How trying to fix my low milk supply became a study in the crippling 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fucked up, always have been, always will be, and everything you touch turns to pain.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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 & 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.
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.
- self- ↩