Changing the Definition of “Nursing” Your Preemie

August 6, 2012

When my son was born on his due date, the midwife placed him on my chest before his umbilical cord was cut.  We stared into each other’s eyes, exchanging telepathic messages.

Mine to him – You’re here.  You’re real.  His to me – I am here.  You’re my mother.

After several minutes of this misty-eyed, love-at-first sight exchange, the midwife gently slid Tucker a little further down my chest, and thus I began what is often deemed to be the second most important contribution as a mother.  “He’s a natural,” the midwife had said and a broad, proud smile had covered my face.

I was a mom nursing her baby.  And I would do so for the following 11 months.

And then came my daughter, Andie.

Not born on her due date.

By a long shot.

She arrived by emergency c-section at 25 weeks.

I saw her for the first time several hours later blanketed in a tangle of tubes and wires inside a plastic box.

There were no tender moments.

There was no mind speak between us.  Just the voice in my head screaming, Run!

There was no baby on my chest.  Just an industrial powered machine delivered to my bedside with the instructions, Put a suction cup over each breast and let the machine pull out the milk.

Or not.

The machine could not do the work of my baby.

My mind and body refused to cooperate, to let go, to let down.

I produced nothing.  Not one drop of milk.

And I was devastated.

I sought advice from with the lactation consultants nearly everyday.  I tried a prescription medicine that left my body covered in an itchy red rash.  I tried an ancient Greek herb called Fenugreek, and brewer’s yeast, and meditation, and a nightly pint of Guinness.

But nothing worked.

I was a failure.

I couldn’t nurse my baby.

Today, my daughter is 11.  It took me years and years to recover from the trauma of her birth.  In fact, there are still days when I wonder if I’ll ever be fully healed.

But there was a moment when I found forgiveness for my inability to nurse my daughter.

It came when I read Webster’s definition of what it means to nurse, or more to the point, to be a nurse – One that looks after, fosters, or advises; A person who cares for the sick or infirm.

Reading that definition caused me to pause and think and remember all the care involved with Andie.

For 84 days I drove back and forth to a hospital an hour away from our home to sit by her bedside and read her stories and sing her songs.

For 11 months, before a reversal surgery, I flushed out and changed the ostomy bag attached to the right side of her abdomen.

For 3 years I opened my front door to physical therapists, occupational therapist and speech therapists and then dutifully filed their early intervention reports in the manila folder with her name written across the top.

For hours upon hours I lay by her bedside, pointing a nebulizer at her sleepy pink lips, begging the Albuterol vapors to find their way into her struggling lungs.

And with that I realized that although I did not nurse my daughter in the traditional way we think of nursing, I did nurse her in a way that meant I gave her everything my body could give.

Eventually I came to see that I must be a nurse to myself as well.  That in order to care for my children as best I can, I have to take care of myself, too.  And part of that began with forgiveness and recognition.  Forgiving myself for all that I did and did not do, and recognizing that in fact, I did nurse my daughter.