Monday, August 12, 2013

A Major Let-Down: Forced to Abruptly Wean

Most mothers have set a goal as to how long they intend to breastfeed.  Some will extend well beyond their goals and some may fall short. Health authorities have written guidelines suggesting length of time as well including the phrase “until mutually desired”.  The fact is our decision involves the luxury of choice.  But what happens when that choice is taken away?

This is the story of two mothers, in two different situations, facing two different realities.  Yet there is a common thread. Both were faced with life-threatening medical issues.  One, dealing with severe uterine hemorrhaging and the other was blind sighted by a malignant inoperable brain tumor.  To their shock and dismay, they had no choice but to abruptly wean their nurslings.     
I will introduce you to each mother separately and share excerpts from their emails posted to our community.   

First, there’s Dorana with daughter Joy who is 18 months old.  Not only did Dorana have breast reduction surgery at age 15, but her baby was tongue-tied as well which made for a challenging start.  Yet, Dorana breastfed Joy exclusively for 6 months and their nursing relationship continued to thrive well beyond.  It wasn’t until Dorana hemorrhaged several times over the last two weeks that everything changed.  After transfusions and uterine fibroid surgery, she was placed on hormonal therapy and is facing a likely hysterectomy. 
The following is part of her emotional post:

Dorana & Joy
“Joy came to visit tonight and for the first time since being admitted she started fidgeting with my gown and realized that she could pull on it and the snaps would pop open to expose my breasts...  I've developed a couple of blood clots in my leg and they've discontinued the Provera and are considering Lupron to freeze my system in hopes it will recover - but I can't breastfeed on the treatment.
It's so different being forced to wean.
It's been five days since I breastfed and I didn't know whether I would produce anything and whether it was a good idea to even allow it since as soon as I get this shot, it really would be over - would it be fair to allow it today?
But as she curled up next to me on the hospital bed and put her tiny hand in mine, she nuzzled against my breast and mumbled, "Mama, mama," softly while ever so gently patting her booby and began to nurse, I held her closely as I wrapped myself around her and quietly began sobbing as my husband hovered over us wiping away my tears...
I remembered the first time she struggled suckling in a room just like the one we're in today just down the hall after realizing she wasn't eating much with the bottle, not knowing if she was getting anything at all and whether I was producing anything since I had had a breast reduction at age 15.
I was brought back, those first few days I think I was terrified of touching her, maneuvering her like a fragile china doll instead of the assured lioness caring for her young.  
There were the all night feedings that ended in blood raw nipples and countless restaurants that gave wait staff and patrons a front row seat to view all the booby Joy could eat and how if things get bad, I can always run away with the circus as a contortionist having mastered the art of hovering over the back seat of the car whilst dangling my monster bobbies over her car seat mid epic meltdowns to quiet a hysterical baby...
They say you never know when it will be the last time - the last time you give a loved one a kiss goodbye, hear someone's voice, nurse your child...
I don't know if tonight in my hospital bed was the last time I'll be able to breastfeed my daughter.   There were more tears as I encouraged, "Okay, mama, say "Thank you booby!  Goodbye!" the way I had done a million times before...
I do know what a gift, a miracle really a true blessing it has been to have breastfed my daughter for 18 months.   I am proud of my body for the nourishment it provided my child. I will never forget her big eyes and endless lashes gazing into mine or the hours she slept atop my naked breast.”

Nancy & Hunter

Second, meet Nancy with baby, Hunter.  I had the pleasure of assisting Nancy early on as well.  Breastfeeding got off to a fabulous start.  Sadly, Nancy was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  I share with you her heartfelt account:
“I am a first time mom and my son is only 5 weeks old. When he was 3 weeks old I went to the ER with unbearable headaches. I didn't leave for 4 days. I left after surgery to put a shunt into my brain and also with a follow up with a neuro-oncologist to figure out the next steps to address the inoperable, malignant brain tumor they identified in the MRI.
I also found out last week that my treatment will now necessitate me being on chemotherapy, which is a change from their previous assessment that radiation alone would be sufficient. This change is important to my prognosis in a lot of ways, but the biggest impact to me mentally and emotionally thus far has been the fact that taking chemotherapy will preclude me from continuing to breastfeed my son.
I know many of my friends and family think I am silly for being so upset about losing my ability to breastfeed in the midst of all the other challenges my family and I are facing. But it truly breaks my heart. Breastfeeding helped me regain my bond with my newborn after being in the hospital and away from him for a third of his life, it made me smile every day, it helped me believe again for a little while in this body of mine which is failing both me and my son.
To Dorana: I just wanted to say that your e-mail hit very close to home for me, and while I hate to hear of someone else going through such difficult times, it helped me to hear that someone else understands how I am feeling, to be reminded of the gift I was given, and the beautiful memories I will have with him for those first few weeks of his life.”

We can take away many things from these two women, but what resonates most with me is their gratitude and willingness to embrace and share their vulnerability. For however long or short, breastfeeding meant much more than just a way to feed their child.  It was instrumental in fostering a relationship that knows no bounds, time or limits; one which transcends the physical.  Even though they were forced to stop nursing, these mothers will continue to nurture their souls with sweet imagery of breastfeeding…..lifting them up, lighting their way, eternally bonding them to their children.

In a world with so much uncertainly, there is one thing I am sure of.  The benefits of breastfeeding far surpass the milk itself.  The magic lays in the relationship that we so tenderly cultivate, leaving us feeling empowered and able to face and endure the hardest of times with honesty and authenticity, dignity and strength. 

What a gift we have created in this community of women!  I am awestruck by the power of maternal kinship, love and energy.  Each mother extends their hand and heart to hold and support each other, simply saying “You are part of our tribe and our tribe takes care of one another.”