It may sound cliche, but for months I have felt compelled to write this. Snippets of this story have come to my mind, but I worried that my experience or story is one that has been similarly told. I don’t want to sound like a complainer or that my first year into motherhood was harder than anyone else’s, because trust me, I know I had it easy compared to some.
My story is one I wouldn’t have been able to tell six or even three months ago. But I’ve felt a nudging inside me that I need to write down (or rather type up) my story. If for no one else, maybe my own daughter needs to read these words someday, and she will know that adversity comes sometimes when we least expect it, and lingers longer than we think we are strong enough for. I hope that if anyone else reads this and they have similar experiences they will know that they are not alone. They will feel a connection and know that while it may not feel okay right now, it does get better. I want to warn that I am going to tell this story how I remember it. It won’t be sugar coated and it may not be like the beautiful pictures of motherhood that flood Instagram, Facebook or blogs. It will be real, raw, and will tell what I remember really happening.
In my last post (from over a year ago) I wrote Ellie’s birth story. Though I was relieved and incredibly blessed that she made it to our family safely, the recovery after a c-section was something that I was not mentally prepared for. The drugs I had been given seemed to numb my mind and emotions as much as my body. When I saw Ellie for the first time she was as perfect as I had hoped she would be, but it was almost like she was a tiny stranger and my foggy mind was having a hard time processing that she was really the human that had grown inside me for the past 9 months.
In the hospital, Thomas and I were able to get better acquainted with Ellie but no birthing class could have prepared me for the physical and emotional exhaustion I felt. I was completely overwhelmed. Doctors, nurses and lactation specialists seemed to come into my room every few minutes and I hardly felt like myself. I tried nursing her but it just didn’t seem to be going well at all. The lactation specialist tried to be encouraging but I had flat nipples and the whole experience was stressful and painful rather than feeling bonded and in love with my baby. I was determined to nurse her though, and I gave it my best shot.
My final day in the hospital the pediatrician came by to visit. They weighed Ellie and she had lost 11 ounces of her 6 pound 11 ounce birth weight. The doctor advised me to feed her a small bottle to get some of the weight back because she needed to gain weight that day in order to leave the hospital.
As I finished feeding her the bottle, another lactation specialist came in and looked at me like I was a criminal for feeding her a bottle. She scolded me and said, “If you feed her a bottle now she will never be able to breastfeed.” I remember my eyes welling up with burning tears. I was just trying to feed my baby! I wanted to get out of the hospital and figure this out without being given conflicting advice. I wanted this lactation specialist to leave but I listened to some more criticism and then she left, telling me that my milk would probably come in later that day and that I better not feed her any more bottles.
Poor Elllie had reflux bad. Even at a day or two old I would pick her up out of her plastic hospital cradle and she would be covered in her own spit up. I wondered how one so small and who ate so little could throw up so much milk! By some miracle Ellie must have kept something down because she was able to gain enough weight and I was relieved to be out of the hospital.
After leaving the hospital, I went into survival mode. I felt sore and tired everywhere. Breastfeeding didn’t really seem to be going well. I tried to feed Ellie but it seemed like she was as tired as I was because she would cry or clearly be hungry and I would feed her for a few minutes and she would fall asleep what seemed like moments later. I felt constantly engorged and never like I was being emptied. I just kept holding onto a belief that this was “natural” “beautiful” and “breast was best” so it would all work out.
11 days after Ellie was born we were at my husband’s family’s Christmas party. I remember that night feeling so tired and not well. I was so glad to go home and lay down in my bed. I fed Ellie before trying to get some sleep and I remember it feeling like needles shooting into my right breast. It is some of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I cried but it was eventually over and all I wanted to do was sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night freezing and drenched in my own sweat. I fed Ellie on the other side and pumped (while sobbing) on the painful side. After taking my temperature Thomas and I realized that I probably had mastitis.
After a long night, we dropped Ellie off at my Mom’s with some pumped milk, and went to InstaCare. It was Christmas Eve and the line to see a doctor was outrageous. I felt like I had the flu and we waited for nearly 2 and a half hours. Finally, when we were called back to see a doctor he took one look at me, advised me to keep pumping and gave me an antibiotic to rid my body of the mastitis. We went back to my mom’s and I rested while my family members took care of Ellie in between the 2 hour feedings so I could rest.
That night, after a shower, I realized part of my c-section incision had split open and I was bleeding everywhere. I remember I looked at Thomas and told him I just wanted to die. Melodramatic? Probably, but I’m being honest when I say it’s how I felt. I sobbed on my parent’s hall bathroom floor. What on earth was wrong with me? Why did everything seem to be going wrong? Ellie seemed to cry a lot for a newborn, was often covered in her own spit up and I was a painful mess. I told him at this point I just wanted to bleed to death. Thomas held me while I cried and told me that THAT wasn’t an option. I smile back on this now, but at the time I felt like I was climbing an impossible hill with all the elements against me.
Thomas called my doctor for me and they said while not common, sometimes part of the incision can split open and that I would just need to “stick a pad on it” and make sure I didn’t soak through that pad in an hour. Otherwise it should stop in a few days, but to call them if it lasted more than a week. A FEW DAYS? Here I was on Christmas Eve with mastitis and covered in my own blood. I felt that I was a poor excuse for a mother.
For a week Ellie had bottles while I pumped and waited for my mastitis to clear up. Eventually it did, and I tried to go back to exclusively nursing and cutting out pumping. I hated pumping and if I’m honest I hated nursing. I was so tired and my whole body seemed to ache. I didn’t feel like myself but I didn’t feel like I had a choice so we kept at it. For nearly a month and a half I tried exclusively nursing Ellie, but it just didn’t seem to be working. Ellie cried almost all day and night. She spat up puddles and puddles of milk and we would both change our clothes sometimes 4-5 times per day because we were soaking wet from her spit up. The days were long and the nights were even longer. Thomas and I would take turns getting up with Ellie and holding her. The only time she cried less was if we walked around the house and bounced her. One night I just finally sat down because I was so exhausted. Ellie started screaming and I started bawling. I looked down at this poor, helpless baby who obviously didn’t feel well and I was so mad at her. Thomas came in and rescued both of us. I told him that I was probably the most unfit person to be a mother because in that moment I didn’t like Ellie and I was mad at her. Thomas reassured me that it was just because I had been up with her for 3 hours and that he would take a turn. It was after this night that Thomas came up with a rule that neither of us would hold her for more than 1.5 hours at a time during the night. Taking her in smaller chunks seemed to help and not make the nights seem like they were never ending.
I found myself resenting Thomas that he “got” to go to school and work every day while I felt chained to the rocking chair in our house. I didn’t like having to talk to people or really seeing anyone because I felt like I lying when I told them that “things were going well” because in reality I didn’t like my life. Most nights I went to bed dreading the next day. Little by little I went from being an extrovert who thrived on socializing with other people to an introvert who felt completely alone most of the day.
At Ellie’s two month check up she weighed only 9 pounds. I wasn’t surprised by this because I hadn’t felt like she had been eating well and also that she spat up so much. Ellie’s doctor advised me to meet with the clinic’s lactation specialist. I was so desperate and unhappy that despite my last encounter with a lactation specialist I met with her. Nancy was truly an angel for me. She was nothing like the lactation specialists who I’d seen in the hospital. The only way I can think to describe her was real. She treated me like I was a person and I wasn’t a bad mom if nursing wasn’t going well. After talking for a while and watching me feed Ellie, she suggested I track Ellie’s eating for two weeks. Ellie did need to gain weight, so I was advised to feed her on each side for 10 minutes, then feed Ellie a bottle until she was full, then pump for 10 minutes. Then I would repeat this every 2 hours for the first week, and then 2-3 hours the second week. I needed to repeat this every 2 hours from when I started, as well as writing down how many bottle ounces she drank & how many ounces I pumped out.
Those 2 weeks were grueling. Feeding Ellie, washing bottles & pump parts, changing her diaper, cleaning up her spit up and then starting it over again was all I did. It’s all I had time for. Sometimes I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom in between cycles. I felt anxiety most of the day because while i would pump or wash bottles and pump parts I couldn’t hold Ellie and walk around and bounce her. This meant she would scream cry and listening to her cry all the time was hard for me. Twice a week I had to do a “power pump” session where I would pump for one hour, 10 minutes on, then wait ten minutes then start pumping again for another ten minutes until an hour had passed. Needless to say, by the time the 2 weeks were over I was so done. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. From what the numbers on my chart told me, I had enough milk—I was pumping out enough for her to drink, but she was not getting full drinking directly from me.
When we saw Nancy, she agreed that I had enough milk, Ellie had gained almost a pound (!!!) but that for some reason Ellie just wouldn’t nurse. I remember she looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do? You are not a milkmaid. You’re a person too.” For some reason, that was so freeing for me. I told her that I was choosing to not breastfeed anymore, but that I felt like pumping milk (since I had enough) was something I could do for Ellie.
So, that’s what we did. I decided I could pump for 4 more months (until she was 6 months old) & then we would switch to exclusively formula. I pumped every 3 hours, and that included through the night. We still didn’t have a dishwasher and I couldn’t go too far from home for too long because 3 hours comes up quick and I needed to have somewhere I could pump.
Ellie still spat up. We finally took her to the doctor around the time she was 3 months old and she was given a prescription that saved our lives! While it didn’t stop her from projectile spit up all the time, it did help a lot. Ellie didn’t cry as much during the days and nights and eventually started sleeping 6-7 hours a night.
I don’t like quitting. I like the feeling I get of setting a goal and accomplishing it. So even though I hated pumping, I hated getting up at 3 am to pump, I hated washing all the parts, I hated the twice a week power pump, I did it. 4 months of exclusively pumping. But I look back and I wish I wouldn’t have. Mentally, the hours of sitting in that chair feeding and pumping did something to me. I wasn’t myself. I felt angry a lot. I felt like I didn’t have any hobbies & that I wasn’t enjoying motherhood. Social engagements stressed me out as I would calculate how much milk for Ellie I would need to bring, if there was going to be a place for me to pump, etc. I didn’t like the person I was and I felt pretty useless. Thomas would come home from school and work and I would have zero new things to tell him. I just felt sad.
I wish people would stop saying “breast is best”. Because I believe fed is best. A happy mom who loves her baby is best. No one forced me to pump until my baby was 6 months old. I chose that, but I believe I chose it because all I had ever heard was that “breast was best” and that if I didn’t do that, I would feel like I didn’t do what was best for my child.
The day of Ellie’s ½ birthday, Thomas did a nice ceremonial putting the pump away in the box and then he hid it from me so I couldn’t change my mind. You’d think that putting that away would mean my sadness would be put away in that box too. I wouldn’t feel like a prisoner to an activity I hated so much. At about this time, Ellie had started eating more solid foods and didn’t spit up so much. I assumed that not pumping and not being covered in spit up all the time would dissipate my sadness and bring back the optimism and happiness that I had felt before. But it didn’t. I felt self conscious about all the weight I had gained from poor eating habits & sitting in a chair all day, my new lingering shy personality, and I didn’t really feel like I had any close friends (the latter while not true, was how I felt).
As I realized that these feelings were a new reality and I didn’t have anything to blame them on (pumping, Ellie’s spit up, etc.) There came a day when Ellie was probably about 8 months old, that I realized I had a choice I needed to make. I could either keep being sad, or I could choose to take control of my feelings and seek out how I could be happy again. I decided to choose to be happy. This choice wasn’t easy and at first it didn’t come naturally. Sometimes I felt like I was faking it. However, through small and simple things, it did start to get better.
I began to ponder what I could do and what I could change to be happy again. I first felt the Spirit gently nudge me that I needed to improve my scripture study & improve my relationship with Jesus Christ. While I hadn’t stopped doing these things, I had not been as faithful as I could or should have been. I began to more seriously study and more earnestly pray. I tried to be better at reaching out to others and engaging with them. Instead of looking inward I tried to look for small ways to serve, especially those in my own home. I changed my diet and started exercising more. I started making sure that Ellie and I got out of the house at least once a day, whether that was going on a walk, going to the grocery store, or having a playdate. I made a conscious effort to spend less time looking at my phone and more time engaging with Ellie. I tried to improve the way I communicated with my husband and listen to the counsel he gave me. I started trying to learn more about Family History and how to do it. I chose to take control of my actions and pray more earnestly that Heavenly Father would help me overcome this sadness that I felt on the inside.
It took days, weeks, and months of consciously working on this and it eventually did get better. Around the time of Ellie’s first birthday I realized that sadness wasn’t my most common feeling anymore, it had been replaced with hope. Now I can say that I go to sleep optimistic and ready for the next day. I’m not the same person I was before I had Ellie. I’m happier now than I was before because of what I’ve experienced. I know that Ellie’s first year has opened my eyes to mental illness and I believe I am more compassionate because of what I experienced.
Ellie is now almost 18 months old. She is such a kind, happy and friendly girl. Everytime we go out to the store Ellie spreads sunshine to those we see as she waves and says hi to everyone we pass. Who would have thought that a baby who cried (what felt like) most of those first six months could be such an outgoing and content little girl? Ultimately, motherhood has helped me to rely on Heavenly Father more. I know that He lives. He has helped me to not only survive a difficult year, but has truly made “weak things become strong[er]” for me.