Exclusive Pumping Mamas: Your Journey Matters Too

August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month and the final week of the month is Black Breastfeeding Week. Black Breastfeeding Week was created because of the gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women. The CDC also reports that increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%.

These stats and awareness movements are not meant to create a divide among mothers. All of us are doing the best we can. Each of our journey's is unique and valid and the most important thing is to feed our babies, however that may look. There are still gaps that exist though. Misinformation, lack of support, cultural barriers, and inequities in care all contribute to decreased rates of breastfeeding and unless we talk more openly about our struggles, then change and healing will never take place.

Today, I am honored to share with you the powerful words of my dear friend and fellow mama, Alicia Knight. Alicia's raw and open account of her breastfeeding journey was inspired during breastfeeding week a couple years ago. She felt left out and not represented as an exclusive pumping mama. She told me how she needed to get her story out of her brain so she too could feel that she belonged. She needed to say out loud that her way was valid and real.

Exclusive pumping mamas, your journey matters too.

by Alicia Knight

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Sometimes breastfeeding looks like this. It's not nearly the bonding experience it is for some mothers. It doesn't involve significant amounts of skin to skin or late night feeding sessions nestled in the recliner in your baby’s room, just the two of you. It starts out with multiple lactation consultant visits assisting with positions, suggesting feeding your baby through a syringe - like a cat - to avoid nipple confusion. It’s waiting for your milk to come in, waiting 6 days to be exact, where is it?! It's being full of fear every time your baby starts crying for milk. Sometimes, it sounds like a lactation consultant telling you "if you feel that your baby is hungry, you need to feed your baby".  It looks like your supportive husband standing in close distance during breastfeeding sessions, attempting not to hover, with a bottle of formula just waiting for you to say pop the lid and feed the baby as you sob at your inability to perform.  It’s also coming to the realization that what you are doing is not working. The way you envisioned it may not work out. You may feel like a failure who can't do what you feel was intended of women. The significant bleeding, threat of infection, nipple shape and undetected lip and tongue ties are keeping you from getting there. 

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So you get the hospital grade pump and keep going for your baby. You refuse to give up, even if it's not what you expected. You continue to feel defeated every time he cries for milk and every time you hook up to that pump. The panic and uncertainty that take over are immense and overwhelming. But you keep doing it for him and you keep doing it for you. You pump around the clock, setting alarm after alarm, cleaning pump part after pump part, adding One. More. Schedule. into your already schedule filled life as the mother of a newborn. You spend spare time bagging milk and writing down the amount of breast milk he took and when. You still get engorged, leak through your clothes and wear breast pads but with little of the bonding that other mothers who feed their babies from their breasts may feel.  You feed your baby less, because you are busy pumping while others have that chance.

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But you keep going - keep cleaning, keep bagging, keep pumping for your baby. You pump in cars and locked closets, nursing rooms of fancy department stores and random dressing rooms sometimes while a screaming baby is sitting next to you waiting for milk. This is not what you intended, but this is your reality. It is not easy and you feel open, raw, and exposed every time you give your son a bottle of liquid gold. We only made it two weeks at the breast, but we made it 9 months of exclusively pumping and 13 months on my frozen breast milk. My overwhelming supply was kept in deep freezers at two locations. I fed my baby plus three other babies for months. I nourished in a way that I never imagined, in a different way, a better way for my family. We all do what we can to feed our babies, regardless of the source. Breast, bottled breast milk, donated breast milk, formula. But to my mamas, the exclusively pumping mamas out there, I see you. I see you struggling, unsure and feeling full of inadequacy and guilt for what your breastfeeding relationship could have been. I see you fighting this fight and doing what you feel is best for your baby.  I see your love. Keep going, keep pumping, keep feeding - don't let anyone tell you your way is not the right way. Your way is right for you and that's all that matters.

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Alicia is a Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Specialist in School Psychology with a Ph.D. in School Psychology. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, and sons, 3.5 and 8 months old. Alicia spends her time helping students to access behavioral and mental health supports and services within the public school system. She survives on sticky kisses from both munchkins, book marathons with her oldest, and pounding the pavement in her Brooks whenever she can. Her dream job is to someday work at We Got Y’all mostly because she loves their mission but also because Issa Rae should be her BFF. Alicia loves binge watching anything with her husband after the kids are asleep – sometimes it takes 3 days to get through one episode but hey, mama is tired.

The Book Every Pregnant Mama Should Read

Alright y'all. If you haven't figured out by now, I'm a major birth nerd. The science of making, growing and bringing life into this world gets me straight giddy. What might surprise you though, is I wasn't always this way. Not one bit. In fact, like many other women in this culture, I thought birth was scary AF.

The thought of a giant human head coming out my vagina sent me in a spiral of anxiety. I actually made fun of "natural" mamas and had a completely inaccurate image of natural birth in my head. If you didn't want an epidural then I thought you were nut bags and when I heard the words home and birth used consecutively, well I just couldn't even fathom. Babies were supposed to be delivered by doctors in hospitals and anything outside of that "norm" was just insane.

Thankfully, I came out of that ignorance and proactively grew a better understanding of the biological process of birth. Proactive is the key word here. Sadly, our culture still places a great deal of fear around birth and many of the information parents receive fails to provide evidence-based options that empower informed choice. In fact, many of the guidebooks come from male physicians deeply entrenched in the money driven medical model of care. So unless you seek out the information on your own, you can be given a very skewed and limited picture of what birth really looks like.

Cue Mama Natural. Mama Natural was founded by Genevieve Howland and y'all, I love her. Genevieve began her mission to empower and inform through her blog and YouTube channel, but as her community continued to grow and more women rallied behind the idea of taking back their pregnancy and childbirth, so did the invaluable resources she created to make natural pregnancy and childbirth more accessible and commonplace. Her vision now includes online child birth classes and the most beautiful guidebook I ever layed eyes on. Move over What to Expect When You Are Expecting, The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth is the new black.

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Before I keep chatting all the juicy goodness of this book, let me throw out a disclaimer. Being informed on the normal process of pregnancy and birth does not mean you are anti-medical intervention. You can value informed choice and also value life-saving technology, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. But alas, that's part of the reason our culture has yet to embrace natural birth and still fears so much of the process. The reality is birth is unpredictable. We can't control it. What we can do though is educate ourselves on the process, and the more we do, the less fear we will have as the journey unfolds - however that may be.

This is the number one reason I love this book. Genevieve explains that "it's neither possible nor safe for every woman to have a 100 percent intervention-free experience" and she thoughtfully guides women through each week of pregnancy, delivery, and beyond. Genevieve is not here to judge and doesn't believe there is one "right" way to birth, making this book beneficial to every single mama. Genevieve empowers readers through evidence-based information on not only why you would want a more natural pregnancy and childbirth but also how you can prepare your mind and body to achieve one.

The book is organized in a simple, week-by-week format that makes it easy to skim for the information most relevant to you. It has 6 sections:

  • The first trimester (weeks 1-13)
  • The second trimester (weeks 14-27)
  • The third trimester (weeks 28-42+)
  • Special delivery (labor stages, newborn procedures/tests, breastfeeding & postpartum recovery)
  • What to ask your prospective midwife or doula (plus questions to ask when touring hospitals & birth centers)
  • Pregnancy loss (miscarriage & stillbirth)

The first three sections cover everything you might want to consider as your pregnancy progresses while "special delivery" delves into what you can expect in each stage of labor and how you can manage pain or get baby moving down. It also explains many of the common newborn procedures and tests as well as breastfeeding and baby wearing tips and postpartum recovery considerations. The doula in me loves that she includes a section all about hiring us (!!!) and the social worker in me is thrilled she took space to cover loss.

Other than the insane amount of info this book provides to women on our bodies and overall wellness, I also geeked the eff out over these cool features:

  • Super kickass illustrations like this one:
     
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  • A "mama to-do-list" at the end of each pregnancy week!
  • A "nom of the week" aka delicious and nutritious recipes to try!
  • An entire week dedicated to the gentle cesarean!
  • Testimonies from other natural mamas!
  • Positive affirmations sprinkled throughout like this one:
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Alright, so I am clearly a major fan of this book and I want every woman to read it, but I do want to point out one thing I think needs to be expanded on and shocker, it has to do with mental health. Genevieve was thoughtful in her inclusion of postpartum depression, but maternal mental health includes so much more.

First off, it doesn't just occur in the postpartum period. Women can also experience mood disorders in pregnancy. Real life y'all. It's common and we need to move away from the term "postpartum" when referring to maternal mental health because it doesn't accurately depict the whole spectrum of mental illness.

Even more, it is not limited to depression. Depression is the trendy term. I'm not sure why, but it's what we think of when we hear "postpartum", but a woman's experience in the perinatal period can include symptoms of depression, anxiety, OCD, or even psychosis.

It's also important to note that when the media is reporting on postpartum depression, they typically only highlight cases of psychosis (think Andrea Yates). This is dangerous because not only does it ignore what the majority of women are dealing with, but also stigmatizes the illness and discourages mothers from seeking help. The reality is postpartum psychosis is rare compared to the rates of postpartum depression or anxiety and no matter which form of illness a mother struggles with, with help, she can get well.

So there ya have it, everything you need to know about the book every pregnant mama should read! Now run, don't walk, and get yourself (or a friend) a copy ASAP!

Happy human growing mamas! :)

*Mama Natural sent me a copy of her book to review, but as always all opinions are my own.