Whether or not you planned to breastfeed your baby who died, when your milk comes in after loss it's a stark reminder of what you lost (like you needed another one)... It's like every other part of your body got the horrible news except your breasts. Your heart is heavy, your belly is deflated, your arms are aching. But your breasts are full of life-giving milk you had hoped to give to that baby and there's very little you can do about it. If you're ever so blessed to have the chance to breastfeed a living baby after loss, like I was, I was surprised by the emotional toll it took on me. So if the idea of "breastfeeding after loss" isn't "a thing" we talk about, it should be, and I'd like to take this last day of international breastfeeding week to tell my story.
I'll begin by saying, I have always believed that "fed is best." Since I was pregnant with Ryan I knew I wanted to try to breastfeed. But if it didn't work, or I didn't enjoy it, I would be happy to bottle feed formula. I maintained that philosophy with each of my children. So when Brayden was born, and breastfeeding hurt more than I anticipated, and was so incredibly stressful -- was he getting enough, was he getting ANYTHING, why was this so awkward, shouldn't it be more natural???? -- I lasted one week. I turned to the pump, and I pumped and pumped and pumped for him for 3 months. When I decided to stop (I'll never say "quit" -- that's such a failure word), I basically was only making a few ounces per day for him and the rest was formula. It was a lot of work, a ton of commitment, and for very little milk. Some might ask why I even pumped for that long (and 3 months really isn't that long compared to what some mamas do -- hats off to them!) if it wasn't even a lot of milk being produced. The answer is simple. I needed to feel like I was doing everything I could for him. That putting myself through some pain and stress and the demanding schedule of pumping was worth it because he was here -- alive! I cannot tell you the torture I put myself through when I stopped trying to breastfeed after 1 week. It was this battle between, "I didn't get to do this for Ryan so dammit I'm going to do this now." And "It's so stressful and hard and I just want to relax and have an easy time now that he's here... ALIVE." So when I made the choice to switch to bottles and pumping it wasn't this easy choice that I had always told myself it would be. "...if it didn't work, or I didn't enjoy it, I would be happy to bottle feed." Not so much the case. I felt let down by my body when Ryan died, and now my brain was trying to tell me I was somehow letting Brayden down.
I'm here to tell you, nearly 3 years later, that is simply NOT TRUE.
The very same way I did everything I could for Ryan, I did for Brayden too. My heart, my mind, we all made the decision to bottle feed Brayden and that was the absolute best and right choice for us then.
Enter Brianna. 2 years later.
I'm filling out my hospital paperwork before her birth and there's that question: Breast or Formula feeding? I tentatively checked breast. I'd come a long way in my grief since Brayden was born. I could handle trying this whole breastfeeding thing again, right?
And I was right.
It hurt like I remembered. At first. And it was as stressful as I remembered. At first. But my heart was more ready to persevere through some pain and some unknowns. It doesn't mean I care more for Brianna than Brayden. It doesn't mean I didn't still wish every single time she latched that I had the opportunity to share that closeness with Ryan. I was just in a different place than I was when Brayden was born (a mere 13 months after Ryan died, I should add).
And now, 8 months later, our breastfeeding journey is coming to an end. And oh my goodness, I am much more emotional about it than I ever could have anticipated. Because it has been a journey. From that first time I was discretely told I had leaked through a shirt after Ryan died, and I cried and I cried. To those nights I cried with Brayden in my arms wanting so much to feed him but not having the emotional strength to. To the afternoons spent singing to him and reading with him on the floor hooked up to that pump filling the room with its mechanical rhythm. To that first time Brianna latched in the hospital and I thought, I might actually be able to do this. To the awful blister, the middle of the night engorgement, and short but unforgettable period of cracks and bleeding. To the endless hours rocking together in her room. Quiet moments in a life with too few quiet moments these days. To the night that I know is getting so close -- our last time whenever that will be.
I don't know what it's like to breastfeed a baby when you haven't experienced the death of a baby. I do think, like with most things, it just adds this extra layer of complexity. Desperation. Another layer of guilt if it doesn't go the way we hoped or planned.
But the way my journey -- our journey -- played out feels right now. Complete. And I can stand comforted knowing we always did what was right for us. And that decisions fuelled by emotion, by grief, got us right where we are. I'll always be sad I didn't have a choice with Ryan. I don't regret not breastfeeding Brayden. Not anymore. And I'm so grateful I had this opportunity to breastfeed Brianna.
What a beautiful journey it's been.