If you have read my blog or occasional pieces published elsewhere, you will know how strongly I feel about breastfeeding.
I struggled for a month with my first daughter but eventually breastfed her for about eight months, until my supply had dwindled so much that I decided I would stop expressing milk in the loos at work. With my second, I was better informed and knew what to expect, so it was much easier. She was exclusively breastfed the first five months and had her first formula bottle at ten months, when I weaned her off the breast fairly quickly and without any problems.
Then came Ivy.
She joined an already busy family with two older sisters who went to school, dance, catechism and music lessons. Half of our day was spent driving her sisters around or waiting for them. Not only am I their taxi driver, but I have a home to keep (relatively) clean, a family to feed, keep healthy and in clean clothes, and occasional writing assignments (plus Ergobaby carriers to demonstrate). I never even considered using a bottle to feed her. I waited until she was born to make sure I could breastfeed her without problems (because you never know what could go wrong with these things) and then just fed her. I no longer owned bottles or a breast pump and the last time I bought formula was four years ago. So she was exclusively breastfed for almost seven months, when we introduced food, and she continued having my milk, directly from the breast, until last week.
The last feed she had was on Tuesday 5th October at 7:30am. It was the 9th (10th?) feed in 24 hours and I cut it short, literally pushing her away halfway through. I felt exhausted, both physically and mentally and I was also very sad. I could no longer sit down if Ivy was with me, because she’d climb on my lap and pull up my clothes to drink, and if I was standing, she’d follow me around like a shadow asking for milk. I had reached a point where the sleep deprivation and Ivy’s constant requests were messing with my head. I sent Robin to school wearing the wrong shoes, forgot to pack half the school lunches, forgot to wash Maia’s uniform causing her to be penalised for going to school wearing the wrong uniform, lost things all the time and barked at all three children constantly.
I knew something had to change.
As soon as I gave her what would be the last feed, I hugged her, grabbed my car keys and drove Robin to school, leaving her with my husband. I made sure she had been picked up by my parents before venturing back home because I knew I’d have to sit down to feed her again if she saw me. The plan was for her to spend the morning with them, as she had recently been doing (we had to stop playschool because of her breathing problems), but that one morning turned into a whole weaning operation.
I had turned to many mothers who had breastfed their children for more than a year for advice. Some of them suggested I explain to her that I couldn’t give her milk anymore. Others had phased out breastmilk as they introduced more bottles of cow’s milk or formula. The trouble with Ivy was that she has always refused all kinds of milk but mine (and even then, it had to be directly from my breast). I also tried to explain to her that I was tired and that I couldn’t feed her from my body anymore but she just whimpered and said no, tugging at my clothes to give her more. I tried going about it in a gentler way, but it soon became apparent that we’d have to stage an intervention.
I wasn’t quite prepared for it to take almost a week, but it did. The first two nights weren’t easy for both of us. She woke up calling me and I woke up soaked in milk. The following four nights were the first we both slept through since she was born, give or take a night or two. I cried every few minutes the first two days. I felt guilty, deeply saddened by this whole thing and I doubted myself and what I was doing. My hormones were all over the place too, making me feel like I had just given birth without having a baby to show for it. My family supported me wholeheartedly and made sure I stayed strong. Ivy didn’t see or speak to her sisters, dad or me for those six days and we all felt lost without her.
I picked her up from my parents’ house yesterday morning and our reunion was one of the most emotional moments I have experienced in my life. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt seeing her sweet face again. I was afraid she would reject me and I wouldn’t have blamed her for it. Instead, she ran to me as soon as she spotted me walking in the front door. I sobbed tears I didn’t know I had left in me.
She has since asked to breastfeed a few times, but I rejected her every time. I am still producing enough milk to sustain a newborn, but I won’t go back, much as I would love to give her one more feed. Almost 22 months of breastfeeding is more than I had ever dreamt of being able to give her. I am grateful for every feed I could give her, especially the ones that meant so much when she was very ill early on in her life.
But you cannot pour from an empty cup, as many friends told me time and again. And, although the ‘cup’ Ivy was drinking from was definitely not empty (and still isn’t), the rest of me was. Now it’s time to refill my own cup so I can better care for all the family.