Hopelessness. Homesickness. Sadness. Doom.

Those are some of the words used to describe D-MER: Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. I didn’t know to call it that at first, of course. All I knew was that whenever I nursed my new baby or expressed milk through pumping, waves of nausea-inducing dread and anxiety would wash over me, over and over.

Having had a history of anxiety for most of my life, I didn’t want to take it lying down anymore. After all, I was now responsible for the well-being of this tiny baby. 

I talked about how I was feeling to my midwife at my two-week postpartum check and mentioned offhand that whenever I nursed, I felt sick to my stomach and anxious. She finally put a name to what I had been feeling over the past couple of weeks: Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, a fancy name for a steep drop in dopamine during milk letdown that causes negative emotions. She gave me the link for balancedbreastfeeding.com and advised me to go to the breastfeeding support group at The Birth Center.

I mulled it over for at least a week before I finally showed up to group. Rinoa was three weeks old and we were getting hit hard with common (but horrible) breastfeeding issues: Poor latch, painful nipples, engorgement, clogged ducts, oversupply. At this point I was sleep-deprived, stressed, and tensing up every time Rinoa cried out, afraid she was hungry and that I would have to nurse her and feel that horrible sensation of dread clench around my stomach.

“Hi, I’m Zara. This is Rinoa. She’s three weeks old. One good thing about breastfeeding is… umm… well, I found out I have something called D-MER, which basically means I get super anxious when I nurse. But yeah, it’s good to know I’m not crazy and this is actually a thing. So.”

I’m not sure what made me bring this up in my first time at group. Maybe it was Katie’s tough-love demeanor that made me feel like it was best to be honest. Maybe it was seeing the tears and vulnerability of other new moms in the room as they struggled to come up with “one good thing about breastfeeding this week.” Or maybe I was just tired of carrying it around all the time. Whatever it was, it was out there now. Breastfeeding caused me to feel anxious and depressed and cast a shadow over what I had thought would become an amazing nursing relationship with Rinoa.

Breastfeeding is hard. If you sit in on five minutes of group, you’ll realize this. It’s hard. For me, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. We would work with Katie and resolve one issue and another one would pop up in the time between appointments. I kept fighting, wanting to force it to work. I had enough milk to feed this kid and dammit, I was going to feed her. We were going to have that special magical nursing relationship. I would push through the D-MER because I was a mom now and moms make sacrifices and so it just had to work.

Eventually, Rinoa decided she’d had enough. She made the call for both of us and went on a “nursing strike” one day and refused to take my breast. I panicked and after struggling with her for over an hour, gave her a bottle of pumped milk. She gulped it down. A couple of hours later, the same thing happened. For whatever reason, she didn’t want to nurse. 

This went on for days… and that turned into weeks. I would try to nurse her, she would fuss, and I would end up pumping and giving her a bottle. I don’t know why I kept pushing. I just didn’t want to give up. I felt like I was being rejected, like I was failing. Meanwhile, the pumping was causing the D-MER to get worse and worse with each session. The nausea-laced fog was following me around all day.

Katie helped me realize then that it was time to stop trying to form this magical nursing bond with Rinoa and just focus on her wellbeing… and my own mental health. Maybe I COULD push through another 8 months of breastfeeding and make it to that “ideal” goal of one year… “But should you?” Katie asked me.

That was back in August, and things are very different now:

  • Once Rin refused the breast entirely by the end of August, I pumped exclusively and began supplementing with formula to give myself some kind of a break.
  • I went back to work and found more support than I had expected; I was able to step away and pump three times daily in a clean, private room that had a hospital grade Medela pump, sink, fridge, and other amenities.
  • DMER seemed to have decreased and I found it easier to get through my pumping sessions because of that.
  • We (cautiously) began to give Rin solids as she entered her fifth month.
  • I made mama friends.

Things that have not changed:

  • Rin does not want to nurse. Point blank.
  • I am still so, so sad about how my breastfeeding journey went and wish we had had a better experience with it.
  • I still ruminate sometimes on my pregnancy, labor, and birth and feel bitter about it all and have “why me” moments.

I’m still unpacking a lot about my breastfeeding experience – something that Katie and my friends and family are helping me with. I am so lucky to have a wonderful support system and I turned to those people in my life who lifted me up.

One of the hardest things to do is to reach out for support. Coming to group changed my life. Meeting Katie changed my life. I opened up; I talked about what I was going through, what I had gone through. To other moms: reach out for support and don’t let yourself feel alone in what you’re going through.

Through breastfeeding, I’ve learned that things I’ve always considered flaws in my character are some of the best parts of me. My anxiety? It helped me put things in motion to create change. My stubbornness? I would do anything and everything to make things work.

I can acknowledge now that I did everything I could to try to make breastfeeding work for Rinoa and I. I can find that balance of self-care AND doing what’s best for my daughter.

I didn’t get the magical nursing relationship that I wanted, but I became comfortable in the role of being Rinoa’s mom. We cried together, we struggled together, we bonded. And that experience of us fighting to reach each other and understand each other is something I will always carry with me.

– Zara Vong, Balanced Breastfeeding Mom x 1