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Exclusively Pumping: Round 2

As I began preparing for motherhood three and a half years ago, breastfeeding wasn’t really on my radar. It’s natural, it’s what is best for our child, so I’d do it, close the book. I had no idea how challenging it could be or how emotional I’d be about all of it. I guess I also never thought much about the fact that we’re lactating mammals, and so I also didn’t fully digest that until it was upon me (and it’s still kinda weird!).

Still, a friend of mine suggested I order a breast pump (currently available for free to expectant mothers through the ACA) before he was born and suggested a model, so I got one, because hey – free! Imagine my shock when I struggled with nursing and ended up exclusively pumping. I wrote about here when I was at the seven month milestone. My goal was to pump for a year, but due to travel schedules and other things that interrupted my weaning plans, I pumped for nearly 14 months.

With my second child, my plan was similar, but I had more experience this time, so I was able to be more successful at it and start winding down around month 11 (it takes some time to wean).

My experience was definitely a lot different with my second. Since I knew I was planning to EP, I was able to start everything in the hospital while I was recovering, and really set myself up for success by pumping frequently from the beginning. This gave me a much better supply of milk, but I also think that as a second time mother my body kinda knew what to do. This additional supply allowed me to freeze a lot of milk in the first four months and so I was actually able to start weaning just shy of my little one’s first birthday, and still have enough to get him through.

Supply is a huge topic in the realm of breastfeeding. It’s a major source of stress and desperation. I put on about 30 pounds after my first pregnancy because I was incredibly hungry all the time, and I tried to cut back on how much I was eating, I’d have a drop in supply. Turns out, there is an entire mother-driven (yay!) industry around products designed to boost supply. Cookies, brownies, both fresh and packaged, and lots of herbal supplements in various forms. As a skeptic who is a big supporter of the science-driven medical community, I’d never tried herbal supplements that didn’t have studies to back up their effectiveness. This changed while breastfeeding the first time. I didn’t go overboard, but I did order things from a handful of small companies because I really wanted a magic bullet to boost supply. Alas, for me, there was no magic. None of the brownies or herbal fixes did anything for my supply. The answer was always “take in more calories, drink more water, and pump more frequently.”

Since I knew all of this for my second time around, I skipped all the supply-boosting stuff, and actually packaged everything I had left over that wasn’t expired and sent it to another new mother who was struggling (with the giant caveat, “nothing worked for me, but maybe it will for you!”). Thankfully, I wasn’t as hungry this time around, so my weight gain was limited, but around month nine I did have a dip in supply that caused me to start eating more, and ultimately put on 15 pounds. Fortunately I had lost 50 pounds since my highest weight after my first child, so gaining a few back hasn’t been catastrophic, and while I’m not happy about it, I have a plan to lose it again.

Another big difference this time around? Thanks to the pandemic, there has been no travel. I didn’t pump on any airplanes, or my office, or in cars, or in public restrooms. No putting in requests to have a mini-fridge brought to my hotel room, or tedious packaging of milk to ship home every day when I was at a conference. No careful planning of breaks during events so I could pump, or emailing event coordinators ahead of time to make sure there was a place to pump and store my milk. We were pretty much home all the time, and this made things significantly easier in this respect. Still, it’s not easy to be sole source of food for another person, and to give your body to this whole process.

Which brings me to that fact that when a person gets pregnant, they effectively surrender their body to the small embryo growing inside of them. Diet has to change (no alcohol, but also no deli turkey!), and even some self-care regimes have to be adjusted (love long, hot baths? You’ll need to pause them!). In some cases, like with my second pregnancy, you even have the added load of complications that impact your life. I had severe pelvic pain that began in the second trimester, limiting my mobility, and then gestational diabetes, which required a total overhaul of my diet in the last two months of my pregnancy. Even with daytime blood sugar in check, I ultimately had to start injecting myself with insulin during the last month.

When you’re breastfeeding, the journey is even longer. If I want to have a beer (AND I DO!) I have to time it properly. There are still foods that are off-limits, either because they cause a dip in supply (good bye, peppermint!) or have things that can be passed along in the breast milk (though, admittedly, none of us should be eating fish that’s high in mercury). A lot of medication is unsafe while breastfeeding because it can be passed to baby. And even though I exclusively pumped, strapping myself to a machine multiple times a day to extract breast milk is not something that makes me feel like I have much autonomy.

I had about a month between when I stopped breastfeeding my first child, and became pregnant with my second. Which means my body hasn’t really been my own for over three and a half years.

It’s taken a toll.

I mentioned the weight gain in both breastfeeding journeys, and I felt like I was sacrificing my health (weight gain) for the benefit of breastfeeding. Every time I reduced calories to where I want to be, or exercised more, I saw a drop in supply. As I saw that number creeping up on the scale, I kind of just gave in and did what I needed to do to produce the amount of milk we needed. Constantly thinking of pumping schedules, getting out of bed to pump at night or early in the morning, all added to my mental load, especially as we struggled with sleep problems with our second child. Cleaning pump parts all the time and making sure I had other supplies was also always top of mind. It’s a lot.

I’m grateful that I could naturally carry both my children through 37 weeks of pregnancy, and then provide enough breast milk to last until a little past their first birthdays. But breastfeeding is definitely something that causes me to pause as I reflect on this particular component of motherhood. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: as natural as breastfeeding is, it’s not easy. None of this is. Part of what allowed me to succeed was a fair amount of privilege that allows me to work from home during the pandemic, and the mental health and support to cope with the emotional toll it can take.

Finally concluding pumping this month has been a big deal for me. This won’t be a panacea for everything I’m struggling with, but it does help me get back on my path. I can get my diet back into check, I can see my neurologist about finding a treatment plan for my migraines, and I can even see about antidepressants again if I find that I need them.

Being a parent can be so much fun, and I’m looking forward to being able to fully embrace it all, but with my body being my own again.