I’ve never shared my entire journey with breastfeeding in one place, at one time. It’s a topic that makes my heart race a little, catches my breath in six different ways. It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and it feels like the right time to share how breastfeeding contributed to my postpartum depression and anxiety and, eventually, healed it.
To this day, my mother blames my immune deficiencies and even our struggle to bond and relate on her inability to breastfeed me. I tend to lean more toward a kidney birth defect no one knew about and strong personalities. However, when she apologized to me for not breastfeeding and how it might have related to our bond, something inside me stirred.
The nurses instructed me not to breastfeed my firstborn.
“It might create a bond.”
As if bonding was a bad thing. But it was if you were on the earlier fringes of the open adoption movement. Due to my kidney disorder, I’d been placed on Level III bed rest at 18 weeks. I experienced severe depression during that pregnancy and as a result, combined with a billion other reasons, chose to place my daughter for adoption at birth.
I wanted to breastfeed. I felt like because I failed her in so many ways, at least I could offer her the Liquid Gold of colostrum. I could offer her something. Anything.
Instead the nurses brought me a bottle, and I fed her quietly in the dim light of my empty hospital room.
A few years later, when my husband and I welcomed our first son into the world, I wrote breastfeeding in big bold letters in my birth plan. My kidney got the best of us again, and my doctor induced my labor when pre-ecclampsia reared its ugly head. In the last few minutes with fevers spiking and heart rates dropping, I consented to an episiotomy to get my son out safely.
The nurses whisked him away to make sure he could breathe okay. They tended to me to help get my blood pressure and temperature back in normal ranges.
There was no immediate baby-on-the-chest, searching and rooting, latch and wait moment for us like I planned. Immediately, the feelings of not being “enough,” the ones I experienced in that empty hospital room with my daughter, began to bubble to the surface. My postpartum depression and anxiety began before they even wheeled me to my room, my thoughts already racing and dodging into darker territory.
By the time everything seemed under control for both me and my son, I sat in the chair to feed him and experienced the worst panic attack of my life up until that point.
I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t bring him to my breast.
I couldn’t do it with his sister. I failed her in so many ways. Who was I to think I wasn’t going to fail this child in many more ways? I sobbed silently over his little burrito wrapped body, accepted the bottle the nurse brought in, and started therapy approximately two months later.
When we decided to have one last child—approved by my team of doctors, but just one last one due to that kidney of mine—I resolved myself to breastfeed that baby. At that time, I didn’t know if I’d have a girl or a boy or twins or a litter of puppies. From the moment I saw that positive result, I steeled myself.
No one was going to take breastfeeding from us this time.
Our youngest son arrived without much fanfare. Two quick pushes and he slipped into the world with ease. He latched quickly.
But not very efficiently.
Two weeks later, we discovered our little dude rocked a pretty severe tongue tie. I literally went outside after we got home from that appointment and yelled at the sky. “Are you freaking kidding me?!”
Thankfully, we received quick referrals to Children’s Hospital. The procedure went quickly and without issue. He nursed immediately after, and it felt like I always dreamed it might: It felt like coming home.
I still experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with our youngest son. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so I possess that risk factor going into any postpartum period. But breastfeeding our youngest son saved me.
I would sit in the rocking chair as the evening sun poured in through the slats in his blinds and nurse him to sleep. I’d trace the outline of his little feet, his little toes. I’d run my finger down the side of his cheek. And despite everything that went wrong that day, whether real or just in my mind, I’d give thanks for that tiny little moment.
I remained in therapy during the postpartum period with our youngest son, but breastfeeding wasn’t a topic of discussion for us. I often nursed him during sessions. Instead we talked about learning to forgive myself for my perceived failures with my older children.
Perceived, because all three of my children, those under my roof and those not, are alive, healthy, fed, and well cared for; they are loved beyond comprehension.
I’m still getting there, that forgiveness thing. Maybe someday, like my mom, I’ll have a conversation with each of my older children about my inabilities to breastfeed. Maybe I’ll have already forgiven myself—wholly, completely—by then.
But I know this: I did the best I could for each of those babies, and I am proud of myself. I hope you are, too, dear mama.