My firstborn daughter is now 28 years old. I never imagined our beginnings together would be rocky. But like so many lessons in life, the first one she taught me was hard-earned but worth it.
It was sweltering hot. I tossed and turned in bed, lumbering the heft of my belly, due to give birth any day.
I couldn’t wait to meet my baby.
My labor was classic and quick. No major complaints. I was well trained after a 12-week Bradley Method of Natural Childbirth course. I was educated and felt empowered and able.
Within about six hours of labor, Farrell Amarie Parker was born, a healthy hearty 8lbs, 13oz, 19 inches. Such joy! Beyond what I could’ve imagined. She was put right on my breast. She had a little trouble latching on, but we seemed to manage okay. Within 12 hours of birth, we were happily headed home.
Within a couple of days, my breasts were swollen with milk. I needed hot compresses to alleviate the incredible pressure. I thought this was normal and would subside. I wasn’t too concerned.
About three days in, my daughter was sleeping so much I could barely wake her to feed. I had never been a mother, so I wasn’t sure if this was a problem, but I was starting to worry a bit. I decided to check in with the doctor.
“Is her urine concentrated? Did you notice any rust-color in her diaper?”
“You better come in. She might be dehydrated. It’s so hot.”
As I hung up the phone, fear crept in. Oh my gosh…is something wrong? What’s happening? I pushed my questions aside. I’m sure this is just a case of first-time mom jitters. I assured myself as I headed out the door with my baby.
At the doctor’s office, my daughter weighed in at 7lbs, 6 oz; she had lost well over a pound. My doctor was concerned. “Come back tomorrow. If she’s still losing weight, we may have to admit her to the hospital.”
I was shocked. The fear lurking in my heart and mind surfaced. What? The hospital? I had the perfect natural childbirth. I thought nursing was a no-brainer!
My midwives gave me some breastfeeding coaching. I was actually terrified. “Is something horrible going to happen to my baby? Am I going to lose her?” But the midwife reassured me. “Oh it looks like she’s just a lazy sucker. We’ll get her going.” And “we” did! I was cautiously confident that all would be well with my newborn darling.
By the next day, my daughter had lost a couple more ounces. Panic-stricken, we headed for the hospital. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feed my baby properly? My precious baby was disappearing before my eyes. I felt helpless, guilty, desperate, and I was also hormonal.
I slept on a recliner, while my sweet baby lay behind the steel bars of her hospital crib.
I held her and nursed her as much as possible. Along with the carefully measured breast milk I managed to pump with a hand pump, we also wanted to ensure she was getting enough nutrition, so she was given formula supplements. I had heard about “nipple confusion,” when a newborn is fed, on and off, between breast and bottle then “decides” the bottle is easier, so gives up on nursing. My baby seemed to be heading in that direction.
I started feeling like a total failure as a mom. I had many young mom friends and relatives, and no one else seemed to have any problems with breastfeeding. Just me. And here I was, needing all kinds of coaching, support, and intervention to help my daughter gain weight.
She gained, and within five days, Farrell exceeded her birth weight. I headed home from the hospital with her, anxious and afraid that I would not be able to continue caring for her well. How will I do this? Will I ever be able to breastfeed my baby? How will I know if she’s thriving? I already missed the earlier signs that landed us in the hospital.
Once home, I rented a super-duper electric pump (really advanced for the times). Each day, I would pump, measure, make sure my daughter got the required ounces, and then follow with some nursing at the breast. Farrell would fuss. I would fret. We were both frustrated. My whole day was spent pumping or desperately trying to nurse my baby.
Each evening, my husband came home, and I’d burst into tears with relief, exhaustion, and sadness. He would take our baby and I’d go to my room, try to relax, and cry out to God, “If I need to stop nursing, please help me do that. But if I should keep trying, please give me a sign.” Then, my husband would bring my calm baby to me in my bed and every single night she would nurse vigorously.
This routine continued, day after day, night after night.
Not “everyone” was breastfeeding back then. Lactation consultants were few. My birth teacher helped and of course my pediatrician and midwives ensured we were okay.
And my mother…well she had only tried nursing me and “hated it.” She gave it up in a few days. “When are you going to give this up? This is ridiculous. Who cares if you nurse or not? I’ve never seen you like this!”
She was right. Something had risen up in me. A fierce determination took over my normally docile and compliant, go-with-the-flow personality. But this time, nothing was going to stop me, as long I wasn’t putting my precious baby in any danger, I wasn’t giving up. I was going to nurse, because, ultimately, I truly believed it was best for my baby.
When Farrell was about six weeks old and growing beautifully, I decided I wanted to exclusively breastfeed and cut out the bottle feedings if I could. We were going to my mother-in-law’s for a few hours where there were no bottles available to use. I decided that if my daughter refused to nurse, I would give it up, knowing I gave it my best.
Nurse she did. In fact, Farrell refused the bottle from that point on. She nursed for 18 months, until I was six months pregnant with my second baby. Then, she went from the breast to a cup.
I truly thought all you had to do was put a baby on the breast and they would take to it without any trouble. Of course, since then I have learned that often moms struggle with nursing, and often moms could use some support in that area. It isn’t always as easy and intuitive as one might hope. Sometimes, it isn’t possible for moms to continue nursing, and there is absolutely no shame in that. Sometimes, if a mama does want to establish a healthy nursing relationship with her baby, she needs the help and experience of others, and there is also no shame in that. Ultimately we have to decide what’s best for our baby and ourselves.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to help other mothers, as I became a Bradley Birth Instructor myself, and did many a house visit to assist, support, and encourage a frustrated, disappointed trying-to-nurse mom.
In the midst of the struggle, I didn’t know I had the perseverance, the dedication, the faith to stick with what I felt ultimately was best for us. Though this experience was at times disappointing and confusing, it did help me recognize that I had the persistence, depths of love, and passion to build the confidence I needed to trust my own instincts as a mom.
So dear first-time mama, how are you doing? What areas of mothering do you find confusing, unexpected, even disappointing? It’s going to be okay! You are not alone and as you overcome challenges, you will see that you are a strong, capable, courageous mom. Ask for help if you need it, and give yourself time and grace as you run into challenges. You will become a mama force to be reckoned with…and that’s a beautiful thing.
Elise Daly Parker, LBC, is a Certified Life Coach, Mentor Mom, Speaker, Writer, and Editor. She co-hosts the podcast Circles of Life, Slices of Life, where intentional living and imperfection meet. Elise has shared a wild ride with her husband Chris for 32 years of marriage and has four grown daughters who have brought her unimaginable joy, kept her on her toes…and her knees. She also has two beautiful fun grandchildren and two son-in-loves. Her faith is the thread that holds together her wonderful beautiful messy life.