In preparation for this post, I’ve gone back and re-read many Facebook messages I sent the day of and the days following Maggie’s revision. I’ve searched my photos for pictures that capture the dark hole my life became, and for pictures that portrayed the painstaking ends I would go to, to pretend I was just fine. This post was the hardest to write. Aside from surviving this period of my life, it is the most difficult thing I’ve done. Telling the world, my family and friends, my colleagues, my clients about the sick thoughts I had, the actions I took, is more than hard. It’s excruciating.
But that’s the thing about mental illness. It doesn’t discriminate. I wasn’t safe from the impact of postpartum depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Being a postpartum doula, a baby expert, didn’t keep me well.
Later that day, my doula came to visit. We talked about everything and nothing at all. She sat next to me while I repeatedly tried to nurse my baby and sobbed. She told me about her friend who had experienced something similar. I messaged folks who I knew had the procedure done proactively and early on. Their answers were inspiring and infuriating at the same time.
They all reported the same experience: the first 24/48/72 hours were the hardest. They cried and cried. One said she found herself lying on the kitchen floor, wailing. And that even though her baby came back to the breast, she had never shared the same bonding experience [with breastfeeding] that she had with her older child (who had not been revised). The best was when another told me she struggled, but since this was her 5th time nursing a baby, she was able to power through. Like, ok...because this is just my second time breastfeeding a baby, I just didn’t have enough gumption.
I wanted to scream at all of them: WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ANYONE THIS PART OF THE STORY? Why was this glossed over? Why did NO ONE tell me it wasn’t as simple as nursing in the fancy room at the dentist’s office and everyone lived happily ever after?
Maggie wouldn’t nurse. She violently refused to go near my skin. I knew, in the way mothers know things about their babies, with complete certainty, that she associated my breasts with pain. We had such a small amount of time to establish them as a source of comfort and nourishment. Her burgeoning attachment was so easily replaced with suffering that Tuesday morning. My breasts ached and leaked, incessantly, with my eyes.
My obsession started promptly upon arrival home. I had timed her last nursing session so that she’d be hungry as soon as the procedure was over. And now, it had been 6 hours since she’d had any milk. I had pumped a solid stash of milk during Maggie’s refusal of my right breast the week prior. I frantically messaged The Baby Whisperer about what to do. She suggested 5 ml of breastmilk in a syringe while she sucked on my finger. Maggie howled with each suck.
She was hurting. Arnica and teething tablets weren’t enough. We opened the infant Tylenol purchased to have on hand for her older sister. It occurs to me now, as I’m typing this, that it was probably expired. Maggie downed the whole bottle within the week. It gave her temporary relief. Or at least I told myself it did. I kept alternating the Arnica and the teething tablets and the Tylenol and the syringe feeds. My wrist cramped and my finger burned, I was sure I wouldn’t have any skin left before this was over.
Looking back, she was hurting, yes, but she was hungry. That first day, I think I gave her a total of 5 oz of milk. As if I could starve her into compliance.
I started pumping to make up for the lack of stimulation. The Baby Whisperer said I wasn’t pumping long enough. I needed to pump 20 minutes at least. I needed a hands free bra, she said. I could just cut holes in my sports bra to make it easier. I didn’t want to make this situation easier. I wanted it to be over. I wanted her to just nurse. I started pumping 20-30 minutes per session, every 2 hours around the clock.
It had been several days and I refused to move from the couch, except to sleep. I’d now surpassed all of the longest stretches of breast refusal folks had shared with me. I refused to shower. I wouldn’t bathe Maggie. I would not move on. If I did, it...this place where I existed now... would be permanent. I alternated between a sort of empty, stunned state and audible-hands-over-the-face sobs. My oldest, June, would hug me and quiet with me her shushes. My father watched in horror; he later told me he feared I would hurt my baby. My mom thought if we didn’t talk about it, I would get better. No one would talk to me about breastfeeding or nursing. Jay did his best. He assured me, “we chose this.” But we both knew we didn’t. He admitted he felt apprehension, too, but thought I would think he didn’t want to pay the $500 price tag for Maggie’s revision. I did my best to put on a strong face for him. I knew he was scared. But I hated him for not speaking up that Monday night. I hated myself for not being a receptive enough wife for him to share his feelings.
I decided that my giving her the syringe took too long (that’s six syringes per ounce) and was too rewarding. I couldn’t slow the flow of the syringe… this was obviously her problem. I told Jay that I had the answer and after I begged him to, he rushed to a local breastfeeding shop and purchased a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS). I watched countless YouTube videos, I posted in Facebook groups, I taped and re-taped the tube to my breast. Maggie would not go near my nipple. Her back arched. I massaged my breast hurriedly, begging my body to let down. She screamed. Milk drenched my shirt. I could see the yellowish-white, diamond shaped wound under her tongue as she cried, a constant reminder of the agony I had subjected her to.
The Baby Whisperer came that Friday. I took my first shower since Maggie’s revision right before she arrived. She hugged me as I cried. More sweating. We had a new plan. I would see another Baby Whisperer and she would make it right. I would put my baby to the breast in the hopes that she’d eat some, and then finish her with an SNS feed on my finger. I hooked the SNS to my bra, a hot pink sports bra with haphazard cuts on either side to allow a pump flange to pass through. I would pump and feed Maggie through the SNS on my pinky finger. She fed laying in front of me, while I sat cross-legged on the bed. She would move involuntarily, the way newborn babies do, and knock the tube out of her mouth. Milk would leak everywhere. Maggie screamed; I did, too. Hate surged through me.
JUST SUCK. It’s right here. JUST SUCK.
It was perverted. A twisted sort of take on breastfeeding. Every moment of it made me feel sick. My baby was touched by no one as she ate. She was yelled at and handled too firmly. She was two weeks old. My babymoon was abruptly snatched away, and I believed I was not her mother.
How could I be? I was just a babysitter who made milk. Anyone could care for her. I was nothing. I felt robbed. I was not her mother.
We skipped Halloween that year. June was going to be a clown. I pinned my favorite costume ideas months before. Instead, she played with a plastic pumpkin and watched TV. I wasn’t her mother either.
I rented a scale. I weighed Maggie constantly. I pumped constantly, around 4-6 hours of each day. I insisted I be the only one to feed Magnolia. She had to associate feeding with me...not her mother, just this hateful thing, attached to a strange machine, shoving my hand in her mouth. We had to first try the breast...every time...when I would curse her for not getting it right. For not trying hard enough. WHY WON’T YOU NURSE?! I would yell. I lived on Milano cookies. I would eat one package, sometimes two, every day. I sat on the couch.
I was not her mother.
We saw the new Baby Whisperer. Surrounded by strange decor and stranger smells. I wrote another check. I cried more. I was afraid to ask if my baby would ever nurse again. Afraid that she would tell me what I already knew. She gave me permission to try the bottle. I yearned to fast-forward time, for a new baby to nurse. I wished Maggie’s life away.
Every now and again, Maggie would suck. I purchased a breastfeeding app and would chart every attempt. Once, we made it several minutes. She would take a half an oz...sometimes more… my let down, basically. We laid around, naked, in bed. She never attempted to nurse. I always forced.
I always forced.
I was not her mother.
I refused to bathe her. We would have a rebirth in the bath. As soon as she nursed, I would do it. We would bathe together. And we would be new. We would start over. I would be her mother then.
The check-ins slowed. We saw the new Baby Whisperer again. Wrote another check. Fed the bottle. Told we could do it. Maggie could do it. Her mouth was perfectly functional. Just try these stretches. Just touch her here. Just put her on her belly. Just sing to her. Just. Just. Just. She was fine.
She just hated me was all. She hated my breasts. I was not her mother.
On a Sunday night, Jay took June to the grocery. I was home alone with Maggie. I was determined. Tonight would be the night. I knew it. It had to be. I didn’t even prepare a bottle this time. She would nurse. Calmly, and singing, I put her to the breast. I stroked her cheek, I massaged my breast, I did everything right.
I did everything right.
She protested. Loudly. Angrily. She was doing this to hurt me.
I held her over my shoulder while I warmed the water in the microwave. The bottle would have to sit in it for another several minutes after that. She screamed in my ear. I was so angry with her. She was choosing this. She was choosing to refuse the breast. Filled with already-warm-fucking milk. I felt so clear and level-headed. I looked across the dining room to the wall on the opposite side of the table. I imagined flinging her tiny little body into it, and felt such contentment and peace thinking about how her arms and legs would contort as soon as she hit the wall and fell to the floor. She screamed in my ear. Louder and longer. I realized if I threw her, she would get worse. So I didn’t.
And when Jay came home, I asked that he not leave me alone with her for a while. Later that night, I went to the store to buy a pacifier. Another step towards permanency. Towards acceptance.
The next day, I spoke with a new acquaintance who shared my experience. She said when she refused to offer a supplement, her baby came back to the breast. She also saw my original IBCLC. She helped her. I had a new plan. I would stop pumping. I would only nurse. I would see my Savior. We would make it after all.
That Wednesday morning, after two full days of breastfeeding only, I met my Savior before seeing Maggie’s pediatrician for her one-month check up. I felt cheap and dirty under the bright lights of her office. I forgot to bring milk. I didn’t bring a bottle, or my SNS or anything. My Savior was frustrated. She frantically ripped into packages, hooking me up to the pump, to a makeshift SNS, hand expressing me into a random bottle she found in her cabinet. Maggie would not nurse. She hadn’t gained any weight from her birth. She was malnourished. And she told me I didn’t have enough milk. We crunched numbers. Determined the fish scale at my home birth could not have been accurate. I lied to myself for the millionth time.
She wrote a care plan and sent it to Maggie’s doctor. She told me I needed to pump only to get my supply back up. I needed to feed Maggie more. I needed to feed my baby. I rented a hospital grade pump. I wrote another check. I was failing.
I don’t quite remember what I said to the nurse at the office visit, but the doctor was cautious when he opened the door. I had dreaded this conversation all week. He was the very last person in Maggie’s life who didn’t know what I had done to her. The last time he saw her, we were happy and she was thriving. Now, I had to tell him. I had to tell him that I took my perfectly happy, healthy baby and cut her mouth open. I pushed on her wounds. I starved her. I could barely choke out the words between my sobs. He asked if I thought I was responding with exaggerated emotion. I assured him I was not suffering from postpartum depression. If she would just nurse, I would be happy. I was fine. I promised I would feed her the 100 oz of breastmilk I had in my freezer. We would be okay.
The next day, Thanksgiving, I pumped a total of 16 ounces. We went to my in-laws for dinner where people passed my baby around and I sat in an empty room pumping. I hated them all. I hated them for not consoling me. Or telling me it was okay. Or recognizing the monumental sacrifice I had made in coming there. I felt unwelcome. I felt judged. I wanted to scream and run away. I insisted my husband feed my baby. That no one else was to touch her. It is the first time I can remember allowing someone else to give her my milk. What did it matter anyway? I was not her mother.
I had a new plan for the weekend. I would stay with my parents. I would power pump. I would cluster pump. I would get my supply up. We would attempt to latch then. I tried to busy myself with sewing while my mother fed my baby. I made her watch a paced bottle feeding video. I watched across the room in agony as she held the bottle in her mouth. I knew it was over then. I knew I would never get to be her mother.
That overnight, at my parents, I almost hit her. I know she felt the wind of my fist breezing by on her face. She was crying, desperate for food, and I was alone. I needed to start pumping first. I had to. She kicked the bottle off of my flange. I raised my arm above my head and slammed it on the bed as hard as I could. Right by her face. Right by her precious, one-month-old face. I didn’t deserve to be her mother.