"No milk, no milk, no milk," my breast pump would chant at me mockingly. Nightmares of it chasing me, growling its pump and wheeze repetitive mechanical noise. My relationship with the pump began when my son was four days old. I call it a relationship, because by the time my baby was six months old, my boobs had clocked over 200 hours of quality time with this machine. At four days old, his weight had dropped 18% and my milk hadn't come in yet, so my doula came to the house and helped
me set up this awkward contraption of tubes and funnels to try to help get things flowing. All of three teeny tiny drops of milk dribbled out and my doula assured me that eventually there would be a fountain of spray bursting forth soon enough. Little did I know, that would never really happen and this would be the beginning of what I call the Nightmare Merry-Go-Round.
Fast forward three weeks, this is the Merry-Go-Round:
1. Nurse baby on one boob for 20 minutes, nurse baby on other boob for 20 minutes, because you're told your baby is a slow, lackadaisical eater with a weak suck (what a compliment!).
2. Load up a measly 10mL of previously expressed breastmilk into the Supplemental Nursing System (SNS, aka Shitty Nightmare System).
3. Prepare and add an additional ounce of formula and hope it won't lower his IQ and make him obese.
4. Latch baby and try 27 times unsuccessfully to slide a tiny tube into baby's mouth at the nipple to supplement nursing, because your boobs won't do this one job and produce enough milk.
5. Throw SNS across the room and cry and try to pull it together so you don't emotionally scar the baby for life.
6. Try again and hold your breath while baby sucks down half the supplement from the SNS at the boob hoping he won't fall off the latch or push the tube out of his mouth or the tube won't get pinched and stop flowing, AGAIN.
7. Repeat on the other side, feeling like the SNS is an intruder like "the other woman" in your intimacy bed of mother and baby.
8. Burp baby, which somehow feels like it takes forever because you've already been at this nonsense for over an hour now.
9. Put baby down and spend 15 minutes pumping while he lies in his bouncy chair looking lonely or while someone else gets his peaceful post-fed slumber snuggles and your arms ache for him.
10. Put the measly 10mL of expressed gold in the fridge and feel defeated.
11. Then wash all the pump parts while cursing them.
This all takes 2 hours. Only one hour till you get to do it all over again! All day, every day, for six months. Two hours of work to feed the baby, one hour to eat, pee, hydrate, rest. Repeat. In addition to that: Go on a lactation-cookie-only diet for three days, eat only galactagogue foods, ingest every herb under the sun in massive quantities, drink gallons of medicinal strength Mother's Milk tea, stop wearing clothes altogether so all you do is skin-to-skin, and do a rain dance in a futile attempt to call on the lactation gods to up your supply already. It. Was. Hell.
So why didn't I just give it up already, you ask? That is an excellent question, one with which I tortured myself to no end at the time. I was so fixated on desperately trying to increase my supply and breastfeed that I drove myself to the brink of insanity. If you relate to any of this so far, please please please read
. That blog was my main source of support when no one understood why I couldn't just give it up already. In my defense, I didn't realize, until I had to put the
pump down and back away six months later, that I had a severe case of perinatal depression and anxiety that significantly contributed to my obsessive-compulsive relationship with this pump. You would've had
to pry my dead cold hands off that pump if it wasn't for my baby finally refusing to nurse anymore at six months old.
In my very progressive Seattle area community, my friends offered support by encouraging me to reject the "breast is best" pressure and do what's right for me and my family. But I didn't receive it as support; rather I felt more isolated and alone, because no one understood why I wouldn't give it up, not even me. It took me over a year to finally understand that the reason I desperately wanted to nurse my baby so badly was because it was literally the only time I felt connected and bonded to him. I didn't care about society's potential judgment if I were to switch to full-time formula. I just wanted to feel attached to my baby.
You're feeding the baby, that's what matters, right? What matters is that baby and mom are healthy. Baby was healthy, I was very ill. I was suffering with a perinatal mood disorder that was so bad that my only hits of oxytocin and serotonin were happening during breastfeeding. I thought I was some kind of monster and a terrible mom and didn't deserve this beautiful baby, because for the first entire year I never felt those lovey-dovey feelings when I looked at him, except when I was nursing, then I felt calm and loving while gazing at him. I thought, how selfish and immature am I for enjoying nursing more than I enjoy my actual baby. But there was a physiological explanation for that lack of emotion: it was
the perinatal mood disorder robbing me of the joy of having a baby.
I didn't realize I had perinatal depression and anxiety until he stopped nursing at six months old. Breastfeeding had died a long slow painful death, him gradually rejecting the breast more and more in favor of the free flowing bottle, until he officially would no longer nurse anymore at all; that day just happened to fall on my birthday, of all days. And that night out with my girlfriends all I could hear was how my lactating friend couldn't drink because she had to nurse her baby. And I was dying inside.
Then it occurred to me--you know, it's often sad when you stop nursing, but I don't think it's supposed to make you suicidal. So that's when I got help and started to climb out of the pit of the depression. I learned that some women's bodies are extra sensitive to the constant fluctuation of
hormones during lactation and that alone can cause a physiological chemical imbalance that can induce perinatal depression and anxiety. I learned that the same chemicals and hormones that affect mood also
affect lactation, so sometimes when women with low supply issues get treatment for a perinatal mood disorder, their milk supply goes up as a byproduct of the chemical/hormonal stabilization. Until they create a lab test to definitively prove I really did have Insufficient Glandular Tissue, I believe in my heart of hearts that was the core reason my supply never went up despite my dutiful laundry list of efforts.
The Pump and I have been broken up for exactly one year now. The day I returned it to the hospital I was renting it from was bittersweet. I wanted to feel free, but instead I felt defeated. We fought long and hard, my baby and I, and it was over. It was only a six-month relationship, but it was an
abusive one, and the Merry-Go-Round memories still haunt me, especially as I consider having a second baby. Did my body fail me? What's wrong with me? Why me? Am I less of a woman, because I couldn't do this? Therapy is helping me work through the questions of grief.
So, momma, if you are reading this and can relate to this pain ... know that this pain is a symptom of this vicious illness. It is not you. You are not a bad mom. This is a chemical cloud that has invaded your mind and heart. And it will pass. Go to therapy. If it doesn't help, add meds to it, and/or switch therapists. Don't wait like I did. You deserve to not suffer. One day you will come out on the other side and this will all be a bad memory. It may be in a month or a year, but the sun will shine again. I don't know when, but I promise you it will. You are not alone. You are a warrior mom. Keep fighting.
And if you are a loved one of a momma that you believe is obsessively pumping, give her grace and encourage her to get support. Before I found myself in that hell, I judged a girlfriend so harshly for what I ignorantly thought was self-inflicted torture. A wise therapist once said, people have a very good reason for being the way they are. We just may not know or understand what's really going on underneath it all.