Monday, May 20, 2013

Tales from the NICU: Breastfeeding Excuses

In September 2012, my full-term newborn son spent the first three weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit. "Tales from the NICU" are stories from our unexpected stay there. 

Warning: This story discusses breastfeeding, so if you're  uncomfortable with that topic, look elsewhere, but please do remember that humanity as we know it is has long been dependent of the life-giving work of breastfeeding mothers. 


I did it again today. Felt the need to explain the whole darn thing to a nearly complete stranger. Now that my son is nearly nine months old, I find I am able to keep my mouth shut most of the time, as long as no reference, direct or indirect, is made to the way I am feeding him. But given even the slightest comment, or a glance that I perceive as judgmental, and all bets are off. That's when you get the full story, or at least my carefully rehearsed abbrew`viated version of it. This isn't that version:

When I was pregnant, heck even before, breastfeeding was assumed. I never even really made a decision about it because, duh. Why wouldn't I breastfeed? I knew I would breastfeed exclusively for at least six months and not quit until at least a year. I read the books, I did the research, I bought the stuff, I even wrote it into my birth plan. I was ready.

And then, this happened. And there I was, a brand new mama, with a brand new baby, stuck in the hospital. Struggling, o struggling, to make things work. To this day, I don't know if it was me or him or the situation or all of it. It seemed like the whole world was conspiring against me, even my own body, because there was never very much milk, despite the tea and the pills and the pumping and the food and the "rest" and the "help."

Very little milk, but o the tears. So many tears. I feel them coming on just thinking about it. They were constantly boiling to the surface, day and night. But I didn't quit. I fought. I fought the nurses and the doctors and myself and my baby because this was Important and there was no Plan B in my birthing plan, not for this. And how often had I heard that it was his birthright, this milk of mine, every drop. So I had no choice but to get it to him, even if he fought me, because if I gave up, if I gave him formula? Game over. The whole thing, new motherhood itself, would fall apart, I was sure. This was not how it was supposed to go and I would. not. let it. end like this.

I looked high and low for a solution, but all I got was guilt trips or nonchalance. The end of the world or no big deal or, worst of all, denial that a true problem even existed. So I just kept fighting and fighting and fighting until they said it had gone on long enough and that if I wanted him to go home he needed to gain some weight. So I gave him that $#!*ing bottle of formula and I sobbed my eyes out for the disaster of it all, for the way I had failed him right from the start, and for the the pain I had to watch him endure day after day, and for the sleep deprivation. The nurses said it would get better once we got out of there, that it would all be normal soon, but it never was. It was no easy task to make it here even, to nine months of at least some nursing, but exclusivity was never within our grasp.

I have no idea what nursing would have been like in a normal situation, completely easy or still really hard or somewhere in between, but when I look back on those weeks, it makes me angry to realize how sabotaged we were by the environment. Almost every single time I nursed by baby, there was someone not far away, asking how long he had nursed, how much I had pumped, commenting on his weight that day, or his position, or my tension, or how I needed to relax more or pump more or eat more, or some other helpful piece of advice that contradicted another piece of advice from a nurse the day before. They mostly all had good intentions, really they did, but what I really needed more than anything was uninterrupted time with my baby in bed with me, where we could both rest and eat as much as we needed.

But those are not the cards we were dealt.

And despite the fact that I have (mostly) come to terms with it all and am just so immensely grateful for this goofy, healthy, formula-loving baby of mine, I still sometimes feel the need to explain why I'm not the nursing mother you and I both think I should be. But I usually don't say all that. I usually just say, "He was in the NICU for a few weeks when he was born, and we had some trouble with breastfeeding."


  1. You reply is actually full of grace. You will still have a healthy baby that you love. I've known women who wanted so desperately to feed their babies with their own milk...but couldn't. In spite of the research and books and people telling them they could/should/would. Personally, I think it is one of those areas where mothers should have freedom...'in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity.'

  2. Thanks Lisa! I truly appreciate the encouragement.