by Kasey Stacey
I saw this cartoon posted on Facebook shortly after Brigid was born:
“Sigh,” I replied to my friend who had posted it. “How does anyone survive this?”
Immediately and intensely postpartum, I had more moments of fear, anxiety, dread, and disappointment than feelings of joy. What had I just done to my son? We had recently found a great rhythm to our days and now a new baby had arrived and altered all of our lives completely and permanently. And what had I done to my daughter, brand new to this world and desperately in need of her mama’s attention and love? Brigid would never get to experience what Vinny did: me as a mom of one, wholly devoted to her every tiny baby coo, her every blink of an eye, her every breath. I knew I’d never be able to give either of them what I gave Vinny during his first year and a half. I felt this acutely (and still do, at times) when nursing her. I just want to sit down and gaze lovingly into her eyes and maybe shed a few soft tears while she stares into mine. I know how quickly it will go this time, and how fleeting those moments are. Sooner than I can comprehend, she will be toddling around the living room, stopping in for a quick milk break, barely looking at me, and then going back to whatever else occupied her attention. But when I’m nursing her and trying to turn all of my attention to her, Vinny gets jealous. He sees the way I’m looking at her, and although I still look at him the same way, I think he feels a bit possessive of that relationship. I’m Vinny’s mama, but I don’t think he fully realizes that I’m Brigid’s mama, too. At other times, he’s getting into something and I need to jump up and protect him from himself or discipline some wild misbehavior.
How does anyone survive this? The daily grind, sure. The physical challenges of caring for two young children, maintaining the house, keeping up with the laundry, and meeting the needs of both husband and self–it seems impossible. But I also mean the guilt. How do I survive the guilt of knowing that I can’t be all things to all people at all times? Rationally, I know better. I’m not supposed to be all things to all people at all times. That’s a superhuman feat and I am woefully human. I try not to make my expectations for myself unreasonable. But then I look at those sweet faces and I want to give each of them my all. I want Vinny to be secure in our relationship. I want him to know that although everything has changed, nothing has changed. He is still my tiny sweetheart, and I still love him with every ounce of my being. And I want Brigid to know it, too. I want to teach her that I love her the same way I taught Vinny. But I feel like so much of that teaching revolved around breastfeeding, and I just cannot nurse my second baby the same way I nursed my first. So I steal moments when I can, where I just hold Brigid close and stare into her eyes and kiss her smiling face and dump as much milk as I can into her little body so that she can drink in all the love I can give her. I babywear a lot more this time around, so even if I’m not looking at her, she knows that mama is right here.
And, now that I’m not so freshly postpartum, I have a better sense of reality. Of course we are going to survive this (well, I’m pretty sure of that, most days. Sometimes I still question it). Most mothers have more than one child. Most mothers have to learn new ways of meeting their children’s needs, especially as the first babies get older and more children join the family.
You know what else, though? There are some serious benefits to nursing a second baby. As Katie so often says, breastfeeding is a metaphor for motherhood. As our babies grow, so do we, in our knowledge and understanding of our children and of how parenting works. There is also a growth in our understanding of how breastfeeding works, and this growth offers vital perspective the second time around.
Maybe you’re brand new to motherhood, and you’re scrambling to figure out if breastfeeding is working. But if you’re even just a few months removed from that initial postpartum period, I want you to go back to that place. Did you feel that sense of desperation and paranoia? Were you as terrified as I was? I was so overcome with the very common fears associated with those early days and weeks of breastfeeding, so aware that my child’s life hinged on me getting this right. Actually, my fears lasted months. Would my body make enough? Would my baby know how to get the milk out? Would I know how to mother this child if I didn’t have breastfeeding?
Everything was so brand new and I had no clue what I was doing. When people say that breastfeeding is natural or that we were designed to do it, I always add in that breastfeeding is also a skill, one that we have to learn and simultaneously teach our babies how to do. How overwhelming for a brand new mom! But with Brigid, I knew what I was doing and I knew how to identify normal breastfeeding challenges from more serious problems. I knew that my body had the potential to make more than enough milk and I knew how to encourage that production. I knew what to look for to see if breastfeeding was effective. I knew that I needed Katie to assess Brigid’s tongue and lip for ties shortly after birth and I knew that we’d be scheduling to have her ties revised immediately. I knew when to ask Katie for help with Brigid’s latch. I didn’t feel confident in those early postpartum weeks, but Katie told me that I projected a confidence this time around that was clearly lacking in my early days with Vinny. Looking back, I see it. Even after just one older child, taking care of—and especially feeding—a newborn was old hat.
The mechanics of breastfeeding have become second nature. Skills that took months to learn with Vinny are things that I could do within the first few days with Brigid, like side-lie nursing or nursing while babywearing. During my pregnancy with Brigid, I was worried that I wouldn’t remember how to latch on a newborn, but after a little help from Katie (who happened to be at The Birth Center and not seeing a client when Brigid was born), it came right back to me. I remember needing to get half undressed for the first few weeks of nursing Vinny. We worked endlessly on latching. One time, I was sitting in the confessional at church during Mass when another mom knocked on the door and asked to sit in there, too, and nurse her one-year-old. “Sure,” I said, “but I’m sitting here in just a bra. I have no idea what I’m doing.” The other mom was nursing her fifth child; she gave some pointers and sympathized with me—she remembered her own days of having no idea what she was doing. It’s crazy to think that I could be more like that other mom now. Having the experience of nursing just one child through the multiple stages of breastfeeding has allowed me to see how breastfeeding works, how it changes, and how we mothers adapt and grow to overcome the challenges of each new stage.
I haven’t been paranoid about my milk supply this time. Aside from knowing my body’s capacity for serious oversupply, I also knew that if Brigid skipped just one feeding, it wasn’t going to make or break my supply. On day four, we had her lip and tongue ties revised, and she was really sleepy and not into nursing. I just let her sleep. My milk was in and if she wanted to sleep for four or six hours, both she and my supply would be fine. No one was going to die from going six hours without eating, and if I got too full, Vinny or my pump could have moved some milk for me. It is so, so freeing to be able to relax about milk supply this time around. I think that every first-time breastfeeding mom’s biggest fears probably revolve around milk supply, and rightly so—we don’t know yet what our bodies and our babies are going to do. But with a second baby, I think more of us are able to just chill. Whether we are average producers, over producers, or low suppliers, we can at least go into breastfeeding a second time knowing what is likely to happen. There is a sense of reassurance and comfort in that knowledge.
Of course, just as breastfeeding looks different across different families, it looks different with each new child within a single family. Vinny was easily pacified at the breast; in fact, I often call him the world’s easiest infant (don’t be jealous—he’s a wild toddler). Vinny gained twice as much weight as he needed to. He nursed constantly, and I was able to keep him on the breast for however long we both wanted. For many reasons, nursing Brigid is an entirely different experience. I can’t just keep her latched on all day, but even if I could, she wouldn’t want to be there. She likes to nurse, but nursing does not solve all of her problems, and she’s got a lot of problems that she often communicates with shrill cries. I’m pretty sure she cried more in her first couple weeks than Vinny cried his entire infancy. For example, when other parents would tell me that their babies don’t like being in wet diapers, I thought they were ridiculous. Vinny would have happily sat in his own waste all day if I had allowed it. I was certain that babies didn’t really cry for new diapers. Brigid has taught me how very wrong I was. And although my supply is probably more abundant this time around, Brigid is gaining an average amount of weight. In addition to wanting other methods of being soothed, she had some serious reflux in the first few months, a problem related to oversupply that I didn’t encounter with Vinny.
Breastfeeding a second baby comes with a host of new challenges: the required ability to multitask, the balance needed between baby and other members of the family, the need to adapt breastfeeding skills to a new tiny person with new needs and preferences. But it also comes with knowledge, wisdom, and grace: knowing how breastfeeding works and how to tackle those challenges; remembering to cherish the precious, fleeting moments of those early months; having confidence in being able to provide for our babies as best we are able.