The Art of Perseverance

How Nursing Taught Me Hope and Perseverance in the Midst of Struggle, Part One

I always planned to nurse my children, and when I was pregnant with Madeleine, I anticipated the bond nursing would bring with great joy. I knew that it would not be without its challenges, but I was certain that those challenges would be temporary.

When Madeleine was born, I had an hour of skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care, with her before she was taken away for newborn checks. The hope of kangaroo care is that it will help the newborn regulate her body temperature, encourage bonding between mom and baby, and establish the nursing relationship if mom wishes to nurse.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Madeleine didn't latch on during that hour, but did after her newborn checks. In that moment, I felt gratitude and elation. I felt profound wonder at what my body was able to do. After having grown a child within me, my body now had the ability to nourish that child. I was overwhelmed with joy.Madeleine didn’t latch on during that hour, but did after her newborn checks. In that moment, I felt gratitude and elation. I felt profound wonder at what my body was able to do. After having grown a child within me, my body now had the ability to nourish that child. I was overwhelmed with joy.

Nicholas captured that moment in a photo. Throughout the next three months, that photo became a reminder. That photo became my why.

Because that joy didn’t last.

Eager to move me out of the labor and delivery room and into the postpartum unit, my nurse told me to unlatch Madeleine so she could transfer me to a wheelchair. It had been fifteen minutes, she told me. That was enough. Never mind the fact that Madeleine was still actively nursing in that moment. And feeling caught off guard and vulnerable, I went against my gut, and I listened.

I have regretted it ever since.

In the postpartum unit, Madeleine wouldn’t latch. When she did latch, she wouldn’t suck. I was handed the pump and pumping parts and told I needed to pump every four hours minimum. Bottle feeding was not an option due to nipple confusion, so I had to syringe feed Madeleine anything I pumped. It was tedious. Because I didn’t anticipate having to pump while in the hospital, I didn’t have a hands free pumping bra, and so I had to attempt to nurse Madeleine, and then place her in her bassinet and hold the pump for the next fifteen minutes. I felt humiliated and vulnerable.

Getting Madeleine to successfully latch took pillows placed all around me, the IBLC (lactation consultant), and my husband, both of whom were doing different things to either support me or readjust Madeleine to encourage a proper latch. When she did latch and suck, it was incorrect and caused significant pain.

We stayed the maximum amount of time just so I could get as much help from the IBLCs as possible. One of them finally ended up getting Madeleine a pacifier because it seemed Madeleine didn’t know how to suck. She hoped that the pacifier might encourage the sucking reflex.

I will always wonder if unlatching her before she was finished in the delivery room caused some sort of negative association for her. If it somehow disrupted our relationship. We never found any sort of explanation for all the issues we had, and so I will always wonder if it all went back to that moment. That photo was the last positive picture of me nursing Madeleine until Madeleine turned four months old.

When we got home, it became worse. Trying to get Madeleine to eat resulted in crying. She would latch, suck for a minute, pull off screaming, and repeat. Getting her fed took upwards of an hour or more.

Madeleine holding onto my scapular after nursing.

I spent a lot of time crying. I had anxiety attacks before going to bed. I worried about ever getting sleep. I worried about getting her fed. There were times when she wouldn’t eat and we would have to feed her from a syringe. I would frantically pump while Nick tried to keep her calm. The only thing that gave me any hope, that brought me any peace, was seeing Madeleine repeatedly grab hold of my scapular during or after nursing.

Madeleine was born on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after I prayed a novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. When I saw Madeleine holding my scapular, I knew that Mary was telling me that all would be well. I didn’t know how, but somehow, all would be well.

We saw the lactation consultant at the pediatrician many times. She could not figure out what was going on with Madeleine. Overactive let down was a suggested possibility, but it didn’t quite fit. They said reflux didn’t fit either. I was finally handed a nipple shield and just told to use that, but even that had mixed results. The only thing that ever worked was getting Madeleine to suck on her pacifier and then rapidly doing a “bait and switch” so that she ended up nursing without noticing that she had latched.

When she was between two-three weeks old, she was nearing four or five hours of refusing to eat. I called her pediatrician, and was told to pump and give her a bottle. I didn’t want to do so, because I was so worried about making it even harder to convince Madeleine to nurse. But I was more worried about her being fed, and so I immediately listened. I was home alone, and so I pumped while Madeleine cried. I remember feeling like I had failed her, and wondered why I hadn’t just given her the bottle sooner.

Nick giving Madeleine a bottle at around four weeks old.

When we were out of the house, it was worse. My arms and hands ached from holding her. To even consider feeding, Madeleine required that I stand and rock her while also quickly switching out the pacifier, keeping covered, keeping her properly supported, and ensuring a good latch. I remember feeling so weak and hating how much it all hurt my hands. I didn’t know it, but I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. Nursing Madeleine made that pain even worse.

She nursed best in the rocking chair at home, which made my whole body stiff and achy. At the time, I thought this was normal. I thought it was because of sitting so much.

I don’t know why I didn’t quit. It would have been easier. But during the hardest moments, during the moments when Madeleine would scream and scream, during the moments when I would cry, during the moments when I felt so deeply broken and that I had failed, I found myself praying.

Somehow, there was this quiet stillness. Somehow, I had hope and trust that it would get better. And I was determined to help it get better. I set goals for myself. Make it to three months. Make it to six months. Make it to a year.

I wanted that quiet time with my daughter. I wanted that bond. I wanted those memories. And so through prayer and sheer grit, I made it happen.

And somehow, magically, at three months, Madeleine decided that nursing wasn’t so bad. Something just clicked for her, and things became easier. There were so many moments before then when giving up seemed the better option. In those moments, however, my heart would whisper, “No, not yet. Try another day. This is not the end.”

Milk after a pumping session at work.

And it was not.

I pumped every two to four hours at work for six and a half months. I dealt with low supply and researched methods and supplements needed to ensure I was able to keep feeding Madeleine. I had to advocate for myself and ask for a space to pump. At one point, I was given a space filled with windows and no curtains and had to ask for curtains. I dealt with students ignoring signage and walking in unannounced while I was pumping. I dealt with adults not understanding what the sign was for and coming in anyway.

It was all worth it.

Nursing Madeleine at 11 months old.

I ended up nursing Madeleine until she was 19 months old. It was a beautiful gift to us both. I learned so much about giving of myself to others and persevering through difficult moments.

I had hoped that nursing with Mariana would come more easily. And while at first it did, my experience with Mariana taught me about a different sort of perseverance that I will explore in the post next week.

A quick note: to the mothers that wanted to nurse but could not, to the moms that exclusively pump, to the moms that use formula for any reason: you are enough. You have not failed. You are loving your child by keeping them fed. You still know the sleepless nights. You still know those quiet moments. None of you are less than any other mother. You are beautiful, you are a daughter of God, and you are still giving your child the gift of yourself and life, no matter how your child is fed.

Motherhood: Challenges and Blessings

No one told me how hard motherhood would be.

After struggling with infertility, I felt like motherhood wasn’t allowed to be difficult. It almost felt like if I said anything about struggling, that I would be complaining about being a mother.

I read many “what people don’t tell you articles” about becoming a mother. None of them scratched the surface of how momentous a change having an infant is.

I didn’t quite understand that having a baby meant that none of my time was my own anymore. Realizing that this small person needed me all the time was overwhelming. I don’t know how I didn’t realize before Madeleine was born that I would no longer have my own time, but I didn’t.

Having Madeleine has taught me selflessness in a way that I have never experienced it before.

In marriage, there is give and take…at least usually. When things are going well, you have a sense of balance, even in the midst of hardship. You and your spouse support each other, giving the other what they need. And even when things are rough, generally speaking your spouse will be more understanding than your screaming baby when you tell them, “I need an hour to myself, and I need coffee, a shower, a meal, and a nap.”

When caring for an infant, however, there is only giving.

Your snuggly, cute little baby doesn’t realize or care that you haven’t slept, or eaten, or showered. They also don’t care if you’re sick or have had an awful day. They will still need to eat, to sleep, to have diapers changed, to be held and loved regardless of whether you have eaten, slept, showered or had your morning coffee.

The first few months with Madeleine are still a blur in my mind. Madeleine took hours to eat. She would scream if I attempted to feed her anywhere but home, and sometimes she would still scream at home. My arms ached from holding her, and my hands wanted to give out sometimes while trying to feed her anywhere but home. I became a mother while not realizing that I was dealing with an autoimmune disease on top of it. I remember laughing when the doctor asked me, “have you been experiencing any unusual fatigue lately?” as I held my three month old daughter on my lap. I still wonder how much of my fatigue in those early months was due to lack of sleep and how much was due to my arthritis.

Motherhood pushes you to do things you didn’t think possible. It has asked me to give until I thought I couldn’t give anymore, and then give beyond that point. It has been exhausting and humbling.

Motherhood challenged my identity. It has pushed me to consider who I am in light of this new role. Sometimes I have felt that now I am “only” a mom, and that simply isn’t true. I have had to deal with complex emotions I never anticipated, such as feeling like I’m too young to be a mom, that I will never be myself again, that I’m not enough for this role, that I will never feel like myself in my body again.

Motherhood has made me stronger, though.

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, I didn’t give up on my fitness goals. I said to my husband, “I will show Madeleine that chronic sickness does not have to define who you are.”

When I have been at the end of my rope, exhausted, mentally and physically, and thinking “I can’t do this”, I have been shown again and again that I can. I have learned that I can give much more than I think myself capable.

When I have been frustrated and wondering when this will get better, when will I ever be able to actually get things done again after a difficult day with my daughter, she has looked at me and flashed a smile, and occasionally rewarded my patience with rare giggles.

I have learned that motherhood, for me, is about becoming selfless. It is choosing to get up yet again, after only a thirty minute or an hour stretch of sleep. It is choosing to smile when you just want to scream. It is holding your daughter for hours and getting nothing done so she can nap because she won’t sleep otherwise. It is saying again and again, “I love you little one. I am here, and I will take care of you” no matter how physically or emotionally depleted you feel.

To every new mom out there feeling alone, you are not alone.

To every new mom feeling like you can’t give anymore, you can.

To every new mom feeling guilty about feeling frustrated at motherhood and mourning the loss of your freedom before motherhood. It’s ok. Mourn, cry, scream, do what you need to do. We all go through it. It may take time, but you will figure out who you are again and how motherhood fits into that new identity.

And it is so worth it.

Through all the struggles, there has been joy. Madeleine is so energetic and bright. She has always been moving and observing the world around her. Seeing her grow into the determined, stubborn, happy eight month old she is today has been one of the greatest joys of my life. She is a true gift. And although I still struggle with balancing my faith, marriage, work, and self-identity with being a mother, I now know that even on the worst days, I can get through it with the love of my husband and a whole lot of prayer.

I am still integrating the role of “mother” into my identity. It has challenged everything I thought I knew about myself. I’m still struggling to accept the changes that have come with motherhood and my daughter is 8.5 months old now. I’ve often felt that I can’t share this struggle and that doing so makes me a bad, ungrateful mom. I think a lot of new moms share that feeling, and it prevents us from finding the support we need. It keeps us isolated and prevents us from reaching out.

We need to end the isolation. Motherhood keeps us so busy that texts we meant to send are forgotten, and coffee dates we wanted to make don’t get made. But it takes a village and a whole lot of prayer to get through this, and so if you’re struggling as a new mom, I want to hear from you (especially if you’re in Cincinnati!). Let’s see if we can find a way to make our role as mothers just a little less lonely today.

And if you’re not a mom, and you’re struggling, reach out too, especially if your struggle is infertility. Our struggles should not make us weak or isolate us. We should not feel guilty for struggling. And when we share our struggles, when we choose to be vulnerable, it is then that we have to greatest opportunity to build the village that we so desperately need to get out of our struggles.

Beauty in the Broken

I have often struggled with feeling broken and betrayed by my body.

It began with our struggle with infertility and my anxiety, when I felt that because my body would not carry a child, that not only was I broken, that I wasn’t fulfilling my vocation as a woman and spouse.

When I became a mother, during my pregnancy I thought to myself, “now, finally, I am healed.” As I passed each milestone, and birth came closer and closer, I let go of those feelings of brokenness and rejoiced in my body. My body was creating life, and I rejoiced in the pains and struggles of pregnancy, because I no longer felt betrayed by my body.

I thought that feeling of brokenness and betrayal by my body would change definitively with my daughter’s birth. I thought her birth would heal that wound, the feeling that my body had betrayed me.

And yet, after Madeleine’s birth, that wound remained.

I was a mother now. Everything we had prayed for had happened. Her birth was beautiful. Madeleine was even born on her due date, the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after I’d prayed a novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel that she would arrive on time.

And yet, in all that joy, I was drowning.

My body was a stranger to me. Nothing prepared me for how different my body felt to me after Madeleine’s birth. And then on top of that, Madeleine would scream when I tried to feed her. It sometimes took an hour and a half just to feed her.

It was then that I started to notice my hands.

I remember a reflection during our marriage prep that asked you to hold your betrothed’s hands. It asked you think about how these hands, the hands holding your own, would be the hands to care for you when you were sick, to comfort you in times of difficulty, to hold and love your children.

After Madeleine’s birth, my hands ached. They were constantly stiff and sore. I blamed having to take hours to nurse Madeleine and constantly hold her in the same position. But it kept getting worse. I thought perhaps my De Quervains Syndrome (like carpal tunnel) was returning and was sure that after a time it would get better.

Then my shoulders started to ache. I blamed my ring sling, and stopped wearing it. But the pain remained. I couldn’t lift my hands above my head without pain. I blamed having to sit in the same position for hours to feed Madeleine.

But then one night, Madeleine woke up crying. She needed to be fed. And I struggled to get to her.

I struggled to move myself out of bed. My whole body was stiff and sore. Madeleine’s crying became louder and louder. I felt terrible. And then, when I finally got to her, I realized I couldn’t pick my baby up out of her crib.

I woke up Nicholas, who brought Madeleine to me in the rocking chair. I could barely hold her, even with my nursing pillow. It was that night that I realized something was terribly wrong.

About two months after that night when my hands refused to work (this past November), I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The doctor explained that my immune system had started to attack my joints. I would need to be on an immunosuppressant indefinitely. She explained that it was probably my pregnancy that had triggered the autoimmune disease.

And once again, I felt betrayed by my body.

My pregnancy and Madeleine’s birth had started to heal the wounds of betrayal I had felt after almost two years of infertility. Suddenly, those wounds were cut open again. My body was literally attacking itself. It wasn’t functioning as it should, again, and it was affecting my ability to care for my daughter. I was angry, I was hurt, I was broken.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from infertility, it is that there is beauty in brokenness.

My body had betrayed me again, but I decided that wouldn’t stop me from being a good mother, from being a good wife, from being a daughter of God. Instead, I tried to turn to the Cross. I repeated to myself in times of weakness, “this is my body, given up for you.” I repeated it when it was difficult to pick up my daughter. I repeated it when I struggled to feed my daughter because my hands ached. I repeated it when I woke in the middle of the night to Madeleine crying, needing me, and my body was stiff again. I repeated it when I looked in the mirror and was unhappy with my body because my arthritis had prevented me from exercising until my medication started working.

I decided that my RA would not change how I parent, would not change my fitness goals, would not change my vocation, would not change my faith. I began researching ways to heal my body through diet and exercise. I have set a goal for myself to run a Spartan race either this summer or fall. I have decided to show my daughter that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot be active, that you cannot do extraordinary things, that you cannot lead a life of adventure and faith.

I started trying to take care of myself. I began a new diet about two months ago to help with inflammation. I purchased an exercise program to help heal and strengthen my core from pregnancy. I’m going to be blogging more often as part of self care and posting updates about my progress with training and treatment of RA. I’ve been trying to pray more often and focus on joy and acceptance.

We cannot choose our crosses. I do not know yet what purpose this cross carries, but I know that when we received news of my diagnosis and told my husband, that he had a profound sense of peace. “We need this,” he said.

I remember the reflection given during our marriage preparation now whenever I look at my hands and the hands of my husband. For although my hands are sometimes inflamed and in pain, I know that Christ has gifted me my husband to be my hands and feet when my own will not work. Before I was a mother, I felt broken because of our struggles to have a child. I felt betrayed by my own body, angry that my body wasn’t working as it ought, crippled by my body’s brokenness. Now, I feel broken because there are some days when my whole body aches. And yet, I know that I need this. I need to remember that I am broken, that I am weak, that I am wounded. Because in my brokenness, I am reminded to look at Christ on the Cross.

God gives us what we need. He challenges us, and allows us suffering so that we might realize our littleness. So that we might turn to the Cross, see Christ bloody, bruised, and beaten, and know in our hearts the great sacrificial love of Christ for us. Christ on the Cross shows us the profound depths of God’s love for us, and will always stand as a reminder to us all that there is immense beauty in the broken.