Sometime during the past week--I will spare you exactitude--I passed a milestone that never in my wildest dreams had I ever considered would apply to me when I began. I have been either pregnant and/or nursing continuously for ten years. An entire decade. It's hard to fathom and yet it now seems as normal and natural anything else I might do for a decade.
At some point when I was an undergraduate in college, I decided that I would breastfeed any children I had. Why I came to this decision, I can't quite say. Perhaps there were studies published and promoted that supported its benefits. I had never had long term exposure to a nursing mother. I knew that my mother had nursed my brother for a few weeks. I don't remember this directly. He was weaned by the time he was six weeks old and I had not yet turned six years old. My sister and I were not nursed at all. The only direct memory I have of anyone breastfeeding is that one of my aunts would go into a back room with her newborn and close the door. Sometimes when the door would open, you could catch a glance of her in there and it was forbidding and exotic, as if to see this interaction between mother and baby was intrusive and wrong. To my knowledge every baby was on formula by two months old. I came to believe there was something odd with this situation, but it was all I knew.
When we decided to get pregnant with who turned out to be
Grace, I was not over the moon with baby fever. I was actually quite
pragmatic about the whole idea. I knew in the abstract that we wanted to
have children eventually and, given our ages and my proximity to
graduation, it seemed like the time was right. I was 27 and would be 28
by the time of delivery. I was philosophically opposed to old parents. I
thought having a baby at 28 would allow us time to have another and
perhaps squeeze in a third before I was 32 because that was my hard and
fast deadline. After 32 is just too old. Old parents. Ugh.
During the pregnancy I struggled with constant nausea and tiredness. I berated myself for being lazy when, at 8.5 weeks pregnant, I laid on the couch all day and did nothing. We went out to eat and the waiter wondered what I had been doing all day because I looked exhausted. Only sleeping on the couch. And growing a person. I was sick almost all the time, had my first migraine headache, and discovered how heartburn felt. Delivery was a blessed relief.
After Grace was born, I set out to breastfeed her. I had no idea what I was doing and neither did anyone around me. My goal was to nurse her for six months which seemed so far, far away. I had no idea if I could make it that long, but I was determined to try. My first week or two were rough because they say it isn't supposed to hurt. It hurt. Milk was everywhere and I cried a lot. I was sleep deprived. The advice to pump and sleep started, but I was too stubborn. I was going to make it work. I had read enough to know that I had to get through the first few weeks otherwise I would be on the path to formula. I was NOT doing formula if I could help it. We were going to make it to SIX MONTHS!
We made it past six weeks and everything got easier. All of a sudden six months didn't seem so unreachable. Then people started to wonder when I was going to wean. People would tell me my milk wouldn't satisfy the baby. That I would *need* formula. Also when am I going to wean? Not until six months.
I made it to six months. I didn't want to wean. I enjoyed nursing my baby so we kept going. When are you going to wean? I don't know.
I wasn't very comfortable nursing in public so I would find family bathrooms, nursing rooms, and the car to feed her. I didn't like being sent off by myself, but I was also very self-conscious. I remember once nursing a baby in the front seat of the car in a parking lot afraid that someone would pass by and see me. How embarrassing! Once I was nursing in the lounge area of the ladies room of a large department store at the mall. Two women old enough to know better were outraged I would do something so indecent and proceeded to talk all about my outrageous behavior outside the bathroom door, right next to where Dave was sitting. This moment was an epiphany. If people still get upset at nursing when I retreat to the privacy of a bathroom lounge, you cannot please them no matter what you do. There obviously is no need to remove myself at all.
When I started work, she was down to four feedings a day: at waking, at naptime, in midafternoon, and at bedtime. She could take or leave the first and the third, but relished the feedings at naptime and bedtime. I was heartbroken to give up the nap feeding since I was at work. I left silly instructions that Dave needed to heat up some milk for her in a sippy cup and then cradle her while she drank it. I can't remember if he did that or not. But I didn't want her to miss me. I shifted to feeding her immediately when I got home from work, but she wasn't really interested. After a few days of trying to force the matter, we dropped that feeding and were down to one in the morning and one before bed. It was around this time the questions about weaning started again. She was over a year now. You can't nurse her forever, you know. I didn't know when I was going to wean, but I wasn't ready to let go yet.
We knew we wanted to have another baby. Eventually. Sometime in the future. I had just started a new career. We were living with my parents. We had just bought a house that had been a foreclosure and needed massive renovation. I was apprehensive about experiencing pregnancy and the unrelenting sickness again. And yet I found myself pregnant when Grace was 18 months old. After a few angsty weeks figuring out how we were going to pay for the prenatal and hospital care when we had just shot our wad on the house, we were pleased with our happy surprise. In so many ways, this unexpected pregnancy was undeserved blessing and grace. I have no idea when we would have pulled the trigger for another baby if she hadn't arrived by her own accord.
Now I was plunged back into the sickness of pregnancy again. The morning feeding of Grace was gone and I clung to her bedtime nursing session. We soon moved into our new house. With the changes in both environment and those wrought by pregnancy, Grace soon lost interest in nursing. I remember trying for several days to get her to latch and she steadfastly refused. I would press her face into my breast and she would just grin at me. I wasn't ready, but it was here. At 20 months old, I let her go and our nursing relationship was over. I was unsure if we would make it six months and we lasted twenty. It was bittersweet.
Olivia came in her due time and I was now confident. Of course we would nurse more than six months. However we had a complication that didn't exist with the last baby. I now had a full time job and I would have to pump to feed the baby during the day. I was nervous if I could produce enough milk in this way and we had to introduce a bottle. Grace had never really taken a bottle. Olivia turned out to be very bottle resistant. We attempted and attempted and she steadfastly refused. We tried every trick that could be found but she only wanted me. Finally the day came and I had to go back to work. All was well until she got hungry and she still refused the bottle. She cried and cried. Dave tried everything he could to get milk into her including spooning it into her mouth. She was having none of it. He called me and my heart was ripped out as I sat at my desk. I told Dave that I understood that he was doing the best he could and that he needed a break and an understanding ear, but I could not handle it. I told him to call his parents for help because I could not handle it. I told him not to call me again if she was screaming because I Could Not Handle It. My baby was screaming for me and my body cried out for her. Milk poured out of my breasts, but I was 40 miles away and there was nothing I could do. We hung up the phone and I sobbed at my desk. When I got home that evening, Olivia spent the whole night nursing, making up for all she had missed. She held out for three and a half days before surrendering in exhaustion and hunger to the bottle.
My concern about the pump turned out to be unfounded. I had no trouble producing everything she needed and more. Perhaps my foremothers were wet nurses. I kept a pumping schedule at work, but those early days of pumping were a bit fraught. I had no designated place to pump so three times a day, I would wander my office building looking for a private place. There were some nervous moments, but I never failed in finding a spot. Eventually the powers-that-be deigned to allow me to use the defunct handicapped bathroom that had a locking door. It was defunct because sewage semi-regularly backed up into it. I was not allowed to have a key but had to keep the door propped open between uses. If someone closed the door, I had to find the office manager to reopen it for me. I found a table elsewhere in the office and drug it into the bathroom to have a place to put the pump. I would stand there and pump two or three times a day. I would sometimes mark time in place to pass the time. It was psychologically grueling. Pumping sucks. It is a cold, utilitarian way to extract milk with none of the appeal of nursing a real baby. Even though it definitely wasn't my favorite thing to do, I wanted to give my baby everything I could even if I couldn't be physically present to her. If I couldn't be there, my milk could be. I pumped every workday until she was 16 months old. I am ashamed to admit that we had such a stash built in the freezer that we ended up throwing away probably two gallons worth of milk. I thought it went bad after six months in the freezer. I didn't know I could have still fed it to her over time. We still have a freezer bag full of Olivia's milk which had been pushed aside and buried and then rediscovered. I can not bring myself to throw it out.
Our nursing relationship was the primary way we reconnected when I got home from work. As a young infant she would spent most every evening constantly nursing. This urgency surprised and frustrated me sometimes. There were so many things that I needed to do but couldn't because my baby needed me. She woke multiple times a night wanting to nurse. I didn't know how to handle this situation well and so walked up and down the stairs repeatedly to tend her every time she woke. She wanted to be near me and I couldn't help but feel that she was trying to compensate for my absence during the day. I was exhausted, but I couldn't bear to withhold myself from her. If she needed me and my milk, I was going to provide it even if it broke me. It was during this time I first noticed gray hairs on my head. Well meaning people would advise me to pump even more and have Dave give her a bottle at night. They didn't understand that sleeping instead of feeding the baby caused just as many problems as it solved, I already spent too much time with my pump, and I desperately needed to mother my own baby.
Eventually she slept all night and we had easy and casual nursing sessions. She would nurse once when I got home from work and again at bedtime. Then only at bedtime. Nobody asked me when I was going to wean this time until she was nearing two.
I was now 32 and my old prejudices against old parents were easing. I wasn't that old. We decided to have another baby. I was soon pregnant again with the exhaustion and sickness that comes with it. I wasn't exactly ready to wean, but I also needed to get in bed earlier at night. Olivia was approaching two years old. Two years is a little bit old to nurse, right? Dave and I decided it was time to wean her. On her second birthday, I held her in my lap and nursed her. I told her she was a big girl now and that I would hold her anytime she wanted, but we weren't going to nurse anymore. She looked at me with big eyes and nodded her head. She didn't speak yet. I thought that was the end. The following weekend she came to me at bedtime wanting to nurse. I was conflicted because I didn't want to deny her, but also didn't want to start a pattern. I gave in and nursed her one last time. That was really the end.
My pregnancy with the new baby brought tidings of a boy. A boy?! What do you do with a boy? This pregnancy also brought pelvic girdle pain which left me waddling absurdly early. Walking, dressing, and other menial tasks like transitioning to a standing posture from a sitting posture were absurdly painful. I made friends with a belly belt.
Sam was born two weeks after I turned 33. I was officially an old parent, but I didn't care. I was stubbornly confident in my nursing abilities. Too confident. His latch was terrible, but I never asked for help. Why I was a third time nurser! An old pro! What could anyone tell me that I didn't already know? I tried every trick I knew and was left with bleeding nipples. Still I powered through it and eventually, after about a month or so, we found our groove.
I learned from the ordeal with Olivia and introduced a bottle very early in order to avoid another three days of torture. He took the bottle gladly and easily. I also learned that climbing the stairs multiple times a night was a recipe for disaster. We decided on a partial cosleeping arrangement where Dave would get him from upstairs when he first awoke in the night and then he would spend the rest of the night in bed next to me. What a difference these things made in my mental and physical health.
At work I was also a seasoned veteran at pumping. I returned to the old, defunct bathroom but this time I was allowed to have a key. A few months after I had been back at work, it was announced that another coworker was returning from maternity leave and a room had to be prepared for her to pump. What exactly had I been doing all these years? They decked out my little bathroom with a rocking chair and ottoman, a table, and a lamp. They covered the toilet so we wouldn't have to look at it anymore. I felt both grateful and annoyed. The most favored employee returned from maternity leave and worked for approximately two months before resigning in order to stay home with her baby. Ha! I still got to keep the goodies in the room. We managed the milk supply much better this time and didn't throw out a drop of it. I pumped until he was 14 months old.
We were surprised at how easily Sam slid into our lives. I had long made peace with the first six months of chaos. He was soon an acrobatic nursing toddler. No one asked me when he was going to wean. I didn't worry about it or give it a second thought. Nursing was a normal way to live now.
In a slow turning of the mind that shocked me, we decided we wanted another baby. I never, ever thought I would want or have four children. Four?! And I was 35, a really old parent. That's crazy talk, but now it seemed natural and normal and I desired it fiercely. I still hated being pregnant, though. It was still a misery and fraught with apprehension if we had made the right decision.
The sickness and exhaustion again overtook me. I never attempted to wean Sam, but I did go to bed early. He would climb into bed with me and nurse and then go upstairs to bed. He soon grew tired of this routine and stopped coming. Then it was over.
Again pregnancy plunged me into the nausea and the vomiting and the heartburn and the pelvic girdle pain. I went to a chiropractor for the first time to mitigate the hip pain. Maybe it helped.
Marian was born and nursing her was like an old comfort. We slid into an easy rhythm. We applied and adjusted all the learned lessons from the older children. We adjusted our sleeping arrangements again to keep her in the room with us so nobody would have to climb the stairs at night. Night wakings were tiring, but not crushing. She was such a joyful, easy baby. Like Sam, she just slid into our lives.
At work, I pumped in my private office now. I began to pray the Divine Office while I pumped. I decided to donate my excess milk to a local woman whose baby needed it. I donated around six and a half gallons. I don't know how much Marian consumed. I am guessing another six gallons on top of it. That is a lot of pumping.
Now I don't pump anymore and Marian is 18 months old. Nursing is just what I do.
I have no idea how long this streak will continue. It could come to an end in a handful of months or we could have yet another child and continue on for several more years. Only God knows. St. Paul says women will be saved through childbearing and I believe it. I have been utterly transformed by this experience of bearing and nursing children.
I began this journey expecting to have one, two, maybe three children, well spaced, because that is what you are supposed to do. Yet I find myself well along the road with four children and pondering more. I hoped to successfully breastfeed until the six month mark, wondering if it was possible, and now wonder if two years is too young to wean.
The mental, spiritual, and physical demands are greater than I could have possibly imagined at the start but I joyfully embrace them. I am not always happy about it, but I choose it again and again. I have often pondered the seeming contradiction that joy is not the same thing as happiness, but I think I have a greater understanding now. There have been times when I have been totally spent, physically and mentally exhausted, and cried until there were no more tears and yet , at bottom, there is profound joy at the gift of my children. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a decade. It has not always been easy, but it is a grace filled life for which I am eternally grateful.