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Breastfeeding Sisters
Finding ways to support each other during the joys and problems of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing

by Jeanette Carey-Polachok

breastfeeding newborn
Photo (c) Todd Taulman/Shutterstock

When my daughter Erin made her grand entrance into the world, two things happened that I hadn’t anticipated – my mental breastfeeding research library seemed to vanish into thin air and I realized that my decision to move halfway across the world from all the women in my life who really knew me had the emotional weight equivalent of an elephant. A really big elephant.

I looked at this tiny human being who had been inside my uterus only hours before and cried. I cried because of the overwhelming shock to my system that I was now entirely responsible for a helpless little person and I was sure the wrong candidate had been hired for this job. I cried because of the unbelievable pain that flared every time Erin latched on and I cried even more because of the mounting resentment I was feeling every time she wanted to nurse. Somehow, I’d taken a wrong turn and found myself trapped inside a nightmare start to breastfeeding that was not at all what I signed up for.

My mother had made it look easy, all those years ago when I watched her nurse my three siblings. At least that’s what my memory tells me (not that I can honestly say that is always a trustworthy source!). It was just a matter of popping your kid on the boob and the vibes of nature would then take over. Right?

My mother was who-knows-how-many miles away asleep in bed beside my father in their Aussie home, which, up until the end of June 2001, was also my home. My parents brought us up to go forth as citizens of the world, believing in the importance of us learning about the other countries, cultures and peoples of this planet. My first trip to Canada was on a high-school student exchange program in 1991 and a few trips later I returned on a one-way ticket to set up a new life in the country with which I had fallen in love as a 16- year-old all those years ago.

Now, I left the hospital with my husband and newborn daughter, an emotional wreck with a broken spirit over the fact that I’d agreed to supplement with formula. The pain of Erin’s latch had begun to outweigh my desire to nurse and I didn’t want her to starve. I felt cheated out of my ideal start to nursing and, in both absolute frustration and a last-ditch attempt to save any hope of my chance of breastfeeding, I called Mum. I needed her to explain to me why this wasn’t working and why I felt so ripped-off that this painful cracking business was something it seemed nobody had warned me about in any conversation or on any page.

Mum snapped me out of my pitiful stupor pretty quickly when she told me, in her best mother-reprimanding-a-naughty-child tone to “stop giving her that formula or else your milk won’t come in.” I was so sore, so tired, so deeply upset and confused and utterly hormonal, that I found myself focusing on just nursing Erin whenever she needed to feed for the next week and a bit, even if it meant gritting my teeth and crying through almost every feed. That, and Mum’s other golden nugget of advice: “Forget the clock; you’ll drive yourself nuts if you focus on things going according to a regular schedule.” Thus we learned which member of the family was the real head of the household!

Things got a little worse before they got better and, unfortunately, I still to this day have the scars to prove it. All of a sudden one day, it dawned on me that the milk coming out of my breasts was an absolutely amazing thing and the fact that I could sustain my child’s nutritional needs solely through my own efforts became the biggest self-esteem boost I probably have ever had.

On the morning of March 1st, I was trying to get both Erin (then almost 15 months) and myself dressed and ready for the day when the phone rang. I frantically rifled through the pile of clean laundry that was on our bed for the phone that Erin had decided to hide.

“What’s her name?” was the first thing that came out of my mouth when I heard my mother’s voice. It was the call I’d been expecting for a couple of days – the announcement of my newest niece’s arrival. “No name, we don’t know anything yet aside from the fact that she has a good set of lungs,” was Mum’s response.

My parents and sister Carolyn were at the hospital, waiting outside the delivery room while my other sister Christine and brother- in-law Matt experienced the culmination of a long and emotional journey. My niece, who was eventually named Ruth, was born with a cleft lip and palate – something they were told about after the 18-week ultrasound. As one journey ended, another was just beginning. And I was half a world away from the action, playing the role of elated Auntie from afar.

To be honest, I’m still a little cranky over how I had found out Christine was pregnant. No phone call – whereas I’d made sure I called everyone in my family individually to share our news. No, in these modern times of technological advancement, I logged onto my instant messenger program one night to chat to a friend and saw my mother’s personal message line that read “Grandmother to be… again!” Given the fact that we’d been staying with Christine and Matt barely two months prior on my first visit back home, and that she’d secretly confided in me that they were trying to conceive, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. I said a few cranky things to my Mum about sharing news that wasn’t hers to share and called Christine for the official confirmation.

Woo hoo!! I was going to be an Auntie again (I already had a Canadian niece who was 13 months older than Erin). And I was absolutely elated that I was going to be able to share the mothering experience with one of my sisters, even if it had to be heavily assisted by modern technology. I kept tabs of what week of her pregnancy she was in and chatted to her regularly about pregnancy symptoms and plans for the future of her firstborn child.

The whole world came crashing down one morning, the day after I knew she’d had her appointment for her first ultrasound. I wondered why I hadn’t seen her online, didn’t have an email with an update. I was getting ready to go out for a walk with Erin when the phone rang and I heard my mother’s voice on the line. Odd time for her to call, given the time difference, so immediately I was worried. She called me because she felt it was important for me to know that during the scan, the technologist had found an odd dark spot in the baby’s facial area. There had been silence, then waiting while a doctor was summoned. Then there was the news that their baby had a cleft lip and more than likely either a full or partial cleft in her palate as well.

I didn’t even notice the “her” bit because I nearly dropped the phone on the kitchen floor. I was shaking and glad that Erin was amusing herself with some toys on the floor nearby. Images of children with cleft lips came to mind. I knew that was something that could be fixed with surgery but the palate bit frightened me because I didn’t know what it meant.

I spent the next hour filling my head with anything I could find on the web about what a cleft lip and palate meant. Before long, I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach. If what the doctor saw in the scan was true, Christine would most likely not be able to nurse her baby.

At that moment Erin, who had fallen asleep on my lap, woke up to nurse. And as she nursed, I watched her big blue eyes looking up at me, her left hand reaching out to touch my face and the little giggle and grin she gave me when I blew lightly on her fingers. I thought of the time when I was sitting on the steps at the end of our hallway before our trip to Australia, nursing her while I was on the phone with my father. I was cracking under the pressure of everyone’s expectations of what we were supposed to be doing during our trip and Dad was trying to calm me down. Suddenly, I looked down because I felt Erin unlatch, and there she was lying on my lap looking directly into my eyes as she babbled away softly a few “words,” before giving me a huge smile and finishing her lunch. It was as if she herself was telling me not to worry, that things would be ok.

I cried so hard that I soaked the poor kid and had to change her whole outfit once she was done. The concept of Christine not being able to enjoy the nursing part of the mothering experience that I had now come to truly treasure seemed like a catastrophe that I, for some reason, needed to mourn. So I spent a lot of time thinking and crying over the next few days, especially when I was curled up with Erin at my breast. Now it was Christine who was being cheated, not only out of her ideal start to nursing, but out of the whole nursing experience entirely. What a cruel stroke of misfortune this was and, once again, I was so far away I couldn’t even comfort her properly in her time of need.

Or so I thought. Once she was up to talking about the whole situation, I managed to get her side of the story over a series of chats and phone conversations. And over the course of the remainder of her pregnancy, we kept up our contact and shared links to websites and any other information on what was involved with parenting a baby with a cleft lip. After several subsequent scans, it was confirmed that my niece would be born with a partial cleft in her palate as well, so Christine and Matt began to prepare for the inevitable change in the baby feeding routine.

Talk of breast pumps became very important and we offered to send them a contribution towards one as our gift for the baby. She ended up buying the same one that I had and it is still her near-constant companion. My niece was exclusively fed on breast milk up until she started on solids at just over 7-1/2 months. To say I’m proud of Christine for the way she came to terms with her situation and for the way she soldiered on through the weeks and months with the pump at her side is an understatement. It’s one of the clearest examples of a mother’s absolute and self-sacrificing love that I’ve ever seen.

These days, Erin often walks up to me when I’m seated at my computer and climbs up on my lap to pat my breasts and tell me “noo noo all done Mama!” Weaning happened a little over five weeks before she turned two, almost eight months longer than any of the nursing milestones that my mother reached with the four of us kids – something my mother told me, once I’d passed the 16-month mark – because we’d all self-weaned around the time we were 15 months. And even though that conversation was a typed one, it was almost like I could tell that we’d all weaned before she was ready and she was envious that Erin and I were still going strong.

Then Erin will point at the screen and tell me “I talk to Ruth.” When Christine and Matt first got their webcam and we had that first chat, it was a very special moment. I finally got to see and hear Ruth in real-time and they, in turn, could see how much Erin had grown. Our chats are now filled with toy show-and-tell, games of peek-a-boo, songs and the reading of stories so our girls can get to spend time with each other while we’re spending time with them. Erin even tries to tickle Ruth, send kisses through the screen and show her the latest masterpiece she’s created, while Ruth squeals in delight whenever she sees Erin’s face on the screen.

Despite both of us being breastfed and passionately wanting to have this wonderful experience with our own babies, life threw us different challenges that we didn’t expect. But somehow, my sister and I did our jobs as mothers just right. Our girls are thriving, beautiful, expressive little people who both love animals very much and are curious about the world around them. Maybe one day we’ll let go of them long enough to allow them to go out there and explore that world just like their mothers did.

Jeanette Carey-Polachok is an Australian-born, Canada-based wearer of many hats, including being a mother to a busy two-year-old daughter and a writer inspired by the multitude of experiences that life has brought her way.

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