The Ties That Bind

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During my first pregnancy, I was a voracious reader of all things baby-related. So I knew going into the birth experience that not everyone falls head over heels for their baby at first sight. Sometimes, the collective wisdom of the experts warned, bonding takes time.

By the time Alex finally made his appearance, after almost a week of agonizing over whether or not to induce, the induction and sixteen-hour labor that ended in a surgical suite with a child the size of a two-month-old, I was too exhausted to think about whether it was love at first sight. But in the middle of the second night, as I sat in a cramped corner nursing, my milk-drunk firstborn opened his eyes and gave me a look I’d seen many times on his father’s face, and my heart snagged. Bonding: done.

The second time around, the sucker-punch of a Trisomy 21 diagnosis set all other concerns to zero. It took every ounce of strength I had to keep it together; I was too numb to feel–until I was shocked out of it by an occurrence I have chosen not to share publicly. In the gut-deep explosion of outrage, I first touched the flame of love for my daughter.

By the time the third birth came around, I was well acquainted with the truth that love isn’t about feelings at all, no matter what the songs say. Love is a series of choices we make even and perhaps especially when we don’t feel like it. The transition from two to three was tough, and bonding took proportionally longer.

And then came #4. The unexpected contractions, the interruption of plans, the early delivery, the related concerns about whether his lungs were going to be strong enough. It was the first C-section in which I paid no attention to the action beyond the blue drape. I was focused so intently on the drama unfolding beneath the warming lights. “I think we need to put him in special care,” said the nurse.

She wrapped him in blankets and set him on my collarbone for a few brief seconds–no more than twenty, and perhaps only ten. I inhaled a scent wholly unknown and yet somehow familiar. “Michael,” I breathed, and my lips brushed his cheek. The sensation shot inward so fast, I didn’t even recognize it had happened until days later, days in which I was scolded for stroking his leg with one finger and I spent more time in contact with a breast pump than I did with my baby.

He’s six months old now, and turning circles on his belly beside me following a very long night post-immunizations. He was perfectly happy, he just didn’t feel like sleeping. We spent some quality time on the couch staring in each other’s eyes and smiling last night. I wanted to be ticked off at him, but I couldn’t help myself. Those eyes, starred with the faint gleam from the front window, did me in as they do almost every time he looks at me.

Call it personal growth, learning to live in the moment. Call it awareness that it’s likely the last time. Credit it to being a more “mature mom.” Call it what you want. The fact is, I’m a sucker for this baby, his wiggles, his belly laughs, and his eyes, oh those starry eyes–a sucker in a way I haven’t been since Alex was an infant. I adore all my children, and no doubt Michael will try my patience as a toddler and preschooler just as each of his older siblings has and does in turn. But in the meantime, I revel in a bond so strong, it wakes me up every night three minutes before he starts fussing to nurse. May God give me the grace to hold him close to my heart, and let him go when his time comes to fly.

A Nursing Story

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A baby breastfeeding.

Image via Wikipedia

Two hours after Julianna was born, I was chomping at the bit, feeling irritable that they hadn’t brought her in for her first nursing, and trying to be patient. Then, of course, the doctor came in with the news of her chromosomal giftedness, and I don’t remember a whole lot after that.

I think we were already in our postpartum room before she came, and I had already received a visit from the stellar lactation consultant, who was guarded in her words. Kids with Down syndrome, she said, could probably nurse, eventually. But not to be discouraged if it didn’t work up front.

I was a trembling nervous wreck when my daughter came into the room at last, with backup in the form of nursery nurse, there to help with latch. Not at all what I had expected as a second-time nursing mother. But I drew my fragile baby into position, and Julianna latched on as if she was born to nurse. (Which, of course, she was.) The nurse’s jaw dropped, and she turned and dashed out of the room, returning two minutes later with the lactation consultant to crow and cheer. I felt a hard gleam of pride in myself and my daughter. Take that, Conventional Wisdom. Score One for my child. Teach you people to tell me what my child can and can’t do.

And then we went home, and it got a lot harder. My milk came in, and there was plenty of it, but she couldn’t stay latched, because she couldn’t breathe, thanks to the holes in her heart. She fell asleep almost as soon as she hit the breast. The girl slept all the time. Being well-experienced in plugged milk ducts, I was kind of a freak about the whole thing. It feels counterintuitive to work as hard as I did to keep her awake, to wake her over and over again. Dr. Sears says to aim for ten minutes of nursing—actual nursing—with kids with DS, and so I became a clock watcher. Often, I spent more time waking her up than I did nursing her.

Through sheer stubborn determination, I managed to do it–through a week of around-the-clock pumping when she was 5 1/2 weeks old and on a ventilator with RSV, through the weak oral muscles that meant that nursing = latching…over and over. I once told my mom that we latched a couple dozen times in a “10-minute” nursing session. “Ouch,” she said. I thought about what I was claiming and realized it sounded patently ridiculous. So I counted. I reached 18 latches in the first three minutes, and decided it was time to stop counting.

I share this because, despite the difficulties, we did it. She nursed exclusively until solid foods, and then she continued nursing until, at 16 months, she weaned completely.

It was really hard, but I don’t regret the experience one bit. For one thing, it gave me an intense confidence as a parent—more even than nursing Alex had given me. But more importantly, she needed all the health and developmental boost she could possibly get. That alone made it worthwhile. Nursing was a gift I could give her, one that she needed more than most.

I’d like to ask you all to share your stories now. I know there are those who have had beautiful experiences, as well as those who struggled more than we did, even some who have decided that the gift wasn’t worth the struggle. Please share your stories with us today.