Throughout nine long months of pregnancy, I thought a lot about what kind of mother I wanted to be once my little girl was born. I thought I was approaching this new chapter of my life with reasonable expectations. I set goals for myself, but I also knew that, realistically, I wouldn’t be able to achieve them all.
This made it a lot easier whenever I spectacularly missed a mark. Non-medicated birth? Nope, I got two epidurals. Hand-made outfits and keepsakes? Nope, I suck at crafts. Documenting every precious moment? Nope, that baby book is still collecting dust.
The one goal I knew I would hit without a doubt, the one thing I had full confidence I would do exactly how I dreamed of doing it, was breastfeeding. To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and moms often go awry.
My daughter and I encountered a slew of breastfeeding difficulties right off the bat: a surprise C-section, a stay in the NICU, and blood sugar issues that led my doctors to suggest starting her on formula while I waited for my milk to come in.
I’d sit in my hospital room trying to pump breast milk, while my daughter was several floors away hooked up to all sorts of monitors and sleeping under UV lights. This wasn’t a scenario I’d ever envisioned during all those months of being “open-minded” about what motherhood would be like. When this scenario became my everyday reality, I was shocked; my baby and I never could figure out nursing after our bad beginning.
Pumping was unpleasant from the very start. It’s hard not to feel exactly like a cow when you’re literally being milked. This didn’t exactly help me get my body confidence back. Worse than the physical sensation was the surge of dread I felt every time I hit the on button.
I felt trapped (because the pump basically immobilized me for a few hours a day) and ashamed (because I told myself I’d clearly screwed something up by not being able to nurse). If you had told me back then that I would end up pumping exclusively for nearly a full year, I would have laughed you out of the building.
Given how much I disliked pumping, you’d think it would have been easy to give it up. There were so many times when I wanted to, when I felt like I was missing out on my life (not to mention sleep) because I spent so much time with my milking machine.
But I was breastfeeding – even if it wasn’t in the typical fashion – just as I always told myself I would. Had I been nursing, I would have absolutely breastfed for at least a year, because that’s what all the recommendations advise. I didn’t want to adjust my goal just because the milk was coming via the pump.
Pumping did come with its rewards. Every time I took my daughter to the doctor and saw how much weight she’d gained, I couldn’t help but marvel at how it was all the result of what I was pushing myself to do. When I donated milk to two other babies, I was incredibly proud of the hard work that had gone into it. When I attended a presidential primary debate and had to talk my pump past the Secret Service, I felt like the biggest badass on the planet.
Pumping let me give my daughter the best – even though, for me, it was in the worst way. When my supply began to dwindle around 10 months, I knew I’d have no choice but to start giving her formula. I stressed out for weeks beforehand, worrying that she wouldn’t drink it or that she wouldn’t be able to digest it.
But she took to it like a champ. And as if my body sensed that my milk would no longer be needed, my supply tanked even further. I still pumped diligently, and even though more and more of her bottles were being filled with formula, it took me weeks to actually quit.
I know many moms who breastfeed in the traditional sense have a hard time giving it up because it means the end of a physical connection with their baby. I never had that, so I never imagined I’d feel anything but overjoyed when I packed up my pump for good.
In the end, as much as I sometimes hated it, breastfeeding through pumping made me feel like I could do something “just right.” It was hard to give up because it was something I could control, something I could point to and tell myself I wasn’t a total screw up as a mom.
Now that it’s over, though, I’m beginning to appreciate my freedom again. I now spend that pumping time playing with my daughter and making her laugh. And this makes a much bigger difference to her than what’s filling up her bottle.