Signing Off From Lactation Station
For the past five years, my body has not been my own. Between pregnancy and breastfeeding, two tiny humans have relied on my body for their basic nutrition. Breastfeeding has been quite a journey. Coen and I recently finished nursing and it’s made me want to sit back and take a good, appreciative look at this amazing thing my body has done. I present you with a compendium of my breastfeeding experiences: the good, the bad, and the milky.
In April of 2014 I found out I was pregnant. On Christmas Eve of that year, Audrey was born and I started breastfeeding. I thought she would come out ready to nurse on the spot but instead she took her time. I was worried and tried to hurry her along. A nurse tried to help and that only frustrated everyone. Finally she decided she was ready. While I was pregnant, I read a book about breastfeeding but I still didn’t really know what I was doing. I felt awkward and uncomfortable.
The hospital lactation consultant came in for her first visit. She grabbed my breast and shoved it into Audrey’s mouth. That latch was perfect. I could never get that latch again. She came back later and taught me a few other positions to try. Everything required pillows and bolstering, which felt really cumbersome to set up (who knew an almost eight pound baby could be so heavy?!).
The Book said breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt; a good latch should be pain free. Well it hurt so I assumed we were doing something wrong. The lactation consultant said Audrey had a tongue and lip tie and that clipping them would help with the pain. But also—let me be frank here—I have big nipples, one of which was inverted at the time, and Audrey had a tight jaw. Not a good combo! Just for good measure, the lactation consultant again grabbed my breast and shoved it into Audrey’s mouth. Perfect latch, again. A) Stop grabbing my breasts. 2) How the fuck does she have such good aim?
I still remember the day my milk came in. I thought I was going crazy; my hormones were all over the place and I experienced a lot of emotional turbulence. My breasts were HUGE. I know that some women may hate me for this but I had SO MUCH MILK—too much milk. Every time I let down, it would spray like a firehose and poor Audrey would make all these squeaks and chirps and gulps as she tried to keep up. She would frequently throw up (like, projectile) straight milk—it was just too much too fast for her. We covered our couch in one of those sand blankets you take to the beach because there was so much vomit. I’m sure that if she could have talked at that time, she would have been like, ‘calm your tits mom!’
Instead of getting better, the pain with nursing got worse. In retrospect, I now know it was because Audrey was rearranging my left nipple to make it an outie instead of an innie. When I think back to the pain I experienced nursing on that left side—the inverted side—it still makes my toes curl. And let’s get something clear: I am no stranger to pain. I have had multiple tattoos and piercings and I had a natural, pain-free labor (yes, that’s a thing). So I’m not a wuss (but really, is any mother???). Now back to the pain…oh my god it hurt. I used all my yoga teacher and hypnobirthing relaxation techniques to manage the sensation but god damnit it still made me cry sometimes.
I took Audrey to the pediatrician to have her tongue and lip ties clipped. I watched, horrified, as they strapped her down to a backboard and used scissors to snip under her tongue and top lip. She cried hard and so did I. Milk soaked my shirt and the flow of my lochia increased and overflowed from my overnight pad, leaking onto my pants and the chair. This is the definition of a hot mess. (I was also sweaty.) The cherry on top of this terrible experience: it didn’t really help. Nursing still hurt. I just sucked it up and soldiered on.
At some point, I remember a family member telling me how when she let down she would get so relaxed and it felt so good. From my understanding of the hormones at play during breastfeeding tthis made sense to me—but it didn’t match up with my experience. For those first few months, every time I had a let down, I experienced feelings of dysphoria, panic, and loss of control. I didn’t find out until many months later that this is actually a thing; it’s called D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex). Around three months postpartum, these feelings (along with my nipple pain) started to diminish and eventually went away. I finally got to experience the relaxed nursing my family member spoke of and would frequently fall asleep doing so. Maybe this was because we weren’t sleeping at night.
I took three months off for maternity leave (I’m self-employed so I do what I want, without pay of course) so I was home with Audrey, trying to figure out how to be a mom. Like many new parents, we tried to do everything all the books said (which was a lot). My husband was especially concerned with how much I was talking with her. He wanted to make sure she was hearing enough words so she could grow up and be the best at everything. I was exhausted and having in-depth conversations this wiggly ball of cuteness felt forced and silly. Instead, I opted for oration. I remember reading aloud Obama’s 2015 State of the Union transcript from my phone during a nursing session. Audrey quickly fell asleep. Fast forward to now: She is four and won’t shut up. She has the vocabulary of a six year old, or more. Thank you Obama.
Audrey had terrible eczema and dealing with her cradle cap felt oppressive. This was at the height of the coconut oil fad so of course we just put coconut oil all over her. I had rubbed it all over myself while pregnant too. I have a picture of Audrey at three months old laying on the ground with no diaper (we were airing her out), a crotch glistening from steroid ointment, and socks over her hands so she couldn’t scratch. Her facial expression communicated a lot of doubt about the situation. The doctor who prescribed the steroid ointment suggested I limit my dairy intake but I was really attached to cheese and I couldn’t seem to eat enough ever—I was always hungry. I kept eating cheese and eventually the diaper rash went away so I didn’t give it another thought.
Audrey started solids on her own at five and a half months by grabbing food off my plate. We decided to do the formal thing and make her a proper ‘first meal’ and take pictures. We made her scrambled eggs and avocado. She didn’t really like it but I think she had fun playing with it. And then she broke out in hives all over her torso. We were pretty slow to the punch but we eventually figured out it was egg whites. A little while later we gave her peanut butter and she broke out into hives around her mouth. One day she decided to play in her grandpa’s ice cream. I bet you can get what happened—hives. Around this time she developed a patch of eczema on the front of her left ankle. I’m pretty sure we put coconut oil on it.
Even though she was eating table food, Audrey still wanted to nurse a lot—and now there were teeth. The first time she bit me while nursing was at a restaurant on vacation with my in-laws. I said ‘fuck’ as quietly as I could. There was blood on my bra.
On that same vacation at another restaurant, Audrey wanted to nurse while we were waiting for our table. It was hot outside (because, Florida) so I went in to find a place to sit down. Even though there were lots of empty tables, the awkward teen boy at the host stand informed me that I couldn’t sit at any of them but that I was more than welcome to breastfeed in the handicap stall of the restroom. Instead, I sat down on the floor near him, whipped out my boob, and proceeded to nurse like it was no big deal. Because feeding your baby is NO BIG DEAL.
When Audrey was around eight months old, nursing started to hurt again. I developed this milk blister on my left nipple—the nipple formerly known as The Innie. We went back to the lactation consultant. Audrey’s tongue and lip ties had grown back. She recommended we have her ties clipped again, this time with a laser because there was less of a chance of it growing back. And apparently, the only person who was doing this laser procedure was an hour and a half away from us. The lactation consultant said she could also experience speech issues in the future as a result of restricted tongue movement. I was of course still scarred by the first go around. We opted to let her be. After a few months and some all purpose nipple ointment, the milk blister subsided for the most part. Also, Audrey has never had any issues with her speech. I’m sad to say that at this point in time she has outgrown most of her little kid mispronunciations (two of my favorites, yogret, and flamamingo, still remain).
Just before she turned one, Audrey got another diaper rash and it didn’t go away. We tried everything and still, it persisted. She got tested for food allergies: diary, soy, coconut, tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame. I was floored. That’s SO MANY things to be allergic to, especially when we don’t eat meat. And especially because she literally ate dirt that one time (well, licked it off an acorn squash) and aren’t allergies only supposed to happen to the kids whose parents sanitize things more regularly than we do (which is never)? Thankfully, her reactions weren’t anaphylactic but we still kept an epipen on hand just in case. We weren’t surprised about the dairy and the peanuts but the coconut—that one just made us feel ridiculous for all the slathering her in oil. Not to mention that her favorite food was cinnamon apples sautéed in coconut oil! We adjusted Audrey’s diet and tried all the prescribed creams but her diaper rash continued.
When she turned one, I stopped pumping and opted to only nurse when we were together. Audrey no longer relied on me as her main source of nutrition so when we were apart she had ‘fridge milk.’ Since she couldn’t have diary or soy, we found flax milk with added protein that wasn’t too disgusting. Nursing sessions became less frequent.
In July of 2016, I had my IUD removed. I knew I was pregnant even before I took the test. Those two pink lines showed up on a Monday morning in August. On Wednesday of that same week I took Audrey to a dermatologist because of that damned diaper rash. She was twenty months old. Her doctor told me that since we were still nursing, I also needed to exclude the trigger foods from my diet. My goal was to nurse her until she turned two so that meant no dairy, soy, coconut, tree nuts, peanuts, or sesame for me. I felt like shit. I reevaluated my goal. I decided to keep nursing through the first trimester to gradually slow it down and then we stopped nursing sometime that Fall. I can’t remember exactly when it was but Travis took a picture of our last time. Even though I didn’t reach my initial two year goal, I felt proud of what I had done. I promptly reinvited cheese and nuts and all those good, nourishing things back into my life.
Then the depression hit. Then Trump got elected. Then I got more depressed. I’ve known a few friends who experienced depression when they stopped breastfeeding. I assumed it was just hormonal, or that I was just perpetually triggered because the whole #MeToo thing was just taking off.
In May of 2017, my son was born after another natural, pain-free labor. Despite his large head, he too had a hard time getting started. Big nipples. Tight jaw. We’ve been here before. That same hospital lactation consultant came in, grabbed my tit, and shoved it in Coen’s mouth. Perfect aim. Perfect latch.
I hired a lactation consultant to come to our house when Coen was just a few days old. Instead of grabbing my boobs, she showed me the ‘laid back’ nursing position. I would lay Coen on my chest, he would ‘crawl’ to the breast, open wide, and dive in! She said he had a slight tongue tie and we opted to have it lasered since I was worried about it growing back and causing me a pain in the tit like it did with Audrey. Thankfully, there was someone offering the procedure only 45 minutes away from us. I was so worried since Audrey’s tongue tie procedure was still fresh in my mind. After he got everything set up and we had swaddled Coen, the doctor asked me if I would like to leave the room. With gratitude, I practically ran out of there. I waited in the waiting room for less than five minutes and then went back in to nurse him right away. He started sucking better and I was glad we did it. Thanks to all of Audrey’s hard work and Coen’s initial efforts, the nipple formerly known as The Innie had become The Way Outie. I didn’t have any pain nursing.
With Audrey, my milk crashed in on me like a tsunami. With Coen, it slyly seeped in. I still had a strong let down but it was almost like my body knew what was actually needed and didn’t overdo it. Thankfully, I also missed out on the D-MER. I could feel my body and my emotions relaxing as my milk let down. I would frequently fall asleep, but not for long because Audrey would always say, ‘Mom, you can’t go to sleep. You have to take care of me.’
Early on, I could tell dairy was an issue for him. When people ask me how I knew this, I laugh. I will never forget my first cheese quesadilla postpartum—the diarrhea projected from his butt on the changing table approximately three feet to his closet door (freshly painted white, of course). He also cried and cried and cried. I remember swaddling him and just putting him down on the floor to cry—a big red-faced crying burrito. I just couldn’t deal with all that crying. He was a much happier baby when I avoided dairy and the other foods Audrey was allergic to. I was sad to give up my truffle marcona almonds from Trader Joe’s but I’d done it before and I could do it again.
Coen was slower to take to solid foods. When he was six months old, I made him some quinoa cereal with my breastmilk in it. That was a firm no. After about a week or two of trying, he finally took to some avocado mashed with my breastmilk. We were off! He quickly tired of baby food and just wanted to eat what we were eating. He preferred savory flavors to sweet ones. I remember I did try giving him some soy but he broke out with eczema pretty immediately.
Just like with Audrey, I stopped pumping at work after he was a year old. That was freeing. With Audrey, I used an electric pump and a hands-free bra to hold the flanges in place. Occasionally, I had to drive down the interstate to work with my knee on the steering wheel because I was holding on to my manual pump with one hand and the flange with the other. That sucked….literally. With Coen, I heard about the Freemie and it was a game changer. I still had an electric pump, but I could put these cups in my bra and the whole pumping process could happen much more quickly. I also got a Freemie manual pump which let me pump both on both sides with one hand. It ended up being so much easier and quicker that I stopped using the electric pump altogether. I would even pump while teaching yoga workshops. While that level of multitasking was empowering, I was certainly relieved when I didn’t have to think about my pumping schedule or wash all those bottles and flanges anymore. Thankfully we found a pea protein milk that had a more neutral flavor than the flax milk we used with Audrey and Coen liked it immediately.
He continued to wake up in the middle of the night for a nursing session until he was about fifteen months old. Since he would just nurse and go right back to sleep and because noise travels pretty easily in our house, I decided to wait it out. Audrey had already adjusted any right I felt to a good night’s sleep so I didn’t get too bent out of shape about it.
Eventually Coen stopped asking for milk from me before bed time. My husband put the kids to bed three nights a week while I worked so he was used to getting ‘fridge milk’ on those nights. I could tell things were winding down.
A few months ago, I started a low dose of Prozac. (Remember that depression from 2016? It’s now 2019 and I’m just now doing something about it.) I decided to cut out our pre-nap nursing session, which Coen handled well, and that left us just nursing after he woke up each morning. As he neared his second birthday, he would occasionally wake up in the morning excited to play instead of snuggling and nursing. On the weekends, Travis would get him up and he would just go along with Dad instead of wanting to nurse.
The last time I nursed him was the day he turned two. It was a Saturday. I went in to wake him up and sang him Happy Birthday and we rocked and snuggled and nursed and talked about his party. I didn’t know it would be the last time but I knew we were close so I was savoring each session. Sunday was Mother’s Day and I got to sleep in. My husband got him up again on Monday. Then when I got him up on Tuesday, he wanted me to play with him instead of nursing. Same with Wednesday and Thursday. Friday I ate cheese—it was delicious.
It’s been a little over a week since we stopped nursing. This morning, Coen was upset about being sick and snotty and he asked for milk from me. I lovingly told him no and he cried hard. I held him close and got him his fridge milk. He got more snuggles from me and from Daddy and then he was fine.
Since stopping, my breasts have felt full and itchy, although not engorged. When I scratch them, milk leaks out. I wonder how long that will last. My nipples are still huge but my breasts are much smaller now than they were before I started nursing five years ago. I actually like the way they look. I feel like I can wear lower cut shirts without the risk of falling out of them. I do hope The Way Outies will calm down a little bit, though, so I can feel more comfortable going with out a bra. And speaking of bras…I need to get some new ones. Maybe I’ll burn these old, well-worn, frayed and stained nursing bras or maybe I’ll save one to remind me of this awesome thing I’ve done.