Hi again. You may wonder where I’ve been after my big “I’m back” announcement earlier this year. Or, if you’re a mom, you may have guessed that motherhood got the best of me — you’d be right.
Being a mom is honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve always been good at the things I set out to accomplish. I do a rockstar job everyday when I go to work. I’ve worked really hard to make this blog what it is today, and almost 4 years from when I started it, it’s still going. I like feeling competent and motherhood is somewhere I have almost never felt competent. Despite all the prep I did before our son was born (and believe me, I prepped like I’ve never prepped before!), once we left the safety of the hospital, I felt like I was barely treading water for weeks...and even sometimes to this day.
Before I continue, I want to just say that I know this is not a mom blog. I don’t intend this to become a mom blog. As always, The Hungry Bookworm will continue to focus on food and books. (Yes, that may mean kids’ books and kid-friendly recipes in the future, but still food and books, I promise.) But I wanted to lay this all out there, just so you know I wasn’t slacking on the blog — I still really love doing it, and have absolutely missed devoting time to my passions these past several months — and also to shed some light on the realities of new motherhood.
It’s not all cuddles and smiles and cuteness. It is definitely that, but it’s also sleepless nights and crippling anxiety and having no idea what’s going on even though you’re trying your best. Sure, no one says having kids is easy, but sometimes they gloss over the truth when talking to first time moms. I wasn’t hidden from the nitty-gritty of everyday parenting, but what was in store for me was nothing I was prepared for. As hard as this is to write, I wanted to share what I’ve been through. If it helps someone, it’s worth it. And then, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled books-and-food programming (in about a month or so…)
Settle in, this is kind of long.
When I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I had a 3-hour class under my belt, a supportive husband and 12 pages of notes to guide me through my “breastfeeding journey.” Almost immediately, my son had problems latching. I started pumping in the hospital, at the nurse’s suggestion, when after almost 24 hours, Henry still wasn’t nursing properly/enough. It wasn’t what I expected, but he was still getting breast milk, and we would make nursing work eventually, so I was okay — just doing what had to be done until we got the mechanics worked out “as a team,” as the lactation consultants kept saying.
After about a week of tearful nursing attempts to a screaming baby, I decided to give up trying. It was emotionally draining and the feelings of rejection were real. The pumping was working, so I kept at it. I learned about exclusive pumping (or EPing) from a fellow mom and joined a Facebook group to get support and tips, and I had a renewed spirit for what I was doing. Thousands of moms did this everyday! Some of them by choice! I could do this.
Except it quickly got to be too much. Pumping 8-10 times a day for 20 minutes at a time is a lot. There’s no bonding with your baby while you work to provide them with milk. Often, he would be screaming in the background the moment I hooked up, and the majority of the time, my husband had to feed him while I pumped because somehow — despite my best efforts — pumping always aligned with a feed time and I couldn’t physically do both at the same time.
At the height of it, I was pumping about 3 hours a day. (For reference, as of now at almost 3 months, I’ve pumped for 187 hours, or 8 full 24-hour days, or the equivalent of almost 5 40-hour work weeks.) When I wasn’t pumping or tending to our newborn, I was trying as hard as I could to eat enough, drink enough and researching how to increase my supply so I’d be able make enough milk. I barely had time to sleep, and when I did, I often woke with baby in bed nightmares that did nothing to calm my first time mom anxieties.
In the beginning, Henry was gaining weight like a champ. At a 1-week checkup, we were told we didn’t have to wake him to eat during the night anymore. He slept like a champ (or you know, as well as a newborn can be expected to) — I occasionally got 4 hour stretches of sleep from him, which meant I occasionally got 2½ - 3 hours of sleep myself. I was forcing myself to pump, living on no sleep, but our baby was doing great, and despite all the postpartum hormones, I was still feeling pretty good.
At Henry’s 1-month appointment, we were shocked to find out his weight gain was less than it should be. (He seemed so big!) His percentile dropped from 63rd when he was born to 18th. Over the previous week, he had started getting “fussier” while eating, so the doctor ruled out medical things such as reflux and thrush, and said he might just be going through a little phase. She said we were doing everything right, we just needed to get him to eat more. Specifically, about 7oz a day more than he was eating at the time.
She gave no suggestions as to how to magically get an additional 2-3 bottles in him each day, and we didn’t think to ask. We just went home thinking, “okay, we’ll get him to eat more.” Meanwhile, I knew I wasn’t making enough milk to feed him the quantities she suggested, so I went into overdrive trying to boost my supply. I was consumed with figuring out how I could make enough so we wouldn’t have to supplement. I became even more rigorous in my pumping schedule, and while I pumped, I researched things like “how to feed a fussy baby,” “reasons your baby cries while eating,” “how to get baby to eat more” and on and on. We thought we might be feeding him wrong, so we asked my mother-in-law (former pediatric nurse) and my sister (mother of two) to come over to show us how to feed the baby.
At one point, I stumbled across something about feeding aversions in infants. It described Henry’s eating behaviors to a T. I expressed to my husband that perhaps we were making it worse by trying to feed him so much. Ultimately, after talking to my lactation consultant again and the nurse at the pediatrician’s office, we decided to feed him “as much as he wanted” and not shoot for the 7oz we were originally told to. But we still focused on hitting a number and getting in the recommended volumes for his weight (in the US, at his age, that’s approximately 2 - 2½ ounces per pound per day).
I borrowed a baby scale so we could weigh him regularly, but every time we weighed him, he wasn’t gaining fast enough or wasn’t eating enough to support his weight, and I would dissolve into tears. We decided to stop weighing him.
Going into his 2-month checkup, we were confident in his volumes (he was now regularly eating 24oz day, and at his weight, that was at the higher end of the recommended range). But his fussiness was getting to be off the charts, and honestly describing it as fussiness was generous. He regularly screamed when we tried to feed him and we often had to calm him down enough to even get the bottle in his mouth. I was feeling even more rejected because I couldn’t feed him most meals (due to pumping) and obviously he was hating the product.
We opted to see a different doctor in the practice, thinking maybe she would provide some slightly different advice around his eating, maybe she could double-check to make sure he didn’t have reflux or something. His percentile had dropped to 5th. Her primary advice was to increase his volumes… again. Rather than just agreeing, we were ready and asked how she expected us to do that. She suggested we feed him every 3 hours around the clock (something we hadn’t done since he was almost 2 weeks old). I agreed to do it, but when she left the room I burst into tears. I knew it would be a struggle to get so little sleep again, but also anticipating the frustration of feeding him — sometimes an hour or more each time, while he fought it — every 3 hours all day long was overwhelming.
Around this time, I began going to a postpartum adjustment group every week and seeing a therapist. The time for the baby blues was over (approximately 3 weeks postpartum) and I was still regularly crying, extremely anxious and doubting myself as a new mom. I was afraid to be alone with my son because I didn’t know what to do with him — thank goodness I have a husband who primarily works from home — and even more afraid to take him anywhere that wasn’t the doctor. I was clearly exhibiting signs of postpartum depression and anxiety, but I felt like my priority should be on my son. Getting his volumes in, pumping enough to feed him, and trying to figure out the source of his “fussiness” while eating was taking all of my energy. Once my husband and friends convinced me I also needed to take care of myself to be the best mom I could be, I was able to take the first step. It made a world of difference.
With the support of my group, my therapist, and the network of family and friends who’d been there all along, I was able to see that pumping as much as I was every day was maybe not as worth it as I thought. The time and energy it was taking, the (misplaced) rejection I was feeling because of my son’s feeding issues (as I’d taken to calling the “fussiness”), and the stress of making sure I was doing everything I could to produce enough milk was exhausting. A fed baby is best. A happy mom will make for a happier baby. I decided to start weaning off the pump.
Immediately, I felt better.
But, we were still having major issues feeding Henry. The “feeding him more” tactic wasn’t working. At this point, we were treating him for reflux but it was having no effect. His weight percentile continued to drop. I reached out to my lactation consultant again for advice. After some discussion, she suggested trying an occupational therapist. With her help, I was able to get an appointment with a pediatric OT and convince our doctor to give us the referral.
At our first OT appointment, she found several things that could be inhibiting Henry’s eating, and we setup two recurring weekly sessions to get him back on track. My husband and I were overjoyed there was a cause and a solution. I was optimistic as we went to his OT appointments, as we syringed reflux medication into his mouth (which the doctor said would take some time to work), and trying to power through any troublesome feeds, knowing we would be on the other side of it soon.
Then we were supposed to bring a bottle to feed him at our next OT appointment. We did, and he exhibited more of his screaming, fighting behavior — it was on par with some of our worst feeds. I asked her if she thought it might be an aversion. This had been in the back of my mind since our 1-month appointment, and in fact, I’d revisited that website multiple times, often whenever we were recovering from a particular bad bottle session. She agreed that it was highly likely. We left her office with some techniques to teach him to not be afraid of the bottle and to try some different feeding positions.
When those suggestions produced no results after a half day, and the screaming and fighting reached its peak, I was at a loss. I went back to the aversion website, saw the author had a book with solutions and bought it immediately. (No surprise that I find solace in books.) I raced through it, finishing it in just a couple of hours — thankfully, Henry was taking a long nap.
I cried while reading the book. It was like what we were going through was finally understood. Like the author herself had watched us feed our son. And how we got here was how most parents get here — trying to meet volumes. Many aversions are misdiagnosed as reflux or an allergy (we were now on hypoallergenic formula for this very reason). The hell we were living through every time we fed him was, unfortunately, not uncommon. I felt guilty for causing the aversion, even though the book told me not to. My husband and I decided to begin implementing her program right away.
The first 3 days of the program were still hellish. I cried constantly. Henry cried too. We were battling it out, trying to figure out how to do this whole feeding thing together. My husband and I had to do everything we could to overcome our urge to get him to finish a bottle (to meet his volumes) and to be sure to not pressure him to eat no matter what. Henry had to learn that we weren’t going to force him to “drink up.”
We are not on the other side of this yet. We’re on Day 5 of the program. We are seeing results, but it can take 2 weeks, or up to 4. This is our sole focus: getting Henry comfortable around eating again. And, though we’re finally on a path to success, I’m still a little hesitant after 6 weeks of dead ends. My motherly instincts brought me here, and I’m just now learning to fully trust them. I doubted myself for so many weeks.
The added pressure from trying to be perfect (something I was bound to do as a Type A person, regardless of who could see me) didn’t help. I insisted on breastfeeding, which turned into a ridiculous amount of EPing, and all the while it was driving me literally crazy. Now weaning off the pump is its own challenge; you have to go at it cautiously so you don’t get painful clogs, or even worse, mastitis. But it’s still a relief to be working towards being done.
In a week, I go back to work and I’m really excited about it. I know I will get back into the swing of things quickly, and I’ll kick butt. I have no doubts about my professional capabilities. But I’m worried about leaving my son in daycare, especially while we’re still working on his feeding aversion. I’m nervous about pumping at work, potentially leaking while I’m there. I have no idea how I’m going to wake up and get myself and Henry out the door in a reasonable time, when right now our morning routine is no routine at all. I know I’m going to miss being with him during the day. It will be a huge adjustment for all of us.
I know there are mothers out there who’ve had it harder than me, and those that have had it much easier. It’s all worthy of respect. You have no idea what to expect about motherhood until you’re in it, and even then, it’s constantly changing. Even with all of my preparation, I figured there would be things I didn’t know. But feeding Henry is a challenge I didn’t expect, and it’s been challenging at nearly every turn. I’m looking forward to a day when he can enjoy a bottle and feeding him is less fraught with worry. I know this will pass, and one day sooner than I think, we’ll be sitting around the table together enjoying a meal as a family.
I was super torn about writing this post. This blog has never been terribly personal, and sharing personal stuff like this is hard. But I want any mom — new moms especially — who stumble across this to know that you’re not alone. Before I leaned on in-person support, which for some reason felt more embarrassing (but definitely wasn’t!), I was able to find so much help through online communities — I am thankful for my EPing group (and now one with tips for weaning off), feeding aversion support group and the group full of moms with little ones born the same month as Henry. I was always reading articles and blogs, looking for answers. I may not have the answers, but I can share my experience. If you need help, ask for it. There is no shame in it and you’d be surprised by the people who come through to support you. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust your baby — they know what they need, especially around eating. And they’ll develop and grow in their own time. They don’t care how perfect we are as long as we’re there for them, taking care of them and helping them along the way.
Thanks for your patience with me, bookworms. I promise to be back soon 🙂