Wednesday, October 19

chronic milk making

While I was pregnant, women who had raised babies themselves, and knew how under powered I was at the best of times, they must have felt a serious twinge of fear on my behalf. I remember clearly conversations which went like this,

“And don’t feel bad if you can’t breastfeed, because your health is more important. It’s ok to give formula. And colostrum {milk with extra super powers in the first couple of days} is amazing all by itself, even if you do a couple of days that will be great. ”

And I would say, with my lips, “Yeah, I will let that go if I’m really not well. I won’t beat myself up.”

But my heart was not in sync with my lips. Not remotely. I didn’t want to sound like the naïve new mum I was, spurting forth her untried opinions, so I kept my opinion to myself. But my opinion was that I would rather give her the best immune start to life and suffer myself for a year. Breastfeeding cannot prevent a baby from getting a chronic illness, but it’s the first gift of health I could bestow on her, and there has never been a gift I’ve wanted to give more because I’ve never loved a girl more.
I knew that even my well mum had been run down and needed daily sleeps whilst sustaining another life with her milk, so while determined, I was not expecting an easy ride.

A couple of weeks before she was born I started to express colostrum drop by drop, on the advice of my private midwife, because I might be away from her for the first hours, and because it’s a powerfully healthy thing for a newborn. I arrived at the hospital on the day of her birth with ten filled syringes to be put in the fridge, to the surprise of the staff who don’t usually see or encourage women to do this prenatally. I thought my hours of work and patience extracting each milliliter might last a while – so I was partly horrified and partly chuffed when I heard the doctor had given her all ten syringes at once, as soon as she arrived in Special Care. I had been her first medicine, even though I was still lying on the operating table, and that was worth it.

I was extremely blessed to have good supply, but I soon had to call upon my iron determination to feed because after a few weeks of decent times, things got bad and stayed bad for about four months.

In medical speak, I had recurrent white spot (sounds cute, feels like hell), recurrent infections (this should not have surprised me, infections are my specialty), vasospasm on one side, mastitis, and regular blocked ducts.

Four months feels more like four years when you’re breastfeeding, because young babies feed around the clock. So frequently that the scabs would just dry out a bit from the last feed, enough to make the next milk extraction excruciating, but not even close to healing. Then I would feed, the scab would be re-opened, and the cycle repeated. It was like being cut open with a knife regularly without anesthetic, day and night.  I had to majorly psyche myself up before her feeds, really prepare myself. I tried everything to ease the pain; every preparatory step before bringing her to drink - but from the moment of latch, I would frantically pound the floor with my foot and moan. I would try to breathe, but it was more effective to beat and groan, to try and stifle the murderous sensation with other sensations.

Ben wanted to be with me in the pain, he wanted to comfort me. But I was in a fiery hell of sensation, and would have been borderline violent if he tried to put a comforting arm around me. Maybe not even borderline.

I would say through gritted teeth after preparing myself to feed her,

"Ok. I'm about to do it. I'm getting ready. Can you just sit in that chair over there. And pray. And don't talk to me!"

And he would sit there silently, and watch me cry and groan. I needed him there rather than pottering around painlessly in the kitchen. I needed to know that he was sharing in my pain as I fed our girl, even though he couldn't take an ounce of it away. 

Sometimes I would express milk instead because I needed to let more healing occur and I emotionally could not handle another strong suck. But as she grew older I couldn't express enough for her whole feed and had to supplement it with my freezer supply, and it wasn't an effective emptying method so I would soon get blocked ducts and be forced back to letting her latch. 

One day a nurse taking my swab told me that she doubted I would be able to heal while continuing to breastfeed. This woman who was not a feeding expert and ought not to have shared her personal opinion, she preyed upon my greatest fear. 

I went home and talked to my Mum. My own mum had been damaged, and kept feeding, and healed. Then I talked to my friend, who had healed while still breastfeeding. Next my Lactation Consultant, who said that every person she knew who really really persevered had gotten through. And Ben, he was going to sit quietly in that armchair, and not make a sound.

I could not see for the life of me how healing could occur while each feed undid the scabbing. It seemed impossible to me. So I left that hope and belief to people who had been there themselves, and set to work on the only path possible for discomfort. 

Right now, present moment.

I focussed on getting through one feed, however bad. 

Then celebrating. Walking around the house feeling the light delicious emotion of relief. 

One hour later, relief giving way to dread. 'Can't go through that again,' circling in my head. 

Baby crying, obligation reigning, going to that awful place again. 

And that was how it passed. It wasn't a calm, breathing, full of hope affair. There was no bonding with her, no staring into her blue eyes with a smile. I was channeling psycho, moaning, arm flapping, mega-tense mother to her while she drank. I was gritting my teeth and only half believing that deeply ingrained phrase that the only way out was through.

Through I went, as Ben quietly watched and acknowledged and other people voiced the hope I couldn't feel. I couldn't write about it because I was submerged.

Concurrently, vertigo had entered my life at two weeks post partum. Vertigo took from me one of the senses I had most taken for granted, and assaulted my will to live. I didn’t even know that looking out the window and seeing a stable picture was one of my favourite things till it was gone. I didn’t realise that lying in bed with your eyes closed and feeling completely still, that is of the life’s greatest luxuries. Life was simply undesirable when there was no peace; a constant moving haziness which made me feel ungrounded and woebegone. 

At the time we didn’t know if vertigo was due to breastfeeding, or being up in the night. I assumed it was both, a muddy combination of two things that my body detested.

Occassionally I wondered if I weaned, would my nemesis vertigo leave? And would that be a wise decision, to be a more well person, wife and mother? If someone could have promised me that weaning would take the vertigo away, I may have weaned. But because I didn’t know, I did not want to wean and receive the rude shock that I still had vertigo, and my milk (and baby whispering powers) had dried up.

After four or five months, feeding became pain free. It happened gradually. At first there would be a day with no infection, no white spot, no blocked ducts, and then after the next bout of trouble I’d get a longer pain-free stint. It happened just as I had stoically and tragically realised that I might have to feed in agony for a whole year. I had lost hope that my pains could ever be ephemeral. I knew few women who had experienced problems for so many months, so I assumed I was stuck in this forever. I thought darkly that it was classic me to have a plethora of issues and chronic pain. I also avoided talking widely about my issues because I didn’t enjoy being told that it was ok to give up – I wanted to be encouraged to persevere.

Now the vertigo is like the tide going out at the beach. A lot of the time it is receding, but sometimes a wave lands high on the shore and I wonder whether the tide is actually going out after all.
It is always precipitated by extra use of energy, or sickness, or the baby waking frequently at night.

I still breastfeed regularly during the day, and once or twice at night – similar to the early days, and so I can finally say for sure that breastfeeding was not the single reason for the vertigo. It can’t have been soley night waking either, because I have not slept through the night for twelve months straight, yet the vertigo continues to ebb away.

I imagine it was many ingredients all smooshed into one eruptive mound: being up for long periods at night, producing so much extra milk initially, recovering from major surgery, the immense energy given to adjusting to a completely new life of work, and my body restoring itself after carrying a baby. 

The fight to feed has been rewarded many times over, with this ability which makes mothering easier for me as an unwell person. I continue to be in remission from POTS, a result of pregnancy and breastfeeding; I take hot baths without fainting and stand without blacking out.

I groggily feed her whilst still lying down myself for two minutes in the night, and she falls back asleep. I leave the house with nothing in my bag for her. I calm her tears and she pops off with a happy smile on her face. I read how good this milk is for her, I read that I receive an oxytocin hit every time I feed her. I hear people talk about how it’s odd to feed a baby who can walk or talk, and again I quietly hold my opinion inside. I fought to give her milk and I’m not about to fight to end her enjoyment of it. If she can verbalise how much she loves it, all the better. For now I am perfectly content with the spontaneous claps she gave me last week as she drank.