Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Riva Soucie, Raleigh, NC, USA
Photos: Amber Jones
“What kind of birth experience do you hope for?”
A sweet, soft-spoken doula was sitting in my living room, probably expecting an answer filled with the highest of hopes and lofty expectations.
“Truthfully,” I admitted, “I don’t have a set vision for how things will go. I’m open to whatever may come.”
When my water broke the evening of my due date, my husband and I decided to wait the night out at home, so I could rest and let labor progress in its own time.
Twenty minutes later, I was on my hands and knees, flailing wildly through unbearable contractions every three to four minutes for the next hour. There was no rocking on a ball. No steady pressure on my back, my forehead, my hands. No rest, no relief, no walking, no waiting. We got ourselves together and drove away into the night. Toward the hospital, toward whatever was to come.
In the hospital, I wasn’t dilated even a little. The pain was in my back, then overtaking my entire being. I demanded IV narcotics. Still no dilation. When they wore off, I begged for another dose. I couldn’t stand or walk. Could barely breathe.
I asked for an epidural, and got some blessed relief. The next morning, my body was ready, and I felt the urge to push. My doula and husband and nurses helped me move from side to side and back again to reposition the baby. I lifted legs in, up, out, lifted torso upright, let gravity work. We waited patiently and I pushed perfectly. He stayed put. After four hours of hard work, no sleep in nearly 30 hours and nothing to eat, I made the decision to birth my son by Cesarean surgery.
And then, for various reasons, I ended up needing full anesthesia for the procedure. Several minutes after my son was born (and brought quickly to his papa), I was woken up and found myself exhausted, shaking, unthinkably sore, and virtually immobilized.
And then I met the quiet, champagne-haired newborn whom I had birthed from my powerful, and now, battered body. A nurse helped me help him latch for the first time and for every two or three hours thereafter. Through layers of pain and crushing exhaustion, I fed him day and night, end over end over end.
I was told my milk would come in soon. Soon, soon. But nothing happened.
The hospital lactation consultant visited and helped me with latching. So did the pediatrician. I didn’t know to ask for a pump and nobody offered. I didn’t know about donor milk and nobody told me it was an option.
On discharge day, my colostrum had all but disappeared with no sign of milk. We were sent home with six bottles of pre-mixed formula.
At home, friends came to do our laundry and bring us dinner. The baby latched for hours, and, still, by nighttime, we could not get him to stop crying. He screamed without stopping for breath, refusing to nurse for even one more second. I became hysterical. I was exhausted beyond words, suffering physically, and, although we didn’t know it at the time, fighting three infections. My husband was balancing on the edge of sanity—overwhelmed and afraid for his wife.
Finally, we remembered the formula. With hands shaking from exhaustion, he popped open a two ounce bottle and fed it to our son. The baby’s screams stopped in an instant and his face and body melted down into calm for the first time since morning. We all fell finally, gloriously asleep.
Despite deep misgivings about feeding commercially prepared formula to our son, we relied on those little bottles here and there, as well as powdered formula, for the next several weeks while my body healed. My husband gave formula after I nursed our baby—or at night, when I simply could not get out of bed because of pain or exhaustion.
When the milk started to come, it came in drops. Ever so slowly. And never enough.
I hired a hip, young lactation consultant who urged me, above all, to rest. And pump. And to take breaks when I said I wanted to quit. When I cried and said I couldn’t bear it for another second. I rested and breastfed. I pumped and rested. I pumped and my husband took over.
We fed our baby. We rested. We circled the wagons.
Over the next few weeks, I fought terrible infections, crushing, crippling pain, deep discouragement and low, low supply. For weeks and weeks. I fed on demand until I was sore—and struggling to keep from drowning in my own discouragement.
I took antibiotics. I took painkillers. We talked to the pediatrician. To my doula. To my sister-in-law who had never been able to nurse. To my girlfriend: a doctor and nursing mother herself. I saw a dermatologist who treated the battle wounds of breastfeeding. I texted the lactation consultant. I texted my mama friends. I slept. I nursed. My husband held the baby. My mother held the baby. I nursed. We supplemented. I slept. I pumped. We accepted dinners and desserts from dear friends. And from acquaintances. Slept. Ate everything in sight. Nursed and nursed. Supplemented a little more. Slowly stopped taking medications for the pain. Started to regain my strength. Started producing more milk.
Started to get into a rhythm.
One day, about six or seven weeks in, there was a little extra milk. My extra milk. A surplus.
No more formula.
We started to freeze a few ounces at a time. Sneaked glances into the freezer to gloat over our tiny stash. Each slim white packet a family victory.
My sweet nursling is now fourteen months old and a lusty eater. I will nurse my darling boy as much as he wants for as long as he asks.
Every moment of our breastfeeding journey has been a gift. And a lesson. Not everything unfolds as we hope. And all our preferences may not be met along the way. But there is value in being open and in honoring the depth of our own experiences.
Find your local La Leche League Leader for mother-to-mother support. Make LLL a part of your support network before your baby’s arrival: http://www.llli.org/webindex.html