Crossing the Great Divide – Part 1

A picture from our professional photo shoot the day before Baby Boy's birthday!

A picture from our professional photo shoot the day before Baby Boy’s birthday!

Baby Boy turned one recently, which means that it’s been just over a year since I became a mother. There is an argument to be made that I was already a mother to the babies that started developing in my womb but did not make it, or to the embryoes created during our IVF, but in this post I want to focus on motherhood in the traditionally understood sense of the word: a woman with a child. As someone who struggled with infertility before becoming a parent, it has been interesting for me to explore over the last year to what extent my experience of infertility impacts my identity as a parent, and vice versa.

While we were trying to conceive, as the months and then the years passed by, I found myself detach more and more from the world around me. The experience of infertility is very isolating, and sometimes it felt like every day brought fresh reminders of how different our reality was from that of our friends, colleagues, and society in general.

When you are first trying to conceive, the initial months are unremarkable: you have sex at the “right time of month”; you read the first chapter of pregnancy books to make sure you’re doing all the right things to conceive; you imagine how your life will change when you have a baby; and then you wait to see if your period will arrive on schedule or not. It is very easy to find community and common ground with friends and strangers alike when you are in this stage.

As the months go by, you start to get discouraged, but it still feels like pregnancy is just around the corner. You did not get pregnant the first month trying, or even the second or third, but your experience continues to be unremarkable. At some point though (and this point is different for everyone), you start to notice a divide between your experience and what you have read or heard about. As you go further and further down the road, the divide becomes greater. Key events that signify that your experience is no longer “normal” may  include trying for over a year (and realizing you are now considered infertile), experiencing pregnancy loss, and the initial visit to a fertility clinic. Suddenly, you realize that you do not know anyone who shares these experiences (or maybe you do, but they have kept their struggles to themselves).

Realizing that you have to rely on a fertility clinic to help you conceive is a difficult thing to deal with, as is having to go through the testing and investigations required to narrow down what the problem is, and once identified, learning to accept the problem. Lying in bed after having sex, as you think of baby names for your likely newly conceived baby is a distant memory. There is another divide once you start fertility treatment, and then a further one when you move on to IVF, with each step leading to further isolation and loneliness as your story becomes more and more removed from the typical narrative (there are further divides, but I will stop there, because that is where my experience stops).

Once you become pregnant, the struggles do not stop. You are now part of a sisterhood that you have been yearning to join, and you are closer than ever to achieving what has often felt like a distant dream.  But, even though you are ridiculously happy, the divide is still there. While from the outside you look like any other pregnant woman, as soon as you speak to other pregnant women, or parents of young children, you are reminded of how different you still are. While they are complaining of the normal pregnancy aches and pains, you are terrified that there is something wrong with your baby, and are closely watching for pregnancy complications that could impact your baby’s health. You cannot relate to the experiences described on pregnancy websites.  Even though you are pregnant, you are still infertile.

And then you give birth to a healthy baby. You take your baby home, and your new concerns become feeding your baby, sleep (theirs and yours), and making sure baby is reaching their developmental milestones. You learn about teething, fevers in babies and starting solids. Perhaps you struggle with going back to work, and how to find childcare for when you do.

You find community with other new parents and find that they have all the same concerns. It does not matter how their babies got there; you are all in the same boat now. Sometimes you think you love your baby more because of how much you fought to bring them into the world, but then you see how they look at their babies, and how tenderly they hold them and you realize that they love their babies just as much.

And this is where I find myself today. I am first and foremost a parent. Whether I am talking to my friends who also had babies in the past year (without the experience of infertility), or whether I am reading my twitter feed filled with tweets from women parenting after infertility, the concerns are the same. We all want what’s best for our babies.

When politicians speak of family friendly policies, they are now speaking to me. At work, or at social gatherings, I can finally contribute to the conversations about the joys and challenges of having children. The huge weight that was on my shoulders has been lifted. The feelings of isolation, of “otherness”, of feeling different are gone. I have crossed the great divide.

(To be continued in part 2)

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Breastfeeding: The Final Chapter

This is the long overdue continuation of my last breastfeeding post….

It took me a long time to appreciate the advice that my friend gave me: that I didn’t have to be perfect at breastfeeding; I just had to do what worked best for me and Baby Boy.

At various (many!) times throughout my 10+ months of breastfeeding, I have felt inadequate and ashamed due to my breastfeeding failings, some of which are probably unavoidable, but many of which I suspect I could have fixed if only I’d worked hard enough. I have often worried that other moms were judging me when in a group setting, I was the only one who pulled out a bottle to feed my baby while everyone else pulled out their breast (even as I told myself that the fancy Medela bottle I was using should clearly signify that I was feeding my baby breastmilk which was just as good as what their babies were getting).

When comparing breastfeeding notes with the “true” breastfeeding moms [i.e. those women who can pop a breast out at a moments notice, insert baby and go; those who can feed their baby anywhere and in any position (I can feed him on a plane! I can feed him on a train! I can feed him on a boat! I can feed him with a goat!); mothers whose little ones have never tasted formula; those for whom bottle feeding is a foreign concept; etc. etc. etc.], I always made sure that I slipped in a casual comment about some common issue that I’ve experienced while breastfeeding (see, I can do it too!), while carefully guarding the extent to which I continued to rely on work arounds, even many months into the breastfeeding experience.

Even as I write this post, I feel like I am exposing myself to ridicule by some nameless, faceless woman who managed to perfect the art of breastfeeding. After breastfeeding for over ten months, my dirty secrets include the following:

1. I have never breastfed Baby Boy in public (unless you count my mother’s or my in laws’ couch). I have no issue with the idea of public breastfeeding; I was just never able to figure out a position that worked for us without the aid of a breastfeeding pillow.

2. Until Baby Boy was six months old (aside from some clumsy fumbling with lactation consultants as we struggled to find a comfortable breastfeeding position for us and a few early feeds using the football hold), I only ever breastfed using the trusty beginner friendly cross cradle hold position. At six months, I figured out how to breastfeed lying down, increasing my position repertoire to its current grand total of two.

3. For a period of about five months, I only breastfed Baby Boy from my right breast.

4. I pumped at least once a day every day of Baby Boy’s life until he was ten and a half months.

5. For the first eight months, I only fed Baby Boy from one breast per feed.

6. I introduced the bottle at two weeks.

7. I have never had a day (24 hour period) where every one of Baby Boy’s feeds was directly at the breast.

8. From about five months on, I have regularly supplemented with formula.

For a long time, I was worried that  I was some sort of breastfeeding fraud, because what I was doing was not “normal” for someone who continued to breastfeed as long as I did. However, as time went on, I slowly realized that while not perfect or ideal, my version of breastfeeding worked for me and Gus.

It used to bother me that Gus continued to require long feeds even as he got older. I kept hearing that as babies got to two months or so, they would suddenly be satisfied with feeds of ten or twenty minutes at a time. Gus eventually got down from his hour+ feeds at the breast to 40 minute feeds, however it wasn’t until he was seven months or so (and enjoying lots of solids) that his feeds stopped being 40 minutes each.

I wondered and worried why our feeds took so long, until I noticed that most women who breastfed fed their babies very frequently. I, on the other hand typically fed every three hours during the day, with an eight to ten hour stretch overnight. This pattern started when Gus was very young, and stayed very consistent until about seven months, remaining consistent regardless of whether he got bottle or boob, breastmilk or formula.

It finally dawned on me that since Gus was not constantly at the boob, when he was ready to eat, he would need to consume higher volumes at a time than a baby who was breastfeeding every hour or two during the day, or every three hours around the clock. When I did the math, it actually made perfect sense: when bottle fed, Gus took 250 ml (8 oz) at a time; this was the higher end of what I would typically pump from both breasts in 20 minutes. Therefore,  it should take about 40 minutes for Gus to consume 250 ml directly from the breast.

As this became apparent to me, I also realized that fewer, longer feeds were actually less disruptive than frequent short feeds, and I started to really look forward to the feeds that Gus and I did at home where I was able to spirit him up to his room for a 40 session at the breast. Given the choice, I realized that I actually preferred our pattern to the constant disruption of a frequent feeding schedule.

Once Gus started consuming more calories through solids and cut back on the frequency of his milk feeds, I came to really cherish the cuddle time and bonding that came so easily with the act of breastfeeding. I also started to use breastfeeding more as a strategic tool (for myself, when I was tired and knew that a breastfeeding session would take longer and be more relaxing for me than a bottle feed would, and also for Gus when I knew that he needed comfort and not necessarily just food). It was only in the last four months or so that I truly came to appreciate these tangential benefits of breastfeeding.

For the longest time, since I felt very tuned in to the various ways that women struggle with breastfeeding (both due to my own personal experience, and also due to the many stories I’d heard from my close friends), whenever I spoke to a new mom who was struggling, I made sure to communicate that breastfeeding was tough and that there were so many different ways that it could go wrong. I made sure she understood that if it was too much, stopping was a perfectly valid choice, despite the overwhelming message that bombards new moms that breast is best. I took pains to communicate that her experience was not necessarily the same as my experience and therefore it was reasonable for her to make different choices than I had.

However, recently when someone I know was struggling with the early days of breastfeeding, I was surprised to find myself encouraging her to keep at it. I was worried that if she stopped too early, she would miss out on the possibility of a truly rewarding, pleasurable experience that was probably waiting for her if she just fought through the initial obstacles. I tried to communicate how much I’ve benefited from the flexibility that a mix of bottle and breastfeeding have given me, and how I am glad that I did not have to sacrifice one for the other. In the end though, breastfeeding did not work for her and she stopped after a few weeks.

As for me, my milk is drying up. I stopped pumping two weeks ago, and have packed away my nursing bras and tops. Baby Boy is down to a few minutes at the breast in the morning, and even that is quickly slipping away. My final thoughts on my breastfeeding experience? Frustrating……challenging…….soul crushing…..but 100% worth it.

Breastfeeding: The (Almost) Final Chapter

It’s time for one last (okay, second last) breastfeeding post. I last wrote about my experience with breastfeeding  here and (because I had so much to say), here.

When I first set out to write about breastfeeding six months ago, it was to write a post that I (due to time constraints and competing priorities) never got a chance to write.  I wanted to start out by sharing my experiences, but the desired introductory paragraph morphed into two giant posts. The post that I set out to write remains in draft form and was going to focus on the pressures that women today feel to breastfeed at all costs, and how damaging that can be to a woman’s self esteem, her identity as a mother, and even her relationship to her baby.

My remaining breastfeeding days (at least with this baby) are numbered; Baby Boy is losing interest and my supply is drying up. It’s time to finish the post that I never got to write, however, over the last six months my experience with breastfeeding, and my thoughts on the topic have evolved. So bear with me as I dust off my draft, and once again write way more than I’d planned to.

Until I became pregnant, I had no idea that breastfeeding was such a hot button issue, and I also never gave it a second thought. I assumed I would do it, but I did not feel passionately about it, and the decision to breastfeed was not an ideological one. Rather, my decision (if you could even call it a conscious decision) was driven by the pragmatic view that I had breasts which would produce milk for my baby when the time was right, and therefore I would feed that milk to my baby. End of story.

Shortly after becoming pregnant, everywhere I turned, I started hearing about breastfeeding. My prenatal yoga class had a lactation consultant give a talk, and both she and the yoga instructor shared their own struggles with breastfeeding. At my labour preparation classes, almost one full class was devoted to breastfeeding, complete with videos and diagrams of the proper way to do it, and a discussion of the common issues that women face when trying to breastfeed. Apparently, there was more to breastfeeding than picking up your baby and putting them next to your breast.

All this discussion about breastfeeding could be boiled down into two overriding themes:

Theme #1: Breastmilk is a miraculous substance with immeasurable benefits, many of which cannot be replicated with formula.

Taken at face value, the logical extension is that as a mother who wants the best for her child, there is no question that breastfeeding is the way to go.

Theme #2: Breastfeeding is HARD, and has driven many a new mother to the edge.

Therefore, having difficulty breastfeeding should not come as a surprise, nor should the decision/need to use formula as a result.

And therein lies the problem. When considered separately, these two “facts” about breastfeeding can be easily reconciled with a new mother’s experience and expectations; however taken in combination, each is a force that results in pulling a mother in opposite directions, leading to unnecessary frustration, guilt, and shame.

Once Baby Boy was born and we experienced our own breastfeeding struggles, I was amazed at the stories I heard from other mothers. There were the friends who in hushed tones admitted to supplementing, or relying completely on formula, due to low supply. Then there were the stories of two separate acquaintances whose babies never latched. Despite this difficulty, both women went to extreme lengths to give their babies the breastfeeding experience, using elaborate tubing feeding mechanisms for six months. One of these women pumped eight times a day for 45 minutes at a time, for six months. Stop for a second and think about that. Do the math. Is it any wonder that looking back she regrets going to the lengths she did and regrets how much quality time she lost with her baby when he was young because her super human efforts to provide the best for him made her miserable?

Despite going into motherhood with a clear head on the topic of breastfeeding, once Baby Boy and the resulting breastfeeding struggles arrived, my pragmatic mindset and cool detachment went right out the window. At our prenatal classes, the instructors had warned us to expect breastfeeding to be difficult for up to six weeks. They stressed that most women will struggle for that long before things click into place. This was a very important message for me, because within a few days of Gus being born, I was counting down the days until six weeks would come to pass. It gave me huge comfort that whatever struggles we were having would have to sort themselves out within six weeks.

With every day that passed, bringing us that much closer to the magical six week finish line, my overriding mantra was that easier times were just around the corner. However, each passing day that breastfeeding continued to be a struggle also brought on sheer terror when I considered the possibility that maybe breastfeeding was not going to be possible for us.  Since latching was our immediate concern, hearing of women whose babies never latched, even after months and months of trying absolutely terrified me. In the moment, it felt like the absolutely worst thing in the world. I was incredibly jealous of women who were able to pop a baby up to their breast and have them suckle like it was nothing. To someone who has never tried to breastfeed, it is impossible to try to explain the depth of emotion I felt (panic, terror, insert your own extreme noun) when I considered that the six week finish line may mean an end to breastfeeding rather than an end to struggles.

The panic did not stop once Baby Boy was able to latch and we started to settle into a routine. At around the four week mark, the lactation consultant that we’d worked with most closely gave me a follow up call to see how things were going. I thought we were doing well, however when I reported that Baby Boy was typically feeding on the breast twice a day, and getting pumped bottles three times a day (for a total of five feeds), there was a pause on the other end of the line. ” You really should be further along by now.” Cue deep sinking feeling in stomach, sheer terror, panic, what have you. We were failing after all.

I shared some of my struggles around this time with a friend of mine  who has served as my primary sounding board for all of my motherhood concerns. She has three amazing kids and a wonderfully pragmatic approach to motherhood. I explained to her how I was trying to wean myself off the pump, to the point where all of Baby Boy’s feeds would be at the breast (by this point latching was not a problem anymore, but as I explained in my first breasteeding post, I found the logistics of going without pumping to be difficult). I stressed to my friend that  I HAD to learn how to breastfeed properly, to reach that magical place of breastfeeding Nirvana. “Or not” she said. “If what you’re doing is working for you,  why change?”.

And as always, she was right. To be continued…..

They Grow Up So Fast….

Baby Boy is just over 3 months old, and I have already seen him change and grow so much in the short time that he has been with us. In the last few days, I have packed away the last of the 0 to 3 month clothing, moved his crib down a setting, and pulled out the size 2 diapers for the first time.

I felt inexplicably sad packing away the tiny onesies and sleepers that he wore for the first few months of this life. There was something so final about putting them away and the realization that he will never wear those things again. At times like this, I find myself wishing time could stand still, or at the very least slow down a bit so I can savour and fully enjoy every fleeting moment.

At the same time, it seems like every day I am amazed by new things that Baby Boy is doing. For example, over the last month Baby Boy has managed to increase his cuteness quotient by adding a giddy little laugh to his repertoire. He laughs to express joy, but also to share in little jokes (like when my husband plays a version of peekaboo with him). In the last week alone, he’s also started playing with his feet, and become fascinated with the many little mirrors on his toys.

I can’t believe that we have simply scratched the surface and that the real milestones are still ahead. In the next year and a half alone, Baby Boy will roll over, sit up, take his first step and say his first word. In no time at all, he will be starting school, and from there my brain just hurts thinking about all of the things that life has in store for him.

With every new day, Baby Boy is growing and changing and slowly becoming his own person, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to share these moments with him.