By Joyce, an Adopt4Life Community Parent
Who would have thought that at the age of 57, when my youngest of six children, is now 9 years old, that I would be blogging about the joys, challenges and, yes, even the heart break of breast feeding? Sometimes, one is given the opportunity to look back and reflect on one’s life choices and for many women, both adoptive mothers and biological mothers alike, to breast feed or not to breast feed is one of those choices we have faced. It always surprises me that breast feeding continues to be such a hot topic of conversation. But, it is. Sadly, many people in our society continue to challenge the right of a mother to breast feed in public. Many people continue to look at our breasts as only sexual body parts and they do not see them as the life giving nourishers that they are. Sometimes, women criticize each other about breast feeding. Some women are so adamant that it is the only way to nourish our infants, that they criticize women who choose not to breast feed. Women often experience guilt, shame and other negative emotions if they can’t breast feed and/or choose not to breast feed for their own personal reasons. Sometimes, a woman does not have a choice, because for whatever reason her body does not produce milk or not enough milk to adequately meet the needs of her child. This often results in feelings of inadequacy. There is a myriad of other controversial issues related to breast feeding.
My personal experiences with breast feeding have run the gamut from feeling inadequate, to feeling frustrated, to feeling so maternal that my heart would be bursting out of my breasts! My first experience with breast feeding came when I gave birth to my one and only biological daughter. I had dreamed all through my pregnancy of what it would feel like to hold her close to my breasts and my heart; and to feed her, skin on skin, joining in this mysterious right of passage. In this case, breast feeding came easily and my wee girl latched on without difficulty and the feelings of love, contentment, warmth and joy bubbled over inside of me. By day three, my breasts were so full, tender and sore that I wanted to scream and I was no longer feeling so content. How short lived romanticism can be at times. Seriously speaking though, as a mother, at this time of my life, I mostly felt the joy of bonding with my wee infant.
Interestingly, after about two or three weeks of breast feeding my wee girl, I began to experience a deep grief, a letting go of the romanticism in another area of my life. I had to come face to face with the grief I was experiencing related to adoption. You see, my eldest daughter was adopted at the age of 3 years and I never got to breast feed her or to hold her close, skin to skin, like I was doing with my new biological child. I found myself crying every time I breast fed my youngest, because what I realized, was that I would never get to give my eldest daughter this experience. She would never have the deep memory of the smell of my skin, the feeling of the softness of my breasts against her chest and the feeling of being one with each other, if we could have shared this intimate experience. I was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt that this experience I was giving my youngest, was withheld from my eldest. I had to grapple with those feelings. My eldest was almost six at the time and she did notice the tears that would trickle down my cheeks as I fed my infant. One day, she asked me, “Mummy, why do you cry when you feed J, does it hurt?” I took this opportunity to pull her in to my arms and tell her that my heart hurt because I was not able to breast feed her when she was a wee baby. I told her I wanted her to know how much I loved her and longed to hold her close to my breasts and to my heart too. In that moment, with the wisdom that only a child can offer, my eldest said, “Well, give me a taste then!” I just about fell over in shock at this innocent and mater-of-fact request. But, as per her request, I pumped some of my breast milk in to a glass and she tentatively took a few sips. Then, she declared, “Well, I’m not missing much here. It’s gross.” Thus ended my deep feelings of grief as I doubled over in hysterical laughter, hugging my wise six-year-old and holding her close to my breasts, sharing a moment of love, laughter and light. Yes, breast feeding draws a mother close to her infant in many ways, but bonding and attachment can happen in moments of joy, silliness, laughter and plain day to day occurrences.
Fast forward eighteen years later; when I was forty-three years of age and we had just adopted our youngest son. J was 3 weeks of age when we brought him home. He had been living with his great-paternal grandparents who were heavy smokers. They had a full house of adults living with them at the time and all of them were heavy smokers. When one would walk in to the home, one would see the cloud of smoke hanging in the air and the walls were covered in a thick, yellow coat of nicotine. J smelled like cigarettes and his clothing and blankets were also saturated with the smell. Our wee boy came home with “smoker’s lungs”. He could not be laid flat, as he was unable to easily breathe. As such, he was a poor sleeper, because he would often cough and choke until he would cough up thick, mucous and his lungs would clear for a bit and then fill up again. This ongoing cough and lack of sleep caused him to be a distraught and also colicky infant. He would often cry, unceasingly, for hours on end. He was my fifth child, so I was not inexperienced in comforting an infant. However, with J, nothing seemed to help him to relax. After a few weeks of this, I was exhausted and J was beyond comforting. I was feeling desperate for him. It was at this time I came across an article about adoptive mothers who chose to breast feed their adopted children. I read the article with interest and began to wonder if this experience would bring comfort and solace to J. It took me a few days to think about it, because I was not sure about the whole concept. But, one day. J. was so upset and so deregulated that I could not think of anything else to try. So, I tried.
I sat on my big bed, alone with J in my arms and brought him to my empty breast. He quickly and easily latched on and began to suckle there and for the first time since bringing him home, he was quiet and calm. I could feel his whole body begin to relax against mine. I found my own body beginning to relax, as I stared down at this sweet boy. His big blue eyes gazing up in to mine as I held him, warm against my skin. Thus, at age 43, I found myself, once again breast feeding, but this time by default. I ended up breast feeding J for two months. I wish I could tell you that, eventually my breasts produced milk, but I can’t. I have heard that for many adoptive mothers, this miracle, does indeed happen, but for me, it did not. However, what I can tell you, is that each time I held J to my breasts a calmness and deep contentedness would fall upon this child and I could visibly see and feel his body and spirit relax each time. In this case, I have a deep knowing that although I was not providing nourishment by way of milk, I was providing nourishment by way of spirit. These times of closeness and warmth definitely were times of bonding and attachment with J and I. After about two months, J was more relaxed and calm than he was deregulated. He did not seem to need the time on my breast as much and slowly he would go longer between each love-time, as I liked to call our breast feeding times together. He weaned himself off of my breasts and we found other ways to calm him in his times of stress. However, I deeply believe this sacred time played a key role in his physical and emotional healing.
Years later, my eldest daughter gave birth to her only child, my first grand-daughter. She had always indicated she would breast feed and was looking forward to this experience. Unfortunately, her baby was born at 25 weeks gestation, weighing only 1 lb 13 oz. at birth. She was too small to be held or breast fed. Her life would hang on a thread for the first four months of her life. My eldest daughter, of course, was devastated that she could not even hold her tiny baby. She felt terrified that she would lose her. She wanted to do everything in her power to help her fight for survival. She chose to provide her breast milk by way of an electric breast pump. Day after day, for hours at time, she would sit hooked up to this machine that would suction the milk from her breasts and siphon it into bags. She felt exhausted, overwhelmed, scared, yet determined, all at the same time. After pumping, my daughter would take a long bus ride to the High Risk Neonatal ICU at the hospital and she would feed her baby with a syringe, one drop at a time. She fed her the life giving breast milk and watched her daughter grow, steadily, from 1 lb, to 2 lbs, to 3 lbs. and finally reaching 5 lbs—the magic number needed to allow her to take her baby home. I remember my eldest daughter feeling guilty that she could not feed her daughter from the breast. The Nurses in the ICU encouraged her to let go of the guilt and focus on the final outcome. It took my daughter a few years to recover from this challenging time of her life. But, looking back now, she is proud of her efforts to provide breast milk, despite all odds. My granddaughter is almost 11 years-old now and she is an active, happy and healthy child, filled with joie de vivre.
My personal experiences with breast feeding have been interesting, challenging and beautiful. I personally believe that if one can and one chooses to do so, that breast feeding can be a time when a mother and infant draw heart-close to one another. I also believe that bottle feeding can and does achieve the same results. If a mother, like my daughter, is unable to actually breast feed for health or other personal reasons, I would still propose that life is filled with the opportunities to bond and attach as it unfolds. Attachment is a life-long process and the process does not end until we take our last breath. As I mentioned, I have six children, five adopted and one biological and I was able to breast feed two of them. I am more than happy to report that my other four are just as deeply attached and bonded to me and to my husband, as the two who had the blessing of breast feeding. Each of my children have had heart-times with me that are unique and precious to them. My eldest daughter taught me, right from the beginning, that my breast milk is life giving to some and well, just “plain gross” to others. To each her own (lol).
My advice to mother’s to be, both adoptive and biological, if I may, is to embrace who you are, just as you are and to put the Breastfeeding debate aside, choose what is right for you and for your infant. Choose to nourish your child(ren) with love, laughter and light, as you breast or bottle feed and I can attest to the fact that it will be just fine!
Thanks for listening to an older and “softened by life realities”, mum of six.