To Nurse, or Not to Nurse: That Was My Question
When my husband and I chose adoption as the route to building our family, I was naturally curious about adoptive breastfeeding. I had grown up in a breastfeeding home, and most of my extended family members breastfed their children as well. Five years ago, back before our first child arrived, I cautiously checked out breastfeeding books from my local library. (I say “cautiously” because I felt like someone would, at any moment, pop around the corner with sirens blaring and point at me yelling, “FRAUD!”) I was disappointed to find that adoptive breastfeeding, when mentioned in just a few of these books, was given about three pages in a “special circumstances” chapter. (Reminded me of the “ethnic” hair care products at our local store: hidden in a dark, dusty corner shelf.)
When I approached a few medical professionals about the idea of adoptive breastfeeding, I was greeted with either surprise (“Is that even possible?”) or disgust (a disapproving look). I desperately turned to a popular online adoption message board to ask who had breastfed, or had considered breastfeeding, adopted babies or if anyone had simply comfort nursed their adopted children. I received many opinions, none of them supportive or informative.
Needless to say, my initiation into the world of adoptive nursing was discouraging and dismissive. I felt ashamed and disgusted, as if I should never have considered such an act. I was getting a clear message: accept your place as an adoptive mother, a woman with an empty uterus and milk-less breasts.
Baby number one came after fourteen months of waiting. I immediately regretted my choice not to induce lactation. One evening, while rocking my one-month-old infant, I slipped her pacifier out of her mouth and attempted to let her comfort nurse. She squirmed away and whimpered, craving the plastic nipple. I quickly shoved her pacifier back in, my face burning with shame and embarrassment.
Two years later, as we were completing the paperwork to adopt a second child, I again researched adoptive breastfeeding. I bought the only book on the market specifically for adoptive mothers: Breastfeeding and Adopted Baby and Relcatation (by Elizabeth Hormann). I called a local Le Leche leader and lactation consultant to discuss my options. I was gaining confidence in the possibility of breastfeeding my baby when life happened. Our baby arrived on our first, yes our first, day of waiting.
And so my dream of adoptive breastfeeding gave way to parenting a two-year-old and a newborn. To induce lactation while dragging myself through sleep-deprived days and nights seemed impossible. So my second child, once again, was fed formula through bottles. Soon after I became confident and grounded in parenting two young children, I began to regret my decision not to pursue breastfeeding.
Like clockwork, two years later we completed our paperwork to adopt a third child. This time I was committed to inducing lactation. Yes, I had a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Yes, I have a complicated, forever disease (type I diabetes). Yes, I was teaching two college writing courses. But I was going to stop regretting and start doing. I hired a lactation consultant, was fitted for flanges, and I selected a hospital-grade rental pump. And I started pumping. Six times a day (including at 2 a.m.).
Then, of course, life happened again.
We received word that our state and the FBI were at a contract stand-off over background checks. Our background checks, necessary to complete our home study, would be detained for an undetermined amount of time.
And I caved.
I refused to pump for months on end while not even allowed to adopt a child. I was tired. Pumping was time-consuming, emotionally-draining, awkward, and cumbersome. The pump was loud, practically groaning at me, taunting me. I took my rental pump back to my lactation consultant and packed away my flanges, acts done with simultaneous relief and familiar disappointment.
Two weeks later, our approved background checks appeared in our mailbox. And within days, we were matched with a young woman who was due to give birth in two months. And I was back to the decision: to induce or not?
I chose not.
Our son arrived on a mild January day, my birthday. Three days later, we sat in a courtroom and committed to love and raise him as if we’d conceived and birthed him. Seven days later, we brought him home. And four months into his life, the regret began to simmer, despite the fact that I would sometimes bottle-nurse my son. (Bottle-nursing is when a mother puts the bottle on her bare chest while feeding the baby for the purpose of skin-to-skin bonding.)
Around this time, my lactation consultant informed me of a brand-new book on the market by Alyssa Schnell called Breastfeeding Without Birthing. Schnell, an adoptive mother herself, lactation consultant, and Le Leche leader, offers her readers a slew of options, including inducing lactation (through a myriad of methods), using a supplemental nursing system to feed the baby breast milk or formula, or to comfort nurse a baby without the mother providing any milk.
I fell head-over-heels for Alyssa’s book and with a renewed sense of purpose, purchased a trial supplemental nursing system.
Now before you pump your fists in victory, let me tell you that it just didn’t work. It was leaky and frustrating. I had to tape tubes to my breasts. When I would finally get the system arranged, my very-happy baby would turn red-faced, his eyes pouring crocodile tears as he pushed away while looking around frantically for his bottle. We tried and tried. We had skin-to-skin time without feedings in my attempt to teach him that the chest is a happy place.
I couldn’t fool him. And I was right back to where I started: frustrated and regretful. I panicked and then sulked. What if he was my last baby? I had blown it. Lost my chance. GAME OVER. The end.
A few weeks later, I was rocking my son in a darkened room. He was smiling sleepily at me. And the thought crossed my mind to let him nurse, if he wanted to. No pressure. No leaky SNS. No guilt. Just offer. And I remembered what Alyssa had written in her book, that nursing is ultimately about a relationship.
So I mustered courage, held my breath, and offered him my breast. He smiled at me, latched on, and peacefully nursed for a few seconds before indicating he was ready to be put in his bed.
I was over-the-moon.
Two weeks went by without nursing: two weeks of a cold and teething and lots of snot and slobber and restless nights. No interest. I was certain that nursing would comfort him, but he simply refused to latch.
Then one evening, after his cold had subsided, I was rocking him and decided that I would offer the breast to him, just one more time. I couldn’t shake my desire to have a nursing relationship with my child. So gingerly, I pulled the v-neck of my t-shirt under my breast…
And he nursed, for ten minutes, until he fell asleep. Jackpot!
And it dawned on me that as soon as I stopped pushing and feeling guilty, and as soon as I refused to believe the myth that milk production is all that matters, and as soon as I stopped telling myself I was a failure, and as soon as I stopped pressuring my baby, and as soon as I let go of five years of doubt and shame and frustration and regret…
I was so thrilled, that I typed a frantic (and full of exclamation points) post on a Facebook adoptive breastfeeding support group, to which one mom replied, “Congratulations. You are a nursing mother.”
That post still brings tears to my eyes. I did it. We did it. Me, an adoptive mom with lots of nursing baggage and doubt, is now a nursing mother.
Today my son is nearly ten months old. And when he feels so inclined and when I’m in a place to offer, he nurses. Sometimes he’s playful. Sometimes he’s sleepy. Sometimes he’s fussy. Sometimes it lasts a minute, sometimes ten.
I now only have one expectation of the nursing relationship I have with my son, an expectation I hope adoptive mothers can set up from the get-go of their nursing journey: that I will appreciate and relish in the moment.
Rachel Garlinghouse is a mama (x3) through domestic, infant, transracial adoption. She’s the author of Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parent’s Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children and has written over seventy articles on adoption and healthy living. Rachel’s family has been featured in Essence magazine, Adoptive Families magazine, on MSNBC’S MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, and on THE DAILY DRUM NATIONAL RADIO SHOW. Visit her blog at www.whitesugarbrownsugar.com