Jessica, Dumfries VA (USA)

I was induced at 41 weeks because the doctor was worried that my son was going to be too big. It took a lot of time to get labor going and I wish I'd asked more questions about the induction process. I kind of blindly let them decide for me. I didn’t have a birth plan except “Make sure we’re both safe.” In my head, I was sure I would have a vaginal delivery. I literally skipped the C-section parts in the books. After 4 hours of labor, I asked for the epidural. I’ve thought about it since, and I often wonder “What if?” It's a process, and as with many first experiences, there are so many questions afterward. They kept checking me, but I wasn’t progressing very much, and it became disheartening. You also are under constant monitoring and the baby’s heart rate kept dropping so they were flipping me every half hour from side to side, the damn peanut ball stuck between my legs. I had a lot of leaking amniotic fluid, and it was very uncomfortable, so someone had to wipe my vagina for me. The process is just fucked up; very humbling. Almost 12 hours later, the midwife checked me again, then she left. I heard murmuring and her and the doctor came back in. I was at 6cm. They said “We think this is a failure to progress situation.” Listen… at no point should any mother, but especially first-time moms, ever hear the word “failure.” They told me I could either wait or have the C-section now. And then, they just stood there. I wish I had told them to leave and take the time to think about it. But I was so tired, so I said, “Let’s just go ahead and do it.” I was sobbing because I was afraid I would feel the cuts and I’d never had major surgery before. The midwife and the doctor were both ending their shifts, and I remember asking the doctor if she felt competent to do this now. She just laughed, saying “I’m fine.” But I needed this information. Because the whole process is already terrible. You’re like Jesus being crucified under ginormous lights. Your husband is not even allowed to be with you while they strap you down. You’re left alone in there behind your curtain. Luckily, I had a wonderful anesthesiologist. She kept asking me if I was doing ok because I was uncontrollably shaking and tears were pouring out of my eyes. I said, “I need you to tell me what’s happening. Step by step.” And she did. My husband eventually came sitting next to me, but with sheer terror on his face. It’s just not a great situation. They’d told me it would take about one hour but it felt like 10 minutes. They got our son out and showed him to me over the curtain. I heard him cry, we took a picture, and my husband did skin to skin, which I was glad they allowed at least because they wouldn’t let that happen on me. While the doctors sewed me up, I remember laying there, thinking, “Holy shit. I have a son!” They were putting my organs back in and I wasn’t emotional, more like glad it was over. I was so preoccupied by the surgery itself that I’m not sure it 100% registered that there was now a baby.

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They wheeled me up to the recovery room, and I got to hold him. They didn’t have any postpartum room, and we hung out in this minuscule room for a while, barely big enough for a bed and one person on the side. I got to try to breastfeed him, but the nurses were in and out, and they would just grab him and threw him on my boob. It was very hectic. There was no… it was not a beautiful moment like I had envisioned. I was tired, and I was in pain. They finally brought me in the postpartum room and the next few days are a blur. I remember him screaming all night because it turns out he was starving. I also had a hard time getting out of the bed because I couldn't use my ab muscle, as they were sliced in half. I didn’t get to change his first diaper and feeding him was very difficult. I always had to put him back in the hospital bassinet because they don’t let you sleep with him – they will take him away from you if you do. I should have pushed the button to get help but, maybe I was being oversensitive, I kept feeling that I was bothering the nurses. I did get to see three lactation consultants in the hospital. All of them had different opinions about why nursing him was so hard. He would latch very well, but he wasn’t swallowing the milk. I’d been told that as long as he gets 10 drops of colostrum, he’d be fine so I would hand express into a little medicine cup, and we would feed him by spoon or syringe. But he was starving. The consultants were all very positive – which they have to be – telling me breastfeeding is hard and all, so I just went along with it. At no point did they bring up a pump. I’d also asked for formula because I knew he was starving but the consultant told me just to keep trying. When we got home, I wanted to breastfeed him, and I remember sitting on the couch for two hours. I knew it wasn’t right because he would not stop because he was full. I had a lactation consultant come to my house, but nothing really changed. Then of course, we had our first pediatrician appointment, and they told us he had lost too much weight. The doctor just looked at me and said: “This baby needs formula.” It was such a relief. She also told me to start pumping every time the baby fed. No need to time it or to make sure it’s at specific intervals. Just pump when he eats. I thought this was genius. Why didn't I ever read or heard, even in the breastfeeding classes, about pumping?

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By the end of the week, my milk had finally come in, and he’d gained the weight back, and some more. Then, the infection started. I had tried to switch back to breastfeeding, but my boobs were all torn up. I was doing the threefold method: I would first try to breastfeed, then pump, then give him the bottle. My nipples went downhill so fast, they looked shredded. After only a couple of days, the skin was peeling off, so my consultant suggested I go to my OB’s office. When the nurse first came in to look at me, she said, “Oh MY! I think your nipples are rotting!” Of course, I thought I was going to die. They took a culture and put me on an antibiotic, telling me I couldn’t breastfeed on it. I was passed the initial shock of having to supplement with formula, so I thought, “Alright, I can do that for one week.” But even if I knew that formula was fine, the societal part of it was so hard. Because you hear ‘breastfeeding is liquid gold, the best of the best’ so I didn’t want to tell people my son was taking the bottle. The results came back, and it turns out it was Klebsiella. My midwife had never seen that, let alone on someone's nipple. They didn’t know what to do, which wasn’t reassuring, but at least she was honest with me. They switched antibiotic, and I now had to take it for two more weeks. She still recommended I don’t give him the milk I’d pumped. This was the most frustrating things about the process, never mind the whole nipples falling off: to pump and dump. Every single person and professional I talked to had a different opinion on whether or not it was safe to give my milk to the baby. At no point did somebody tell me there’s a resource called ‘Infant Risk’ that I could call to get advice. I also never ever knew there was such a gray zone with medications and what can pass in your milk or not. I told myself better safe than sorry, and I decided not to give the milk to the baby, but it meant that for the first month of my son’s life, I pumped and dumped. I would keep everything until the following culture, and when the results would come back positive, I'd throw all the milk pumped in one week. I made my husband do it because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. After that, we tried everything to get him to breastfeed: lip tie surgery, nipple shield, and several visits to the pediatric dentist. In the end, he never transferred any of the milk. After 6 weeks of being determined to breastfeed, I finally just said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” Everybody says breastfeeding is hard, and I’m not minimizing that, but I wish somebody, along the way, had said to me: “Breastfeeding is hard, but it’s also just not possible sometimes.”

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It’s not an easy decision to make by any mean, but the shaming that goes along with it and the sense of doubt that you instill on yourself, it’s insane. First, there is “failure to progress” on your medical chart, and then it’s “failure to transfer” on the lactation consultant’s sheet. You think to yourself “Jesus fucking Christ! I’m already a failure as a mom, and my son is only 6 weeks old! This is Crazy Town.” I wish the professionals, during the classes or in the books on ‘How to be pregnant and keep your child alive,’ would be more honest about expectation vs. reality. I know they don’t want to scare moms, but there's a ton of ranges between what's considered 'the norm' and what a lot of women experiences. I still feel strange about saying that I ‘gave birth’ to my son. I don't say it actually. I didn’t get to feel the contraction, and I didn’t get to push him out, so I say “I had him by C-section” when people ask you about his birth. It’s just verbiage, but it has such a profound effect on your identity as a mother. The same thing happens when you go to the pediatrician, and they ask you if breastfeed or give the bottle. What about exclusively pumping or mix-feeding? You always feel you have to explain because of the way the questions are phrased. I was lucky to find a Facebook group called “Exclusively Pumping Mamas” where they talk about the stuff nobody else talks about. Like, “How long do you pump for? Do you sterilize everything after each session?” We’re 24 000 women on that page. They are the reasons why I made it a full year. To this day, I still have a deep-freezer full of breastmilk. It was definitely a big accomplishment and a great option for us. I truly hope breastfeeding classes can change to include sections on pumping and the how-to manual because it comes with its own set of challenges. I’m lucky to work from home and to have a husband who’s home too because maternity-leave fucking sucks in the US. Overall, there’s been a lot of very enjoyable moments. Waking up in the morning with him smiling or seeing him interact with other kids have been amazing. I'm also very proud of the community I’ve been able to build, both online and in my life. I was never shy to ask questions or for help. No one should be because, in the end, nobody really knows what they're doing. But I kept a child alive for a year now so… go me!