what has become of me?

Standing in the dining room the other day, I looked down at myself and asked my husband, “What has become of me?”

I was wearing some dirty crew socks, droopy maternity shorts, and a red, long-underwear style shirt with no bra. Over the top of this classy ensemble was a hot pink fuzzy robe, worn wide open, Cousin-Eddie-style. And my hair…oh, the madness! I caught a glimpse of it in the mirror that morning and it was a cross between Grease Lightning and a nest made out of straw.

I’ve seen a lot of inspirational quotes and memes lately encouraging moms to take care of themselves. They recommend “radical self-care” and “refueling” and “do you, boo” because a car can’t run on fumes forever and neither can a mom. And this is so very true. In fact, I’m guilty of not even doing rudimentary self-care. Like, sometimes I even have to tell myself, Go poop now…don’t wait. Take care of yourself. Otherwise, several hours will pass and I’ll realize I’ve had to go since that morning. It’s that ridiculous.

Aside from needing to tend to my digestive health a little more carefully, most days, I’ve actually welcomed this new state of being. Mila doesn’t care a lick what I look like (yet) and it feels really nice to not worry about it. My makeup drawer has been nearly untouched for months and my yoga pants are wearing thin. Easy breezy. Not exactly a Cover Girl, but I hardly care.

Hardly. Until I slow down and catch a glimpse of myself. And then I have a momentary break down and cry out, “What has become of me?”

Almost six years ago, my dear friend Marguerite and I got together while I was visiting Michigan. I was twenty-six years old and preparing for my wedding that summer. Marguerite had just become a mother.

As we walked around her old neighborhood, Marguerite asked, “So, do you think you and Mike want to have kids someday?”

I explained my trendy, yet practical hesitation of over-population and shared honestly about feeling too selfish to be a parent. Marguerite said that she could see where I was coming from but she really hoped I would become a mother someday. She went on to explain that she never knew she could ever be so patient and that it brought out a beautiful part of her that she never knew was there. The notion that parenthood could yield growth in self-love was surprising to me.

Today, four months into this new role of mother, I see exactly what Marguerite meant. I’m surprised by how easy it is to put my cell phone down and be present. I never knew I had so much motivation in me to get outside and look closely at a leaf. And that patience Marguerite spoke of is there too. I can hold my baby close, while she screams in my ear, as long as it is needed, and not wish I was anywhere else. Motherhood has unearthed a version of myself that I really rather like.

I know I’m only in the first leg of this journey called parenting. I know the resentment of lost “me time” and the anger of peanut butter sandwiches shoved into the VCR (that problem is pretty much obsolete…) and the exasperation of grocery line tantrums are on their way. And I’m not saying that I didn’t chug a glass of wine last night after she woke for the third time in an hour. Parenthood does not make you fart rainbows, necessarily.

But I am really loving it. Even when I look like a deranged version of Maxine from the greeting cards. I see a heart of gold, tarnished by years of self-focus and simply growing up, getting its sheen back.

In the book mama, bare compiled by Kristen Hedges, a woman writes about her life before motherhood:

Even as I remember the girl who was before you, I can’t wrap my heart around a time when you weren’t with me, as though you were something always carried, somewhere in my girlhood and my singleness and our early marriage, something always waiting to come and break and mend everything, all at once.”

What has become of me? I have been broken and mended, all at once. I am disheveled and tired but patient and strong. I have become a mother.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 3)

Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

The days that followed felt less like a Christmas miracle and more like a bad hang over. I limped about the house with an aching vagina, while my boobs leaked everywhere. And I was out of my mind exhausted. I don’t even think there is a word to describe how fucking tired you are in those first weeks. I felt like a two year old who had missed their nap. Except, way worse. By dinnertime I had lost my ability to positively interact with adult humans. And in the middle of the night, I’d sit on my side of the bed feeding Mila while sobbing my eyes out.

But little by little, nursing got better. It took two more trips to the lactation consultant, lots of reading on kellymom.com and La Leche League resources, and umpteen emails/texts to my sister asking, “is this normal?”

On one of the visits to the lactation consultant, I learned that I had overactive letdown, which caused Mila to cough and gasp every time she ate. To compensate she would flick her tongue to keep from choking on the milk, which in turn caused my nipples to become terribly bruised. She suggested lying down while nursing so gravity would help control the amount of milk she was getting. Even though it was pretty inconvenient, it worked like a charm.

I even stopped being so negative with myself. In fact, any time it felt hard, I channeled my frustration into a little pep talk to Mila. “We’ll get it, girlfriend. Let’s try again. We’ll get it.”

I may have really been talking to myself.

While the mechanics of breastfeeding were improving daily, there was one part that continued to be disappointing. I never got those super happy feelings while nursing. Instead, every time I’d feed Mila, and we’d settle in, I’d get this terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like doom or that everything was falling apart. It was predictable and depressing. I chalked it up to hormones and sleeplessness.

When my sister came to visit, I mentioned it to her while complaining about how much I didn’t love breastfeeding. I was surprised when she said that there was a term for what I was experiencing. Apparently there’s a condition called “D-MER” which stands for Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. Which basically means that, while most women get a fantastic rush of oxytocin, giving them all these loving, amazing feelings, some women’s bodies do the opposite. They get a rush of anxiety and deep hopelessness when their milk lets down.

For eight weeks straight, I thought I was just super depressed and that I just happened to notice it while feeding her when I slowed down enough to think. But learning that there was an explanation for those feelings was very helpful for me. When we’d settle in to nurse and I’d feel that anxious rush, I’d tell myself: This is just a mixed signal from my brain. You’re ok. Everything is ok. Somehow naming it helped me cope. And as time has passed, though I still feel it, the rush has become far less piercing.

If you had told me on day one that we were going to make it a week breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me in week four that I’d ever wean her off a nipple shield and breastfeed in public, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me in week eight that I’d ever enjoy breastfeeding, I would have told you to shut your pie hole.

But I’m there now.

Right now Mila Marguerite is lying in my arms nursing. I’m doing it one handed, nipple shield-less, while typing with the other. Her little hand is sweeping up and down my left arm as if she is saying, “There, there mama. There, there.” I look forward to it now and I know that I will miss it when this part of motherhood comes to a close.

I’m not writing this to convince anyone of anything. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty about how they feed their kid. Formula, boob juice, Kool-Aid, whatever. (OK, don’t be a dummy and feed your infant Kool-Aid.) But I get it. Breastfeeding was really, freaking hard. I think the only reason it worked for me was that I tapped into a huge network of support. (THANK YOU to those who helped).

This piece is just a little, personal manifesto of something I followed through with that was really quite difficult. Which is a big deal for me. I don’t run marathons. I got the stupid (but glorious) epidural during birth. I’m really not a disciplined, tough it out, kind of person. But here we are, my girl and me, nursing with the best of them. And I’m proud of myself. Motherhood has sparked something in me that I didn’t know was there.

And if you are also on this journey, it’s in you too. I’m sure you’ve noticed it. You are doing things you never dreamed possible – and you are doing it with inexplicable love and grace. Your days (and nights) are laced with both joy and pain. And they will fly by, as I’m sure everyone and their mother likes to remind you. Just remember, whatever it is you are trying to figure out, you’ve got this mama.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 2)

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Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

Our first night at home with Mila was a very determined and complicated dance. Mike would hold her as I tried to squeeze little beads of milk out of my boob onto a spoon. Then we’d put it in her mouth. She would soothe for a second as I let her suck on my pinky finger and then she’d remember that she wanted food and start screaming again. So we’d repeat the process. Pass her to dad, massage the boob, collect three tiny drops on the spoon, put in baby’s mouth, let her suck, scream, repeat. After several rounds, then we’d try to get her to latch on with the shield. It felt like a nightmare. And our Wednesday appointment with the lactation consultant felt like a million years away. Surely our baby was going to die of starvation.

The next day, as I continued to work with Mila to latch on, I angrily thought about how “beautiful” everyone told me it would be. How I’d be washed over with drug-like oxytocin as I gazed into my baby’s big eyes. But this was not the case. It was worse than anything I could have imagined. It was a circus-act of attaching a plastic shield to my boob as I juggled a screaming baby and tried to prop pillows and keep her flailing arms from knocking the shield off. But my knowledge of what was “best” brought me stubbornly back to it, breathing through the pain and hating every second of it.

That afternoon during a particularly painful nursing session, I looked down to find the nipple shield was filled with blood. Freaking out, I quickly checked her mouth to determine the source and then realized that it was actually me that was bleeding. I remember thinking. Dear God, why is this so fucking terrible? How did anybody ever survive before formula was invented? And my heart lurched with equal parts dread and guilt every time anybody would say, “I think she’s hungry.”

At five o’clock, one of the local La Leche League leaders called me back. We had been playing phone tag since the night before. And while I am usually a very cautious call-screener, I answered the phone on the first ring. The kind woman introduced herself as Joy and listened carefully as I told her about the blood and how much it hurt. She asked questions and suggested resources. She stayed on the phone with me even when I could hear her own children demand her attention on the other side of the line. And then she asked if I’d like her to come over. I almost cried. “Yes, please!”

Joy knocked on my door an hour later, with her littlest one in tow. He was in his pajamas and looked sleepy. So did Joy. I invited her to my room where I had set up camp for my “postpartum recovery” and brought in some toys for her little one to play with while we talked. She asked if I would like for her to watch me feed Mila. It felt weird, this complete stranger, standing in my bedroom and asking me if I wanted her to watch me. I recalled how I said I’d never be that lady who just bares her boobs for all to see. But again, somehow, I didn’t care any more. I immediately started undoing my nursing bra.

After observing me fumble around with my feeding routine, Joy mentioned a technique called “laid back breastfeeding.” She had me strip Mila down to her diaper, lie back on some pillows, and put Mila on my tummy. Essentially, the goal was for her to wiggle herself up to my breast on her own. I had seen videos of brand new babies doing it straight out of the womb, army crawling up their mom’s bodies in search of the breast, and latching right on as if they were professionals. It was nuts. But I’d try anything at that point.

It didn’t really work…I had to help Mila get up to my boob (what a lazy little critter, she just laid there like a slug) and I still had to put my nipple in her mouth. But there was something very relaxing about it, even with a complete stranger watching. No one was grabbing my boob and trying to shove it into my baby’s mouth. I also noticed something different. When Mila spit the shield out, it was full of milk.

Joy looked at me and said, “I think your milk is coming in.”

It was like a Christmas miracle in mid-September. I had totally forgotten about milk because I was so focused on those tiny amounts of colostrum. I felt some serious relief to know that, while my brain was busy being Panicky-Polly, my body went ahead and did what it was supposed to. My boobs went from a dripping faucet to a bursting fountain in a matter of hours. At the very least, I could squirt this stuff into her mouth or pump it out. I didn’t care how, my baby was going to eat!

When Wednesday came I was both excited and nervous. It meant we could finally see a lactation consultant again but it also would be the first time leaving the house with Mila. My mom and I drove across town with a “hungry baby” as they instructed us to bring. Like three highways and a lot of traffic, across town. I cried the whole drive there because the radio kept playing songs that reminded me of a friend who had just passed away. Meanwhile, Mila screamed as if her life was over in the backseat and my boobs tingled and hurt in response. The Bluetooth connection between mama’s milk ducts and the sound of her baby’s cry is ridiculously good technology.

The new lactation consultant welcomed my mom and I into her little office with a bright beaming smile. She invited me to sit in a cushiony chair so she could watch me feed Mila. I unbuttoned my shirt for yet another stranger with front row seats to my topless show. Mila did an ok job of latching. I think she was showing off. But it only worked if I bent my body way over her and held my boob in her mouth, and only if it was on the left side.

After watching me for a bit, the consultant recommended that I continue to use the shield but assured me that I’d be able to wean her off of it eventually. She then weighed Mila as I nervously awaited the verdict. I expected her to immediately grab a can of formula and perform an emergency feed right on the spot.

“Good job mama,” she said confidently. “She is well within range of normal weight loss after birth. You are doing great!”

I almost looked behind me to see to whom she was referring. I couldn’t believe it.

Sure, we both really sucked at this nursing thing (no pun intended). It was annoying and hurt like hell and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to manage it in public, with all the acrobatics that were required. But my baby wasn’t going to die of starvation. So I vowed to try to make it to six weeks. Even though I really hated it. Like, a lot.

© 2016 D. Willson

milk (part 1)

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Photo by Brooke Collier. brookecollierphotography.com

I started having dreams about nursing the first time I was pregnant and they continued, through the grief of losing our baby, and into the joy of my second pregnancy. In most of these dreams, I discover that I haven’t fed the baby yet and a significant amount of time has passed since its birth. I run to the baby and it latches on immediately. It isn’t awkward. It’s easy and comforting.

In real life, however, the thought of breastfeeding a baby was terrifying to me. While I completely understood the Breast is Best campaign and respected and supported any woman’s right to nurse in public, MY breasts were meant for looking good in low cut tops and, let’s just say it, for sex. I felt like putting my fingers in my ears and saying “la, la, la” whenever I saw another article about the magic of the boob juice. I found myself searching for a loophole, a “This just in…Formula is Fantastic!” way out. But I knew it was simply my selfishness getting in the way. And I knew that in the end, I would probably choose it for my baby, as long as it was possible.

About a month before I was due to give birth, my sister sent me a link to a video about how to get a baby to latch on. However, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Watching babies breastfeed gave me the willies. Like watching surgery on TLC, back in the day before it was all about Honey BooBoo and duck-people. I told my sister thank you and proceeded to ignore it for several weeks.

Mila entered the world screaming like a banshee and mad as a hornet. Her cries were adorable and overwhelming. And they didn’t stop for a good hour or so after she was born. The attending nurse told me to let her know when I was ready to try latching on, but assured me there was no hurry. We lay there, my girl and me, skin to skin, while her purple lips quivered and yelled about her disrupted life. All I could think to do was stick a boob in her mouth to quiet her down. So I told the nurse we were ready.

Boy was I wrong. Nothing says welcome to the world like frantically trying to force feed as much breast tissue you can fit into your poor child’s wailing mouth. The nurse coached me on squishing my boob into the shape of a hamburger and putting my nipple in line with her nose. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt. But somehow I didn’t care. This babe needed to eat.

The next twelve hours were a flurry of doctors and nurses checking in on Mila and me, diaper changes, deliveries of terrible hospital food, and chaperoned bathroom visits to help me fill my giant diaper with an ice pack. (Birth ain’t pretty folks. It’s straight up trauma for your hoo-ha). Interspersed were continued attempts to feed Mila. The nurses assisted, shoving my boob into her mouth, giving me tips, rubbing her cheeks, etc. But with each try, we didn’t seem to make any progress.

That night, a new nurse came on duty. She moved quickly, busily and was kind of brusque. I decided that her mother must have disciplined her with a switch when she was a child. After several times trying to latch, and her hands gripping Mila’s head a little too tightly, she told me that she wanted me to try something.

After a half hour, she returned to the room (which had since filled with several visitors) and announced loudly, “You have flat nipples, this nipple shield will help.”

Rather embarrassed by the public revelation of my failed nipple shape to everyone and their brother, I reluctantly tried the new contraption. The shield was basically a little nipple-shaped piece of plastic that had holes in it. And miraculously (at least it seemed to me), it helped Mila latch. But now that she could suck, I began to wonder if anything was actually coming out. The nurse reassured me that she was probably getting something. I wasn’t so sure and requested that the lactation consultant come see me.

Determined to figure this out in the meantime, I watched all the videos I could find, including the one my sister sent me. I was rather surprised to find that the image of the baby nursing did not disturb me any more. Though I was pretty discouraged at how GIANT the women’s nipples all were and the abundance of the milk that came gushing out. I felt like a failure. My nipples were small, and apparently flat, and squishy. Nothing compared to the swords those women in the video were wielding about.

I was also discouraged because every website I found warned against using a nipple shield as it could lead to “nipple confusion” and dependency. I could see Mila lying on the couch at the shrink’s office in the future – explaining how confused her mother made her by the nipple shield and that’s why she likes to torture animals now.

Meanwhile another nurse came on shift. She had a warmer spirit but very cold hands and each time she tried to help shove my boob into Mila’s mouth, I winced from the pain of my very sensitive nipples and her icy touch.To make things worse, the nice, cold-handed nurse told me there was a good chance that the lactation consultant wouldn’t be able to make it to see me. Which meant we’d be going home with a hungry baby and no check up until three days later.

I began to panic. I didn’t want to spend another night in that hospital with yet another nurse who was less than helpful. But what if my body didn’t make the “liquid gold” that all the videos kept talking about? Maybe I could have a nipple transplant, on account of their misshapen state.

Around four-thirty, however, a lady with helmet hair and lots of makeup poked her head in the doorway. She looked more like she was coming to sell me Mary Kay than to give me breastfeeding advice. But I was immediately relieved to have her help. She began by asking why I was using a nipple shield. I explained that the nurse told me that I have flat nipples. She rolled her eyes and said, “Your nipples are just fine.”

She then suggested that I hold my baby like a football, propped a bunch of pillows around us, and then assisted in shoving my boob in Mila’s mouth yet again. But like all the other times, it simply didn’t work. Mila wouldn’t latch on.

“Hmmm…” she pondered, then proceeded to inspect Mila’s mouth. “She has a little bit of a lip tie, which might make it tricky to latch on. Maybe you should continue with the nipple shield.”

Just then the consultant’s little phone/walkie-talkie thingy buzzed and she was paged to another room.

“I need to get going,” she said. “But let me show you how to hand express for now.”

She pulled a plastic baggy with a plastic spoon and notecard inside it from her pocket. Before she left, she showed me how to squeeze my boob so that tiny beads of colostrum would come out, then used the spoon to collect it, and spoon fed them to Mila who gobbled it right up. For the first time in 24 hours, I felt like I was doing something right!

But that confidence quickly faded after she left as I struggled yet again to get Mila to latch on with the shield. And by then it hurt so badly I was in tears. My sister suggested that I call my La Leche League leader. I hated calling people I don’t know, but I felt desperate. The call went through to voicemail and I left a weird, over-apologetic message.

“Hi. This is, uh, Detta Hogan and I just had a baby and I can’t get her to eat. My sister is a member of the La Leche League in Michigan and she told me to call you for help. Can you help? I don’t even know if this is a thing you do. Sorry if it’s not. Please call me back. That is, if it’s convenient for you. But we are going to leave the hospital tonight, so if you could get back to me soon, that’d be great…Sorry to bother you.”

© 2016 D. Willson

and then she came

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My Dear. My Lovey. My Mila Marguerite. She is everything. The sun, moon, and stars all wrapped up in a tiny bundle of soft, pinkish skin and fuzzy hair. Her tiny mouth can make the most horrific sounds but then squeak so sweetly. Her smiles light up my heart like a lantern.

There is so much to share with you about this journey into motherhood. But I’ve had a serious case of writer’s block since the day I saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test. Actually, writer’s avoidance would be a more accurate description. To go from miscarriage to healthy baby in the scope of a year has been difficult, to say the least. I’ve been paralyzed by fear and the feeling of déjà vu which has marred many of the milestones we passed along the way. I plan to write about it all someday. Soon I hope, as pregnancy brain and new-parent sleep deprivation have added a thick fog to my memories of the last ten months.

For now, I will attempt to write about these past six weeks. which have been some of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. While most people would add “but the most rewarding” to that last sentence, I’m not quite there yet. I’m still in the tangled wood, mucking through. Except, unlike the days that preceded her birth, I’m not alone. I’ve got this new little force that’s attached to me as I walk. She looks up at me with her big, bush-baby eyes and for some odd reason, she trusts me.

This trust has not been fully earned, however. I often miss the mark. Sometimes I try to project way too much adulthood on this tiny fledgling. Like when she screams, I softly say to her, “Mommy’s here. I hear you. I know that you are sad.” She screams some more because these verbal reassurances are useless to a newborn. My breasts tingle to remind me that her needs are much more rudimentary. I need milk, I am wet, I feel tired, I want comfort. She strips me down.

My daily goals have begun to mirror this simplicity. Eat, go to the bathroom, try to sleep (keyword try). No schedule. Daytime and nighttime blending into each other in a maddening loop. I find myself sitting on the couch for hours at a time, no bra, switching baby from side to side and bouncing her in between. My modern mind requires entertainment, so I turn on television and binge watch five seasons of Sex and the City or check Facebook sixty times, refreshing the page like a drug addict.

It’s in these seemingly endless minutes, I question our purpose on this planet. I think about my pre-baby life with its to-do lists and a nine-to-five goal-driven career and I long for the order and feelings of accomplishment it brought me. But then I look down at my daughter (my daughterit feels so foreign to say these words) and suddenly it all feels a bit meaningless. The solar system of my life has shifted its orbit to circle this little girl who makes the funniest faces when she poops. I begin to wish I could give my mother a hug right then and there.

As I chat with visitors about how things are going, I find myself referencing my life after her birth with the hinge, “and then she came.” Without tone or context, the phrase can come across resentful. And while there are moments where I do feel that way, mostly it’s like in the creation story, when God said, “Let there be light.” There was nothing wrong with the darkness but when she came, she lit us up with her cries and her wide-eyes and her warm skin. And we were never the same.

I read somewhere that when a baby is born, there is also a death of the woman you once were. Perhaps this is why I shook from head to toe when they told me it was time to push. It wasn’t excitement. I was terrified of meeting her, of the transfer of energy from myself to someone else. It feels morose to reference this death when there is so much life and light that emerges at the same time. In fact, I don’t feel that the woman I was is gone. Maybe it’s better to call it a transfiguration.

© 2015 D. Willson