It’s Not You, It’s Him

They say if you are lying awake in the middle of the night thinking about writing something, you should just get up and write it.  It must be fairly important.

Gabe woke up to nurse at 3:30.  No biggie.  I nursed him and he went back to sleep fairly easily (although he threw up in his crib — he’s sick — so I had to wake Simon up to help me change the crib sheets, and then some more nursing to make Gabe sleepy again).  Gabe was up for 30 minutes.  Not terrible.  But I never fell back to sleep again.  I had to — just had to — comment on my sweet friend’s Facebook status (my bad for even checking Facebook at 4AM while also checking the baby monitor to ensure Gabe had indeed gone back to sleep — sometimes he sits in there silently for a good while, only to cry out and wake me after I’ve been sleeping for mere minutes.  Nice, right?).  But regardless of what I should have done, I did check Facebook and I did see my friend’s post.  It was about nursing.  As in breastfeeding.  As in potentially heart-wrenching.

My friend has a newborn.  She is already doing lots of things to boost her milk supply, but she wanted to know if there were other things she could try to produce more milk for her rarely-satisfied son.  She got tons of suggestions: Chaste tree berry, more rest, complex carbohydrates, fenugreek, pumping after nursing, lots of good fats and protein.  I “seconded” some suggestions, but mainly strove to provide something else: encouragement.  Oh my word, her post made me remember.  Made me remember what it was like.  To have a newborn who is seemingly never satisfied at the breast, who seems to always be hungry, who is endlessly fussy and doesn’t sleep much.

It made me remember what it felt like to not be able to perfectly comfort my baby.  To have him scream his head off when I attempted to nurse him.  To fret that he surely hated nursing, the one thing all babies are supposed to love.  It made me feel like crap is what it did.  It made me suspect that my milk was a sort of poison, or at least an energy drink, because he almost never fell asleep nursing.  No.  Our nursing sessions ended with crying and screaming (sometimes both of us).  I nursed him to feed him; I swaddled and bounced him to calm him.  That is what worked.  My breasts seemed lacking, inadequate, powerless.  My baby did not want to be soothed the way I was prepared to soothe him, the way I longed to soothe him.  It made my heart hurt so much.

When my period came raging back at thirteen weeks postpartum, I was irate.  I was nursing my baby on demand AROUND THE CLOCK and it didn’t make any sense that my period would come back so quickly.  It’s because he doesn’t nurse much at a time, I told myself (he was the king of five minute sessions and was absolutely furious if I tried to get him to nurse longer).  It’s because I gave him a pacifier when I couldn’t handle another round of every-20-minutes nursing, I condemned myself (if you dare tell me it really is because I gave him a pacifier on occasion, I will virtually slap you in the face).  I deserve this because Gabe hates nursing and I haven’t been able to make him not hate it.  Yikes I can be so dramatic and depressing.  But these are the kind of thoughts that plague the exhausted and insecure new mother.  (Especially when her fertility returns so unjustly early!).

Here’s the thing.  Gabe never hated nursing.  He hated that he had been evicted from my uterus.  He hated being earth-side.  And it took months for him to warm up to the idea of life outside the womb.  That wasn’t my fault.  It wasn’t me; it was him.

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At some point I was able to embrace this.  We reached a point where I stopped fighting Gabe if he didn’t want to nurse.  I always offered nursing when he was fussy, believing deeply that “When in doubt; whip it out.”  But if he complained and didn’t take to nursing fairly quickly, I learned it wasn’t worth forcing the issue.  I told myself he will eat when he is hungry (and he always did).  So I started handing him off to Daddy more quickly and with less guilt.  I learned how to do a mean swaddle myself.  Simon and I spent what felt like years of our life bouncing on “the magic ball,” the blue yoga ball I used during labor.  It worked so much better than nursing did.  Harvey Karp became my new best friend, as I perfected “The 5 S’s” and used those happiest baby tricks to no end.

I often felt self-conscious about this in public, however.  Especially around other moms of newborns, whose babies just sweetly nursed themselves to sleep, easy peasy.  I wondered what they thought of me.  Of my unconventional tactics.  Of my baby who wailed when I offered milk.  Of my furious swaddling and patting and dancing (I so wished I could have toted that magic ball with me wherever  I went!) with a very-difficult-to-console little one.  I feel certain the perceived judgment was all in my head, but nevertheless I felt like a circus monkey trying to calm my newborn and I just wanted everyone to know that I had ALREADY TRIED nursing him (and wearing him — he hated that too for the first few months).  Part of me wanted to walk around adorning a sandwich board, proclaiming my truth: “I nurse on demand, I promise!  (Hello, he’s enormous).  I’m just not nursing him right now because it’s not going to help!  Yes he’s crying but he’ll cry more if I try to nurse him!  My baby is crazy!”

He really was kind of crazy.  I wish I had accepted this sooner but it took me a long time to acknowledge anything about him that wasn’t wholly positive (he is precious, he is sweet, he is perfect).  It was a big day for me when I could say “He is difficult,” “He is high needs,” “He is exhausting.”  I thought I was responsible for his behavior.  I thought it was my fault that he didn’t nurse peacefully.  I wondered if I didn’t have enough milk or the right milk (I know, makes no sense).  I THOUGHT IT WAS ME.

I seem to write easily at 4AM.  This is what I told my friend:

“I promise you always have milk.  Your breasts are never really empty.  Tell yourself that over and over as an affirmation.  I always have milk.  I always have milk.  I always have milk.  Did you know Gabe cried for the first three months of his life?  I thought I didn’t have enough milk.  I thought he hated nursing.  [It was] pointed out to me that he was gaining weight and having plenty of diapers so therefore I did not have a supply problem.  I reminded myself of that over and over again: weight gain plus wet/poopy diapers are the only true indicators of supply!

Gabe wasn’t crying because he was hungry or because he hated nursing — he was crying because he didn’t like being outside the womb!  And it took him a while to decide he would give this world a chance.  I did just what you’re doing.  Nursed on demand ALL THE TIME.  Often every hour or less.  Often on ’empty boobs.’  But they weren’t empty.  There’s always something in there.  And if Gabe wasn’t having it?  Time for Daddy!  I basically told myself  ‘It’s not me, it’s him!’  I offered the goods and if they were rejected, I knew they would be received later gratefully.  I learned quickly that for us, unlike many mommy/baby dyads, nursing did NOT fix everything, and I became an expert swaddler/bouncer instead.  He always nursed eventually and he kept gaining weight.  I would repeat my mantra a few more times.  And after those first few months of crying?  (And then a couple months of distraction…)?  He loved nursing.  It did eventually have the power to fix everything.  That’s why I’m up at 4AM writing this to you — my sick toddler woke up and nursing is my cure-all…

Nourish your heart and soul during this time as much or more than you focus on doing things to boost your supply.  It’s only been two and a half weeks and you don’t know what your breasts can really do yet.  Demand they be sufficient but let them show you what sufficient is.  Expect them to be magical and they will be.  Pray for [your baby] and for yourself and for your milk.  Refuse to believe your breasts are ever empty.  Let it be OK if your baby is like mine was — not fully satisfied with just nursing.  It sucks  — I cried so much about it! — but know it’s a phase.  It’s not you, it’s him.  It’s not you, it’s him.  In the meanwhile, be good to yourself, let [your husband] help you a lot, learn some ‘alternative’ soothing strategies, and actually take those baths we tell new mamas to take.  Many hugs to you, dear friend.  You are doing a great job and you are a beautiful mother.”

It’s not us.  It’s them.  At least sometimes.  My fellow parents, your baby is not a perfect angel and you are not an incompetent dummy.  Sometimes we can give ALL we have, do ALL we know, and pray ALL DAY LONG, and our babies will still cry.  Still not nurse well.  Still not sleep.  Still not be happy.  It doesn’t mean we’re bad parents.  It doesn’t mean we’re missing some part of a magic formula.  It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with our milk supply, or our soothing techniques, or our cooking skills, or our disciple strategies.  There might be issues with those things, of course, but it’s already our instinct as parents — especially (exclusively?) mothers — to assume the problem lies with us first.  Why else would we compulsively Google everything?  How to make more milk, how to make our babies sleep, how to get our toddlers to eat, how to get our preschoolers to behave.  There are a million articles under the sun that will help you answer those questions and countless others.  We all assume that (1) the problem is our fault and (2) it’s in our control to fix said problem.  C’mon Google!  But what if the “problem” is them and we have no control?

I am not trying to be oppositional towards our children.  I am just saying perhaps, just MAYBE, they contribute to — or cause outright — some (ahem, many) of the daily battles of parenting.  They fuss at the breast.  They boycott their naps.  They throw all of their food off the highchair tray.  They collapse into tantrums endlessly.  Our children are humans just like us.  And just like us (if we will admit it), they are capable of and quite willing to be, well, obnoxious.

More seasoned parents know this to be true.  I imagine they are nodding their heads as they read my words, with a little smile on their face, remembering that they too had to learn this, and feeling so glad they did.  (Hint: the reward is more freedom and less stress).

I like to tell people that my son is exactly like me: sensitive, passionate, and totally high maintenance.  I too was a very fussy and challenging baby (my mom said I didn’t stop crying til 6 months!).  Gabriel has proven to me that so much of our personality is innate.  He was born screaming and he hasn’t stopped letting his opinion be known since.  Some days, it is me.  Of course.  I fail and you can read plenty of my other blog posts that attest to that.  But on a lot of days, it’s him.  He took his sweet time warming up to comfort nursing (or much comfort of any variety) and he definitely boycotts naps (generally by singing and booting all his stuffed animals out of the crib) and throws food and MAN ALIVE can he throw a tantrum!  None of that’s on me.  I do everything I can — literally I lose sleep thinking wondering if I’ve done EVERYTHING possible for my child — but I cannot force him to sleep or eat or be constantly happy.  It’s heartbreaking but it’s also freeing.  I can do a lot, but I can’t do it all.

My child, who is so much like me, often just insists on fighting life.  On expressing his displeasure.  On making his voice heard (and I’m genuinely glad he does that even if the volume is draining).  On letting everyone know exactly how he feels about everything.  (He’s going to be such an articulate and sensitive man someday!)  It started with nursing.  I was humbled from his very first days by the alarming truth that I could not fix everything for him, despite desperately wanting to and trying this, and this, and this, and this.  Now it usually manifests in Gabe arching his back, collapsing on the floor, and screaming while writhing and kicking.  It’s not cute.  But it’s also not my fault.  It’s him, not me.

Dear friend, it’s him (or her), not you.  Be ever-so-slightly critical of your child and gracious to yourself.  You are doing everything right.  I’d put money on it.

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One thought on “It’s Not You, It’s Him

  1. I think I’m ALWAYS up writing when I can’t sleep! Too many thoughts and ideas to let me sleep peacefully.

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