This is the first post in a series reflecting on motherhood from the perspective of having a high school senior.
My very first baby is eighteen now. He shaves and does his own laundry and asks me to buy face wash. His hair has a streak of bright pandemic purple in the front, a surprise he brought home after a get-together in the garage of a friend. He is a senior in high school, still unsure of what he wants for the future – both afraid to grow up and longing for freedom. We have always been close but he pulled away this last year, an event that my more experienced friends tell me is healthy, normal and developmentally appropriate. I’m simultaneously comforted by this thought and grieving the little boy I once had; the little boy who told me everything and who, among all others, sought me out to spend time with and not the other way around.
As I look at my newly-minted adult son, I can’t help but see the baby who lives inside him – the happy, curious little guy who talked early and walked late. I’ve been reflecting, with compassion and love, about the mother I was back then and considering what I would tell her now with the wisdom of my years.
My first-born was the miracle answer to two long years of infertility treatments. Most of my friends were mothers already, at least the ones who wanted to be. I read every book about pregnancy and childbirth. I binged on American midwife pioneer Ina May Gaskin’s research and The Girlfriends Guide to Pregnancy (2007). One thing I knew for sure is that I would breastfeed, like my mom had done. I just knew how beautiful and bonding the experience would be, and I secretly judged my friends who opted not to breastfeed. I dreamt about nursing. I was certain it would come naturally because I wanted it so much.
Then my baby was born - a week late, after a protracted induction, 3 ½ hours of pushing and an emergency c-section. He was BIG. He was HUNGRY. He had no patience for the colostrum that was barely coming in. I put him to my breast and he would give a few half-hearted sucks and then pull his head away, screaming. His little face would turn bright red, furious. I had no idea a newborn could be so angry! We hired a lactation consultant and tried every trick in her playbook. First, a tube taped to my chest that ran up from my shoulder where the nurse would slowly pour in milk. The baby sputtered and choked, overwhelmed. We fed him from a cup, one parent holding and one pouring, then tried a syringe, and shields on my nipples to simulate a bottle. You name it; we tried it, yet nothing worked.
After three weeks of relentless effort and exhaustion, I was in a dark place. We wanted “natural” and all of these mechanisms felt anything but. I suffered, believing that without nursing, there was no way we could bond in the way I had imagined. A friend’s mother told me it was fine to let go of trying to breastfeed and pump if “all I really cared about was nutrition” - that comment brought me to tears. Slowly, I let go of the idea that nursing was the only way. Faithfully, I pumped six times a day (later transitioning to formula) and we fed him from a bottle. The change in my baby boy was almost immediate. Suddenly he was happy, satisfied, and calm. Feedings were relaxed and not a source of pain and stress for both of us. I finally felt like a good enough mom.
Two years later, my boy’s brand new twin brothers arrived five weeks premature, one with a cleft lip and palate. This time I was comfortable with bottle feeding, but both of them latched and were nursing like champs before we left the hospital. Life is so unpredictable. I enjoyed nursing my twins (also, heating up two bottles at 3:00 AM is no easy feat!) but honestly, ease wasn’t the only blessing breastfeeding them gave me. The greatest gift it gave me was peace. Peace, because I learned at last that my bond with those breastfed, twin babies was no more close or profound than the bond I had with my bottle-fed boy. Allowing myself to let go of my old belief that nursing was the only pathway to forge a sacred mother and baby bond allowed a real bond to flourish.
Leave space open for possibility. Remember that the way things should be aren’t always the way that they are. Give yourself permission to pivot, to defy the “experts” and to choose what feels right and true for yourself. Consider that the only expert on your baby is you.