This short essay was written by NICU Families Northwest founder, Anna David in February of 2014. Title and text (c) Anna David. No part of this post may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.
Sitting in my hospital bed still sporting the gauzy, standard-issue recovery underwear, I listened to the lactation consultant as she reiterated the importance of pumping breast milk while my daughter was in the NICU.
“Eight times a day,” she said, or roughly every three hours. My days and nights were already divided into three to four hour chunks so I could medicate for the pain of my emergency c-section. Now I could add 15-30 minutes spent upright, hands cupping the cone-like flanges of the pump to my breasts; waiting, watching, with my head craned downward in a combination of fatigue and concentration; willing milk to leave my body. Every three hours. “This is my new job,” I thought.
It’s been over a year since that day, and still, I have a twice daily appointment with my breast pump. Apart from my husband and my high school boyfriend, this is the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Some days I can barely remember to take my vitamins or brush my teeth, but everyday, once in the morning and once at night, I pump. I sit, slumped over, reading or staring into the distance in a combination of resignation and persistent fatigue, willing my breasts to keep up the good work.
There were plenty of days, nights, and afternoons when I resented pumping. My phone alarm would rouse me from a shallow, dreamless sleep, programmed to sound its least offensive ring. Bleary-eyed and barely rested from two and a half hours of fighting my own thoughts, I would rise from my bed. I would sit upright, not entirely conscious, and pump while my husband slept. He would occasionally turn over in frustration, shielding his eyes from the nightlight, and raise the blankets to his ears to muffle the wha-chao, wha-chao, wha-chao of the pump’s motor.
For roughly four hours every day I did this— performed this ritual; did my duty. I pumped like a champ and watched with pride as my daily volume steadily rose to the equivalent of a wine bottle’s worth of milk.
I wept, hunched over in defeat, when in an overtired state I knocked over a bottle of 40 mLs. The milk raced across the counter and down the cabinets onto the floor as I heaved with exhaustion, sobbing quietly.
I meticulously tracked the output of each breast every day and worried when my numbers dipped. I was acutely aware of the potential for my supply to diminish or disappear entirely from stress, or sickness, or plain old biology.
Still, I scrutinize my output like a technician in a white lab coat, removed from the basic animal experience of providing for my young. Even though the log is long gone it’s hard to not keep track; to compare day to night, day to day.
I didn’t get to experience that magical moment after birth of having my daughter handed to me. She never laid on my chest and inch-wormed her way by sheer instinct to arrive at my nipple and nurse. I may never have that moment. But I knew in the NICU, that even as my daughter lay in her isolette, alone, six miles away, supported by CPAP, her right hand small and translucent with the glow of the pulse ox— I would rise. I would wake like clockwork to the jingle of my alarm, bring myself upright, remove my top and stay alert through sleep deprivation and distraction so my body would feed her the way I believed I was designed to. And that was the best I could do.