Kim’s Story – The Birth of Nathan
I was in for the shock of a lifetime and didn’t even know it. I sat dreamily in my bed, reading my What to Expect When You Are Expecting book and fantasizing about my sweet baby Nathan. He was so spunky. He never let me bend forward at the dinner table to eat, or to tie my shoes. He would kick and squirm until I straightened up. I guess it was a little cramped in there for him. He must have been uncomfortable. I know I was.
My biggest fear was childbirth. I know women have been having babies for as long as there have been humans, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. No part of my life, up until that point, could compare to what I was about to go through. Would I be able to handle the pain? Would I scream out and say nasty things to my husband like they do on TV? My thoughts stopped there. I didn’t think about what I would do after I had my baby. I figured mothering would come naturally to me.
Throughout my final trimester, I had been haunted by preeclampsia. Although my case was mild, I was monitored very closely. I had to urinate in a plastic sombrero that fit neatly inside of my toilet. This fluid was kept on ice in a cooler, which I had to carry with me wherever I went. Every few days, I had to take my urine collection container, which looked remarkably like an orange juice jug, to a nearby lab to be analyzed. My condition got steadily worse and I was told to leave my position as a middle school science teacher and go on bed rest. I guess my doctor figured resting would lower my stress levels, keep my blood pressure down and help me relax. What it really did was free up time for my mandatory blood pressure checks and urinalysis screens.
Instead of lowering my stress levels, bed rest heightened them. I would sit, day after day on the couch, worrying about the precious life inside me. I got on the Internet and researched the illness I had, only to find out how truly dangerous it was -threatening to kill both mother and child in worst-case scenarios. I believe my fear caused my symptoms to worsen. My blood pressure continued to rise and the protein content in my urine increased as well. They added “stress tests” (aptly named) to my almost daily trips to the clinic. Each time I was attached to the stress test machine, I would carefully listen to each beat of my son’s little heart. I would lie in the cold, sterile room imagining the worst. I knew I would go into labor and my baby would die. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t survive the birth either.
During the fearsome last 2 months of my pregnancy, I was switched to a new doctor. I had been seeing a nurse midwife with whom I had a terrific relationship. I was told that with the preeclampsia complications, it was necessary for me see the head of OBGYN. She was competent, but not personable or compassionate.
“We are going to have to schedule you for a labor induction before your symptoms get any worse.” she said, as if ordering me a coffee at Starbucks.
“What?” I asked, bewildered.
“We want to get the baby out before you get any worse. We don’t want to increase the risk of fatality.”
Did she say fatality? Did she think I wouldn’t make it through labor as well? Why was this the first I was hearing of an induction? OK. Deep breath… They must know what they are talking about. Why wasn’t my husband here with me? I went on autopilot as thoughts of a dead baby filled my already swimming head. Lets do it……. I guess.
The actual birth went relatively well. The hard part was the labor. It took a full 28 hours from the time of induction to when my baby was screaming in my arms. During labor I had been seen by three separate doctors, none of which were the head of OBGYN I was supposed to be working with. The changing of the guard was confusing and frustrating. I was in the last phase of labor, that hard pushing phase, for nearly 4 hours. I was exhausted. Near the end of the 4 hours I was not really able to push anymore. My muscles were too tired and my hands and legs were beginning to shake.
“I am going to give you 3 more pushes. If you can’t bring him down we will have to take him by C-section.” the doctor said.
This doctor didn’t have faith in me. He didn’t think I could push my boy out. I could tell by the look on his face and the fact that he was already dressed in scrubs with the Cesarean cart ready to go outside my door. I closed my eyes, mustered all the strength I had left, prayed to God for his help and pushed with my whole body and spirit.
No one expected him to come out so quickly and with such force. The result was a healthy baby and a third degree tear requiring almost an hour to repair.
I was elated, almost comatose from fatigue and suddenly aware of something I hadn’t thought of yet. What now? I had prepared for pregnancy, kept myself healthy and active for nine months, taken the Lamaze classes and read everything I could about birth and delivery. But for some reason I hadn’t looked beyond the point of birth. The nurse laid little Nathan on my breast and watched me with expectant eyes. I hadn’t a clue of what to do with this thing. He was a big baby, 8 lbs. 14 oz., but seemed likely to shatter if I touched him. He was pink and perfect, but he was a total stranger. It was surreal and I was at a loss.
I tried nursing. It was extremely difficult and painful. I cried and begged the nurses to help me. Each one had different advice. Sometimes the advice was conflicting. My husband attempted to help, but what could he do really? This was something the baby and I had to figure out. As the hours wore on, my nipples began to bleed and Nathan began to cry more and more. I felt helpless and frustrated.
One nurse came in and told me to give Nathan some formula, to “give the breasts a break”. Not knowing that giving formula to my baby early on wasn’t ideal for the nursing process (since I hadn’t read anything about nursing or baby care), and that he might prefer this easier feeding method to the breast, I took her advice. Thus began my 6-week battle to breastfeed and wean Nathan off of formula and the finger feeding method we were introduced to in the hospital.
6 weeks seems like a very short time when I think about it now. During those first 6 weeks after bringing Nate home, time stood still. I felt like those 6 weeks were 600 years. I cried almost continuously, hardly slept, and battled with this “natural” process of breastfeeding. Three days after coming home my milk came in. Nathan was unable to drain my breasts properly, since we were having so much trouble latching and feeding. My normally small size A breasts were large and rock hard. They almost seemed ready to pop off my chest. I felt I could practically dig my fingers underneath the mammary tissue and rip them free of my body. The pain they caused made me want to do just that. They were red, hot to the touch and throbbing. The engorgement made latching even more impossible for Nathan.
I went to several lactation consultants with little improvement. We couldn’t latch, I couldn’t position him correctly, I was uncomfortable and Mate had thrush. I also had an infection, but was never treated for the yeast in my breast tissue. My nipples had tiny blisters all over them and would bleed with each nursing session. I would attempt to nurse, wiping tears from my eyes, begging him to eat, for over 45 minutes at a time. He would drop off to sleep, seemingly satisfied, only to wake up 10 minutes later demanding to be fed again. My yeast infection went untreated and caused considerable pain each time Nathan suckled.
I was so sad, depressed, angry and in pain. I felt like I was in a deep pit and could just barely look out of it to see my life at the surface. I knew something was wrong with me. Everyone I talked to assured me what I was going through was normal. Yet, the pain was so intense. I could hardly bring myself to nurse Nathan. I felt like I had this negative feedback loop going on inside my body. The baby would begin to nurse, the pain was so horrible I could barely breathe, the pain would then caused my let-down reflex to stall and milk production to go way down. As a consequence, Nathan could never get enough to eat, so he would want to nurse again within minutes. On and on it seemed to go, for what felt like years. Yet, it was only a matter of weeks.
When I wasn’t nursing, I was attached to a double breast pump to “get my milk supply up”. I was never able to extract more that one or two ounces, which I horded as if it were liquid gold. I saved every drop, to later feed him using a syringe and tiny tube taped to the end of my finger. I was also taking herbal supplements, which didn’t seem to help.
It was disastrous. I couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to eat, couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t console my own child, and couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be. At the end of 6 long weeks of the most excruciating torture I could imagine, I gave up breastfeeding.
I then endured another week of painful engorgement, laced with feelings of failure and remorse over giving up what I knew was best for my baby. I knew the benefits of nursing. Who doesn’t? It is beaten into our heads from the moment we find out we are pregnant. Every pregnancy and baby magazine, as well as most well-wishers you talk to, tout the benefits of breast milk. “Breast is Best!” Everyone assumes you can and will do it. And, worst of all, I wanted to do it very badly.
I heard a lot of aggravating comments while I was going through the worst of my pain. Comments like:
“Oh yes, breastfeeding is painful! But, it is just so worth it.”
“Oh, you just have a slight case of baby blues. Everyone goes through it!”
“We all struggled like you are! It’s perfectly normal. Don’t give up sweetie!”
“God created your body to be able to feed your child. You have everything you need to be the perfect Mom for Nathan. Just relax. It will all work out!”
These comments just made me feel worse. I felt like I couldn’t hack it. I was a lesser person. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t a good mother. I knew people saw me differently then they used to. They thought I was choosing to stop breastfeeding because it was inconvenient for me and that I didn’t love my child enough to give him the very best.
For an entire year after giving birth to my son Nathan, the sight of a peaceful and content breastfeeding mother made me break down and cry. I have never wanted something so much in my life and been unable to get it through hard work and perseverance. I was crushed. This unexplainable sadness lasted for about 13 months. It wasn’t until after my son’s 1st birthday that things began to clear up and I began to feel happy again. It was like I stepped out from inside a thick fog that had been engulfing me for a year. Suddenly, the sun was shining again and I felt normal. I felt like myself once again and it was a strange sensation.
Later, upon reflecting on what had happened to me, I decided to start doing some research on postpartum afflictions. I realize now that I suffered from postpartum depression and unfortunately, I was unaware of it.
Kim’s Story Continued: The Birth of Kyle
My husband and I had always planned on having two children. The experience of my first almost made me reconsider having a second child. After much discussion and prayer we began trying for another baby. After a few short months we became pregnant again. Somewhere, deep down inside, I felt like the failure of my breastfeeding attempts was my fault. I felt like I hadn’t been prepared, I hadn’t read enough or practiced enough. I had convinced myself that I really hadn’t tried hard enough. We were unable to breastfeed because of my weaknesses, mistakes and failures.
I was convinced that with the correct preparation and support, I could successfully nurse my second child. As before, I read books about pregnancy and childbirth, but on top of those, I devoured articles and books on how to breastfeed successfully. I was able to see some mistakes I had made with Nathan and was sure I wouldn’t repeat them. I lined up two doulas for my birth and a post partum doula for breastfeeding help. I was excited, nervous and ready to try again.
The pregnancy was much easier the second time around. I didn’t have preeclampsia or any other major issues. Kyle came about 6 days late, so when my water broke, I was more than ready to have him. I rushed to the hospital and about 5 hours later little Kyle was born. Labor was progressing nicely and I was handling things well. I had had an epidural, so the pain wasn’t too overwhelming. I was engaged in the pushing phase and as Kyle was crowning, things seemed like they were perfect. My doctor was a hospital resident in training. Another doctor in the room was watching her carefully. As my baby’s head began to crown the anticipation in the room turned to chaos.
The resident doctor suddenly said, “I need some help here, NOW!”
Suddenly, jarred out of my concentrated pushing, I saw the main doctor take over. I assume someone hit a panic button somewhere because 4 or 5 other nurses came swarming into the room. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew things were not as they should be. It felt like the doctor was trying to push Ky back inside of me. I looked at my husband and his face was expressionless and ashen. I couldn’t read him. I felt alone.
I kept asking, “What is happening? What is happening to my baby?” But no one answered me. It seemed as if an hour passed, but I am sure it was only a moment or two. Nurses were busily running around my room doing things I didn’t understand. The doctors and nurses were speaking another language, and not to me. It was like I wasn’t even in the room. Suddenly, a woman dressed in scrubs leapt onto my hospital bed. She straddled me and took her fish in her other hand and violently shoved the balled fist into my abdomen. The pain blinded me. I just couldn’t believe or understand what was happening to me. Nowhere, in all of my preparations or reading, had I heard of anything like this. “What’s happening? What’s happening to my baby?”
The baby finally came out and they whisked him away from my bedside. I hadn’t seen him, hadn’t heard his cries. I was sure he had died. I began to weep and kept repeating, “I just want to see his face. Can’t I just see his face?”
My husband was by our son on the small metal cart along the far wall. I couldn’t see his face either. He kept muttering “It’s gonna be OK.” I don’t know how long I lay there wondering if my baby was alive. Finally, I heard a faint wailing. He started to cry. He was alive. Thank you Lord.
It turned out that he had gotten lodged in my pelvis as he descended. He had had the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck twice. I wasn’t able to push him all of the way out and he was unable to go back up into my uterus to relieve the pressure on his neck. He had slowly been choked, almost to death, by the umbilical cord. The woman who had straddled me and shoved her fist into my abdomen had dislodged little Ky from my pelvis, breaking his tiny collarbone, but saving his life. My husband told me later that when Kyle first came out he was purplish-blue. His Apgar score was only a one. The doctors and nurses worked hard to resuscitate him and were able to bring him back to me.
When Kyle was successfully breathing on his own, the doctor laid him on my breast. I will never forget looking at his perfect face, knowing how close to death he had been. I wanted to wrap him in my arms and run away from the hospital. After just a moment he was taken away from me for observation. All of the doctors, nurses, my baby and my husband left the room. I was alone again with my thoughts. I kept crying as I tried to put together just what had happened.
The doctors wanted to keep and observe Kyle for at least 8 hours. I knew this would interfere with breastfeeding and I pleaded with them to let him stay near me. They insisted on holding him. I was tired and weak and gave up. My husband did not, and after a short time, had convinced the nurses to let Ky come back and stay in bed with me.
“Whatever observations you need to make can be done at my wife’s bedside.”
At the hospital, I asked immediately for a lactation consultant. It took awhile for her to visit, but I was in line to see her all the same. The initial attempts at breastfeeding were painful and cumbersome. The lactation consultant tried to help, but it continued to be very hard. I tried all through the night and daylight hours. I did not get much sleep since I was worried about another possible breastfeeding failure.
My OBGYN had written me a prescription for an anti-depressant in the hospital, fearing that I might suffer from PPD again. I felt OK at the hospital and chose not to fill the prescription. Things seemed to be going fairly well until we got back to our home. I continued to struggle with latching and feeding Ky as my world began caving in on me again. My nipples were blistered and bleeding. I wasn’t able to sleep more than 1 or 2 hours each night. The baby would wake up often, as babies do at first, but even when Ky was sleeping I was unable to drift off. I kept worrying that he would wake up. I would lie there and strain to hear his breathing. If I hadn’t heard any noises from his for a few minutes I would turn on the light to make sure his little chest was raising and falling with each breath. I imagined he would just stop breathing and die there in my bed if I fell asleep. His life felt so tenuous. I couldn’t relax because I couldn’t stop my mind from reeling.
Breastfeeding was not going well. My husband and I took Ky to a lactation consultant. She weighed him and immediately wanted to put him on formula. I was devastated. I felt the formula wasn’t necessary and would be counterproductive. She explained that he had lost too much weight and was getting weak and lethargic. I couldn’t believe it. Even with all of my support and preparations, I found myself reliving the experience I had had with my first son. The consultant almost made it seem like I didn’t have a choice. I had to put Ky on formula or he might never have the energy to learn to nurse.
We were started on a strange syringe and tube contraption that was clipped to my bra. I was assured this was the best method, given that Ky would continue to be at the breast to feed. We taped the tiny tube to my breast and Ky began to nurse. He was getting both formula and breast milk. I was very unhappy with this. I wanted to feed Ky naturally. All of the tubes, tiny bottles, measuring and taping were too much for me. The consultant told me I must not be producing enough milk because it looked like our positioning was OK and the latch was OK, but he still “wasn’t getting enough”. This phrase kept going through my head as we worked to make breastfeeding happen. I was faced with the possibility that I may not be making enough milk. The little confidence I had that I would be able to make this work was shattered.
All through the first few weeks I kept crying and couldn’t sleep. After about a month I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to my doctor and she put me on an anti-depressant that was OK for breastfeeding. I still wanted to make breastfeeding work. I was becoming somewhat obsessed and was unable to let the issue go. My husband was questioning the sanity of continuing something that was so hard on our family, and me, but wanted to remain supportive. He took over the responsibilities of our toddler while I was went to lactation consultant visits and worked with a lactation doula who came to our home. I talked to people several hours each day asking for help and advise. I was pumping between feeds and began to take a drug called Domperidone. I was told it was the best medicine around to help increase milk supply. It wasn’t easy to get. I ended up having to fight for the prescription (since the drug is was not approved by the FDA for breastfeeding support) and have the drug compounded at a special pharmacy.
I was so sad, confused and helpless. Deep down I knew my suffering was being made worse by my postpartum depression. But this time, the depression was terrible. I didn’t feel the same as I had with Nathan. This time, the sadness was laced with anxiety, intrusive thoughts and severe insomnia. I kept having this strange bodily fear response… like when you are standing at the top of a flight of stairs and you almost fall down them. Your body reacts with a yucky adrenaline rush and you feel like you just have to grab hold of something and grip it for dear life. This feeling was with me all day, every day.
My life felt like a circus. I was popping more pills than I ever had, nursing and supplementary feeding each hour, pumping in between nursing sessions, and crying almost non-stop. I was unable to be a mother to my baby. I was unable to be a mother to my two year old. I felt so frightened I could hardly do anything.
“I am just so afraid!” I would say.
“But honey, what are you afraid of?” My husband would ask.
The sad thing is that I couldn’t say exactly what it was that was making me feel afraid. I just knew I was a terrible mother and a failure. Even though I had prepared for this birth and the subsequent breastfeeding, I was failing. There was nothing I could do to fix the situation. How could I take care of this child? How in the world could I ever manage to care for both of my boys? I couldn’t even breastfeed. All of my friends did it. My sisters did too. They had a hard time of it at the beginning, but they persevered. What kind of a mother was I that I was unable to persevere?
I ended up getting another yeast infection of my milk ducts. I knew I had one because nursing continued to be painful and Kyle had white splotches on his tongue and gums. I asked specifically for medication for me and for my baby to clear up his thrush and my yeast infection. After just a few short days on antifungal medication, I was feeling much better. For the first time ever, Kyle and I were able to nurse without pain. Suddenly, I began to hope that breastfeeding might actually work! For a week or so things seemed to be going pretty well. I was weaning Ky off of the supplementary feeder and onto more of my breast milk. I continued to take the medication to increase my milk supply, for fear of not producing enough milk to feed Kyle well.
I was still anxious and began feeling bad physically. I wasn’t sleeping well and began feeling weaker each day. My in-home lactation doula came for a visit to my home one day. She took one look at my left breast and asked, “How long have those red streaks been there?” What streaks? Well, it turns out I had a bad infection in my breast and a 104 degree temperature to top it all off.
I had been trying a method of getting my milk to flow by squeezing my breasts as Kyle was nursing. I had just figured the red streaks were bruises. A visit to my doctor confirmed that I had mastitis. I was at my wits end. When the doctor told me mastitis lowers your milk supply and it would take one to two weeks for it to come back I couldn’t believe my ears. You have to understand how unreal this all felt to me. I had had precious little sleep over the past month and a half and I truly felt like if just one more thing happened, I was going to lose it. The mastitis was the last straw for me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to breastfeed anymore. I didn’t even want to be a mother anymore. I just wanted to sleep.
My doula assured me I could continue to breastfeed even if I had mastitis, but I just couldn’t do it. I stopped cold turkey. I knew I could endure the pain and discomfort of the coming engorgement and was relieved that I would soon be able hand the job of caring for and feeding my child to someone else.
It has been over a year since I went through my postpartum depression. After my diagnosis of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, the medications I took helped me a great deal. I was able to wean myself off of them by Kyle’s 9th month and regained my ability to sleep and mother my two sweet boys.
I have been through a great deal in my life- the divorce of my parents, a date rape, being life-flighted in Africa for a severe infection and a near-death hiking accident. When I look back, I can easily say that my birth and post partum periods were the hardest times in my life. I still grieve the loss of my ability to breastfeed. Maybe I always will. I am more at peace with my decision to stop breastfeeding now. I have two handsome, healthy and intelligent boys. I am a good, loving and nurturing mother. I continue my healing by volunteering with Baby Blues Connection as a Mom-to-Mom support person. I know that I am a more empathetic and compassionate person because of this experience. I would not trade it for anything. Yet again, I also would not relive it for the world.