At 37 weeks gestation, my baby stopped moving. Convinced something was wrong and against “advice” that told me I was just a neurotic first-time mother, I drove to the ER, where I underwent an emergency C-section. The delivery was such an emergency, in fact, that I was put to sleep.
The last thing I remember before being knocked out was the look on my doctor’s face when I asked her to tell me that my baby would be okay. There were no reassurances.
But she survived and I woke up next to her—all six pounds, five ounces, with lips so full that they looked injected. And although I had fervently professed my flippancy toward breastfeeding prior to giving birth, I found that I wanted nothing more than to use my body—the same body that nearly deprived her of oxygen due to a placental infection—to sustain her completely.
So I became obsessed with breastfeeding—maniacal even. If she fidgeted even the slightest, I gave her the breast. My husband would come home from work and find me in one of his XL shirts, hiked up at the chest. Nestled inside was my daughter, deemed a miracle by the medical team who saved her life, on my breast for the 20th time that day.
My placenta may have failed my daughter, but I would be the best breastfeeding mother possible. And I was, even though it nearly killed me.
We didn’t leave the house. The only way I felt safe—or in control, as the therapist I later saw concluded—was with her next to me, on the breast, sucking the life out of me.
I devoured articles and websites about why “breast is best” and how it lowers the risk of SIDS and disease. My placenta may have failed my daughter, but I would be the best breastfeeding mother possible. And I was, even though it nearly killed me.
When my daughter was six months old, she decided that she’d had enough of my breasts and preferred a bottle. To some moms, that would have been a welcome change and signaled freedom. But to me, it felt like a personal rejection. Nothing could deter me, though, so I started pumping and bottle-feeding her. Around the clock.
If keeping her on my breast incessantly provided me with a sense of control, the pump was even better. I could measure, ounce by ounce, how much she was getting. Over five years later, I still remember the melodic—and irritating, if you asked anyone else—sound of the pump.
I pumped a minimum of six times a day, 30 minutes at a time, until my breasts were raw and aching. The quality of my day was only measured in one way—how much milk I made. If I got five or more ounces in a pumping session, I felt euphoric and like I was a good mother. If less, I considered myself a failure.
Whenever friends asked me to get together during the day, I made up excuses about why I couldn’t leave the house. Pumping was all that mattered. Pumping was my full-time job.
My daughter would often cry when I was on the pump. But I let her sit in the swing as the pump squeezed every bit of milk out of my body. I reasoned that every drop she got was keeping her further and further from death.
People around me—particularly my family—started questioning my breastfeeding obsession and mentioning terms like postpartum depression and PTSD. My husband asked me to start therapy—at first casually and later pleadingly. But nothing was wrong, I reasoned. I was just a mom trying to do what was best for my daughter. Why didn’t anyone understand that?
To “cheer me up” and get me out of my dark fog, as he called it, my husband encouraged my good friend to fly down to Atlanta for my birthday. Getting out of the house is what I needed, he said—that and a new pair of heels.
But when the time came for my friend and me to meet some other friends out for dinner, I decided that we needed to cancel my party. I had only gotten two ounces in my last pumping session and my freezer stash of breast milk was dwindling. Formula, which my husband kept “hidden” in the second to last shelf in our pantry, was not an option.
With mascara tears marring my newly made-up face, I strapped on the pump and declared that the dinner wouldn’t start until I got at least three more ounces. After 45 minutes on the pump (and my stomach rumbling from hunger), I still hadn’t. It was my 32nd birthday and, to date, one of the lowest moments of my life.
The quality of my day was only measured in one way—how much milk I made.
My friend, who had met me as a carefree 22-year-old with a penchant for leopard print shoes, puns, and gossip magazines, didn’t know what to do. My husband, who had met me four years before as the fun-loving, life-of-the-party, wasn’t sure who I was any more. This person—this impostor in a pale pink pumping bra—had taken over. And she scared everyone.
I scared myself, too. Nothing made me happy anymore—not my favorite movies, not long walks outside, not even shopping. In my darkest moments—the ones I can only talk about now, five years removed from the situation—I thought about harming myself. I didn’t want to die exactly; I just wanted to disappear. In the words of Jenny from Forrest Gump—words that popped into my head on more than one occasion during what my husband and I now refer to as “The Dark Ages”—“Dear God, please make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away.”
I started therapy a few months after my birthday breakdown. The first session, I just cried the entire time. The therapist asked me why I had waited until it got so bad to seek help. I didn’t answer. I did stop pumping, however. My last pumping session was when my daughter was 13 months old. My body had started rejecting the pump. Self-preservation, I now realize.
My recovery didn’t happen overnight. I would get to a good point—or so I thought—when the trauma of almost losing my daughter would hit me. Like grief, it ebbed and flowed and followed no predictable pattern. And when my daughter got a little bit older and developed into the hilarious diva she now is, I fully bonded with her.
We bonded because she is my daughter and I am her mother—not because of what my body can do for her or because I gave her life. We bonded because she is my life.
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