Mind-Bending Physical Science: when what’s “natural” doesn’t come naturally

April 6, 2012 § 6 Comments

I didn’t go into labor.
My body didn’t produce ample milk for the first fifteen days of my baby’s life.

I want to preface this post by saying something that desperately needs to be said.

When I got pregnant, it was almost unfair. I took my last pill in March 2011, and we had a positive test by the beginning of June. Meanwhile, I had no fewer than four friends whose pregnancy journeys were far more arduous and painful. My pregnancy was textbook–I experienced the symptoms that I was “supposed” to experience; my baby’s heart rate was always perfect; she and I reached our gestational milestones right on cue. Although I deeply appreciated the gift of this amazingly perfect pregnancy, I struggled to fully embrace it, knowing that so many of my friends either had struggled or were currently suffering their own tragedies. Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful. The principal emotion I feel on a daily basis (aside from all-consuming love for this little girl) is all-consuming gratitude. I am awestruck and in disbelief; surely it shouldn’t have been this easy.

And then the other shoe dropped.

The last two weeks of my pregnancy, I was fraught with confusion. I begged my friends who had recently had healthy babies to describe labor pains to me. “Was that a contraction?” was almost always on my lips. “Oh, you’ll know,” was their consistent reply. At each of my weekly prenatal appointments leading to my due date, the obstetric nurse asked me if I had felt any contractions. My mouth would twist in concentration. “I…don’t think so?” I would always ask. As if she would know better than I did. She would give me a bewildered look, at which I would respond (completely flustered from embarrassment), “…I mean…I guess I would know, huh?” When she would arch her eyebrow at me, I hurried a tacked-on explanation, “that’swhateveryonesaysanyway.”

But, as it turns out, I would never know what labor feels like.

On the morning when I was to be induced, my labor and delivery nurse announced, after watching the monitor, “Oh! You’re contracting.” I literally felt nothing. Not so much as a twinge. “…I am?” “Well,” she admitted with a small smile. “It’s not a very big contraction.”

That morning, while Robert and I deliberated our willingness to have a C-section (when I so desperately wanted to at least attempt a vaginal delivery) and while we awaited news from my obstetrician about the necessity for the surgery, I felt like a failure. I put on a brave face because my mother-in-law was present a good deal of the time, but when I was permitted to sneak away to the bathroom, I would allow myself a few tears.

What was wrong with me? How could I have a textbook conception and a textbook pregnancy end without labor? Why had my body suddenly failed me?

My body clearly knew how to make a baby and grow a baby…but it didn’t seem to know how to have a baby.

As you all know by now, the C-section was inevitable. Melanie never descended into my pelvis. Although her head was there, the rest of her body had not engaged–her feet were still firmly lodged in my ribcage moments before they prepped me for surgery.

While we were still in the hospital, for the 48 hours after surgery, I remained hopeful. I was riding high on the hormonal rush of having just had a baby (not to mention I was utterly in love with this little girl from the second I heard her first “a-wah!”). Because Melanie had a good latch and a strong pull on my breast, the nursing staff focused their attention primarily on my post-operative healing. We just didn’t worry about the breastfeeding. I was assured time and again that the milk would arrive three to four days after birth. I was confident I would awaken the next Monday morning in the discomfort that all the mothers I had spoken to had described.

That Monday came and went. My baby was over a pound underweight. I wept in the car in the hospital parking deck while Melanie dozed in the carseat. Robert held my hand and reassured me that I wasn’t the crap mother that I felt like.

All I could think was that my body had failed me.

In all the books, on all the websites, according to everyone a pregnant woman will speak to, labor and lactation are the most natural results of pregnancy. The female body is designed to deliver the life it has spent 40 weeks growing. The female body is designed to produce milk in order to feed that little life. It’s the most natural thing in the world.

Except it might not be.

Just like it might not be the most natural thing in the world for women to get pregnant, we should likewise not assume that all women will naturally go into labor at the end of their pregnancies. Or that they will lactate (either on time or ever).

I felt like my body was suddenly defective.

It had misrepresented itself to me for 40 weeks. It lied to me.

“Don’t worry about it,” my body claimed. “I got this baby thing down!”

Except it didn’t.

It is possible, assuming we are able to get pregnant again and depending upon how my obstetrician feels about it, that I will never experience a vaginal delivery. VBACs (vaginal birth after c-section) are not always recommended or performed. Some obstetricians will see that their patient had a C-section with a previous pregnancy and will refuse to even allow her to attempt a VBAC. This was particularly common at least thirty years ago (it happened to my mother-in-law), but I haven’t brought myself to ask my own obstetrician how she feels about VBACs. I can’t live with the answer to that question right now because it might be “no.” I want to live in hope for a little while longer.

I struggled with extreme disappointment in my body. I was angry. I was desperate. On the Monday when we learned that Melanie was over a pound underweight, I fell apart. When she cried, so very hungry, I began to nurse her and suddenly began sobbing. When I sobbed, my incision hurt unlike any pain I had experienced at that point. I gave Melanie to Robert just for a moment, just to allow me to catch my breath so that I could stop sobbing and gain some control. “I can’t feed her when I’m like this,” I cried hysterically. Robert instructed me to go to our bedroom to lay flat for just a moment, reasoning that it would help me to calm down. While I was doing that, his mother came over to try to help us. It was bad timing. Melanie was screeching, and I couldn’t catch a breath that didn’t hurt.

That was the worst day.

I felt trapped by this horribly incompetent body. This body that had lied on its resume. This body that had led me to believe it was capable. I couldn’t escape the feeling of raw openness in my abdomen. I couldn’t force the milk to come. I was stuck, and in the meantime my poor baby screamed for her mother’s milk.

For fifteen days, I wanted to remain optimistic. I didn’t want to complain because there were others who were in far more horrifying circumstances than mine. Friends of mine who would have given anything to have my problems.

But my problems were horrifying in their own right. And the more I tried to ignore them, reject them in the face of others’ suffering, the more the problems ate away at my confidence and my joy. I was desperately afraid of slipping into postpartum depression (having struggled with depression in my past and therefore being susceptible to it), so every day I begged Robert for a pep talk. Every day I took deep breaths and just forced myself to feed Melanie what I could. We had to supplement with formula, and all the books recommended that someone else give her the bottle so as to avoid nipple confusion. I chose to call her supplements “dessert.” The word “supplement” seemed so judgmental in that moment. Only a lack is “supplemented.” And it was my lack, my fault, my shortcoming that needed supplementing. So, instead of receiving supplemental nutrition, my baby got a dessert bottle.

Robert was grateful for the dessert bottle in those early days. He said that he was grateful for the opportunity to bond with his daughter in a way that we had originally not planned on. So I tried to be grateful for the dessert bottle, too.

But I not-so-secretly resented it. I hated that bottle. It represented so much more than a choice between breast milk and formula to me. It was a slap in the face, a middle finger, to remind me that I failed; no matter what, I failed and it was beyond my control. While Robert fed Melanie her dessert bottle, I pumped for fifteen minutes on my double pump. I would cry in the midst of pumping, watching my baby gulp down the 1.5 ounces of formula like it was her life force. Despite being in the same room as my husband and baby, I felt so alone. Because I failed to feed my child properly, she had to be rescued by her father.

This went on for fifteen days.

On March 3rd, when I awoke to breasts that had softball-sized “rocks” in them, I cried for a different reason. I felt the relaxation and relief all the other mommies described the moment Melanie began to suckle. Robert gave Melanie another supplement, just in case, and for the first time she rejected it. My baby was finally full. Still engorged and tender, I pumped right after her half hour feed…and I produced four ounces. We froze that milk (a recommendation by all the experts), so when Melanie is sick for the first time, she’ll receive that antibody-rich bottle to help boost her immune system.

Melanie weighs 10 pounds 4 ounces, as of her last check-up on March 23rd.

My body finally managed to feed her so that she would grow.

But do not kid yourselves, my friends. And please be sensitive to the women in your life who may struggle with all stages of early parenthood.

Conception is not given to be natural.

Healthy gestation is not given to be natural.

Labor and childbirth are not given to be natural.

Lactation is not given to be natural.

In the case of postpartum depression, maternal bonding with the newborn is also not given to be natural.

In spite of the female body’s capacity and natural design to achieve these goals, an individual woman may experience it differently. We should also bear in mind that success or failure with one aspect of what comes “naturally” does not always predict success or failure with another aspect of what comes “naturally.”

We must forgive our bodies their shortcomings, whatever they may be.

We must forgive ourselves our emotional reactions to those shortcomings.

And we must push on in spite of it all.

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§ 6 Responses to Mind-Bending Physical Science: when what’s “natural” doesn’t come naturally

  • Amanda says:

    Although I’m happy to read about your journey and agree with your assessment, I am sorry that your journey has been so difficult, my friend. Love and hugs.

  • petthedog says:

    Your post is timely and appropriate. You are absolutely right that we all go through different trials. It doesn’t matter what someone else’s trial is, really, when we are struggling. As miraculous as pregnancy is, it is amazing how so many parts of pregnancy and parenthood can result in feelings of failure and defeat. I sincerely hope that some of these struggles abate and that you get some more sleep very soon =)

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thank you, V. We’ve started to move her more to a schedule throughout the day, so the nights are becoming easier. Although sometimes it feels like we’re still taking a step forward and two steps back. I think in general we’re moving forward, haha.

  • Jennifer McCall says:

    I had a terrible time breastfeeding. I could have slapped my brother when he asked, “How hard could it be?” My mother-in-law was a member of La Leche League – talk about pressure. I tried so hard with my first two, who both ended up dehydrated and hospitalized with jaundice. I wanted to try a third time and Josh begged me not to. While I was still pregnant with Abby, I got mestatis. Josh said my breasts were launching a preemptive strike. I had a heart-to-heart with my pediatrician who told me I shouldn’t beat myself up for things I had no control over and take joy in what I could do.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I think there’s some social conditioning that makes us take breastfeeding so personally. I panicked about it all throughout the pregnancy. My mom contracted mastitis early on in my life (we think around week five), and she was instructed not to nurse for the two weeks it took for her to heal. By the time she was better, I rejected nursing in favor of the bottle. So I was a formula baby. Even though I know I turned out fine, I still had my mom’s horror story in my head. So I went into breastfeeding knowing full well that it wasn’t always easy. But I had no idea that the milk supply could possibly not come in! I had just taken it for granted that all women got their milk within three to four days after birth. It’s funny that you mentioned your pediatrician was so supportive. Mine has been incredible, too. I think at the end of the day, pediatricians just aren’t idealistic. They know what would be “best” nutritionally, but how can breast milk be “best” when it’s either not present or a low supply? What’s really best is a baby whose nutritional needs are completely met and who is thriving.

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