September 18, 2013
Sometimes Love Isn’t a Let-Down
This is a line from an essay I wrote a few years ago, an essay whose title and central metaphor was a reference to breastfeeding: “Love is a Let-Down”. The literal let-down though had been the unhappiness I’d experienced during those difficult weeks after my first daughter was born. Not postpartum depression, a label sometimes too broadly applied whose tidiness undermines the fact that becoming a mother is really hard, that new moms are often insufficiently supported, that babies are a lot of work, and the learning curve in those early days can seem impossibly steep. I still maintain that my unhappiness in those days didn’t necessarily mean there was anything wrong with me.
But oh, was my transition to motherhood ever a bumpy one. I didn’t even have breastfeeding problems, and I was having breastfeeding problems. Baby’s latch was fine, my milk was plentiful, and somehow she still managed to lose (or I managed to lose her?) 11% of her body weight, a terrifying ratio for someone so small. I’m not big on mother-guilt, but that 11% is seared upon my brain. It meant that everything in those early days seemed so fraught, perilous. I’d been handed this enormous responsibility and was already doing it wrong just four days in.
Precisely two things would save my breastfeeding life (and allow it to continue for the next two and a half years). The first was my midwife’s gentle care the first day we were home from the hospital after my c-section. “Breastfeeding takes time,” she told me as she helped me with positioning. “And patience,” she said, as we woke up the baby who’d once again fallen asleep on the nipple. And suddenly it became clear to me that this was really going to be work, at least for a while.
But not so much work, and here we come to the second thing that saved my breastfeeding life. The lactation consultant who took a mother-centric view of my situation and determined I didn’t need to be up all night long while my baby suckled away with an excellent latch I was loath to break considering the recent fact of her 11% weight loss. Quite unfashionably, at least in some breastfeeding circles, the consultant weighed my daughter before and after her feed, and took in the fact of my copious milk supply. “She gets everything she needs in five to ten minutes,” she told me. I would be free to cut off the feed when I saw fit, and so for the next week I did, and my daughter still gained weight. It began to occur to me that I may have had some mothering instincts after all.
“Love is a Let-down” I wrote in my essay, because my milk letting down was something I was never able to feel—at least not until it had leaked all over my shirt. In fact, I wasn’t able to feel anything the way I thought I should have, love in particular, certainly not in the ecstatic manner supposed by the rows of congratulatory cards on my window-sill. (“I just never thought it would be like this.”)
But what I eventually learned was that in those early days, love was doing instead of feeling. Love was every time I changed a diaper with tears streaming down my face, every time night turned into morning while the baby screamed, those early evening walks through our neighbourhood with the baby asleep in her carrier, a tiny, gentle reprieve.
It is a bit of a mystery though, how I went from that desperate woman crying over the change table to being somebody who was pregnant again. On purpose, even! Part of it was that four years had passed, and while the vividness of my newborn memories hadn’t faded, I’d had time to get over the trauma. I’d also always known I’d want a second child, which had underlined all my despair the first time: that I’d one day have to do it all over again. And while I was quite conscious that having another baby would come with its own challenges, I’d learned a thing or two the first time and I was hoping that what I’d learned would prove worthwhile.
When my second daughter was born in June, I didn’t dare to imagine that we were prepared, but we had bought a queen-size bed so we could sleep comfortably with her, I had paid a woman $200 to made capsules out of my placenta in an effort to combat the baby blues, and my husband had taken 3 months off work to ensure that when I cried over the change table, I’d never cry alone.
And much to my surprise, relief and pleasure, these measures worked miracles. More, this time I was not so lost in new motherhood—I recognized the landmarks, was accustomed to the topography. It was so strange to encounter this world again, but this time not to be out of my mind.
“I just never thought it would like this.”
Because this time, everything was different, except the parts that were the same, but these were more easily weathered when I was feeling supported and strong. And the best thing of all, which no doubt paved the way for my easier experience—from the time she was forty minutes old and I was lying in the recovery room, immobile from my repeat c-section, my new baby breastfed like a champion.
As her new life began to be measured in days and then weeks, I kept waiting for the hiccups (metaphoric ones), for inevitable bumps in the breastfeeding road, but they never arrived. I never knew how much weight she lost after birth because the number never mattered. She was back to birth weight at one week old, and the road has been smooth ever since then.
So these were my two experiences, shockingly disparate and I am one woman, suggesting a remarkable diversity in the experiences of new motherhood for women everywhere. If I’d had my second experience first time around, I’d have no idea what women were talking about when they talked about difficulty breastfeeding, though I would imagine that I understood. There was a part of me before that just assumed that having a newborn was as terrible for everyone as it had been for me, and that anyone who said otherwise was lying. So often, we might think we’re talking about the very same things, but they aren’t actually the same things at all.
It’s been a revolution, I think, they way we tell our stories now, and not just in hushed tones over coffee in suburban kitchens, but in print and out loud. But while I realize how important it is that these stories are being told, I also recognize something useless in this endeavour. I understand now how unhelpful was so much of the advice I offered to (or rather forced upon) friends who had babies not long after I did. I remember pronouncing like a sage that no one ever need wake a sleeping baby to feed, not considering matters of milk supply, for example. I feel a twinge of regret when I consider the women I might have terrified with “Love is a Let-Down”, women who might have imagined that my experiences would necessarily be their own.
So I think what we have to keep in mind as we’re sharing our stories is that stories are stories instead of facts or even destinies. That “I just never thought it would be like this” isn’t always a bad thing. The great thing about stories is that sometimes you get to write your own. That love is a let-down, and then sometimes it isn’t after all.
(From my presentation at last Friday’s launch of the anthology Have Milk Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding by Rachel Epp Buller)