What I want you to know about not being able to nurse

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Shauna Barnes.

When I was pregnant I attempted to become an expert at all things "Mom" - labor, delivery, breastfeeding, diapers, baby feeding/sleeping schedules, organic mattresses, etc. And I honestly don't regret the learning, knowledge is always powerful. What I regret is the image of Perfect Mom who developed in my brain and started taking up a lot of space. I gladly shared my new-found expertise with anyone who listened. I still believe deeply in some of those things. I decided to go natural and deliver at a birthing center. I didn't feel the gut-feeling that confirmed I should go there, but it more aligned with what I wanted for my birth.

June 4, 2011 I became a Mommy after an intense 5 1/2 hour labor with no epidural. I was woman! That was a big leap toward Perfect Mom, hooray for me! We had delayed cord cutting, skin to skin for the first hour, all the "right" things. We tried at nursing and it went fine, but not great. A scary postpartum hemorrhage, Pitocin, Stadol, 3 IV fluid bags and several hours later - I was home.

The next morning (and by morning I mean 4 am) nursing went much smoother. I felt confident in what I was doing because I had taken a really detailed class. We got better and better those first few days, but on the third day my milk didn't come in. No porn-star engorged breasts for me... I was simultaneously relieved and worried. A beer later that afternoon relaxed me enough for the milk to come. It wasn't a lot, but we were nursing fine (so I thought).

Day 8 arrives. I remember that specifically. My baby would SCREAM every time I tried to nurse him, like bloody murder. This continued for 4 days. 4 days may not seem like that long to you, but with a crying infant it was eternity. We called the lactation consultant at the pediatrician, she said maybe he had thrush and the doctor could look at our visit later that week. He didn't.

Day 10 we went to get him checked-up at the birth center and he hadn't gained much weight and he was sleeping too much. I tried to talk to the head midwife about it (she was not at my birth). She told me I wasn't latching right or I wasn't committed enough to nursing and that's why he wasn't gaining weight. If I tried harder it would get better. My son was also getting a *ahem* male procedure done that day. My husband stayed with him and I went outside and called my Mom sobbing. "I've only been a Mom for 10 days, but she says I'm messing it up!!" My Mom was livid, as was my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. The midwife called me back in to nurse to comfort the baby. She then got to witness firsthand what had been going on. He would get a good latch for a minute and then scream. She just kept giving me tips and talking in circles and then just sent us home. (For the record, I adore midwives as a whole, I have a midwife friend, and I loved the midwives who were at our birth. This one in particular was just not very nice to me).

Day 12 we went to the pediatrician. My baby was significantly lower than his birth weight and in the 5th percentile. We had to start supplementing with formula right away. I was heart-broken. We met with the lactation consultant who told me I wasn't making enough milk. I didn't believe her, but our baby was starving, so we supplemented with formula. He started gaining weight and stopped screaming.

Another check up with the midwife, she told me, again, that my nursing problem was because I was supplementing, not because I wasn't making enough milk. I hurriedly left the office to give my baby his bottle in the car because I was too ashamed of doing it in front of them. I had become Miserable Failure of a Mother - not exactly what I was going for.

I called in another lactation consultant who came to our house and ran all kinds of measuring tests to see what was going on. She said I wasn't making enough milk for him, but that I was doing all I could and that he had good nursing skills. She said it's not my fault and that supplementing isn't hurting him and to keep at it. I could have hugged her... I probably did.

So I continued our feeding schedule as such: nurse on each side for as long as he would without getting mad at the low flow, make and feed him a bottle, wash the bottle, pump to encourage more milk flow, wash the pump. The whole process took an hour. Babies eat every two-three hours. I did this every two - three hours. For 5 months.

Nothing increased my milk production. Not several (expensive) lactation consultants, not doctors, not medications (of which I tried several), not the tips from well-meaning friends, family, daycare workers, people on the street, not the La Leche League, nothing. No woman on the planet has ever tried harder at breastfeeding than I did.

I was so ashamed; I just knew I had messed up this experience somehow. I would never bottle feed or nurse in public for a long time. If we were out, I would go to the car. I actually never nursed in public. A wave of guilt and tears would wash over me every time I fixed a bottle for my baby, when other moms talked about nursing or I saw someone nursing, or when I'd read an article about how good nursing is for your baby - for probably a year and a half. I was grief-stricken over the hindrance of that bond, over the loss of Perfect Mom. I am better now, but definitely not fully-healed.

I had tried to plan out motherhood, but that is impossible. Motherhood requires every ounce of vulnerability you have: every emotion, every fear and every strength. It also requires you to have eyes, ears, mind and heart wide open to learn about yourself, your child, and who you both want to become. Forgiving yourself is crucial, so is being kind to other moms who don't make the same choices you do. We also have to erase Perfect Mom because she doesn't exist.

I found out that I have Celiac Disease when my son was 19 months old . My body has been without complete nutrients my whole life. It is very possible that is what led to me not being able to nurse. I may be able to nurse subsequent babies now that I am healthy again. But whether or not that is the case, I have learned I have to be more gentle with myself, because I am the Mama that God picked for my little boy. I am His Mom, and that is way better than Perfect Mom could have ever been. He turns 2 next week and is happy, healthy, and bright.

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