[This is a story that's been brewing for about three years now, as you can perhaps tell by its length. I could never see the point in writing it out before--why dredge all that back up? why be discouraging?--until I accidentally dredged it all back up for myself just a few days ago and realized that I just needed to get it out. What can I say? A notebook and a pen (or keyboard and screen, as it were) have always been my best therapist...so, with an early, silly picture of the Kid thrown in for perspective *deep breath* here we go.]
I remember it as a sound. Like the rush of water against your ears when you're pushed into a pool unexpectedly.
The Kid, two days old, had been fussy and we hadn't been sleeping much, but--new parents that we were--it felt like we were just in the trenches, right where we were supposed to be. When our midwife said he was losing more weight than he should and that obviously something wasn't going right with our breastfeeding, I suddenly couldn't quite hear correctly. Everyone was looking at me to make decisions, but their words were just skipping across the top of the water I was trying to breathe through. My only job in the world was to feed him, and he'd spent his first days on this earth starving.
We breastfed exclusively for 4 days, give or take a few hours. If you haven't been there, you're judging me a little right now, and that's OK--I would've before, too. But you should know that nothing about that decision was easy.
I had my boobs looked at by more people than have seen them before or since, and finally ended up in a comfy rocking chair talking to a lactation consultant. "You're latch is good, it shouldn't hurt," she kindly frowned. My nipples were actually scabbed over from bleeding at that point so--while it was good to know that I wasn't technically doing anything wrong--I wanted to strangle her for that particular word choice.
The Kid was, mechanically-speaking, fine, too. Not a thing wrong with him, except that he was hungry.
The verdict was to keep trying to breastfeed him for 15 minutes a side, but to then hand the baby over to dad to actually eat while I pumped to try to get some milk going. This sounded good in theory--we're going to make more milk and we're going to get this baby fed at the same time--but in practice it meant that I was the mean woman who wouldn't give him food and dad was the hero. As you can imagine, that did not improve my mental health or feelings of self-worth.
And then there was the breastfeeding support group--another one to file away in the very-nice-people-I-wanted-to-strangle category. And copious amounts of herbs, which helped give me enough milk to barely coat the bottom of a bottle rather than just deposit a few droplets.
Even Sweet Husband was unhelpful, though he was trying with all his main and might to be otherwise. He knew I'd be angry at myself if I gave up, so he kept pushing me to just keep going. For the ordinary Meryl that would have been exactly the right thing, but all the underwater Meryl could hear was, "You're failing at this."
And I was. Blessedly, I never wanted to hurt myself or the Kid. If you had asked me that question, I would have raised an honest, sarcastic eyebrow, "I'm not that crazy." But, at the same time, I definitely wasn't OK. I kept asking Sweet Husband incredulously, "Why are you still here?" And I couldn't believe him when he answered "Because I love you guys" or "Where else would I be?" Call it hormones or bonding or even love--I was stuck in miserable, and the best thing I could think of to give Sweet Husband was permission not to be stuck with me.
As clearly as I can remember the start of the whooshing sound, though, I also remember the first moment I was able to kick up for air.
"If this is making you crazy, it's OK to stop," the Kid's doctor said. She was clear that it was my decision, that breast milk is awesome, that it was worthwhile to continue if I wanted to. But she was equally clear that this decision did not define whether or not I was a good mother, except insomuch as I choose to obsess over one small part of my baby's health as opposed to all of our well-being as a family whole. For some reason, her words sunk in when no one else's had, and it felt like someone had tossed me a life buoy.
Or, at least, the tip of one. Because when you've spent several years of your adult life being passionate about fresh, good food, feeding your baby out of a can is never going to make you feel warm and fuzzy. (This. A thousand times.) And when you know you're probably starting solid foods a tad early, but you just can't think about that over the happiness that you're that much closer to being "normal". And when you're washing bottles in a disgusting airplane bathroom. Or adding the bill for formula to your already stretched household budget. It comes in little waves, this feeling that pushes you back down.
Even, apparently, years after you thought you'd made peace with it.
Early on in this pregnancy, I signed up for a short, little weeknight breastfeeding class. While breastfeeding and depression had been bosom buddies in my experience with the Kid, my rational brain knows that there's no reason they have to be linked. This time could be totally different. This time it could be great.
I really do want to try breastfeeding again, albeit, this time with a can of formula already stashed in the back of the pantry. And to that end I thought maybe taking a brush-up class would help. I had steeled myself for a little sadness, maybe, but I thought I could definitely handle it.
I want to be totally clear--the teacher was wonderfully nice, completely not judge-y, and my reaction was absolutely not her fault. But when she started to talk about how engorgement was normal (there are people who have to do things to stop the milk?!) and aiming for 6 months to a year (more like 6 weeks...barely) and babies who refuse a bottle (wait, other babies don't lunge at those things?) and all the other stuff that I blithely soaked-up as gospel the first time around, I had to fight back tears. I was almost wishing for the whooshing noise to block it out. Every ten words or so, it felt like she was pouring lemon juice into a new surprise paper-cut.
I desperately did not want to cry in a room full of strangers, but there was just no way to leave. Sweet Husband could tell I wasn't OK--I knew if I met his eyes or tried to talk I really would bawl, so I was purposely avoiding his gaze--but he couldn't see a way out either. We were stuck. So, we sat there, trying to smile and nod and chuckle, for the longest hour and a half in my recent memory.
When we finally got into the car afterwards, I managed a weak joke, "Well now, that was absolute torture wasn't it?" before completely letting the sobs go. He patted my leg, as he piloted the car out onto the street, "You have a very healthy boy at home...."
"I know, and that should be enough...."
No, not "should be". It is....enough. He is more than enough. And so am I.
And if I have to say that to myself every time I look at my son or in the mirror for the next six months, that is exactly what I will do. Because, as horrible as the evening was, I'm actually grateful that it made me realize that--while I've learned to swim through motherhood quite well these days--pregnancy and postpartum hormones can churn up some stormy waves even when the skies look blue.
Birthing this baby doesn't scare me. Figuring out the logistics of two kids doesn't scare me--not really, anyway. But being trapped under the water again? Terrifies me. I'd give unmedicated birth to our Little Miss twice over to have those first few weeks slide blissfully by.
Unfortunately, that's not how it works, but nonetheless, I am still hopeful that this time will be better.
For starters, I'm so much mentally tougher than I was three years ago. (I blame the running miles a lot and the job a little.) I've figured out healthier ways to keep my head in a better place.
And, I also know that there really was never as much water above my head as I thought there was. As one of my favorite running bloggers says, "Just because it's bad doesn't mean it's going to get worse."
Mostly, though, having learned where the edge of that dark pool is, I hope I can treat it more carefully this time--get a deep, good breath before I go under, bob up and start floating sooner after that first plunge. I truly believe I can do this better--it's just a matter of not letting panic and sadness take hold so hard that I forget to remember to swim up.