I love my daughter more than anything else in this world, and I would do anything for her – and sometimes, I’ve learned, that anything I’ve promised to do is to humble myself and ask for help, to take an action I don’t necessarily want to take but become aware I need to take.
Motherhood teaches us humility in a variety of ways. Sometimes, we learn humility when we have baby puke or baby poop on our hands and clothes, and we can’t clean it off us until we take care of our child first. Sometimes, we learn humility when our child is having an epic meltdown in the grocery store and everyone is staring and we have to just patiently pass items onto the conveyor belt to get the shopping over and done with so we can get the screaming child out of there. Sometimes, we learn humility because we have a plan in place – a mothering plan, a parenting plan – and we are physically incapable of following through with it.
The last one? That’s me. That’s the lesson I’ve learned over and over again since I’ve become a mother. It’s apparently the lesson I need to learn the most, because it keeps coming back and reminding me I haven’t studied hard enough yet.
I’ve said this before – if sheer force of will were enough to get things done, I would never be behind. I would always have my ducks in a row. My spirit is always willing, but the flesh is weak. Or, perhaps more aptly – there’s just a world outside my stubborn, strong-willed self. There are other people in the equation. There are jobs and obligations and traffic and people whose priorities are not my priorities, and visa versa. I have a will, and I am determined to find a way – and the truth is, that lesson that I have to learn over and over again – is that just because I want make something happen a certain way doesn’t mean it’s going to happen that way. I can fight and fight the inevitable outcome as hard as I want – I will eventually have to humble myself and learn the lesson.
This is a lesson I first had to learn in the context of mothering on the very day I gave birth. I’ve delayed completing and posting my birth story because of this exact reason. In a bizarre mix of emotions, I stand by every decision I made during my birth experience – but the truth was, it was not the birth I wanted, exactly. It was not the birth I prayed for and practiced for and prepared for. It was not the birth that I – with my stubborn, forceful will – did everything in my power to bring about. It was a birth that taught me humility. It was a birth that said yeah, I see all the hard work you’ve done. I see all the preparations you’ve made and how you’ve fortified your spirit to do hard work one specific way. Guess what – there’s another way, and you’re not prepared for IT. And THAT is the way we’re gonna go.
I’m working on that birth story. I’m coming close to finishing it. But it was an epic and beautiful experience, despite the complications, but today’s not that day to share it.
Now, around four-months postpartum, I’m learning that same lesson again. Humility, despite all my good intentions.
Ariadne has been, as I’ve said over and over again, an exemplary child. Good-natured and bright and intelligent, and a good sleeper, and – so far as we knew – a good eater. She nursed well, enthusiastically and without issue, so far as we knew. In retrospect, I can recognize a few warning signs that she wasn’t getting enough – but really, we didn’t think she had any issue. Everything about Ari was so spot on, there was no reason to think there was an issue – she’s been alert, happy, smiling, laughing, learning all her skills right on time, and never seeming sickly or ill.
Because she wasn’t, exactly – this is what we learned at the doctor. At her four-month check-up, she got an excellent report in all areas – except her weight. The doctor was super happy with her development – except she was too skinny. A little too thin. Underweight – not enough to have done damage, but enough to require we pay attention to it.
The doctor’s initial suggestion was to immediately start supplementing formula. Continue breastfeeding, but when I was at work, have Shaun or Auntie Nanny Jean feed her 3 formula bottles a day. In the exam room, I was shell-shocked. I hadn’t expected this at all – I knew Ari was small, but she was born small. She’s been a tiny elven fairy girl since she was born, and since she seemed to eat well, I assumed she was just small. And she is – that IS part of it, some babies are just small – but it broke my heart to think I hadn’t been feeding her enough, or long enough, or any number of new mom, rookie breastfeeding mistakes.
Y’all know me. Overemotional. Every emotion I feel demands to be let out, immediately and to the fullest extent of its existence. I cried in the exam room after the doctor left (and after her four-month shots, which granted, may have added a little of the stress). I cried at home, in the den as I nursed her and in the kitchen as Shaun and I talked about this news while he cooked dinner.
But – typical me, where there’s a will, there’s a way – I came up with PLANS. I talked to my breastfeeding mama friends. I talked to my lactation consultant friends. I posted in a mothering group on Facebook. I got suggestions to try, and in the coming week, I tried them all. Switching breasts during nursing, getting my sweet sleeping babe up during the night to nurse extra – which, by the way, is HYSTERICAL as she thinks she is in some magical dreamland where is awoken from her slumber and offered boob without asking it; she gets the CRAZY EYES and lunges to the breast.
For a week, we have been trying everything anyone has suggested. Even pumping extra although I hate pumping with every fiber of my being. As days passed, I thought I felt better, emotionally – I told Shaun and anyone else who would listen that I just wanted try everything I could first. I knew that the end goal was a happy, healthy, full and growing baby, regardless of how. I knew that it didn’t make me less of a mother to have to add in some formula daily. I knew supplementing formula didn’t mean I would stop nursing — I would still nurse her anytime I was home, in the mornings and on lunch and after work, all night and all weekend. But I knew I wanted to make sure I had done everything possible to avoid having to supplement formula. Breastfeeding is very important to me, and I know the world we live in isn’t always as supportive of breastfeeding mothers as it could be. There are a lot of hiccups and a lot of roadblocks that can deter mamas, and I wanted to make sure I exhausted every possibility before I gave in.
The thing is…I was also exhausting myself. By the first weekend after our doctor’s visit, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. My breasts ached, inside and sometimes out, more or less constantly. Trying to keep up with my increased demand for milk, they felt overworked. I was working hard to keep up with my water intake, which never really falters, but I KNEW I needed as much as I could get to keep up a good milk supply. Like most mamas, I struggled with food – wanting to eat healthy and responsibly – yet also knowing breastfeeding mamas need a lot of extra calories in order to make milk and have a good supply. I was sleeping less, because I was getting my baby up, or pumping, or my boobs were aching after a nursing session. My breasts suffered – I am careful to get a good latch and fix her when she latches poorly, but my hungry baby was so overzealous, my nipples started to feel tender and sore. Be gentle, baby, I told her as we sat down to nurse. Be nice to mama.
And I was worried. Anxiety is a part of my lifestyle, unfortunately – and for the most part, I have managed to be a reasonably calm mama, for one with anxiety. I know that I am an anxious person, so I work hard to process my anxieties and then relieve them, in order to keep from acting on every paranoid impulse I felt. But in this breastfeeding issue, I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t explain or rationalize away my fears.
Once Ari got used to getting more milk, more often, she was insistent upon it – which is further proof she wasn’t getting enough. I was lucky enough to be off for a few days after her doctor’s appointment, so I COULD nurse on demand, 24/7, and that was great. But then – I went back to work. I had to. And Ari still needed as much milk. We exhausted my freezer supply in two days – and with her nursing constantly on the weekends, I was hardly able to pump much more. I was pumping as much as I ever was at work – which was about three small to medium bottles a day – but Ari was now needing more like four big bottles a day.
Over the weekend, I promised myself my body could catch up. Would catch up.
Monday morning hit, and I was a mess.
I was beyond exhausted. My left boob ached more or less constantly – and left boob has been my good side. My right boob was chugging along, doing its best; but I could tell both were exhausted. I was exhausted. I was trying to pump and I just wasn’t getting anything more than normal. The usual amount, sure – but I was now keenly aware my usual amount wasn’t enough.
I moved about my work day in even more of a fog than usual. Breakfast didn’t help, coffee didn’t help. I felt frayed and ragged, and when I sat down at my desk to do work, I found I couldn’t call up words or tasks that I’ve been doing daily for almost two years now. I couldn’t remember what steps I was supposed to do next. I couldn’t remember the jargon I’m used to typing all day every day. I didn’t feel like I could ever get caught up – there was so much work to do, and I’d buckle down and work so hard to get caught up – and every time I got close, it was time to pump. I’d go and pump, and not get any more milk than usual, and then I’d come back to my desk and be even more behind than I was when I left. I couldn’t focus. I was exhausted, and sick – and I couldn’t stop crying.
Granted, this wasn’t the first day I had an emotional anxiety attack at work – but it was one of the first in a long time. Usually, if something is bothering me, I can duck into a bathroom stall and text a friend or two for comfort and validation, and get it out of my system, and move on.
Not this day. I cried and I kept crying. I hid in the bathroom and cried with tears literally splashing down my sweater. I went in to pump and was hiccupping and sniffling. I was doing my best to get myself under control before anyone noticed – but it wasn’t working.
This was my humility moment. This was the moment where I realized yet again, I’d been fighting the inevitable. I’d wanted so much to magically fix my supply issues, to poof! overnight have a surplus of milk, enough to satisfy my baby, and easily. I wanted to waltz back into that doctor’s office, and be all, look, see! You were wrong, and I was right! I fixed it, and I’m awesome, and it was easy.
I realized that was not going to happen. It didn’t matter how much I wanted it to happen, how much I was willing to all but kill myself to make it happen – there was more to the equation than what I wanted and how hard I wanted it.
This moment did remind me of my birth – and I swear, I’ll post that long saga of a story soon, and this will all make more sense. But there was a point, in my birth, where I realized I was holding so tightly to the PRINCIPLE OF THE MATTER that I was making everything worse for myself. And now, crying alone in the pump room at work on that Monday morning, I was having the realization of a similar breastfeeding moment.
Any decision I can make – even if it goes against my desired methods, even if it’s different than the natural experience I wanted – if I can make this decision and it relieves my stress so much that I can stop crying in public, if I can relax and know 100% that my daughter is healthier and safer for it, if it allows me to stop worrying and enjoy time with my daughter more peaceably and gently and joyfully – that is a decision I need to make.
I realized, in that crying spell, that I need to let go of my ego.
I’m a birth and pregnancy and mothering social media junkie. I see mamas with their beautiful backlit photos of their pregnant selves, or their idyllic clean (CLEAN!) baby room settings with the perfect white balance and sharpness – and I wanna be that too. I wanted my natural birth, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, mothering experience to be effortless and poetic and inspiring.
And guess what – that’s not reality. Maybe those mamas magically can have it all. Maybe they can dress up even their hard days to look like a magazine photo shoot. Maybe it’s easy for them, or maybe they make it look easy even though it isn’t.
But that’s not me. That’s not the majority of mothers I know. We mamas judge ourselves so harshly, in fear of others judging us harshly. All any of us want is to be good mothers. All any of us want is to be validated that we are doing a good job at this the most rewarding and difficult of life-long jobs. And sometimes we whitewash our bad experiences and our struggles in order to make it seem easier and cleaner and more poetic and well-balanced. Sometimes we’re so quick to offer advice and suggestions when all a mama wants is camaraderie, empathy. Someone to say I see you, I hear you. I know how hard it is and it doesn’t matter what you do or do not do at this point – you’re trying and that’s enough.
So – for me, in this instance – I have options. I am blessed with beautiful, generous friends who are still helping me with suggestions to up my milk supply, and friends who have offered me sympathy and love and gentleness and room to grieve and the allowance to do whatever is best, no matter what IT is. I have a beautiful, kind-hearted angel of a friend who is offering me some donor milk to help supplement.
And guess what else? I have formula, and I think I’m going to use it, once or two bottles a day. I’ll still nurse her, in the morning and at lunch and after I’m off work and all weekend. I’ll still pump and I’ll have her caretakers feed her breastmilk bottles as much and as often as they can. But we have formula, and as the great Nicole Cliffe said on twitter, the pioneers would kill to have the options we have today to feed our babies when our bodies can’t give enough.
And you know what? That’s a great decision. If it keeps Ariadne happy during the day when I’m at work, wonderful. If it makes the hours I’m away from her easier for Shaun and Jeannie to keep her happy and full, awesome. If it helps her gain weight easily and quickly, and gets her back on target, that’s superb. If I could be at home with her all day, every day – we wouldn’t have this issue. But I need my job and its benefits, so we are here, and there’s nothing I can do right now to change that.
The task at hand here is not making myself feel wonderful and glorious in my effortless mothering. The goal here is to raise a beautiful child into a beautiful human being. And in this moment, this requires me humbling myself and accepting that I need help. Accepting that I have not failed – accepting that I am a better mother because I am not going to destroy my mental and physical health for the way I think things are supposed to be. Accepting that I am a better mother for putting whatever my child needs first – not how I want her needs to be met, in whatever manner I decide is best.
I love my daughter and I would do anything for her – including admitting when I am wrong.