But Good Mothers Breastfeed

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How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the crippling power of shame.

 But Good Mother Breastfeed: How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the  power of shame.

In between the in breath and the out breath, there was quiet.

“In,” cued the instructor, and my lungs sprang into action and my diaphragm dropped and my brain leaned back like it always does to settle down in a moment from the past.

I’m holding my baby.
She is almost two weeks old and I am so happy.
I happily take on diapers and nursing.
I get her photo taken on a furry little rug, a wildly out-of-place flower set on her tiny, newborn head.
My old wounds fade – my demons quiet – in the novel satisfaction of being a good mother.But Good Mother Breastfeed: How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the  power of shame.

“Out.”
Pride blindness.
Ignorance.
Missing signs for which I didn’t think to look.
Never imagining there could be anything wrong.

I settle in deeper.
I remember my face falling when the nurse said “Get her to the hospital.”
I scanned the room of other nursing mothers cradling fat, sleepy babies.
They kept their eyes down, to protect what they were feeling from what I was feeling.
I looked into my lap and saw her for the first time.
Thin.
Pale.
Passed out after so many screams.

“Now.” the nurse said.

In between breaths I come back to the now. We’re on our mats, holding a supine twist, waiting for the teacher to cue the inhale. It’s quiet. I can feel my tight, reluctant muscles keeping my knees off the floor. I casually wonder if anyone has ever snapped their spine in half in a yoga class.

“In.”
I’m sucked back.
Richard and I rush her to Baystate Medical Center.
The ER nurse sees how small she is, and we’re rushed upstairs.
They have to stick her a dozen times to find a vein.
I’m asked to leave the room.
I can still hear her screaming through two sets of closed doors.
I think about killing the phlebotomist.

“Out.”
A young doctor in green scrubs knocks once on our room door, comes in, and sits down.
“She is malnourished and severely dehydrated.”
I think of an Eyewitness News segment I saw when I was a kid. A child was found chained to a radiator in the Bronx.
Malnourished and dehydrated.
Unloved.
Abandoned.

This was all wrong.
All. Completely. Wrong.
I had been breastfeeding because I was going to love her better.
Breastfeeding was evidence of my commitment – I would be a good mother.

I started minutes after she was born. I had nursed her at the first sign of a cry. I had nursed her all night, every night. I nursed her walking, sitting, and lying down.
But nothing had been coming out.
My baby had been starving at my breast, and I had been too wrapped up in “doing the right thing,” too blinded by novelty, pride, and the weirdness of motherhood to notice.But Good Mother Breastfeed: How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the  power of shame.

A nurse came in with a box of formula, and I fell apart.
“No, absolutely not.” I said, shaking.
The force of my reaction felt insane, even to me.
I bottle fed her formula that night, weeping.
Ashamed. Broken. A failure.

Now, in the breathless quiet, I blink and notice the second instructor moving toward me.
I feel her kneel beside me on the floor.

“In.”
I trusted what I’d heard and read – “milk production problems can be solved.”
Before we even left the hospital I became consumed with fixing what was wrong with me.
I took every suggestion.
I nursed all night, every night.
I took supplements.
I sat in bed while my baby napped, hooked up to industrial strength pumps, trying to milk myself into little plastic vials.
I took a drug that isn’t legal in the US because increased milk production was a side effect.
I even ate my placenta.

My efforts yielded no more than a shot of milk a day.

The more my body failed me, the more obsessed and driven I became.

“Do better,” I thought.
“Stop at nothing.”

I got donated breast milk from other nursing mothers.
Convinced that good mothers didn’t bottle feed, I used a supplemental nursing system that delivered the donated milk to my baby through tiny plastic tubes I painstakingly taped to my nipples 8-12 times a day.
I used the thinnest tubes because I’d been told “the harder your baby sucks, the more milk you’ll produce.”

I made my baby work for every swallow of another woman’s milk.
I made my baby work so I could feel like I was being a good mother.
I made my baby work so I could feel better about myself.
And I did it all because I did not understand – and could not tolerate – the depth and power of my shame.

“Out.”
I’m lying there, trapped in my head on my mat as my brain fires off a magazine of hate.

You could have killed her.
Who the fuck doesn’t notice that her kid is starving?
You should have just given her a bottle.
Are you completely out of your mind?
Why’s everything gotta be about you, you selfish piece of shit?
You could have killed her.
You should have tried harder.
You should have done more.
You never should have had a baby.
You could have killed her.
No wonder she loves Richard more.
You self-obsessed bitch, how could you not see what was happening?
You’re broken, right down to your tits.
You have no right to bring innocent people into this bullshit.
You’re selfish.
You’re pathetic.
You’re fucked up, always have been, always will be, and everything you touch turns to pain.

But Good Mother Breastfeed: How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the  power of shame.

And so on, ad infinitum.

There’s a pause. With empty lungs, I get a heartbeat’s break. The second instructor, kneeling, gently presses her hip against mine, supporting me. She places a warm hand on my hip, and the other on my shoulder.

“In.”
My mind stays here, now. I notice her begin to breathe with me. The awareness moves in on the storm in my brain.
I notice the feel of her body against mine.
Her hands.
So gentle.
She is simply here, with me.

“I don’t deserve her time and attention,” I think. “Doesn’t she know what I am?”

“I am fine.”

Wait…what…?

“I am fine. I am human, and I am fine.”

Who the hell said THAT?

I am aware of her gentle pressure on my body.
The sound and motion of her breathing.
The tightness in my muscles.
Then I notice an ache in the bottom of my stomach.
A tightness through my chest and throat.

“This feeling,” I think, “is shame.”

A bruise deep inside my intestines.
A sick, sinking suffocation.
Shame.

“The sensation is real. The sensation is now. The story is neither.”

And with that, the bruise in my body and the storm in my head break apart, like a rocket detaching from a space shuttle.
Without the story, the feeling changes. It shifts, lifts, and leaves.
I feel peace.

The instructor breathes, and I cry like a baby.

Emotion – Thought – Action

No one would argue that our thoughts drive our actions, but what drives our thoughts?

For many folks, especially those of us with traumatic histories, our thoughts are largely driven by powerful negative sensations in our bodies. Feelings. Emotions.

Feelings hit – often out of place, or out of proportion – and the brain quickly offers a story to back it up.

When the feeling is fear or shame, unless we have the tools to maintain control, we react mindlessly.

Often, we hurt ourselves or the people around us.

Unless we figure out how to relate to our emotions in a healthier way, we get blinded and buried by the force of them, and trapped in old, painful stories.

We walk around, 1medicated and miserable, wondering why we feel so disconnected.

Fear & ShameBut Good Mother Breastfeed: How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the  power of shame.

In his book Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson points out that “our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences, and teflon for positive ones.” That’s because fear and shame serve an important purpose. Back in the day, fear helped us avoid being eaten by saber-tooth tigers. Shame kept us from acting like a dick and getting thrown out of the cave in the dead of winter.  From a survival standpoint, these unpleasant emotions were – and often still are – critical to staying alive.

Like you, my emotions live in my body, and my negative emotions are quickly and easily triggered.

When I am the least bit self-conscious or embarrassed, I get hit with a wave of shame.

Immediately my brain starts to play any number of my million easy-access, shameful memories.

For instance, I may feel self-conscious in a gentle yoga class. My self-consciousness triggers the feeling of shame. Next thing I know I’m beating myself mercilessly with my most painful, shameful memories.

Unless I practice staying mindful of this phenomenon,  I spend huge chunks of every day trapped in a pure hell of my own design.

Unless I practice staying mindful I’m just a puppet, and pain is pulling my strings.

I didn’t know it at the time, but after I gave birth, fear and shame drove many of my thoughts and decisions. They took me out of my life, made me anxious and obsessive, and contributed to prolonged postpartum depression.

It remains to be seen what, if any, impact all that will have on my little girl.

Healing

Sadly, I can’t go back and change the past. But bet your ass I’m going to learn from it.

Today, I’m a mother of two lying on the floor in a yoga studio in near Boston. I’m training to facilitate a new practice called TIMBo (Trauma-Informed Mind / Body). It’s a practice that helps women with trauma process their emotions so they can feel well and live well.

TIMBo’s creator, Sue Jones, knows firsthand that pain and trauma live in the body. She stayed in an abusive relationship for years because old, painful emotions were driving her thoughts, and those thoughts were driving her actions.

Unacknowledged fear and shame kept Sue from noticing, internalizing, and honoring the truth – that she was being abused, and deserved to be safe.

My unacknowledged fear and shame kept me from being a well and present mother.

Lying there, being held by a trained TIMBo facilitator, I was able for the first time since my daughter was born to separate the sensory experience of shame in my body from one of my most painful memories.

The moment I saw them as two separate things – the sensation and the story – and allowed myself to feel the former without getting trapped in the latter, my shame began to heal.

It turns out that “feel your feelings” isn’t just meaningless shrink-speak.

Feeling our feelings actually can help us heal, no matter how old, or how deep, the wound.

It can help us love more deeply, and to feel genuinely connected to our bodies and lives.

It can help us finally feel genuine compassion for ourselves and others, past and present.

And just like anything that doesn’t come naturally, feeling our feelings takes strong tools and support.

With the right tools and support, every pain we feel can be an inroad to peace.

With the right tools and support, we can live in and feel connected to the present. We can create a better future, without tripping mindlessly, over and over, into painful reruns of the past.

With the right tools and support, we can be the women (and mothers) we are meant to be, not the women we’ve come to believe we “should” be.

 

My hat is off to TIMBo’s founder, Sue Jones, TIMBo’s Top Dawg Facilitator and Premier Breath-Cuer, Emily Peterson, and the facilitator whose patient, loving touch shifted my thinking, Yekta Zarrinkafsh. Ya’ll are some hot shit, ladies. Thank you.

Notes:

  1. self-

Comments

  1. says

    This work, Coffey. This work you are doing right here is going to combine with the work you are already doing out in the world, and the combination will catapult you. This is the path to whole. Hold on to your ass, girl-shit’s about to get real. Powerful, unstoppable stuff. I have even more love and compassion for you, reading this story. <3

  2. Jess says

    Reading this brought me back to all the shame and pain I felt during my failed breastfeeding experience. It’s hard to articulate it to someone who didn’t experience this kind of failure. I felt betrayed by my body and then so ashamed to have failed at something that is supposed to be my natural role… But even more ashamed that I starved my baby. How did I not know? Years later I still want answers, but even more, I want relief. I want to let it go. I want to forgive myself. I want absolution. And I don’t know how to get it. Thank you for articulating the trauma for the rest of us.

  3. NoLongerCrunching says

    I had the opposite experience but just as much fear and shame over my feeding of my child. When I took her for her two-year-old check up she was found to be obese. I was so shocked it made me dizzy. I had no idea whatsoever that she had a weight problem. When I looked at her I just saw my beautiful little girl that was perfect in my eyes. But there was the weight chart in black-and-white. The hard evidence was that something in the way I was feeding her was hurting her body. I still feel crushing shame and fear on an almost daily basis. She is nine years old and still overweight despite me trying everything I can. Her nutritionist believes it is not my fault and that she has sensory issues that make her not be able to sense when she’s full. It’s hard for me to believe that it may not be my fault, because I feel like it is.

    With regard to your situation, I came across this piece because I am a lactation consultant. I see things like this every single day (thankfully I have never had to recommend a baby going to the ER, but I have certainly had some scary situations). The first thing I tell all my moms is that the situation is not their fault, and that I can see how hard they have worked for their baby . As you now know, you can go to the ends of the earth to prevent or treat low milk supply, but our bodies are going to do what they’re going to do. If we had any control over our biology, my sister would have a working pancreas instead of having to inject insulin. It is so cruel to tell mothers that if they do everything “right,” they can control of their milk supply.

    Thank you for sharing your story, it is stories like these that are going to get the word out and make low supply mothers feel less alone.

  4. says

    Hi Kelly. I audited your childbirth class at Cradle and found you to be an inspiring human then. You continue to impress me with your willingness to dive into your own depths and share your learning with others. Thank you so much. Please let me know when you start bringing this new work to your practice; and also, how young of a woman you might work with.

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