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No matter your privilege, trauma is sometimes unavoidable, as I understood 10 years ago, needing to use a breast milk pump for breastfeeding my daughter.
It is now eight years and six months since my daughter stopped drinking my breast milk. She had breast milk for nineteen months.
By most criteria this would be read as a success story. But not me. For years, I was filled with guilt and even the memory of it brought on no little trauma. I could not think or talk about it. I did not want to hear about breastfeeding or discuss it. And I could not write about it which was unusual for someone who turned many puzzles in her life into intellectual projects.
I always knew that I was deeply privileged in the set of genes I had inherited from both sides of my family. My liberal upbringing meant that I had access to information about all kinds of things including the birds and the bees. I could and did choose my own partner, and we were on the same page about many things and the others could be negotiated – something most women in India are routinely denied. And yet, I was not free of the conditioning of what it meant to be a good mother, and felt powerless as I navigated the trauma my breastfeeding journey caused.
Right up until the breastfeeding madness, I had an amazing relationship with my body. I loved my body, and to my joy, it loved me right back. I was only 11 and a half when I got my first period. My liberal mother had given me a reasonable idea of what to expect though I did not recognise the muddy stain on my underwear as blood.
My periods were, at worst, annoying. By the time I hit my 20s, I had an established cycle. My journeys in the world of contraception too were fairly uneventful in my 20s and 30s even as I was responsible about having the occasional PAP smear done.
When in my late-30s we decided to have a child, I conceived fairly quickly. Given all the nay sayers, doctors and others, who had warned of the dire consequences of waiting too long, I was almost gleeful. I felt inordinately smug to have proven them all wrong. I was a bit ashamed of my smugness because I had always known that I had, on both sides, descended from women who had relatively smooth reproductive histories, and that the genetic odds were stacked in my favour.
I had an uneventful pregnancy mostly after a hiccupy start where I was bleeding. I became a food fundamentalist. I treated my body like a temple, suspicious of everything that went into it. I was healthier than I had ever been in my life. I ate well and exercised like I never had before. I also travelled. I went to a cousin’s wedding and danced on the streets of Patiala while five months pregnant! Like my mother before me, I did not have a day’s morning or indeed any sickness through the pregnancy.
I was involved with an amazing group of people bringing back natural birth. I had a midwife and an obstetrician. I read madly though my pregnancy. I felt like I could have given a written a medical exam on pregnancy and passed! I went to childbirth classes. I attended and read for them. The only one I missed ironically was the one on breastfeeding. This would come back to haunt me. I would blame myself for being complacent. For not reading enough. For not doing enough. But I get ahead of myself.
I had an eventful but rather wondrous birth.
When I began to feel the labour pains I called my midwife. It was 3 am, but she turned up at my door half an hour later. The pains were strange and strong. I told her I feel weird. She took a look and said the most scary words I’d heard through the pregnancy, “I can see your baby’s head”.
I’d had a precipitate labour. Basically I’d dilated fully without knowing it. Thanks to my midwife and my resourceful obstetrician we found ourselves in a nursing home that belong to his friend’s wife’s brother (who turned out to be my brother’s classmate and whom I would meet online years later in a twitter chat on OB-GYNs.)
Hours later my mother and I would look at each other in awe at what had transpired. I felt like I could give birth again! The sisters in the nursing home turned up one by one to check me out, a 38 year old woman who had given birth without medication!
The endorphins were high but I also knew from my reading that the hormones were going to come crashing down since the baby was out. What I didn’t know was that with that crash I would navigate a world that would not come easily to me. My foremothers’ genes would be useless to me as I navigated a world of breastfeeding.
For years my body had been my friend. It had acted for me and with me. It had demonstrated its capacities and I had become complacent. Now it would show me that I could fail. It would remind me that embodied capacities are fragile. It would force me to confront the most important lesson of motherhood. You will never feel good enough.
It was in the wake of this euphoric birth that I first tried to feed my baby. My nipples were small and she found it difficult to latch. My resourceful midwife produced a nipple shield. I worried that it was not sterilized but rinsed it with drinking water and used it anyway. It kept falling off. I cried.
I was sharing a room since this nursing home was not where I had planned to give birth. The other woman had guests until 11 pm at night (yes really). It made it even more difficult. I wanted to go home, but felt too grateful to the doctor who had agreed to be present at my daughter’s birth at such short notice, so did not question his desire to have me stay for two days.
That night the nursing staff insisted that my daughter needed a ‘top’ feed. Everything I knew from my natural childbirth people and my reading told me there was no need but my midwife had gone home. It was late. And I agreed. Later I would be angry with myself. I would wonder if that had jinxed it. I kept trying without much success for two days. Every time we tried both my daughter and I would cry.
Two days later we were home and I hoped things would get better. But the first time I tried at home also we had the same crisis.
The shield kept falling off. The vacuum was not good enough or I was doing it wrong. A friend had given me a breast milk pump. “For when I wanted to go out” she had said. It came in handy that day. I pumped and got a few ounces of milk. As is the norm, we used a spoon and katori to feed it to her. Half of it would fall out of the side of her mouth. I would be almost hysterical with anxiety. The sight of the precious drops I had pumped seeping out of the side of her mouth would make me cry.
Eventually she would be still hungry and we’d have to supplement. We’d mix the formula in a katori and use the spoon. This too would seep out, but at least this I could deal with. I felt horribly guilty that my daughter was being fed formula. I was still very steeped in the natural childbirth discourse which recommended only exclusively breast milk for six months.
This saga of crying went on for over a week. We’d keep trying. A few times, half a dozen times we’d sort of succeed with the shield but each time would be full of anxiety. I never knew if it would be ok. Both of us cried a lot.
At three weeks, my spouse and my father together decided that there had been enough tears shed. They went out and got a milk bottle! They actually got a rather good one considering neither of them knew much. They suggested that we feed her at least what I had collected with the breast milk pump in a bottle, so we don’t waste it.
In a weak moment I agreed. I knew that a child as young as three months would likely get what they call ‘nipple confusion’ and refuse to do the work of sucking milk out of the breasts, especially in my case, the extra work through a nipple shield. And yet I was exhausted. I was a wreck and I agreed. I pumped enough to fill half a bottle about 3 oz and she drank it. She seemed happy. Content even. She burped.
But of course she liked the bottle better than my breast then. So within a week I was using the breast milk pump for all feeds.
The pumping gave us some structure. In some ways, when I gave up trying it was a relief because within a week my DD was calmer and happier and so was I. I gave up because I decided that my baby needed a happy mother more than she need direct breast-feeding. And I was miserable trying.
But I was not happy. I was full of guilt at not having tried hard enough. People would visit us and I wouldn’t want to see them. I wouldn’t want to admit that I couldn’t breastfeed directly. I’d orchestrate photos to make sure the milk bottle was not visible. I’d only talk to my closest friends.
I also felt guilty that so many people I knew who had had really difficult births had made the effort and managed to breast feed directly, but I with the amazing incredible natural birth which should have facilitated the breast feeding journey, had failed.
I was not in pain. I had no episiotomy and I had tore only a little superficially (thanks to the warm compressions my midwife kept using on my perineum during the short labour). I did not bleed much and I did not bleed for long. My body was trying to help but I failed.
I felt completely inadequate and a failure, and none of my earlier experiences had prepared me to deal with not being able to do something I wanted so much to do. I was angry with my body. I was angry with myself for missing the breastfeeding class, for not reading enough, for not knowing enough, for not trying enough.
The breast milk pump became my reality. I was struggling to get my supply up. I would pump and then we’d feed with the bottle. To begin with I did not have enough. So we had to supplement. Even ounce of formula we gave her added to my guilt. Sometimes I’d be pumping and sending breast milk ounce by ounce. My stress levels were sky high.
I was now pumping, sterilizing bottles, mixing formula. I had a lot of help. My parents lived downstairs and my mother organised all the meals. My spouse was on leave for a month. My dad was always available to carry our daughter around. My mum did nothing else but cater to me and my daughter for months.
The thing though was that between the pumping sessions I often found that I was not the person holding the bottle. I resented that so many people could now have this bond with my daughter that was to be mine alone even as I was deeply grateful for it.
At this time, a friend of mine living in the US sent me a double pump which meant half the time, as I could pump from both breasts at the same time. This was a life saver. She sent it back with her mother with instructions that it was to be delivered as soon as her mother arrived. Her mother did exactly that. She turned up at my home at 11 pm at night with the pump. People were incredibly kind.
I had become an exclusively pumping mom. I had a little diary in which I would write the amount of breast milk she got and the amount of Nan (the formula). I began this on the 5th of May 2010, one decade ago and the 17th of June was the first day she had no formula at all, only breast milk. Yes I still have the diary. Two of them. I am unable to let them go. They represent my grief, my sweat, my toil, my tears but also my triumph. I was pumping eight times a day. From 17th June to 12th October, until my daughter was six months old I was able to pump enough milk that she was exclusively on breast milk.
I had reached the six month goal I had set for myself. She began semi solids. But I now found myself unable to stop. I was relieved that I’d made it so far but I couldn’t stop.
Somewhere along the way my reading told me that the exact nature of breast milk varies in the morning and evening. I began a quest to make sure she got the milk I pumped in the morning only in the morning. And the evening milk in the evening. This meant labelling bottles and pumping in advance. I was now a little bit crazy but I couldn’t see it. Around me people told me what a fantastic mother I was for doing this.
Along the way I discovered an email list group called PumpMoms. It was full of women who were using a breast milk pump milk. Many were part pumpers as they went to work. But others were EP (exclusively pumping) mothers like me. I met others who like me struggled with supply, some had an over supply, and who experienced guilt at not being able to directly breastfeed.
So I could not stop. I pumped and I pumped. I would put an alarm and pump at 2 am to keep my supply up. As I pumped I found that if I was distracted I got more milk than if I watched it. I watched films and television series. I got through I think 8 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy or wherever it was then.
Of course there were advantages too. Pumping meant that I could go out for hours at a stretch if I left enough milk in the fridge. When my daughter was 7 months old I went for the whole day to Delhi for a conference along with my trusty double pump. I pumped in the basement of the India Habitat Centre; I left the milk in the fridge of the bakery (they were not happy). On the way back at the airport the security wanted to know what I was carrying. I opened it up. When they saw the milk they began to back off in alarm… “go go”, they told me as if my pumped milk was radioactive. I wondered if they thought a pumping mother’s curse could affect them!
I made it to one year. We began introducing regular milk which my daughter seemed to like. My closest friends patted me on the back and told me I should stop using the breast milk pump.
In between pumping and everything else I had submitted my PhD dissertation in February 2011, and in March 2011 our book Why Loiter was launched. It had been an eventful 12 months. My friends told me I could and I should stop.
But I couldn’t stop pumping. I couldn’t let go of that breast milk pump, or the sense that this was something I could do to assuage my guilt at not having tried hard enough to directly breastfeed. Finally when my daughter was a year and half old I felt my supply dipping as I was down to two pumping sessions in a day. She was still getting some breast milk which I was convinced were full of antibodies. But I knew I had to stop for my own sanity.
I made it to 19 months. I stopped using the breast milk pump in November 2011! In all that time, my daughter kept good health and it would be February 2012 at 22 months when she had her first cold and July 2012 when she was 27 months that we had to give her, her first dose of antibiotics. I remember these dates nearly a decade later because I hugged them to me like a talisman. This is what I felt I had achieved with my mad pumping despite not being able to directly breastfeed. This was my medal.
But despite everything a part of me felt a deep unaccountable grief at the loss of what I had imagined would be a beautiful breastfeeding relationship. For years, I could never talk about it. I never wanted to hear anyone’s breastfeeding stories – they produced for years more guilt.
Today my daughter is ten years old and we are a team. She and I can talk without words. We roll our eyes at the same things. We disagree. We talk. A lot.
I feel like I can let this go now. It was hard and I did what I could. I did well. Finally, I too can now pat myself on the back and say, “it’s time to stop”.
Mother’s Day 2020: Let’s look at Mom as a human being, with a persona more than just the mother that takes care of you, of the home, or also a working mom who tries to walk the fine line of work-life balance. Let’s look at the woman she is, and celebrate her this Mother’s Day, whether she is with you or staying away from you, during this period of lockdown. Let’s make Mother’s Day 2020 memorable for your mom, or if you are mom.
Image source: pixabay
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Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on
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