Returning to work after a too-short maternity leave is the reason why my nursing story felt more like a horror story. It didn't work well for me and it was the most challenging experience of my life.
When I had my son last year, I was hell bent and determined that I would breastfeed him, that I would become a warrior for nursing whenever and wherever I pleased. I wanted to experience what it was like to do the most natural act a women can do (other than birthing her baby) and feed my son on demand. (Disclosure: I'm not one of those mothers who proclaims that breast is best. I believe whatever works for your family is best; feeding your baby is best no matter where that milk comes from.)
I also knew my chances of nursing him successfully would be slim. I knew I would only have six weeks with my son before I had to return to work, before I'd have to transition to pumping and bottle feeding anyway.
Nursing for first time mothers is something that takes time to learn. It can be a difficult, tear-producing experience as you try to get that tiny mouth latched on to your gigantic milk-filled nipple for more than thirty seconds. As much as women say it comes naturally, it doesn't for all of us.
You and your baby have to learn each other and practice to make it work. It's not easy (evidenced by the dozens of lactation consultants present during my short three-day stay in the hospital after birthing my son).
Practice is an understatement. My son is now a year old and I have never had him successfully latch onto me without help from a nurse or lactation consultant. In the hospital I was relentless and tried very hard to get him to nurse, but the constant latching and unlatching process we went through sent me into fits of tears every two hours.
Nursing for me from day one felt like a loosing game. I pumped sitting on the bathroom of my hospital room floor while family members held my son on the other side of bathroom door, just so I could squeeze out a few drops of magic gold to give him via syringe.
When we brought my son home, I attempted the daunting task on my own. I got situated in a nursing chair with a comfy pillow behind me, propped him on his nursing pillow and tried, and tried, and tried unsuccessfully, for twenty minutes to get him to latch. I walked downstairs in tears holding my newborn son and told my husband I couldn't feed him on my own.
He told me to stop worrying, wipe away my tears and just pump. I had it there, why not use it? Of course that made me feel even more like a failure because I couldn't get my own son to latch onto my breast and take my milk without the help of a machine. The postpartum waves of hormones crashing through me didn't make it any easier.
That's when my pumping journey truly began. My son was officially a bottle-fed baby from the evening we brought him home.
Have you ever had your breasts attached to a mechanical suctioning device for 25 minute increments, twelve hours a day? Have you had to listen to the constant whir of the tiny motor that tugs on your sore nipples, sucking the much-needed nutrients out of your body that your baby needs to sustain them... every two hours? Let me tell you, it gets old fast and if anyone has ever said pumping is painless, they are lying.
I never got enough milk for my son to be exclusively breastfed from my pumped milk. He was supplemented with one to two bottles of formula each day, no matter how hard I tried to boost my milk production.
Fenugreek, lactation cookies, warm compresses, looking at pictures of my son while I pumped, holding my son while I pumped, waking up at 3 a.m. to pump while my milk production was highest, drinking vast amounts of water. You name it, I tried it all. I tried everything to get as much milk as possible to feed him each day AND build up a freezer supply for when I returned to work. (What freezer supply? Who was I kidding? That seemed more impossible than getting my son to latch.)
I did my best to build a breastmilk supply and the day before I had to return to work (just 6 short weeks after my son's birth) I didn't have enough in the fridge to make it through the day let alone the next. So, I gave him formula and pumped all day that Sunday so he'd have just enough milk on Monday until I returned home from work at 6 p.m. I sent formula as backup to the sitter just in case he ran out.
I could never get enough to exclusively feed him my breastmilk, so he was supplemented with formula every evening. At about three months of age, I got curious as to whether or not we'd ever be able to nurse successfully, so I tried it one evening and we failed again and again. I had a bottle-fed baby who wouldn't actively drink from my breast.
From the moment my son was born I felt a clock ticking down our time together. I had to return to work earlier than I wanted because my employer doesn't offer paid parental leave. I depleted all my vacation and sick time after six weeks and was forced to return to my job too soon because we financially couldn't make ends meet without my paycheck.
This is the reality of millions of working mothers across the United States. Unpaid parental leave doesn't just affect our wallets, it can affect the way we care for our babies. It forces us into behaviors we didn't originally plan to do. It forces us to shift our care plans and ideals, and just make due so that we can return to work.
Am I jaded about my experience? Yes.
Do I wish it were different? Absolutely.
Does this happen to a lot of mothers? Every single day, but I do know that learning to nurse would have been easier without the pressure of time.