Welcome, Mamma Crew! Today is Mamma Thursdays when it’s all about us! The mammas!
So I wish I could tell you that I made a conscious decision to breastfeed. But I honestly don’t remember that moment. All I remember is that from the moment I knew I was pregnant, I was committed to giving my baby the best of me.
And when I found out that I was pregnant with twins, the commitment doubled. I was almost frantic. It wasn’t just that it was a difficult pregnancy. It wasn’t that I doubted my capacity to love two babies that were born at the same time. I was frantic because, for the first time in my life, I was afraid of failure.
What if what I had to give was not good enough? This was not the time to find I had serious shortcomings. My pregnancy was so difficult, and the fear of losing my babies so real that I didn’t focus on my babies as much as I focused on anything else. And I remember it was the oddest thing because I wanted to focus on something else, and yet, I really couldn’t do it. For example, at the time, I was in the process of earning my Ph.D. And I really wanted to focus on my field of study, which was chronic disease.
But instead, all I could think of was about all of the studies I had accidentally bumped into regarding breastfeeding. So that’s where the ideas sort of emerged. I knew it was something I would do. I didn’t know for how long.
My mother took a great deal of pride in the fact that she had breastfed me in 1966 for a whole three months. My middle sister got three weeks and my younger sister got three days, so I guess I was pretty lucky, huh? So one of the things she had always said to me was 3 months was good enough. I really didn’t know what that meant.
I just knew from all the studies that I have glanced at that it was an important thing to do for a child. Then things changed. Not only was I pregnant with twins, not only was I losing them almost every day since week 12, but it soon became clear to me that I was going to give birth to premature children. I was going to be the mother of preemies. I wanted to find out more — what I could possibly do to help my preemies flourish in the long run.
I was not able to read. I was on terbutaline and magnesium sulfate. My brain went into a muddle. I mean I could hardly watch TV. If you’ve been in a magnesium sulfate drip, you know what that is like — it’s like, ugh, you open your eyes and the sun is too bright and everything just feels like so much! So I couldn’t do any research. My strength — research.
I just had to rely on my memory. Thankfully, I have a semi-photographic memory so in my mind, I reread over and over everything I could remember about preemies and breastmilk and nurturing preemies into healthy toddlers.
And then I bumped into an old memory that basically informed me that the ideal amount of time to breastfeed a preemie was 24 months. Two years! Longways from the three months, my Mom had talked about! It seemed like a lot, but I am a believer of science so I made the commitment!
Let me rephrase that I am a commitment of science, and I thought I had made the commitment — little did I understand that science doesn’t tell you about the nitty-gritty that goes along with breastfeeding.
My first shock came when immediately after my c-section, a couple of ladies appeared in my hospital room like two gladiators entering the colosseum, ready to do battle! They were there to convince me that I needed to breastfeed. So they had won that battle without even trying. But I was confused. My babies were in the NICU. And I wasn’t even out of my anesthesia-induced haze! What did they want from me?!? Yet they somehow, they managed to get me through to me the urgency of pumping to save the colostrum for my 32-week preemies.
Colostrum? Really? They’re talking about this when I have just come out of my c-section? And the answer is yes! Absolutely! They called it the golden liquid! The magical liquid! Most important liquid! They even brought a professional-grade breast milk pump. Little did I understand that it would become my closest, if not my favorite, friend for two long years!
Thank the Lord for the haze because I had always been really shy about my body. And here I had two complete strangers handling my breast to help me pump the magical colostrum into plastic bottles! Yay! We saved it! Still, the whole process was kind of creepy! I was not prepared to watch my nipples deformed by the pump as it pulled the precious colostrum out of my breast. But my vanity was not at the forefront of my mind. Frankly, my mind was not at the forefront of my mind. I was so out of it! And the truth is I had been on bed rest for nearly 20 weeks. My leg muscles were weak, my body full of medication to stop labor and my mind swimming in concern for my babies who were in the NICU.
And I didn’t know their status just then. I didn’t know what had happened — I did know I had clearly heard Emmy cry but I hadn’t heard Andy. Andy had not cried and that worried me. It ate at me. But I was determined to be optimistic — to believe that everything was just perfect.
Now, in the long run, both of my babies were fine. You certainly have heard me talk about my two troublemakers, Andy and Emmy. But back to the story. So here I am, still in the hospital and my breast went into overdrive — they became huge! Just like that! So much so that my left breast created a lump of milk under my armpit that had to be iced for hours in order to bring it down. I had to pump and pump regularly. My tiny breasts — I mean, all of my adult life, I had been a size 32a — ballooned into a c-cup! I was amazed by this transformation! Never expected it! My husband, of course, was thrilled.
But I was in miserable pain. In pain, because my breasts had enlarged, engorged — I don’t even know what to call it. In pain, because the pulling and pressing relieved the pressure but wasn’t comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, and frankly I thought it was pretty miserable. I had to pump constantly to keep the pain at bay. And at the same time, I keep popping fenugreek pills — oh, my God that herb is amazing! I was able to store a gallon of milk day in and day out for my babies in the NICU! I popped those fenugreek pills like a sugar addict pops candy!
I was really not that convinced initially that the pills were necessary but the gladiators kept assuring me that the milk would run out too soon when the babies were home. I took them at their word — I mean what did I know?
Now you’re hardly going to be shocked to find out that pretty soon, I had a small mini-fridge in our bedroom so I could pump at night and store without having to stumble into the kitchen on my atrophied muscles. It certainly helped because my husband was working the graveyard shift at the time so he couldn’t really help me out. Early in the morning, I would store the bottles in the refrigerator freezer where I had a growing collection of dated bottles of breast milk.
I remember one time in my late-night delirium, I was so exhausted I placed the bottles of milk in the mini-fridge only to find out in the morning that I had not closed it! Oh my God, all 12 bottles were warm! We had no central air at the time — we were living in San Diego and a lot of people didn’t have central air. I mean, it just doesn’t get that warm, typically, but it got too warm for the milk!
I can’t tell you the agony at having to throw away the precious white liquid. My supportive and reasonable husband was furious because, you know, it was his effort and pain that have produced the life-sustaining liquid. It was his breast that was getting pulled. He made us think of my mistake as he dumped each bottle in the trash can right before my eyes.
It was a really good thing it was soon after I had just given birth, or I’d be in prison for murder today! I hated him for the first time in our relationship. I hated him with that icy cold hatred that tells you, you will never forgive or forget that moment! I was wrong. Now I look at it and I laugh. But it is 12 years later. I still think he was a poopy head for trying to make me feel bad at the moment. And if I really focus on how I felt at that moment, I hate him with the same cold passion all over again.
But when I remember the whole situation, I think, “How silly we were!” Here we were in our 40s acting like 20-year-olds. It’s all kind of funny. But there you have it — being a mother, and being the mother of preemies — certainly did nothing to make me perfect! But at the time, I thought our milk fight was the worst I would have to face in my breastfeeding journey. Boy, was I wrong!
My wonderfully wished-for, dreamed-for, beautiful babies became little sucking vampires! Oh my goodness! They were even too small to fit in preemie clothes! Or suck directly on my nipples. I had to use a nipple guard. But they were strong enough to send a current of electricity All the way down to my toes and jolt them into a curl as they suck the milk out of my body. The milk gladiators called it the toe-curl. And I’m sure that if you breastfed, you know what I’m talking about. That jolt of electricity feels like your toe is getting pulled by your breast! Argh! It is a special kind of pain — electric, jolting and excruciating!
Frankly, I didn’t know whether to be happy that my babies were strong enough to breastfeed, or unhappy that my babies were strong enough to breastfeed! But then, of course, I would smell them and they would gurgle or smile and I would just melt! Okay — they could sink their little mouths into my body and cause all kinds of pain cause they were so precious! And they were mine! Mine! Can you tell I’m a little possessive?
It was during this time that one of the nurses asked me to donate some of my breastmilk. I was kind of shocked. I asked the nurses why my milk was needed. They told me that some mothers simply didn’t do it because they found it too painful. Well, bully for you! You know this is definitely one of those moments I had to admit I can be judge-y. I get it. It was painful. it was painful in an extraordinarily weird way. But I love my babies. And it was what my babies needed. And I was willing to do that for my babies.
If a child had been abandoned, and there was, in fact, an abandoned newborn at the NICU, who was blessed with a family who wanted to adopt her, and the most wonderful mother who sat with her day in and night through some excruciating surgeries, I would have donated my milk for that baby. But I was selfish. I was selfish for my babies. I was not going to donate my milk for a woman who found the experience too painful. Lord forgive me. But I judge them. I was in pain too and found the whole process inconvenient but I harness my love for my babies to do what was best for them — not for me but for them!
I remember refusing. I was so angry with these mothers and angrier still that the nurses had asked me — had made me feel guilty — about not wanting to breastfeed other babies. But the reality was, I hardly had enough energy for mine. I hardly knew how to get through each pump. Now before you go thinking, “She’s awful. She’s judging other mothers.” Well, just like I judge the mothers who wouldn’t breastfeed their preemies, I judge myself, when I was relieved that my babies would not be able to directly breastfeed from me. Yes, I breastfed them — directly had them on my breast several times during those two, long years, But the reality is that I was not a traditional breastfeeder.
Most of the time I had to pump. I had to pump because they were in the NICU. I had to pump because they were not strong enough to suck the milk out of my breast. I had to pump because I was in the Ph.D. program I had to pump because I was traveling, searching for employment. I had to pump. And I feel terrible that I had to pump and I judge myself for pumping.
I also had to pump because the girls were not gaining enough weight fast enough just from my milk so my milk had to be supplemented by a special formula by the way — oh, my goodness! Thank society, God, taxpayers, whomever — for WIC! Because I was a student at the time and my husband was working the graveyard shift to sustain our newfound family of four and WIC helped us pay for that special formula that was extraordinarily expensive.
So my milk had to be placed in the bottle and mixed with the special formula and then given to the babies so that they can gain more weight. Still, the milk gladiators warned I should have the girls latch on me several times a day to keep a good milk production going. Sometimes just hearing these well-intentioned well-meaning women give me their very good advice aggravated me to the core of my being. I was producing a gallon of milk a day! What more did they want? But I took their advice. I did what I had to do to keep producing the precious milk that my babies enjoyed so much.
So as I started to say, I also had to travel quite a bit during the girls’ first year because I was going on interviews across the country. And let me tell you, it is a special kind of hell to have my breast slowly swell with milk every minute until they turned into hard velvety rocks! All the time I was struggling to run from one plane to another to make my connections lugging the pump and the plastic bottles that had to be filled both for relief and to care for my babies back home. And I would love to tell you that all of the airlines were breastmilk friendly — but boy, they were not! It was after all 12 years ago. And frankly, it doesn’t sound like some of the airlines are very sensitive even today so you imagine how they were like past then.
The nice flight attendants allowed me to pump in the bathroom. The not-so-nice ones made me wait and pump in a bathroom stall at the airport. And typically — okay, in my case, always — the not-so-nice attendants, were male. They were the ones that made me wait to pump in the bathroom stall at the airport.
I still remember sitting in a stall in Atlanta, not sure if the tears rolling down my eyes were because my breasts were so engorged that even breathing on them hurt, let alone the pumping, or because I desperately missed my 6-month-old babies. No doubt, it was probably both.
I also had a really hysterically funny experience being interviewed by male professors, and when you interview for a position as a professor, it’s typically a one- to two-day interview process. So here I was, the first day of the interview, and of course, I began my interviews with my very small breasts and slowly, they managed to almost burst through my suits by the end of the long interviews. The male professors would constantly look at my breast to furtively look away only to look back over and over with a puzzled look in their eyes. It was so hard not to laugh even as their discomfort grew as my breast filled. By the time I was done it was like rocks were inside my chest.
And, of course, it was a special process trying to convince hotel staff to freeze the milk so that I could return home fully loaded. Believe it or not, some of them suggested that I could just pour it down the drain because it was so inconvenient for them to put gross female pumped milk in their refrigerator freezer. I mean, how weird is that?!?
Now, I thought it would be easier when I became a college professor because I had my own private office. Nope! Like so many things in life, reality falls short of expectations. Don’t ask me how it happened, but it happened every single time — I sat down to pump, students knocked on my door and wouldn’t leave whether or not I had office hours because they knew I was in there. Worst of all was the well-intentioned cleaning lady who persisted in opening my door without knocking. Holy cow, that woman saw my breast so many times! I hope she enjoyed them!
The truth is I don’t think any other woman has ever seen my nipples as much as that cleaning lady. By then I wasn’t particularly shy. To tell you the truth I was kind of indifferent but my office was just outside the most popular corridor in the school. I was always concerned that the students would get more than they had bargained for walking down the hallway because the cleaning lady forgot to knock yet again.
So did I make it those 24 months? Those magical 24 months that that study suggested I should breastfeed my preemies? Hmmm… I could lie and tell you I did because it certainly felt like I did. But the reality is that my milk began to dry up at the end of the 18th month, 6 months short of my goal. The girls were not interested in latching on, and it was really inconvenient to keep pumping in my office. I tried to push my body for another month, but the girls didn’t like that milk anymore. It was raspy. It no longer had the sweet taste that they had enjoyed so much.
So at 19 months of pumping, I came home from work to find out that our nanny had thrown away the last month of my breast milk into the trash. Are you feeling my urge to kill her? I’m telling you — I am so telling you — becoming a mother by no means made me perfect. I really wanted to kill her. How dare she make that decision for me? But it was done. So I stopped. I stopped because the girls no longer enjoy the milk. I stopped myself from murdering the nanny because, well, being in prison was not an option. I stopped after 19 months of pumping. 18 months of feeding my milk to my babies.
I was really sad to be done. Even though I was ready to be done. It was such a conflicting emotion. I was thrilled, though, that my breasts didn’t shrink back to 32A and I was a 32B. Yaay! So good for me, right? My husband liked it too!
I think the most surprising thing was despite the sadness, I really felt that I had been true to my babies and that made me proud of myself. It’s a really neat feeling. I was also really happy to suddenly have so much more energy. Oh my goodness! It was wonderful! And of course, my babies sucked me out of that energy, but I enjoyed that. I really did.
So knowing what I know — actually having read studies on the matter — would I do it all over again? Would I suggest to someone to go through that pain, inconvenience, and hassle, that pumping or breastfeeding can be?
Yes, absolutely! Nutritional and immunological needs aside, as much as my babies needed my milk, I needed to provide it for them. While they were at the NICU, where I could not be with them my every breathing moment because my husband was working and I was too weak to drive myself there. And then because I had one baby at home and the other at the NICU, I felt we were together because my milk was being fed to my babies — regardless of where I was. Or how long I could be with them.
The nurses consoled me, comforted me by telling me that through my milk my babies knew my smell. And the funny thing was that my babies never cried, or so the nurses told me –they were two of the favorites in the NICU. But as soon as I stepped into their room, the soft kitty meowing of my two little kittens would begin. They knew I was there even before I spoke, and of course, I would pick them up and hold them to my breast so they could try and drink my strength and receive my unconditional love.
Because even though I had no strength, whatever I had belonged to them
that milk, my milk, helped our bond grow in those difficult days in the NICU, helped us stay close despite the physical distance of my travel. And later when my babies were fat, purring little kittens, my milk was their strength and their joy. And, seeing them happy then and now, I think it’s going to make me happy forever.
Even when I’m that old lady in the nursing home, and they can’t come to visit me very often because they have their own lives and their own sweet meowing little babies, it will carry me through those moments because I will know we are still close together, bound by love.