When my loves arrived home, the little ones were all asleep. Two were carried up to bed with no trouble, but Margot woke up and was NOT happy. I came down in pyjamas and damp hair, to cuddle her in hopes of getting her to sleep. It occurred to me that these days are numbered, when I will rock a babe in this rocking chair handcrafted for me by a former high school teacher, with a tree that grew on the street I walked down every day on my way to school. The street is called Truelove...so many wonderful connections! We were wrapped in a quilt that mom picked up at an auction sale and gave me for my birthday.
By the time he got the camera out, I was feeding her; my first reaction was, "Just wait till I'm done giving her her bottle". As soon as I heard myself, I realised that I'm still making peace with the losses of the past year, namely, my breastfeeding relationship with my youngest, and presumably last child.
Some of you know bits of the story, others the whole story. After a great start, and great weight gain in the first week, things started to deteriorate. At first, my midwife guessed that it was due to the busyness of our house; every time I sat down to nurse, two other little ones who were needing mama love clambered up, storybooks in hand, invariably elbowing the baby, disrupting that delicate beginning.
So I climbed into bed for "The 24-hour Cure"...24 blissed-out hours to cuddle skin-to-skin with my newborn, to really explore her for the first time. She nursed really well, but would bring it all back up soon after, which was heartbreaking. I knew I had lots of milk, I knew that her latch was perfect, and I'd been doing this almost constantly for the past 4 years! What could be wrong? We saw breastfeeding consultants, my mom came to help with the older kids to try to get things on track, and my sister, who is a breastfeeding counsellor, was on call every day.
And still, she didn't gain weight. We knew she had a heart murmur, but everyone I spoke to said it had nothing to do with our breastfeeding complications. In May we learned she'd need heart surgery.
Finally, after seeing this picture taken at her Baptism,everything came into sharp focus: my girl was in trouble. Suddenly, I saw how sick she was, how tiny, how sunken. She cried almost constantly, and was only happy when sucking on someone's baby finger. It sounds crazy to me now, but anyone who has had a colicky baby or a sick baby or a baby that just cries a lot, knows that you do whatever you have to do to give them peace.
A day or two after this, my mom and sister were visiting and finally I couldn't listen to her crying anymore. I knew she was hungry and that for whatever reason, breastfeeding was difficult for her. So, with many tears, I handed mom a bottle. That may be the day my heart broke. Everyone was thrilled to see the baby able to drink, and to see her immediately settle down. Such a hard day for me, fill with many mixed feelings.
It was a long road from then till the surgery, and Margot, if not exactly thriving, was not struggling as much as she had been. I went on automatic pilot at about this point...the days were a blur of pumping, pasteurizing the milk (because, if life wasn't busy enough, my milk has high levels of an enzyme that causes it to turn "sour" very quickly, so I had to simmer it before freezing it), trying to give the other kids what they needed, trying to rest, trying to prepare for the surgery...
I was assured that after the surgery, Margot would be able to nurse like a champ. I was told that 80% of the calories she was taking in went to making her heart and lungs work, which is why she was gaining so slowly, and that breastfeeding takes much more work than bottle feeding. I held onto the hope that I could begin repairing this nursing relationship after the surgery.
We were able to see her an hour after the surgery was done, and the next day, once some of the tubes, lines, etc. had been removed, I carefully nursed my girl:
What joy! I looked ahead to nursing her into her toddler years, when nothing cures a bump, a trip, a tumble like the comfort of mama's milk. We'd been through the worst together, and had survived.
After about a week of exclusively nursing, Margot started fussing a lot; I recognized the signs that she was not getting enough from me. While this is the most common myth related to breastfeeding, and one of the main reasons women stop so early, my milk supply really was depleted from stress and the difficulty I'd had in finding time to pump. I think at this point, the fight had gone out of me. I just wanted my child to be fed, and healthy. I made a decision which up until that point had been unthinkable: I would bottlefeed my last child.
The experience has been so intense. My mother has been able to help me so much, and is able to care for Margot in ways she wasn't able to with the older two. I've been able to spend time with my older children and have some time to myself. I am less exhausted than I was while nursing the other two. Returning to work was exciting rather than stressful.
Still, I can't think about what I've lost too much without crying. I know I need to cry about it a bit more. Comments made by family and friends, intended to comfort, have been painful, namely: "She's thriving now and that's all that matters". But, as most mothers know, we have so little time to think about, indulge, and process our own pain...there's always something to be done, and I think there's a bit of fear that if I start really trying to process that time in my life, the joys and losses, it may be hard to stop crying. There's guilt too, even though I rationalize that it wasn't my fault. I felt like I had to explain when bottlefeeding in public: I was a breastfeeding mother! I know what's best for my child! I did my best!
I really had to review the judgments I've made in the past, once I felt like I might be judged. I have grown and learned so much in the past year. Mostly, I know that I did do my best.
So, I retracted my statement to my husband last night and realised that it is not important WHAT we feed our child. What is important is how we feed them: in our arms, with lots of eye contact, cuddling, smiling, and whispered endearments. Margot has never been propped up alone with a bottle. Every bottle has been given to her in the many arms that love her: mine, my husband's, my mother's, my sisters', and even her siblings'. So in a way, she has something that the other children didn't: a whole community of people to feed her. It's not what I'd envisioned, but I know now that my best was good enough.
I know that I will treasure this photo someday. I will look past that plastic bottle, and all I'll see is the love in my eyes, and in hers. And I will miss these days so much.