeeding battle began.

Ever started nodding off during class because you stayed up way too late the night before? Well, due to my labor, I was up very late. All night in fact! But, I had a baby. So it’s all cool. What I didn’t realize is that class was scheduled to start about an hour after Adam was born. Nurses came in and out of the room every hour or so handing us pamphlets, telling us about appointments we needed to book, instructing me through each painful breastfeeding attempt, ordering us formula, teaching us about how much to use, how long breastmilk and formula were good for at room and fridge temperatures, that the amounts to feed Adam increased each day for two weeks based on his weight (Oh great. MATH CLASS!), and a million other things. I looked at them with glazed eyes and nodded politely hoping that something they said would actually stay in my mom brain (which takes on a whole new meaning after birth!).

We began painful, unsuccessful breastfeeding attempts only to have nurses request formula and hand me upside down shields and connectors within hours of our son being born. Painfully, I collected a whopping 1 mL of discouragement they called colostrum. I spent the next 24 hours collecting drops of that precious liquid gold, filling little syringes, and trying to ensure we used them within the time-frame they were still good for at room temperature.

It was a chaos you didn’t have time to stop and think about. In fact, it wasn’t until Adam was over 4 months old that I realized how different my experience was from the many other moms and babies I knew. At that point the frustration and exhaustion reached a whole new level. As soon as I could compare, hear the stories of other moms, and think ‘wow, you have it easy,’ that was when my situation seemed so much worse. But even if we think from the outside that some situations are better and some are worse, the fact is they are all just different – they have different joys and different heartaches – and while shared experiences are encouraging, comparison doesn’t do us any good.

The chaos of attempting breastfeeding, pumping and bottle feeding with all the set up and clean up created a 2 hour routine that repeated with each feed. It was exhausting and discouraging – at least when I had time to stop and think about it. Most of the time I just did what I had to do because I had to.

“Had to” is a strong statement. I want to clarify that it was simply my conviction to try everything I could to give Adam breastmilk. I hit a breaking point later on but at this point it was what I felt I had to do.

There were multiple reasons why breastfeeding was unsuccessful but the main one was that Adam was born with a tongue tie. A tongue tie prevents a baby from being able to create a proper latch and suck and it causes a lot of pain to the mom. At 1.5 weeks old, Adam had the tie snipped to loosen his tongue and hopefully allow us to quickly establish breastfeeding before he got too used to the bottle. As my poor baby was in pain, struggling to learn for the first time how to use his little tongue, crying out of hunger and frustration, we continued with the 2 hour routine. It’s no surprise that I had difficulty establishing a milk supply. Unfortunately, that low milk supply meant Adam was even less motivated to learn how to breastfeed. It felt like I was losing on every side. One step forward and five back. Every few days there would be one feed where he would seem to latch and feed for 5-10 minutes. But most of the time I cringed with pain as he bit on and pulled off over and over never staying on long enough to take a full feed.

It was a terrible balancing act. If I don’t attempt breastfeeding, he will grow to prefer the bottle and my supply will drop. On the other hand if I become too damaged from Adam’s shallow latch, then pumping becomes terribly painful and I will have to take days away from breastfeeding attempts to heal and that could also cause the same problem. So how many times a day can I attempt and for how long? How long do I let him feed if he does latch? The ridiculous thing is that if he did latch well for a little while, I would often go numb and wouldn’t realize how much pain and damage was happening until he released. And then I had to hook myself to the pump anyway. We attended multiple appointments with lactation consultants, tried nipple shields, positioning strategies, and even a chiropractor who specialized in babies. It just didn’t change the way he latched.

I need to take a moment to celebrate my husband. In those first few weeks, I don’t think either of us worked harder than the other. We were always on the go. If I was pumping, he was giving Adam a bottle. If I was attempting to breastfeed Adam, Jeff was preparing my supplies for pumping. If one was putting Adam down for a nap, the other was cleaning bottles and pump pieces.

I think it was two weeks after Adam was born and Jeff and I stopped to hug. I melted into him. Weak. Exhausted. Worn. I had not been physically near my husband in two weeks. We hadn’t even fallen asleep together because one of us was always up for Adam’s sake. I tried to stretch that hug into an eternity. We were giving everything to this little baby and our own bodies and minds and souls were depleted. But you just keep going.

Kaihla Tonai Photography

It is so interesting how we can experience dramatic high’s and low’s simultaneously. It is shocking to me that in those first two months, in the midst of all of this, I did a day hike at Lake Louise with a group of friends (serious shout out to those ladies for all their help and patience), attended two weddings out of town, and actually got out of the house a lot. I was mostly oblivious to the chaos I was in so I just did it and tried to enjoy the life we had at the same time, and in many ways, I did enjoy life. In retrospect I have so many incredible memories from those first few months.

At two months old, Adam had to have his tongue tie snipped further. Here we go all over again. Baby in pain. Mom in pain. All the small successes were tossed to the wind in hopes of greater gains if we could just endure starting all over… again. Unfortunately nothing changed. We kept trying but Adam didn’t take to breastfeeding any better than before. I could count on one hand how many times he actually breastfed in those first few months.

I remember constantly evaluating when or if I could go places based on not only Adam’s schedule but also my pumping schedule which left only small windows of free time – that is if I wasn’t cleaning bottles or pump supplies. I was deeply grateful for how accommodating friends and family were. I didn’t know if I felt embarrassed or just overwhelmed but ultimately I just had to be transparent – which isn’t always welcomed – so others understood what I needed in order to be out and about or attend an event. As many moms have experienced – I believe out of curiosity more so than judgment – people glance at the bottle, stare at the machine and tubes coming out from under the breastfeeding cover where you wish your baby was instead, perhaps they venture to ask a cautious question or two, and possibly just bewildered because they have never encountered a woman who couldn’t pop that baby on and nurse like nature intended. I chose to see it as an opportunity for me to share, to educate, and to receive support. If I assumed it to be judgement, it only made me bitter and, well, we all know how awesome assumptions are for relationships!.. Not.

So… “Who cares!?” That was my conclusion. Who freakin’ cares. This is what I have to do. I am more than happy to share if people want to listen and if I never get to explain myself to onlookers, I can just look down at the heart-wrenching cuteness that is my son and know that it’s not about anyone else. It’s about us.

I don’t want to make it sound like I had this perfect schedule for bottle feeds and pumping – I definitely didn’t! Did anyone else feel like they were always one step behind their kid? Just as you seem to settle into a routine, another growth spurt, teething, sleep regression or other unknown change shatters all your carefully made plans? I remember one time where Adam was hungry at the same time I was hungry just as I was needing to pump. So there I was, sitting on our bedroom floor hooked up to the pump, feeding Adam a bottle with one hand and eating my cold dinner with the other. The sight was amusing for sure! I am not sure if I felt more exhausted by the balancing act or grateful for the multitasking because (fingers crossed) I would hopefully have a longer break until the next round!

In addition to when, I had to evaluate where I could go. Because I constantly fought with a low supply, I used a medical grade pump to give me the best chance of maintaining what I had. A medical grade pump means you need an outlet. I was surprised to find out that despite our dependence on electricity, not everywhere has an accessible outlet. Not even the mothers room at the airport. This meant that I had to ask a family with little kids to relocate so I could access the only outlet in our seating area as I set up my medical device, covered up, and pumped in public. If I had a better supply, I may have been able to skip the medical grade pump and use a hand pump when I was out and about. But for me, I didn’t feel like I could take the risk of my supply dropping as it usually did when I used another type of pump. My hope was to pump as close to boarding time as I could risk it so that I could last until we landed and hopefully find a plug in the luggage area to set up all over again while my family gathered our luggage.

Now that I am thinking about our airport adventure (which I honestly just have to let go and laugh about) I remember how many bags of supplies Jeff and I brought through security. I think we had 5 between the two of us (and no, a small pretty purse was not one of them. I gave up on that the moment I started carrying a diaper bag! Haha). We had a diaper bag, bottle and pump supply bag, cooler with fresh breastmilk, my medical grade pump in its large case, and one bag with a few things for Jeff and I on the plane. Not to mention our baby. You know. The most important and wonderful reason we do it all.  I have no idea how long it took us to get through security as they scanned and swabbed our belongings and bottles. For anyone who has ever been held up in security looking at a completely disorganized person or family, on their behalf thank you for your grace and patience. I shrugged off what felt like 100 rolling eyes, to focus on just doing what we needed to do. But you can’t help feel the pressure. Sometimes it got to me, knowing I would never have the opportunity to explain my situation. But they don’t need to know. I reminded myself how important it was to us that we were going to visit family, how important it was to us that I do my best to give our baby breastmilk, and how important it was for us to not let an airport discourage us.

It was on this trip, as Adam turned 3 months old, that I realized being out and about was more than I could handle. If I had been able to breastfeed, I could have fed Adam anywhere (or at least that is the ideal scenario) but I had that stupid pump. I have a love-hate relationship with that machine. It is that pump that gave my child the opportunity to have breastmilk and that pump that clipped my wings. What was supposed to be a temporary struggle that would resolve itself ended up becoming our norm. This meant that any outing or trip required a baby-U-haul worth of effort only to come home exhausted wondering if all the energy I expended transferring ‘home’ to somewhere else actually resulted in a restored spirit or just worse exhaustion.

At 4 months I stopped trying to breastfeed Adam and adjusted to exclusive pumping – which was essentially what I had been doing up to that point. The main difference was a small bit of savings in time and pain. I made this choice at this time simply because I did. I accepted it.

At 5 months I broke. I had spent 3-5 hours a day for 5 months sitting on a couch massaging out every last drop of milk my body would make. I had watched more TV shows in those 5 months than I had in my entire life. Depressed with zombie brain, exhausted, and losing my conviction to keep going I asked my husband to find me a reason, something to motivate me to keep going or I was done.

Well, there was a reason significant enough for us to set a goal of making it to 9 months. So now I had to figure out how on earth I was going to stay sane for 4 more months. I honestly wish I had done this sooner, but I didn’t have the mental capacity to do so earlier on. But here is what I did. I gave each pump purpose. The first one of the day was always a meditation or Bible study or prayer. One day-time pump could be for a tv show. Another was to call a friend or family member. Another was to edit photos (Oh right, I guess I haven’t mentioned that I began photographing weddings once Adam was 3 months old because I didn’t have a paid maternity leave. Crazy right?). I didn’t always stick to my plan perfectly, but it made such a huge difference.

Eventually I joined exclusive pumping Facebook groups and there I was able to learn from other mom’s experiences, questions and comments. I saw new moms broken with the same chaos I felt in those first few weeks and moms of multiple children rocking life with strategies and knowledge I didn’t know was out there. A support group is at its least an encouragement and at most an actual life saver. This was another thing I hesitated way too long on. I should have joined these groups a month or so earlier when I first heard about them.

Why do we hesitate on these things? Did you? Maybe discouragement just gets to us…”What could one more resource possibly have that I haven’t already Googled or been to an appointment for?” I didn’t always know what to ask. These more experienced mom’s did. Collectively we were all better off for it. I would highly recommend it.

So what happened between 5 and 9 months? That was when my friends had their babies and I realized how different my life was. It was also when I began to lessen how many times a day I was pumping (in relation to when a baby would usually drop  a feed). As I went from 6 to 5 and then 5 to 4 it felt like I was a new person. THE TIME I HAD! THE FREEDOM! LESS BOTTLES TO CLEAN! LESS MIND NUMBING COUCH SITTING!! I COULD GO OUT MORE!! It was incredible.

What else happened between 5 and 9 months? Adam started moving and reaching and putting everything in his mouth… including the tubes and pumping pieces… whether or not I was attached to them. As much as I tried to time pumps with Adam’s activities or naps, it wasn’t always possible. There were days he would wake up earlier than normal, get hungry sooner than I anticipated, wiggle under furniture, get tired of the jolly-jumper or other toy I hoped would keep him occupied and, well, I was attached to the pump, mid-cycle, with precious milk to protect. I would try to reach my baby or try to keep his curious hands away from the pump.

What was truly hilarious, in hindsight at least, were those times when I had to disconnect the tubes so I could go over to where Adam was, praying I wouldn’t spill precious milk out of the bottles that were still attached to me. It was like engaging in a timed high-stakes obstacle course… while holding an open bottle of exquisite wine you could not replace. Imagine… The Pumping Mother Ninja Warrior…You hear the baby cry…

Will the baby calm? Nope.
Disconnect the tubes.
Move quickly.
Careful not to trip on the stairs, toys, or your own feet!
Reach the baby.
Can you give him something? Nope. He won’t calm until you pick him up!
Don’t lean too far over! If you spill the milk you get a penalty!
Dodge little hands and kicking feet.
Re-locate.
Carefully lower the baby down.
Distract the baby with anything that works.
Rush back.
You are ready to connect.
Sit.
Wait.
Silence.
Re-attach the pump.

And all of that so I can to finish as close to a full cycle of pumping as possible. Crossing my fingers he will last until the end of the cycle.

Now, here is the craziest thing of all. 9 months comes around. Was I really ready to stop? You would think after pumping in airports, closets, corners (literally facing a corner for privacy), cars and at the top of a mountain… after all of this effort, all the spilled or spoiled milk, and piercing pain I would be ecstatic to return that machine and never look back. But nope. Motherhood had something else for me. There is something about feeding your child that is so precious and giving that up is hard – no matter how it was done. However, I had a trip planned to Phoenix with some friends around the time Adam would be 10.5 months old and I DID NOT want to bring my pump through the airport and on the plane just to schedule everything around the machine and haul it home again – otherwise I may as well not go if I was being completely honest. It would have been more work than fun and I didn’t need to pay money for that. So, Phoenix gave me a little more time to transition but a pretty great reason to transition all the same.

I had a brilliant idea. I had heard of ‘back to breast’ – never researched anything about it – but figured, “Why not just swap out a pump for a breastfeeding attempt?” If Adam took, great. If he didn’t, well, I would slowly wean off the pump and be done.

He took.

WHAT!?…….

WHAAAAAT!!?!?!?! AFTER ALL THIS TIME!?????? I was actually way too surprised to roll my eyes with irritation. He breastfed. Over the course of a month we transitioned entirely off the pump to full time breastfeeding. No bottles. No cleaning pump supplies every night. No transferring my pump and supplies around the house with me. No more power pumps (2 hour commitment) to boost my supply each day. We were breastfeeding. My little boy nestled close, calm and content, nursing. (Unless he was simultaneously climbing me while nursing that is.) I was nervous for sure. I had no idea how long it would last or if he would nurse under a cover or in the airplane – but he was nursing.

I enjoyed that month. One month of cuddles with a not-cuddly boy. One month of my body and my baby connecting. One month without hauling around extra bags of supplies. And a trip that was more enjoyable than it was stressful.

And then wedding season arrived. I had 12 hour work days ahead and knew that breastfeeding would come to a quick end.

Adam turns 1 year old in two weeks. That means we made it 11 months. And for the last month before his first birthday, he is still able to have one bottle a day from the very small amount of hard-earned extra milk I was able to produce to store in the freezer.

I was in a craze for 4 months, lost my mind at 5 months, persevered for 4 more months, savored a few precious weeks of exclusive nursing and then suddenly it was over.

It feels anticlimactic. He is eating solids, walking around, growing up all strong and healthy. I couldn’t ask for more. Was it really worth all of that effort? The chaos? The hours? The pain? I believe it was for us. It won’t be something Adam will ever thank me for – and that’s ok. It won’t be something others see as one of the greatest achievements of my life – but it was. And now it is over, masked by another transition to a new stage in my child’s life.

And we just keep going.

Worn with the deepest of loves.

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