“Do you think you’ll nurse her?”
I was expecting my second child, and my husband and my friends were curious about my plans. Breastfeeding my son had been a disaster but so had all the circumstances surrounding his birth. I prayed for my daughter’s beginnings to be different. I’d learned, however, that my expectations led to disappointment – and worse. I answered honestly: “I have no idea.”
Before I became pregnant for the first time, I fantasized about what it would be like to have a baby. After a complication-free vaginal delivery, I would cradle my healthy child to my breast. I would nurse him. Love would flow between us, our connection instant and indestructible.
In reality, my water broke three months before my due date. My three-pound baby was born by emergency cesarean. The attending pediatrician offered a fleeting glimpse of my son’s face before she rushed him away to be resuscitated. I couldn’t nurse him. I couldn’t even hold him until he was a week old. And connection? I was far too traumatized and too terrified he would die to feel anything but dread.
The morning after the birth a nurse wheeled a breast pump into my room. I sobbed when I saw it. I knew all about the benefits of breastfeeding, but the cold plastic maws of this machine were nothing like a sweet little mouth. The nurse reminded me that breastfed preemies had better outcomes and that as long as my son remained in the NICU my milk was the one thing I could give him that no one else could. “Just wait until you can nurse him,” she said gently. “You’ll bond and forget everything that came before.”
I was desperate for what she said to be true.
So I pumped. I forced my surgery-stiff body to rise at midnight, at three, at six, tending to my breasts instead of my newborn. I left the hospital, but my baby stayed behind. Every time my milk let down, his absence made my whole body ache.
At one month old, he developed the reflexes necessary to coordinate breathing, suckling and swallowing. We finally attempted nursing, but to my dismay, he would not latch. He’d learned to suckle on bottles, on pacifiers. My breast confused him. I panicked. How would we bond if nursing failed? “Sometimes it takes a few tries,” the lactation consultant said and handed me a nipple shield. With it, he could nurse, but he never got enough to eat. He needed a bottle afterward, and I needed to pump.
In the NICU, a nurse could give the bottle while I expressed my milk, but at two months old, my son came home. Feeding him consumed me. Instead of caring for myself while he slept, I pumped, washed bottle parts, and scrubbed the nipple shield. I felt like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder to the top of the hill only to watch it roll down the other side. Many days I noticed it was three p.m., I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and we hadn’t gone outside. When my son took a long time to eat or when he fell asleep mid-meal, I grew enraged and then felt horrified by my anger. My husband would come home from work and find me crying, tears streaming onto our tiny infant’s head. For months, I’d been holding it together. Now I was unraveling. My baby was finally in my arms, but the closeness I longed for had never felt further from my reach. Something had to give.
After my son’s rocky start, I wanted to provide him with every advantage I could, but I’d become so fixated on the idea that nursing would strengthen our fragile attachment that I refused to see that it was doing just the opposite. Yes, my son was getting my milk, but he wasn’t getting what he needed most: a loving mom. It was time to quit, time to let go of how I wanted motherhood to be and surrender to how it was.
The truth was that my mental health was in shambles. Eventually, I would be diagnosed with and treated for postpartum PTSD. In the hours once occupied by pumping and cleaning, I began the slow process of healing. I vented to my therapist over Skype and wept onto the pages of my journal instead of onto my baby’s head. The better I cared for myself, the more present I was while I cared for my son. The more present I was, the more connected I felt. Being present, I realized, was how parents bonded with their babies whether they were nursing them or not.
Years later, as my daughter’s birth approached, I made myself a promise. I would give breastfeeding my best effort for two weeks. After that, I would not nurse one day longer than it served us both. Born a few days before Christmas, my little girl was full-term and healthy. She latched with ease. To my amazement, love washed over me the way I imagined it would when my children existed only in daydreams.
Months passed. Questions about whether I’d nurse turned into questions about how long. I gave the same answer: “I don’t know.” I couldn’t predict the moment one of us would stop enjoying it. My daughter eventually grew distracted, more interested in crawling after her brother than eating. Frustration crept in. Feeding her became a chore.
It was time to let go, I acknowledged with bitter-sweetness. Yet free of expectations of how or when weaning would happen, I felt no sense of failure. I wasn’t afraid we’d lose our connection. I let go without regret.
Isabelle FitzGerald is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a memoir about motherhood, identity, and post-traumatic stress.