"The women behind the hashtag lifted me up:" Mom-to-mom breastfeeding support in the digit
We’re very pleased to share an abridged excerpt from the new book, The Virtual Breastfeeding Culture: Mother-to-Mother Support in the Digital Age, by Lara Audelo.Have you benefited from the power of online mom-to-mom breastfeeding support? Tamara’s story below is a testament to this power in making breastfeeding work. Tamara’s StorySomehow through a mix of my own upbringing and arbitrary standards forced on women to be “better” or “best,” I went into motherhood with expectations that reality slowly crushed, sending me into a chasm of self-doubt. Then people—strangers—reached through the Internet and pulled me out.
It took us seven months to get pregnant for the first time, and after two active, healthy trimesters I experienced preterm labor at 27 weeks. I was rushed to the prenatal intensive care unit and given fluids and medication to stop my contractions. My husband watched the monitor with a stoic face, almost willing the contractions to stop. I remember asking him how big a baby is at 27 weeks, and his answer was, “Not big enough.”
That was the first time my heart swelled with the enormity that is motherhood. I think for most people, it happens the moment their baby is born. For me, that day was my introduction. It was heavy and scary, and I felt like my body was failing to do something that seemed effortless for other women. That prayerful day turned into ten weeks of strict bed rest and tocolysis. The days were long and fear-filled. With nothing but time on my hands, I paged through the bibles of natural birth and breastfeeding. I dog-eared pages on latch and positioning, practiced Kegel exercises, and tried not to focus on my weakening body and spirit.
Early in the morning just past 37 weeks gestation, my water broke. I leaked fluid from ruptured membranes for 12 hours without a single contraction, and as the intravenous Pitocin began to drip, my granola dreams for an un-medicated birth slipped away. I held on tight, almost to a fault, as induced back labor worked against my body, which was so weak after being confined to a hospital bed for the last 10 weeks. I got an epidural and delivered a healthy baby boy, who was placed on my chest smelling of tears and musky clay. Looking back on that moment, it was not joy that I felt; it was relief. His safe arrival was my biggest accomplishment to date.
Within minutes of his birth, I had nurses with blue gloves manipulating my breast into my son’s tiny mouth. I felt clumsy and awkward as he refused to suckle. Over the next two days doctors, nurses, and lactation consultants bustled in and out of our room watching him cry, monitoring his climbing bilirubin, and commenting on his rapid weight loss. I remember one nurse rolling in a hospital-grade breast pump. She hooked me up to two small cups and told me to pump so that I could feed my baby colostrum. I turned up the pump and sat crying over those empty cups until I had abrasions on my areolae. I was given nipple shields, a supplemental nursing system and breast shells. My feelings of failure culminated with my husband finger-feeding our hungry baby formula, doctor’s orders. I had been a mother for less than 48 hours, and already I felt like I had failed him. People were examining me as if I was auditioning to be a mother: watching me struggle with nursing, with sleeping, with balance. I remember once we had our son home, I was trying to bring him to the breast before supplementing with pumped milk, and my mother said, “none of my babies ever cried like that.”…
I felt like both my pregnancy and birth expectations had slipped away, and I refused to give up on nursing. After a particularly frustrating day of trying to get my son to latch followed by finger feeding him milk and pumping every two hours, I posted a Facebook status about how hard it all was. A friend I hadn’t talked to since high school messaged me with her story and offered me help and support. Then another message came in, this time from a college friend, again commiserating with how consuming it all is at first, but encouraging me nonetheless. People I hadn’t talked to in years, even blog comments from people I had never even met—all cheering me on. These women were sharing their stories and encouraging me to nurse my baby.
I found a local La Leche League meeting, and was so embarrassed to attend with a baby who screamed at the breast. I sat through the meeting with my tiny infant in a room full of strangers telling their stories. I was amazed as they shared so many of the same feelings that had kept me so isolated. Meeting after meeting, I watched and shared, and learned not only to breastfeed but to be a mother. I found a weekly Twitter chat on Thursday nights called #bfcafe. Women used this hashtag all week to ask questions and share anecdotal stories and pictures of their breastfeeding journey. The women behind the hashtag–they lifted me up too.
My firstborn latched after 11 weeks and went on to nurse for 25 months, when he self-weaned. Those online messages, La Leche League meetings, Twitter chats, and blog posts got me through eight months of biting, chronic milk blisters, growth spurts, and multiple nursing strikes. At the same time, these strangers, friends, and strangers-turned-friends celebrated a love for nursing. They modeled parenting at the breast and helped me to revel in a motherly confidence that grew with each feeding.
We suffered a miscarriage when my son was a little older than a year, but became pregnant for a third time last Fall. My firstborn weaned half way through my second trimester on his own terms. With this pregnancy, a lot of fear came flooding back surrounding my miscarriage, preterm labor, birth trauma, and nursing difficulties. I read through forums on the La Leche League website, reached out to friends who had a second child, and prepared myself and my body, for birth and breastfeeding. I found a doula, talked to lactation consultants, and shared my fears online. I reached far and wide, and got back nothing but love and support in return.
I birthed my second son naturally in three hours and with only three pushes, in a hospital with the help of my husband and our doula. My body successfully carried a baby to 39 weeks, and I bravely and confidently gave birth to him on my own terms. They say you don’t get a medal for birthing naturally, but you actually get more. I have never felt more powerful, confident, or feminine than I did on that day. I put him to my breast and he nursed without hesitation from his very first feeding. My firstborn made me a mother, and my second child made me an even stronger one. Each time I nurse, I am hit with an instant wave of motherly love and vulnerability that comes with seeing your children grow. In succeeding at this primitive task, I have gained not only two secure and healthy boys, but also a mothering self-efficacy that can never be taken away.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am passionate about being a mother and about nursing my children. I have reached out to friends and strangers. I started sharing my journey through my writing. I shared my struggles, my triumphs, and my love for breastfeeding with the World Wide Web. I gave personal and intimate details of my postpartum anxiety, my birth stories, my miscarriage, and our weaning ceremony. I shared it all unapologetically, not because I am an expert on motherhood, but because I discovered that reading other women’s stories is a vital piece to navigating the journey. I wanted to give back a small portion of what was given to me. I’ve supported, without judgment, women who nursed for six days and women who nursed for six years. I have shared my breastfeeding story over and over until that pain went away, and then I did everything in my power to help other mothers never have to feel the way that I did because I wasn’t alone—and I never failed. I am so grateful to the women who reached out to me, and if I have helped one person nurse one baby during one moment of weakness, I’ve done enough.
We don’t live in an age where upon giving birth, we can be swept underneath a red tent by our elders to learn by example how to nurse, love, and care for our children, but we do live in a time where honest, supportive, and knowledgeable women can be found at any moment of the day or night with just the click of a mouse. Just log onto Twitter while you are feeding an infant, bleary-eyed at 3 a.m.; someone else across the country is staring at her phone doing the exact same thing. The two of you are instantly connected. Reach out and share the journey.