Published on January 13th, 2022 | by Julia Nusbaum3
A Better Mother: On Breastfeeding in a Pandemic
Two days before giving birth my doctor told me that if my water broke, it would be nothing like the movies. “Just a slow leak,” she said, as though I were a deflating tire, “you might not even notice it.” But I did notice my water breaking. And it was like the movies. It was just after 11PM and I was slowly making my way through my bedtime routine. Brush teeth. Wash face. Pee. But then, as I stood, situating the elastic band of my pajama pants around my nine-month belly, the flood came. At first, I wondered if I was peeing my pants. But as the stream got heavier and nothing I did stopped it, I knew my water had broken.
“Ben!” I called for my partner in the living room. When he reached the bathroom he found me back on the toilet, shaking fiercely, gasping to catch my breath.
“I can’t—I can’t do this,” I said. But of course, it was too late to turn back. Too late to change my mind about having a baby.
I swapped my pants three times before we left the house. Each time I moved more liquid soaked me. “Jesus, how much is left in me?” I cried as Ben handed me a rolled-up bath towel and an oversized set of sweat pants. Pants I only wear when I am lounging around my house and positive no one will see me.
“I can’t wear those.”
“There isn’t anything else,” he said. And then he added, “put the towel between your legs.” He helped me into the pants, then helped me waddle down the stairs of our apartment building and to our car.
The city was quiet as we drove to the hospital, especially for a Friday night. Oldies played on the radio, an Aerosmith song accompanying us on most of our short drive. It was March of 2020.
At the hospital we were met with a road block and an enormous white tent outside of the emergency room entrance. The pandemic was just starting to gain momentum. There were no mask mandates, no protocols. Over the past few weeks my doctor appointments were relatively normal, just a little more hand sanitizer involved. I’d been worried about giving birth in the current climate, but as I shuffled into the hospital, towel between my legs, I wasn’t afraid. There were more important things on my mind.
All things considered; the birth of my son was normal. I labored for twelve hours, pushed for three, before having a non-emergency c-section, because I am a small woman who grew a very large baby. The rocky part for me came after his birth, with postpartum preeclampsia. I spent the first twenty-four hours after my son was born on a magnesium drip. I saw double of everything and everyone. The nurse who came to teach me about breastfeeding had two heads, as did my son. I tried to follow her as she explained how to hold the baby, how to offer my breast, but her face swam in and out of focus, and I simply nodded along, holding my baby close and hoping for the best.
Breastfeeding never seemed important to me. I find the phrase “breastfeeding journey,” cringe worthy. Just stick the kid on your tit and be done with it, I thought when women waxed poetic about the difficulty of breastfeeding. Or, better yet, give them a bottle and get over it. Even during my pregnancy, I said over and over again, “I don’t care if I breastfeed. As long as he gets food.”
By 10PM on the night he was born, my feelings had changed. The world was on fire. There was a pandemic raging outside the walls of my hospital room. All I wanted was to keep my baby safe. But in those first few days with my son, while I lay hooked to monitors and pinned by IVs, breastfeeding felt unobtainable. We were never alone. Even though the pandemic made it impossible to have visitors, it seemed as though there were always nurses and doctors in the room. My body was spent. My pregnancy had been so hard and recovery was beginning to feel even harder. The only time I felt like we even had a chance of getting it right, was at night when Ben would fall asleep on the couch next to my bed and the nurse’s footsteps would quiet, it was just my son and me. We could navigate this new world together. He as unsure as I. I watched him suck, fixed his latch, coaxed him. Eventually he’d fall asleep at my breast, seemingly satisfied. And I felt, for a little while, whole, like I was doing what I was meant to do.
But as the days went on, he lost weight. It’s normal for a newborn to lose weight after birth, but he lost more than the nurses and doctors deemed average.
“I’m going to give you some formula,” a nurse told me. “He needs to drink about fifteen milliliters.” She brought in a bagful of premixed formula bottles and set it on the table next to my bed. “Be sure to shake the bottle before you feed him.”
I felt numb. And then, a little relieved. And then, guilty. And then, I cried. The pressure had been momentarily lifted. His life didn’t rest solely on my breasts, but did that mean I had failed?
“You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to,” Ben said, pointing to the formula. “You can keep trying, it hasn’t been that long.”
But in that moment, all I wanted was to feed my son, to satisfy his hunger. I shook up the pre-mixed formula, twisted off the cap and replaced it with one of the rubber nipples the nurse had given me. “This isn’t giving up,” I said, my voice shaking. “He just needs to eat. Maybe once he’s got something in his stomach, we can try breastfeeding again. He’s too hungry right now.”
Later that day, I asked for a hospital lactation consultant. Because of the pandemic, they weren’t visiting patients unless specifically requested. Two different consultants visited after that. The first stood at my bedside and rattled off instructions while I clutched my son and desperately tried to follow along.
“Pretend your breast is a hamburger,” she said. “When he opens his mouth, stuff it in.” I took my breast in my free hand, mashing it down like a hamburger patty and moved my son toward it. He latched. Relief swell. I did it. And it was so simple. I was going to be okay. I was going to be a good mother. The lactation consultant smiled and praised me and moved on to the next mother.
A few minutes later my son lost his latch and started to wail. I tried over and over again to give him the hamburger of my breast, but his latch failed each time. He was checked for a tongue tie and a lip tie, but had neither. It was simply a breakdown in communication, failure on a primal level.
The second lactation consultant told me to change the way I held him. “Hold him like a football,” she instructed. She helped me rearrange myself on the bed, moving my son so his body was at my side, rather than in front of me. “Lots of women find this more comfortable,” she said. I did not find it more comfortable. It was awkward, his face practically in my armpit. I couldn’t figure out the logistics of our bodies to make it feel natural or right.
“Keep trying,” both consultants told me. “It just takes time.”
We left the hospital after four days, going home to an empty house, everything exactly as we left it. Dirty dinner dishes in the sink, all the pairs of pants I had changed out of piled on the bathroom floor. If the hospital had been chaotic, with people buzzing around us nonstop, home was a ghost town. For months I’d looked forward to my mom coming from out of state to stay with us, to Ben’s sister’s visiting. I’d imagined a home full of good energy and joy. But instead, the March afternoon was grey and bitterly cold and our house felt dead, our homecoming anticlimactic.
I’d heard the warnings—new motherhood could be isolating. But nothing prepared me for new motherhood in a world where everyone was isolating, where help and guidance seemed impossible to find.
Our second morning home was beautiful, bright and sunny. I sat next to an open window, my son wrapped in a blanket and snuggled in my arms. The pandemic ridden world felt far away. It was just the three of us in our tiny apartment. Safe from the fear pulsing outside.
I’d been up since well before dawn. Most of that time spent in the same spot, watching the sky turn from black to gray to orange and then blue as I tried to feed my son. Each time he latched he fell asleep after a few minutes. The first time he fell asleep I eased out of the chair and tiptoed to our bedroom, placing him in his bassinet. Moments later he was awake, crying to be fed. I lifted him out, taking him back to the chair by the window where we started the process all over again. I fed him, he fell asleep, I laid him down, he woke up. Over and over again, well into the afternoon.
Baby books, friends, and even the internet were full of advice on how to remedy this situation. “Don’t let the baby get too comfortable,” articles I read cautioned. “Undress him to his diaper, so he stays awake.”
“Nudge his cheek when he starts to doze,” a friend said in a text.
“If your baby falls asleep at the breast,” a baby book advised, “lay him down, otherwise he may form a habit of falling asleep every time he feeds.”
By midafternoon I was frustrated. We’d repeated the same cycle all day. I could feel my anxiety starting to peak. In a kitchen cabinet were the bottles of formula from the hospital. The nurse handed me another bag full before I was discharged. It didn’t make sense. If breastfeeding was so important, why did the hospital keep shoving formula in my face? Why did they keep giving me a way out? Guilt pressed in at me. It was clear, my weary brain decided, the hospital didn’t believe I could feed my son on my own. And maybe they were right. Because at home, as I twisted the lid off of the plastic bottle and replaced it with the rubber nipple, I felt my restlessness starting to subside. The whole world was spinning—but in that moment I finally felt like I was in control, like I had something I could grasp onto for support.
That evening I FaceTimed a lactation consultant friend. She offered to come over, but she worked in a hospital and COVID was so new. I hesitated, afraid of the virus. In the end she gave me advice over FaceTime and then we hung up and I cried. When I was pregnant friends told me stories of lactation consultants making house calls after they gave birth. I wanted that too. But I was terrified of making my baby sick, making myself sick. So in the end I did it alone. I watched YouTube videos and read articles and spiraled deeper and deeper into depression, the isolation of both motherhood and the pandemic pushing in on me.
Everyone told me breastfeeding would get better, my son and I would figure it out together. When my Ben’s sisters asked how my breastfeeding was going, I simply said, “It’s fine.” But it wasn’t fine. The baby cried and screamed and most of the time I gave up and gave him a bottle, especially in the middle of the night, when I was too tired to keep trying. Shame welled in me every time I opened the cupboard and pulled out the formula.
I thrive on plans and facts and mile markers. But babies do not care about plans, or mile markers. Phrases like it just takes time, or it will get better, or you and baby will figure it out, didn’t work for me. I wanted to know when we’d figure it out. When I’d stop dreading every feeding. If I knew exactly when it would get better, maybe I wouldn’t want to give up. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like a bad mother. Maybe the guilt wouldn’t be so unyielding. Maybe I wouldn’t dream about running away.
Breastfeeding, for me, was a constant battle. There was no lovingly gazing into my baby’s eyes. It was not a bonding experience. If anything, it made me hate motherhood. Bottle feeding, rather, was a chance to cuddle my baby, to talk to him, to smile at him, to satisfy him.
I didn’t like the way breastfeeding tethered me to another person. Even when he wasn’t eating, my breasts controlled my life. As my maternity leave ended and I went back to work, it seemed like all I did was pump or feed. Even working from home, it felt impossible to keep up.
I could never get the right rhythm, the right routine. My son and I were never in sync. What made me happy, what made both of us happy, was bottle feeding. But still, I didn’t stop trying to breastfeed. I didn’t stop, because I thought that was what good moms did. We breastfed. We pushed through. Struggled on.
I was exhausted.
Motherhood, in those first months, is about survival. I wasn’t surviving. Maybe if things had been different. Maybe if there hadn’t been a pandemic. If I hadn’t been cut off from my support system, drowning in the fears of new motherhood couple with the desperate need to keep my baby healthy.
Maybe things would have been different. Instead, in the end, I did what made me happy—what eased my anxiety, gave me back the ability to love my child—what made me a better mother.