Why I gave up nursing – Light in dark places

Light comes where you least expect it.

I am so tired; so unbearably tired. I silently wish upon parents-of-sleeping-through-babies that they are attacked with a terrible case of teething. It’s been holidays, so my maid is away. I am with the children 24/7. No yoga, no work, no sleep, no writing. I am crumbling but I don’t even know it. I drive to Centurion and I nearly crash on the speeding highway. I am so tired I constantly want to vomit.

I bump into a good friend in the park on Shabbas chanuka afternoon. She too has a little baby, the same age as my precious Yehuda. She too suffers from extreme fatigue due to her baby’s horrid non-sleeping habits. We swap notes; and commiserate as we are in the same transient but trying place. I like her very, very much. She somehow pulls off being simultaneously human, honest and transcendental. She is gentle and kind. So I am not prepared for what comes next.

After chatting a while, with some hesitation, she says to me. “I need to tell you something, and it’s only because I really, really like you.  “Go for it”, I say always open to honesty. “I am scared for you, you can’t talk like this.” I am affronted. I am the poster girl for honest-motherhood, I believe that so much is candy-coated and people need to know their struggles are common and normal. But somewhere in the recent weeks, I crossed a line and didn’t even know it. But she saw it. Somewhere I moved from honest to bitter, resentful and angry. I was envious of those with easier babies.

So I took a step back and breathed. Sure; I talk about gratitude. But it is lip-service. My heart is hateful. I am losing myself. And this friend is nothing but good and kind; so her words were just truth.

Something has to change, I realise. Something has got to give.

The very next morning, I called the night nurse who helped when Yehuda was born. I booked her for that very night; with G-ds grace she was available. That night I slept more than 2 consecutive hours for the first time in weeks.

I am so used to doing it all. Everyone needs me, so I need to. My husband needs his sleep. My children need me. Reading the book “Women, food and G-d” I realised how it’s very apparent in how I prepare our meals. My daughter gets her crumbed chicken and boiled eggs and salad. My husband gets his gluten-free Chalav Yisrael fare. And me? I shovel in left-overs while rocking my baby to sleep.

No wonder there is nothing left to give. Of course, the morning after the night nurse comes I feel like I have been re-born. I don’t recoil as my daughter begins her tyrannical commands the second she wakes up.

And of course, the  internal judgments rain down. How many millions of mothers coped without sleep through the millennia without the spoiled luxury of a night nurse? How pathetic are you, how weak and fragile. Look at all the mothers who are my age with 8 children and no maid and a spotless house and never complain.

But it’s a lie. This modern world of living in segregation is a new thing. We pay a price. It takes a village to raise a child. I envisage villages where grandmothers live with the family and hold the baby while the mother goes to draw water. No one does it alone. And I don’t need to.

There is more. I stop nursing. The decision rips my heart in pieces, I debate it for days. But I don’t have enough milk. I have been supplementing, so there is less and less. But I refuse to give it up.

Masked in selflessness, it became selfish and self-gratifying. Even though no one was gratified. I wanted to feel like a good mother. A good mother is one who breastfeeds at any cost. No matter how dysfunctional it makes her. No matter how anxious, edgy, stressed or debilitated from tiredness she is. My children suffered, I suffered.

There was a choice. I could devote myself full-time to re-gaining sufficient supply. I could exclusively feed and pump after each feed and drink beer and take Eglynol and prolak and fenugreek. But I don’t have the nerves or the will. I am reluctant to give it up because what if it doesn’t help his sleeping, and now I have weaned him in vain. But then a friend wisely re-frames it. At least you will know he’s not hungry. And she’s right. There will be one less thing to be anxious about. So I do it. It’s much more of an effort. But I am at peace about one more thing. In the night, I try the dummy before I get a bottle. I still haven’t figured out the easiest way to pack bottles. He’s not very scheduled, so it’s tough. But I know he’s getting enough milk and nights are slowly becoming tolerable.

I write this post overlooking the lush garden of the Misty Hills spa we have come for the night to sans children. We have been discussing it for weeks, but I was resistant. I still feel guilty for leaving my baby. I feel horrid when my mother tells me how he smiles non-stop at her. But it’s important to feed the mother. The mother feeds the child, but who feeds the mother. The mini-holiday is stupendous; I sit with nothing but my own thoughts.

Sometimes our darkness is so dark we don’t even realise we can’t are blinded. The darkest black is where we think we are enlightened. When we don’t realise we need help and love and support. It’s the darkness of the martyr or of the suffering servant who doesn’t make space to be held by another.

And so in  the bright summer afternoon under the blazing sun, I thank you you for showing me the light I didn’t know I needed.


Feeding my daughter, Slaying my demons: Part 2

One month later, and we are somewhat back to normal. I posted this unresolved story  to honestly portray the struggle and the trauma of the last weeks. And now I am thrilled to say that Ella is growing – slowly, but steadily. It’s been an intense month which climaxed with my return to work and we are finding our feet again, and our spoons and our smiles too, and on this journey I hope I have come out that bit wiser about myself, mothering and the world.

Here’s what I have learned:

Take the pressure off

Unwittingly, I was subjugating myself and Ella to huge amounts of pressure. I was demanding her to be a good baby – one which takes the bottle, sleeps acceptably, eats what I demand and when, and grows accordingly. I also was demanding that I be the perfect mother – one which has enough milk and provides everything their child needs at the right time. However, this immense pressure was making me crazy. I wasn’t sleeping, and was constantly anxious about how I would return to work if Ella wouldn’t drink from a bottle. I had heard horror stories about children who refused to take a bottle all day, and would want to nurse all night.

When I realized the demands I had placed on both of us, I did something unthinkable. I stopped caring.  I stopped trying with the bottle completely, and decided it would be my lovely nanny’s problem. I went off to work the first day with instructions to try the bottle, and if not to feed her cereal and veggies. By the time I got home that day she was fine but drank ravenously the whole afternoon. By the third day, she was drinking her morning feed (of expressed breastmilk) from the bottle. She was getting the nutrition she needed, but more importantly I got my sanity back.

I love graphs
I love numbers and graphs and all things empirical. As my sister would say, I am the class Myers Briggs “T” profile.  When lovely Dr Slowatek with a straight face told me that I am so short I wouldn’t even feature on the normal graph thus what could I expect from my daughter, I breathed a cosmic sigh of relief. That fact calmed me as no amount of loving reassurance would. The language of graphs and percentiles is music to my ears, and seeing her ratio perfectly balanced for her weight and height was a gift beyond measure. I also learned that there are numerous and disputed methods for tracking infant growth, and breast-fed babies grow differently to formula-fed babies. Nurses aren’t always aware of this, and can send you spinning into a panic for no mathematical reason.

Let go of ego 
I wanted to breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible. I didn’t want to give Ella artificial formula pumped with unrecognizable ingredients. I wanted to wait to start solids until at least 6 months.  The common theme was “I”. But when my little baby needed something other than what I imagined, I had to put all my needs and wants and images of the mother-naturale aside. My ego was dissolved into the much deeper wish to do what SHE needed. Being a good mother is not defined by giving your child organic food and exclusive breast milk. It is defined by doing what’s best for your child at any given moment, devoid of your own projections.

Don’t be so hard on myself
This is a common demon I keep facing. I subconsciously place these ridiculously high standards out there for me to achieve, and bash myself when I don’t achieve them. As a mother, I choose to give myself a bigger margin for error, and to remind myself that together Ella and I are on this journey – every day I learn more about what it means to be a mother, and that it’s okay to make mistakes

Mothering magnifies our blind spots
I was kind of okay before I had Ella. I was relatively aware of my flaws, and quite happy to ignore the ones I didn’t feel like addressing.  Yet being a mom has brought my weak spots out in stereo, and are crippling me if I choose not to address them. My fears of not being enough, my guilt at not being perfect, and my demanding desire for perfection have been highlighted in a way I could never have imagined, begging for attention if I want to demolish the demons for once and for all and be a present mother.

Mothering demands forgiveness
In the short five months of my daughter’s life, already I am learning to practice forgiveness daily. I forgive myself for not being perfect, for not knowing everything and for not giving her what she needed. I apologize for being so grouchy in the morning and not smiling back at my greatest gift – of that early morning smile and giggle. And I know that she forgives me too. With all my limitations, I give her everything I have. My love, my sleep, my constant care and the gift of my connsciousness.  At the moment, I believe she gets more than she lacks, and is far more forgiving me that I imagine.

It takes a village to raise a child
This well-known adage has never been so true to me.After posting part 1 of this story, I was flooded with support. Phone calls from Israel, smses, emails and comments from veteran mothers who felt my pain filled my days. Each one of them offered practical advice, empathy and compassion. I cannot thank each of you enough for taking the time to offer your story and making me feel held up by fellow mothers out there.

It is G-d who sustains the world
During those awful moments when I knew she was hungry, my mind wandered to the first blessing Birkat Hamazon. “You are blessed, our G-d who, in His goodness sustains the universe, with grace, kindness and mercy”. I walk to shul and see the luscious summer vegetation and imagine each of them drawing their water up from the ground and growing each moment. It is this same G-dly force which allows for our children to grow bigger and taller, and as mothers we are just the channel for the sustenance.  Just as He makes each leaf and blade of grass grow, it is G-d who makes them grow, and we who can just pray for His mercy to allow it to happen.

Feeding my daughter, feeding my demons: Part 1

I really thought I was getting it together.

Finally after all these weeks of turmoil and torture, my lulu had just turned four months old. She was sleeping better, and I was settling down tentatively into motherhood. I  went back to gym,  and was planning my return to the working world. And we were doing better. I felt less claustrophobic and  more confident and was  honestly enjoying every second with her.

Until last week.

It was Ella’s four month vaccination and monthly checkup. And the moment I saw that number on the scale, any fragile equilibrium crashed down. The whole month she had only put on 150 grams. The nurse said her growth in length and head circumference was perfect,  and that I shouldn’t worry at all but I should start slowly supplementing with formula. But I don’t hear anything she said. I come undone.

I should have known. I felt that she wasn’t getting heavier. I saw that she wasn’t filling out her clothes as the weeks passed. But how was I to know. She was so happy and active and engaged and lively.

I left the clinic in shock. I sent my husband dashing to Dischem for formula and rice cereal. The second I got home I unearthed a baby gift of a feeding spoon and started pushing mashed banana down her throat. But inside I was broken.

I had failed. One hundred percent and completely. I was starving my baby. I called our paedeatrician who somewhat calmed me and said to carry on as normal as now

Normal? How could I carry on as normal. I had failed as a mother. I had failed my daughter. Hr primary need of being fed could not be fulfilled by her mother. Nothing could console me.

At 12am that night Lulu woke up to eat. But my guilt had sends my milk to its sudden death. She eats and eats but in my heart I know that it’s not enough for her. We try with the bottle, but she screams and chokes and gags and spits. Yet we still try force her. I know that she is hungry.  As I carry her back to bed, I crack. Holding her teeny little body in my arms, I sob and sob and sob. I sob for the knowledge that I can’t give her everything she needs. I sob for the fact that I didn’t know she wasn’t getting enough milk. I sob for the fact that my little baby relies solely on me for her nourishment, and no matter how hard I tried I have failed her.

I try be rational. I succeed for moments. I remind myself of what the reality is. That she is healthy and active and reaching all her milestones. Up till now, she has been getting enough milk. That eventually she will have to be nourished from other sources. That no one person can provide another person all they need, only G-d can do that. That if and when she is hungry enough she will take the bottle. That eventually all babies do learn to take the bottle, even if they resist violently at first.

But there is a deeper part of me lurking. There is this deep need etched into my soul, this need and wish and desire to be enough for my baby. To provide her with all she needs. To make sure she never lacks anything, and that she is never in pain. I feel desperate to get my milk back, to have enough of what she desperately needs. I want so  much to have enough milk for her. I want to give her enough of what she needs. Even as I feed her rice cereal, I feel a sense of loss. She is one step further from being solely dependent on me.

I define good mothering to having enough breast milk. I need to break free. From these unfulfilled demands on myself.

The next few days pass in a haze. I obsess over the quantity of her wet nappies. When she sleeps till 9 am one morning I am convinced she is dehydrated and we going to have to rush off the the emergency room (she was probably exhausted after being kept up for hours in the night while we try force her to suck the bottle, then syringing milk into her mouth). I try bottle after bottle. My shoulders are like thousands of rocks. I consult lactation experts. Night after night, I cry and cry when I hear her trying to suckles from my empty self.

Meanwhile, Ella is fine as ever. She adores the teaspoons of banana I give her. When people ask me how she is, I say fine and feel like the hugest charlatan  She is not fine, I want to tell them. She is starving and it’s all my fault. I am the worst mother in the world.

The more anxious I am the less milk I have.Meal times become a battle of wills and an laden event of pressure and anxiety. I try with Prolak and Fenugreek and toy with the idea of an anti-psychotic which assists lactation. I drink beer after beer. I pray and pray and pray. To the G-d who sustains everything.  I ask him to remind me that even as a mother, I will never be able to sustain my child alone. That in a few short months she will need chicken and rice and apples to grow. I try remind myself to breathe.

These days are the worst I have experienced since her birth. Finally, one Monday afternoon something snaps.  After another awful attempt at forcing Ella to drink from the bottle, I resort to pouring milk slowly into her mouth from a small cup. She screams and screams, but I carry on. She needs this liquid, she is starving I am sure of it. Eventually the milk streams out the side of her mouth, pours into her eyes and noise. And I stop.

I say to my husband I will not try to bottle anymore for now. I will not let feeding become a battle ground and pour milk down my screaming baby’s throat.We will do rice cereal and carry on nursing as usual. There has to be another way.