We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Katie Bowes discusses how she stopped being able to breastfeed her son, and the lessons she learned during such a difficult time. -JKM
They said I was one of the lucky ones because breastfeeding came naturally to me and to my son. I loved and embraced the act. In fact, it was this time that I dedicated to us. A time to study this tiny human—to connect—and to nourish him. So, when my supply took a significant dip as my son entered his sixth month of life, I was crushed. There is a crucial component to this I have failed to mention, however: my return to full-time work.
I went back to work three months postpartum, and, in retrospect, it was way too soon. Neither my son nor I was ready, and I do blame myself for this. I had not prepared us well. He took almost all his naps on me (usually in the Ergo on long walks) and he was not yet taking a bottle. I was so painfully aware of our impending separation that I almost never left his side during the first twelve weeks of his life. My fourth trimester came to an abrupt end on Halloween Day.
In the initial days and weeks back at the office, I felt okay, largely due to an abbreviated schedule. I was working three days in the office, one day from home, and had Fridays off. My mom had come to help with the transition, and stayed almost the entire first month I went back to work. Between her and my husband, I had an excellent support system at home. And, the novelty of being back was exciting. It felt good to have a reason to get dressed in the morning, and to socialize with my work friends. It also felt great to use my brain in a different way, to delve back into projects and collaborate with my team.
That first month of shortened schedules and flexibility went quickly, however, and before I knew it, I was back in the office full-time. Over the course of the next three months, I saw a significant decline in my health and wellbeing. My mom would always tell me how important self-care is when raising children—the old “put your oxygen mask on first” analogy. Well, I was terrible at it. One thousand percent of my energy and focus went to my son, with another big percentage dedicated to my performance at work in order to appear on top of it all. What scant energy I had left I tried, with limited success, to funnel into my marriage. I started feeling intense guilt over being away from my infant son. I felt a pang of jealousy when I would receive texts of pictures from my wonderful nanny showing my son curled up and sleeping in her arms, or smiling ear-to-ear at her.
After six weeks back at work, my face erupted into a breakout rivaling a thirteen-year-old boy, and never left. My hair started falling out at such an alarming rate, I became worried I was going bald. Self-care felt impossible. I was desperate for any time with my son after being gone fifty or more hours a week. So much so, that I jumped out of bed at 4:30 a.m. every morning to “enjoy” playtime with him. I also raced home as soon as humanely possible each evening, rigid as a board and fingers gripping the steering wheel so tight I’m surprised it didn’t crumble, to catch him before bath and bedtime. I refused to leave his side for even an hour on the weekends, so seeing friends was about as rare as was an exercise class, pedicure, massage, or any one of the thousand other things that would have been beneficial to my health. I was falling apart, but was wound so tightly that I had zero self-awareness. I was awful to my partner; I was short-tempered at work. I was an emotional wreck.
That’s when my nanny ran out of breastmilk. At 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, while I was stuck in back-to-back meetings. I called my husband and bawled helplessly. I felt like a complete failure. How could I run out of milk? Why was I not producing the same yield from five pumping sessions a day? This was not the plan! The plan was to breastfeed for at least a year, maybe longer. How could I fail my son? How could my body fail me? I chastised myself for skipping any pumping session due to a meeting shift, for not consistently waking up in the middle of the night to pump, and for not starting to pump and store milk from day one. I beat myself up for not being the perfect mother who can work a demanding, full-time job, while also being a supportive, loving wife, too. So, we frantically googled formula options, and my husband was home with a canister within the hour.
After the day we ran out of milk, I recommitted myself to pumping as much as humanly possible. I started taking a new regimen of supplements and ensured I was eating properly. I picked up a few boxes of mother’s milk tea and started taking fenugreek. I also religiously drank a beer each day after work. To be honest, that part wasn’t too bad. The point is, however, that I put in all of this extra effort, but my supply didn’t come back. For a few months, I could get enough to supplement the formula with a half an ounce to an ounce of breastmilk. But, that was it. And, I realized that it’s a truly humbling experience when your intentions and your physiology are at odds.
It was an extremely hard reality to face, but here’s the thing: my son is healthy and growing and hitting all the “milestones”. He also seems sincerely happy. He laughs a lot; he likes to explore. He loves to dance when music comes on. He’s also eating a ton of solid foods. So, I guess what I really want to share are the lessons I learned throughout this experience, because I have a feeling I’m going to keep learning them throughout the years of raising my boy. In the simplest terms, the lessons are these: You cannot control everything; be grateful for what you have; take care of yourself; and let yourself off the hook.
Being a mom is literally both the hardest, and simultaneously, the most natural thing I have ever done. I am just getting started and have already been blown apart and put back together several times. I am still figuring out what kind of mom I am want to be, but losing my supply and reaching the brink of a complete mental breakdown forced me to take the advice my mom had always given me—to put the damn oxygen mask on first. I still haven’t exactly mastered this art, but I now allow myself to sneak out during my son’s morning nap on the weekend. I’ve realized that this is important bonding time for my boy and my husband.
Self-care looks differently with a baby than it did before; it’s on his schedule now. And, oftentimes, he’s either in tow or thoughts of him are running through my mind the entire time we’re apart. But, I’m getting there. Each day is different, and I’m learning to be more patient with myself. I’ve realized that if I keep trying to keep all the balls in the air, I’m going to miss out on this precious time. So, yes, some of the balls had to drop, or had to be lowered in priority. It’s a constant evolution and balancing act. I still get pangs every time I see a friend breastfeeding her child, or an Instagram post with the hashtag #BreastIsBest. I want to scream from the rooftops, “Fed is best!” But, once again, I’ve had to realize that my personal mantra of “to each their own” truly resonates in every corner of life, especially motherhood. With that, I’ve come to see losing my supply not as defeat, but as one of my life’s great lessons. I do believe I am more self-accepting and stronger having gone through this. And, in the scheme of things, I am absolutely still one of the lucky ones, breastmilk or none. As my son nears his first birthday, I feel proud of where I am and of where we’re going together.
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