It’s quite a journey to recall and as I type this I feel a tinge if anxiety well up in my chest. After trying for over a year to become pregnant, it finally happened and all was healthy and typical. Typical until my water broke two months too early. Before I had a chance to hold our son, he was gone…whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). When I was finally able to see our son, there he lay hooked up to wires, monitors, machines, and encapsulated inside of a box. We were unable to touch him for days; so, we watched, whispered, prayed, and cried. On day two or three my milk came in. My plan was to breastfeed because I thought, at the time, “breast is best”, but I should also say that I was not shouting it from the rooftops or judging different options of feeding for OTHERS. I emphasize others because I was pretty hardcore for our children, family, and myself. Side note, I also find it interesting that I was able to have grace for others but not myself.
Anyway, back to the story…There would be no breastfeeding at this time because our premature baby was being nourished via IV called Total parenteral nutrition (TPN). There our child lay life dependent on medical technology, synthetic nutrients, and experts…NOT us. My “plan” was to breastfeed and I was set on it, but obviously that wasn’t happening at this moment so I began hooking myself up to a machine a hospital grade GIANT and ANCIENT breast pump to be more specific. Now both of us were hooked up. I wasn’t bonding with my baby as expected…Looking back, I know that I was in shock and sustained trauma due to the situation we were in feeling terrified, helpless, and completely out of control of the situation. I was too afraid to bond with him because if he died I would surely die. So, day in and day out I hooked myself up to that godforsaken machine every two hours and pumped my milk to be stored hoping he’d make it through and be able to drink it someday.
Well, that someday didn’t come quickly as we hoped. Little by little he made gains and was able to move from IV TPN nutrients to receiving my breast milk from a syringe which was pushed through a tube running from his nose to his stomach. Once the feeding tube was removed he “graduated” to a bottle because he wasn’t taking to breastfeeding. Bottle feeding was sad for me…why wasn’t he wanting my breast, am I doing something wrong, I’m a horrible mother who doesn’t deserve this poor baby that I couldn’t even grow until he was fully developed….and I began to spiral. Upon returning to the NICU one day we found out that our baby boy wasn’t gaining enough weight due to feeding issues and the NICU nurses began supplementing my breast milk with formula…I was broken. I had no choice but this is exactly what he needed; I surrendered. I knew that this meant if I wanted any chance at breastfeeding or even providing breast milk for his bottles I’d have to keep the pumping schedule as if I had him at home…every two hours.
I was too afraid to bond with him because if he died I would surely die. So, day in and day out I hooked myself up to that godforsaken machine every two hours and pumped my milk to be stored hoping he’d make it through and be able to drink it someday.
Deeper I slipped into brokenness; our baby was NOT home, which meant I set an alarm for every two hours: wake, pump, cry, alone with no baby to hold. But I continued on because, HOPE. Because pumping was literally the ONLY thing I could do to try and help him; to use my body to produce what I thought would benefit him and because it offered me hope that he was coming home when the outcome was so uncertain. It was wearing me down: pumping every few hours, sick with fear and anxiety, beating myself up that somehow it was my fault he has been born early (P. S. It was not my fault and neither is it yours if you’ve had a premature child), but it also offered the hope that if I could keep doing this I am helping him; what I failed to recognize at the time was that he was being nourished exactly the way he needed. Turns out the breast milk alone was not enough…he was losing weight and that is not good for any baby especially a preemie *insert formula + breast milk* Eventually as time passed during our twice daily visits to see our son, we put him to my breast and he latched…he FREAKING LATCHED, only long enough to completely aspirate/choke on my letdown. He was covered in milk, choking, and there goes the heart monitor beeping off the charts while my breasts were letting the floodgates open spraying milk everywhere. Is he okay, did I hurt him…is he dying because I tried to breastfeed him? Again, I had failed (in my overly tired, overly critical, and overly hormonal mind), but eventually he recovered and turned back from a purplish/grayish color to a bright red/pink color. Insert lactation specialist to teach me how to breastfeed a premature baby who is hooked up to so many wires and needles that there wasn’t any room for my hands to hold him. Seriously? I thought to myself, ‘Now I have to have some stranger come in and TEACH me how to feed our son?!?’, failing…I am most certainly failing was my inner dialogue. This is supposed to be the easy part, right? The best part? The part that comes naturally? So why the fuck can’t I even do THIS right…defeated.
Some time had passed and I was still pumping and baby boy was fully bottle fed with formula and breast milk. The pumping was slowly killing me but simultaneously keeping me hopeful that eventually he would be able to benefit from this “liquid gold” as everyone seemed to referred to it as. (P. S. Statements like this DO NOT HELP THE MENTAL HEALTH OF A NEW MOTHER). More time had passed, perhaps three weeks now since his birth day, but our baby boy was still in the NICU with additional complications. Regress, progress, regress, regress, regress, progress…and on and on is how this feeding situation was going. FINALLY, baby boy was able to come home after over a month in that NICU. Finally, we can be a complete family at home.
To wrap this up, after seeing a lactation specialist for a year at 4 months post birth, our son and I were breastfeeding champs. We learned together, we regressed together, and we overcame together. I breastfed that child beyond his second birthday and although my mental health was at one of the lowest points in my life, I felt compelled and pressured to continue; continue trying to make up where I thought I had failed him, myself, and where my body had failed both of us. At one point in our feeding journey I felt like dying would be easier, so I kept breastfeeding because if I could just keep going for him then I could actually have purpose in this life, it gave me hope; can we say PPD, PPA, & PPPTSD, anyone (but that’s a different story for another time 😉).
This is supposed to be the easy part, right? The best part? The part that comes naturally? So why the fuck can’t I even do THIS right…defeated.
Our son is eight and a half now and the thoughts and feelings are still so raw. I was (at the time) convinced that breast was best, and feeling so much guilt, shame, self-doubt, and judgement of what others might think. It wasn’t until I did not have the privilege to choose, that I fully understood that as a mother I was doing what was best for him by listening to experts (neonatologists, specialist, and his entire team of NICU experts). Having gone through this journey, now I know that what my son actually required to live was not breast milk or formula in the beginning. What he actually needed was synthetic intravenous nutrients (TPN), formula, and breast milk. He needed things that I never even considered as an option to live, develop, and thrive. And if I’m being completely honest the breastfeeding was more for me than him. I needed to feel like I was doing something, anything, to help our son. I needed to keep hope that he would live. I needed to convince the people (whomever the people are 🤷🏼♀️) that I’m a good mother. And once he came home I needed to bond with him. Even though I’m certain that breastfeeding contributed to the deterioration of my mental health during this time, I’m also certain that it made me push forward and through a very dark time.
So, to offer an alternative to the breast is best argument, I say here is our story and perhaps it may offer an alternative perspective on the topic of life sustaining nutrients in any and all forms to keep your child alive. That some of us don’t have the privilege of having a choice in the beginning or ever…that the arguing, right fighting, shaming, and judgment have no place among parents; that what really matters is that your child is fed in order to grow, develop, progress, and live. When it comes down to it, I was a breast is best mom before giving birth to our first son, but now I am a “you do you boo” kind of mom. Cheers to doing you and supporting each other as we travel through this journey of motherhood.
Written by: Marlisa Borja