The mysterious grief of weaning
After 20 months of breastfeeding my final baby, a record for me by more than 12 months, I made a decision to wean her, even though neither she or I wanted to. I needed to, though. My chronic health, in terms of mental health and energy levels, just couldn't keep up with the demand. It all came to a head about a week ago, when I knew that I finally needed to stop in order to relieve the stress that was spilling over into family life. It was seeping out of me, the lack of energy, the inability to be a good wife and mother to everyone else in the family because I was so determined to be a good mother to my youngest. It is in my nature not to see the crisis for what it is until it is quite built up.
The thing is, I had tried to wean before, but Asher has a will of iron, and she knows full well when her precious 'boob boob' is being inched away. And because she would howl so forlornly, and because it would interrupt our sleep which we had fought so hard to gain, both my husband and I would cave within hours of the pathetic attempt. And then secretly, Asher and I would cuddle and bond over our reunion.
So when I realised that this was going to have to happen, I decided to remove myself from the equation. Remove the choice. I booked myself into a hotel, and arranged for 2 nights away from the family, not just to allow the Big Wean to begin in earnest, but also to allow me a period of time to let the stress pressure cooker steam out of my head.
But on the Wednesday before I was due to leave, I started to feel the heaviest sadness. I was very tearful every time I looked at Asher, and our last few feeds together were heart wrenching. She is so calm and gentle, like a lover, while she feeds. The stroking and the gazing up at me, when she is usually all "NO!" and HARRUMPH and running away and exhausting. I decided to just process the sadness like a mild grief, and it has been really confronting to face up to those emotions, because this isn't just about the final feed, it's about that first feed, when her body had only recently arrived earthside, twanging nerves and overwhelm after a fast and furious delivery, and she found ME, my voice, and my breast, and she felt safe. I was IT for her, all she needed.
Except something was wrong. She could latch on to me, but she couldn't draw any nourishment out. It was agony for me, and it didn't ease, and I was engorged and desperate, and watching her losing weight fast. For 5 weeks, we endured the lack of common sense that can sometimes be institutionalised medical care. I had a pediatrician, 2 doctors and a midwife declare that she was fine, that we should keep 'practicing' while pumping at the same time, and that she had a 'short tongue' but that she would work it out. It was a traumatic reminder of my experience with Daniel, vomitting violently after ever feed, and being told by doctor after doctor that he was FINE, I was just overfeeding him, I was a first time mum, I was hyperventilating...
And in this situation, no one looked at me, not once. No one looked at my bruised and shredded breasts and asked, "But can you endure this?" But that might have been partly my fault, because I was determined.
In my head, I HAD to endure this. I had learnt so much about my children, our genes, our microbiome, our dietary needs in order to thrive, and I knew that for us, formula was NOT an option. The contents of formula helped my first children to grow, but not well and not in health. The ingredients in formula were food that allowed parasites and fungus, that were already wreaking havoc in their guts, to thrive.
And Asher was my 'food do over'. So I was firm on this. She would feed even if my boobs fell off.
A GAPS mother eventually pointed me to the fact that she might have a posterior tongue tie (so severe that it holds the tongue back in the mouth, but hard to see because it is a casing of muscle rather than an obvious and typical thin frenelum tongue tie holding the tongue back). I had already had this on my heart, I felt God guiding me towards this answer while I was researching breastfeeding problems, so when this mother gently suggested it, I just knew it was true. This was 4 weeks after she was born.
We had gotten ourselves into a terrible position where Asher would attempt to feed for 2 hours, but my breasts would still feel full, so then I would pump, feed her, she would sleep for half an hour, and wake up ready for more. All through the night, I was awake and feeding or pumping. Every time she latched I felt like my nipples were being ripped off my body. I would burst into tears when she latched. I was exhausted, my adrenals were tanked. One afternoon, a couple of days after I had begin to consider whether this was severe tongue tie, and whether I had it in me to take her in for an operation, a midwife stopped by. It was an appointment that had been made the day I left the hospital, and I had completely forgotten about it. When she knocked on the door, I was annoyed. I was exhausted. I didn't need this. But it was God knocking. For this midwife also happened to work part time in a tongue tie clinic. I sobbingly told her the story, told her how all the medicos had summarily dismissed my concerns. She took one look at my bubba and declared that Asher had a severe posterior tongue tie and a DOUBLE lip tie. One of the more severe ones she had seen. From that point on, my husband and I were focussed and enabled. I knew what to do, I did my research on pain relief, and I made sure that this was going to be a one time thing. We would do it right the first time. We checked her in to a dental clinic that specialised in tongue tie, and that operated with a laser. They also promoted homeopathic pain relief, and told me on the phone that if I thought that she had a tongue tie, it would almost certainly prove to be true because mothers know.
MOTHERS KNOW!!! THIS is what I had needed to hear from the outset. Trust your instincts. I know this lesson but once again I had handed all my power over to people who follow protocols and rules and how are manifestly distrusting of instinct. Doctors, LISTEN to the mothers. This will prove a world-changing approach to chronic health issues.
(As always, I will amend this comment by saying that I know very well that this does not include all doctors, as I have had the BEST most wonderful practitioners to share our journey with as well as the arrogant earplugged eye rollers).
We took her in on the day, the diagnosis was confirmed, and they took her away to have her tongue 'revised'. I heard her screaming, and moments later, they rushed back into the room where I was waiting to offer her that first critical feed. When she latched onto my breast, blood came out of her little mouth and I lost my shit.
"Don't cry!" I was sternly advised. "She needs to know that everything is going to be okay and she is watching you!"
I sucked it in and smiled down at my baby.
She was suckling away.
"It hasn't worked, she's still not getting anything!" I moaned.
But they laughed at me, and I looked down again and there it was: that swallowing reflex that showed that she was guzzling my milk down. I hadn't seen this since she was born. And the reason I thought it hadn't worked was because it DIDN'T HURT A BIT!!!
It felt comfortable, like I remember with my first two! Well I cried again and this time no one stopped me.
We went on to make one hell of a team. From that first 5 weeks of failed feeds, to the recovery as her poor tired and painful tongue learnt to stretch and work with my breasts, to the day when she started knocking out her feeds in 5 minutes flat, to the moment when she started to ask for it. "Boob boob?" she would ask in that plaintive baby voice. To the feeds on the plane when her ears hurt, or the midnight feeds when her teeth hurt, and nothing else would comfort her. To the sandy, windy, never to be repeated beach feed. To that feed when we were having a bath together and she couldn't help herself. To that last feed on my bed the other night, when I thought back on it all, didn't want it to end, knew it was for the best. It was the loveliest gift I could have given her, and I am so grateful that I was able. I thought of all the women who have been made to feel like failures, when there was almost certainly a physical reason that the breastfeeding was so excruciating. This private journey of ours has taught me (again) that I am the family doctor when it comes to our daily chronic health. I am eternally grateful to doctors, to hospital staff, to midwives and nurses who are the acute care geniuses. God Bless every one of you, you are miracle workers with hearts of gold. But when it comes to daily chronic health, I make the decisions about what goes into my kids, and what is left out. My kitchen, my hearth, is the pharmacy where I was able to keep my own milk supply at the very top end of golden nourishment, and it is where I will continue to keep my children well. I encourage all women to embrace this role, whether you have kids or not. It is all a part of the mystery of womanhood. Big corporations and governments have made a lot of money by ensuring that women collectively doubt themselves, by making sure that the mystery is exposed as 'old wives tales' and oversensitive mothering, but I think we should take it back and not even bother to tell them we've done it. Because who knows exactly who 'them' is ha ha ha ha
To my darling Asher, I will miss our daily scheduled quiet time where I get to pass the gold over to you, but I cannot wait to get my body into the health that you and your brother and sister deserve from your mama. I love you.
One of our first ever feeds.
Our last ever feed.