Nine years ago my son was born. Nine weeks premature and weighing just over three pounds, I was thrown into the world of NICUs, breast pumps, and doctor visits. When my pregnancy came to an end, my grieving began. I didn’t realize it as grieving right away—I was far too numb from the whole experience to have any true concept of what I was going through—but as life began to balance out and I came up for air, I recognized a feeling of loss and began to examine it.
My first thought was that I was grieving over the loss of the last two months of my pregnancy and the “normal” birth experience I had so wanted to have—and that was perhaps part of it. But as the first year of my son’s life picked up speed and life began to fill in the gaps left by the gradual disappearance of hospital visits and baby gifts and concerned phone calls from family and friends, I began to recognize a loss that did not stem from the circumstances surrounding my son’s birth so much as the loss of the entire relationship I had hoped—expected—to have.
Because my son was born nine weeks premature, within a few hours of his birth I had started to use a breast pump to initiate and maintain my milk supply. It had never been a question of whether I wanted to breastfeed, but after the birth of my son it became a question of whether I would be able to. An endless cycle of breastfeeding, bottle feeding, and expressing quickly consumed my days, and two months into my son’s life, the stress of that exhausting routine, the experience of having a preemie, the preeclampsia that affected my own health, and a father who was dying from cancer, took their toll and I couldn’t continue on any further. Shortly after my son’s due date, recognizing I had to make a change, I committed myself to exclusively pumping for my son and tried to make peace with the fact that breastfeeding wasn’t going to be part of our lives.
The loss that I felt as a result of not breastfeeding took me by surprise. No one tells you that you will experience grief. No one tells you that it hurts. No one tells you the sense of regret you will experience when you think back to those early days of your child’s life and you question the “what ifs” that might have made things different.
But this is not a story of grief and sadness; instead it is a story about enlightenment and healing.
My experience with my son taught me the importance of relationship. He taught me that what we do matters and how we do it matters. He taught me that I have an inner maternal instinct that is to be trusted, nurtured, and valued. He taught me that life is a continuum and that mothering starts long before a baby is born and will continue long after our children leave our homes. He taught me that process matters and what happens before will affect what happens after. These lessons weren’t learned easily, and many of them weren’t learned in time to benefit my son and I. Our relationship has been built on struggle and common challenges, and we continue to conquer those challenges together, trying to repair the lost relationship we both so desperately desired when he was born.
Not being able to breastfeed my son was a loss: a loss for both of us. I have come to understand that our biology has expectations, just as we do, but those biological expectations are far more important than my own personal expectations. They are based on centuries, and maybe even millennia, of genetic heritage. To try to circumvent those biological expectations can only result in an imbalance and leave us feeling loss. I grieved the lost breastfeeding relationship with my son, just as I grieved the normal birth experience, not because it was what I had expected or wanted, but because it was what my biology expected.
Two and a half years later, I stared at a positive pregnancy test and was surprised that the first thought to pop into my head was: “I wonder if I’ll be able to breastfeed this baby?” Emotions that I thought I had examined and dealt with and discarded after my experience with my son came flooding back to me. And at that moment my journey of healing began, ushered in by my new baby, my daughter.
As is often the case, my second pregnancy was entirely different than my first and I was entirely different as well. Certainly I now had experience as a mother, but I also carried with me the hurt and fear resulting from my first breastfeeding experience. While I had infinitely more knowledge about “normal” birth and lactation, I also had insecurities and mistrust relating to my body and my body’s ability to do what it was supposed to do. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to the first time, so why should I think it would all work out the second time? As those nine months progressed, I devoured everything I could about the normal birth process and breastfeeding from a biological perspective and decided to commit myself to trusting my body. Faith can be both scary and freeing, and I gave myself to it entirely.
My re-education about breastfeeding challenged social attitudes about mothering and babies. I learned to question my knowledge and strove to focus on breastfeeding practices that were biologically sound. When my daughter was born I ensured that she was placed on my chest immediately and we enjoyed more than an hour of quiet time getting to know each other before she was weighed and cleaned. She latched for the first time within the first half hour and stayed with me, often in my bed, for our entire hospital stay. She nursed frequently and eagerly. Things seemed to be going well. And then upon our arrival home, those familiar worries and fears set in.
Nothing really was going wrong; my daughter was over her birth weight by five days of age, after a bit of initial soreness we seemed to get into a routine that was working well, but yet I clung to the past, worried that things weren’t as good as they seemed and that certainly my body was going to fail me yet. For the first month of my daughter’s life, I worried every time she cried that it was something I was doing, that my milk wasn’t sufficient, or that for some reason things were not as good as they seemed. All the usual newborn issues were, in my mind, somehow connected to my ability to breastfeed and mother. Her cries or fussiness would bring back the overwhelming memories of my experience with my son and my emotions continually churned. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and I returned to that place of faith I had been in before my daughter was born.
And neither my body nor my daughter disappointed.
Once I relaxed into the relationship with my daughter and put my trust in both my body’s ability to provide for her and her ability to know when and how much she needed to nurse, I entered a period of ease. I finally recognized the power my body holds and the empowerment that can come through the process of birth and breastfeeding. I recognized that my body is capable and strong and nurturing. And I recognized that in our society we often are given information, advice, and practices that are in direct competition with our biology.
In order to allow our biology to do what it needs to do, we often need to question the influence of our society and in some cases put it aside in favour of biology. In retrospect, I can see the influences of society greatly affected my breastfeeding relationship with my son. It saddens me that I was unable to breastfeed him as I had wanted, but I also recognize that I only did what I knew to do at the time. Ultimately, my experience with my son brought about the enlightenment I needed to breastfeed my daughter and that experience has influenced my life since he was born.
Breastfeeding my daughter was a relationship—is a relationship. She weaned just a couple months after her third birthday, but the closeness that we enjoyed from our nursing relationship is still very much part of our lives today two years later. Being able to participate in that relationship helped me to heal the lingering hurts from the experience with my son. It returned to me the ability to trust my body and the process and to ultimately have faith in something outside of myself.
While at times it does sadden me that my son and I did not enjoy the same relationship as my daughter and I did, I remind myself that the relationship between a nursing mother and baby benefits everyone surrounding them. My son was very much part of the nursing relationship with my daughter, witnessing the love and closeness of our relationship but also being a part of it as we would sit and chat while his sister nursed. The healing brought about by breastfeeding was not just my own; it also helped my son witness that important relationship that he was unable to experience for himself, and I have no doubt he will carry it with him into his adulthood and into the relationship with his own children.
Stephanie Casemore has experienced breastfeeding as a challenge, a gift, and a healing experience. She exclusively pumped for a year for her first child and nursed her second child for three years. Turning the challenges into a positive as an opportunity to support other mothers, Stephanie shares her experience through her books: Breastfeeding, Take Two: Successful Breastfeeding the Second Time Around and Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk: A Guide to Providing Expressed Breast Milk for Your Baby.