A Bittersweet Journey
Austin TX USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 3, May-June 2006, pp. 112-113.
My journey into motherhood has been a bittersweet one. Getting pregnant and staying pregnant have been struggles, to say the least. Therefore, breastfeeding at all is a victory of sorts. You see, I have struggled with infertility and now I'm raising a beautiful son—while still grieving the loss of my first two children. The road I've traveled has made me a stronger person and it has most certainly made me a better mother. It's also made me fiercely determined to breastfeed. Breastfeeding hasn't been as easy, magical, and instinctual as I had always pictured it would be. Newborn jaundice, latching on problems, yeast infections in both breasts, plugged ducts, and oversupply—you name it, we had it! The rewards have so outweighed the struggles, though, and the journey I've had to take has everything to do with why breastfeeding has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life. My nursing companion, Victor, has a lot to do with it, too!
The journey began when abdominal surgery for peritonitis at age 12 left me with lots of internal scarring. Apparently, it was always a possibility that I would have trouble conceiving. At age 33, I found out that the pelvic adhesions resulting from that infection and the three surgeries I had decades before left me unable to conceive. In vitro fertilization was our only chance of conceiving. On our first try, I became pregnant with twins. We celebrated as all new parents-to-be do, but halfway through the pregnancy we were crushed by the unthinkable. In March 2004 at 22 weeks gestation, our son Ronan's amniotic sac broke. We rushed to the hospital and began a six-day vigil of futility. It was up to my body to try to repair the sac and stop labor. My body did not succeed. To put it more bluntly, I felt like my body failed all four of us—my husband, our beautiful boys, Ronan Woods and James Thomas, and myself. Ro and JT were born 27 hours apart and each lived just a few short hours. They were everything we had dreamed they'd be and we spent their whole lives holding them. They were just too fragile to fight and came too early to be saved by treatment. As in all stories like this, our hearts were broken.
In the world of in vitro fertilization, you don't just bounce back and try again in a few months. A whole lot has to fall into place to make it all possible. That was a blessing of sorts. I had time to reclaim myself a bit, both physically and emotionally. I put much of my effort into running and playing tennis. I became almost obsessed with staying busy, but honestly that was my saving grace. I lost my pregnancy weight (not inconsequential since I'd carried twins), I got stronger, and I cleared my head. Most importantly, I took back some control of the body that I felt had betrayed me so unfairly. In the meantime, we researched and consulted and obsessed about what had befallen us in the first pregnancy. I became an "incompetent cervix" guru. And then, we forged ahead and did it all again. We were blessed to conceive just one baby this time. One was safer.
My second pregnancy was supposed to be hard. I was higher risk and monitored very closely. When I had a prophylactic cerclage (purse string sutures used to keep the cervix closed) placed at 13 weeks gestation, we discovered that I was carrying another boy. He was clearly not a bashful boy and we named him Victor after my uncle (another brash boy). Weeks went on with the possibility of bed rest always imminent. We had a few scares along the way right around the point in the pregnancy that I delivered the twins. But the next thing we knew, we were in the safe zone of the third trimester. Every week felt like a bonus, so it was ironic when I ended up past my due date, being induced, and delivering an eight pound, one ounce baby boy who greeted us with yells. Gloriously, I only labored for around three hours and pushed for only 15 minutes. My son's name is Victor Galen, which means "victorious healer," and the name fits.
Was he a champion nurser at birth? Absolutely not, but you wouldn't know it these days. Victor has grown and thrived without ever having a single drop of formula. He loves to cuddle. He has brought us an infinite amount of joy and laughter. There is no doubt in my mind that breastfeeding has enriched us as parents. Breastfeeding Victor has made my husband and me relax and break with much of the rigidity that governed our lives before (of course, we are now ruled by the whims of a six-month old!).
Going through infertility and infant loss changes people. It made me much less flexible and much more impatient, but it also made me much more vigilant and fearless. Bringing a healthy child home from the hospital changed us a lot, too. Quite simply, it made us happy. Nursing has only added to that happiness. Every single cuddle, every single time we see that peaceful "milk drunk" face at the end of a feeding, we feel truly thankful that the journey brought us our Victor. There is no doubt that he is worth every step along the way.
I still struggle every day with how to honor the memories of the two brothers that Victor will never get to know. I happened upon one way of doing just that when I realized how much surplus milk was piling up in our freezer around the time Victor was just two months old. I contacted the local Mother's Milk Bank and became a milk donor. Since supply has never been a problem, I pump a little extra each day and periodically donate my surplus. As of this week, I've donated about 400 ounces of my milk that will benefit premature babies who are unable to get milk from their mothers. I feel that it's a fitting tribute to Victor's brothers that he is sharing his milk with other babies who need it. I think that some day he'll be proud that we made the effort.
These days, breastfeeding is a highlight of our daily routine because Victor is growing so quickly and I so cherish our quiet time together. Where once I wondered if I'd be able to get him all the way to a year of nursing, now I look forward to nursing him past his first birthday and self-weaning when that time comes. My body is doing exactly what it's supposed to for my son and it's doing it remarkably well. That's a victory in and of itself after this long journey. And now, I'm not defined by being infertile or by my losses. I'm defined by being a very, very proud mommy of all three of my beautiful boys. Victory indeed.