Published on September 29th, 2016 | by Becky Fine-Firesheets1
THE MAGIC IS US: Becky Fine-Firesheets on Postpartum Madness
I first learned about nursing hormones when my gynecologist blamed them for the vaginal hell I’d been living in for the past six months. She gave me an antibiotic that helped the acute symptoms, along with an extensive list of things to avoid (Always products, dryer sheets, Scott toilet paper, to name a few), but declared that the insane periods, constant discharge and overall discomfort were likely to remain until I stopped breastfeeding and my estrogen levels returned to normal (as opposed to being depleted). Which, by the way, could take up to three more months. I was left with two choices, neither of which was appealing to me: wean, or deal.
Before getting pregnant, I’d had a lot of trouble envisioning nursing. It seemed too weird and animalistic that these erotic parts of myself would become a source of baby food. But it began to make more sense as my body changed, and I realized that sexiness and breastfeeding were not mutually exclusive; one of the more amazing things about my pregnancy transformation was that I, a short, thin woman who’d stopped growing in the seventh grade, suddenly had a huge rack.
I set an initial nursing goal of six months, took a class at the hospital, and dove into the process during my son’s first hour of life. I got lucky; he latched on well and loved it. The schedule was brutal (every two hours for four weeks!), but we settled into an easier routine over time and I found myself actually liking it. So when the six-month milestone hurried itself upon us, I couldn’t envision weaning. I loved the closeness. I loved how much he loved it. I loved his chubby little hand gripping my collar and the funny grunts and slurps he made while he drank. I loved that my milk gave him nutrients and antibodies and comfort and nourishment. I loved that my body was magic. If I stopped nursing, I wouldn’t be magic anymore.
I upped the goal to twelve months, when he could start drinking cow’s milk and maybe not ask for me so much. (For some reason I couldn’t just say, We’ll do this until we’re done. I am too goal-oriented; sometimes verging on neurotic.) But shortly thereafter, I hit a wall with pumping at work. My boss honestly tried to figure it out with me, but the options were limited: as an adult ESL teacher, my lunch break was just thirty minutes and the only private room on my side of campus was a closet filled with canned food for underserved students. Instead of eating lunch alone surrounded by dusty shelves of salmon, I decided to pump in the car while driving to and from work. This was hilarious and doable for a while but grew tiresome after a couple of months. It also wasn’t generating enough milk to satisfy my voracious little monster. So in spite of the voice in my head telling me I was a bad mom for considering formula, I ditched the pump and began supplementing. Turns out my little one loved Enfamil so much that even seeing an empty bottle made him lose his mind with desire. We had to start hiding them.
After 15 glorious months, my period came back with a vengeance. While I rattled on to my students about attendance expectations and required texts, I kept thinking to myself, I’m supposed to just stand in front of a group of people and bleed like this all day?
I became obsessed with my cycle, noting everything from cramps and blackheads to anxiety symptoms in an app on my iPhone. And it’s no wonder I was fixated—something was seriously going awry; at least twenty days a month, I was either spotting, ovulating on a three-day mini-period, or dealing with a week-long actual period, the first day being a crippling combo of cramping, backaches, and heavy flow. I assumed these issues were because of my recent IUD and would sort themselves out soon enough (no one had told me about the nursing hormones yet), but when months passed like this, I became hopeless. After much overanalyzing, I decided that my period controlled everything about me, that all of my emotions were actually just a hormonal reaction, that I could predict how I’d feel about anything based on what day of the month it was, and that this physical explanation made my emotional life unimportant and fake.
When I confessed all of this to a friend over cocktails, she agreed that our periods controlled everything about us, but then said she was glad for it. She was glad there was some greater force at play, that whenever she felt extremely sad or upset and then got her period, she was happy for the explanation, happy that her period made sense out of things. I loved this perspective. I’d been running in existential circles about the meaninglessness of emotions if they’re all just a result of this biological cycle that exists to ensure the continuation of the species, and here she was, using the same facts to explain how this connection made her feel free.
I recently spent a weekend at my in-laws, along with my husband, our baby, my brother-in-law, and two of his friends. One of them is a vibrant, chatty, twenty-something in the process of transitioning from a man to a woman. She babysits for us sometimes, and her energy feels so feminine to me that I can’t imagine her having ever been male. Every day she takes a pill that decreases the testosterone inside of her and another pill that increases the estrogen, meaning her hormonal levels are constantly readjusting. She once said that transitioning is like going through puberty again, but when she talks about her experience, it sounds much more like being pregnant to me. It’s interesting how our choices, hers to become a woman and mine to make a baby, caused such similar hormonal side effects. But I felt like for her, the hormones created the magic, while for me, the hormones were ruining it.
When my son chugged his formula, it made my life easier, but I also felt let down, like he wasn’t supposed to take it so easily, like this was somehow a reflection on my abilities as a mother. These feelings were soon overweighed by the joy of driving home not attached to a machine, and the freedom of having more than one beer at the bar even though my frozen stash was depleted. This sense of freedom ran deep. I started considering what it would be like to wean completely. There were many frustrating afternoons when my son, full of homemade lentils and carrots or hummus or guacamole, would pull down my shirt every three minutes to nurse for only thirty seconds (“I know you’re not hungry! Why can’t my hugs be enough comfort?”). But I was able to set some restrictions that worked for both of us and we fell into a lovely, fulfilling routine. I began thinking that we could happily nurse for well over the twelve-month point now that we’d found balance.
And then my vagina exploded.
Let me break it down for you. By “exploded,” I mean my vagina itched, burned and stung all the time, was swollen, puffy and bright red, and either so bloody and/or gunky that I had to wear a pad almost every day. Then, after weeks of dealing with this, one of my pores got clogged and turned into a huge, painful bump, also known as a vagina pimple (yep, that’s right, a freaking vagina pimple).
When my doctor gave me the choice (wean or deal), my son was only ten-months-old. It felt too soon. We’d figured things out and I liked our routine. Besides, what would happen to us when I was no longer magic?
At the same time, breastfeeding had turned my vagina into a disaster area and my periods into a Walking Dead episode. There was also something exciting about the idea of “having my body back.” It had been two years since my husband and I first started trying to conceive, in which time I’d been thinking twice about everything I ate, drank, and basically did… would weaning bring me back to myself?
That voice in my head spoke up again: choosing my own comfort over caring for my son was selfish and unacceptable. I reminded myself that I’d already passed my initial goal, that teaching all day while my vagina hurt was not actually worth it, that this is my body and I’m in awe of and grateful to be in it. But as soon as I weaned out that first feeding, I fell one-hundred-percent, head-over-heels in love with nursing. It’s like how the city you’ve been so ready to leave feels perfect only after you’ve signed the new lease. The remaining two feedings became these beautiful opportunities to be close and happy with my son. I like how the goodness of an experience rushes back when you’re letting go, but it made weaning much more difficult.
My poor vagina lost it again, and I had to start a new antibiotic plus a cream. This motivated me to wean out another feed, which did have positive effects on the state of things down there. I was also amazed by the amount of energy I suddenly had to put toward other parts of my life, like writing and playing the piano and reading new books.
Then came the onslaught of tears and anxiety.
Post-weaning depression symptoms were also not something I’d been told about when I was pregnant. A basic overview: when a woman nurses, the hormones prolactin and oxytocin are released. These hormones feel really, really good. Relaxing, uplifting, almost euphoric. When a woman stops nursing, these hormones also stop. According to Dr. Lisa Grace Byrne, “When this drops, a woman again is susceptible to the mood impacts of her hormonal state bottoming out, until her body recovers a normal hormonal rhythm again.” For many women, this bottoming out is more intense than postpartum “blues” and can lead to serious depression and anxiety. For me, I started crying on a date with my husband and couldn’t stop for an hour. His parents were keeping the babe overnight (what a treat if I weren’t such a mess), and on the way to pick up my son the next morning, I had a full-blown anxiety attack for no obvious reason. We nursed as soon as we were together, and I instantly felt happy again.
My story is not exceptional. Many mothers love/hate breastfeeding. Many mothers also experience psycho periods while nursing but feel wishy-washy about weaning. And many mothers have intense emotional reactions when they do wean. Yet many mothers aren’t given this information beforehand. If I’d known about all of this when I was pregnant, I still would have made the decision to nurse. Yes, it’s hard and demanding, but so is being pregnant and giving birth. Be honest with us. We’re badasses; we can handle it. Sure, we can look things up on the Internet, but we need our doctors and lactation counselors and midwives and mentors giving us all the facts, some education and warning in advance, instead of leaving us to frantically Google after the attack. The more prepared we are, the better we’ll be at managing everything when the time comes.
So, how did I eventually wean out that final feed? It feels impossible to believe, but one day, about two weeks before my son’s first birthday, it just happened. He crawled over to me and asked to nurse, but instead of his typical, greedy slurping, he hugged my breast in his hands and slowly sucked. He sat up when he finished so I resnapped the cup of my bra to its strap, but he immediately asked to nurse again. When I opened back up, he just sat there and stared at me instead of nursing, then reached out and pet my right breast (his favorite) with an incredibly tender expression on his face. Afterward, he buried his head in my chest and stayed there for a moment, then wiggled out of my lap and crawled off to his tub of toys. He hasn’t asked to nurse since.
It occurred to me when this happened that the magic isn’t in the breast milk. The magic isn’t even me. The magic is us, mother and child, the unexplainable connection we share, the innate understanding we have of one another. My son realized what was going on and said his goodbye. It was beautiful.
And now, three months and three much easier periods later, my vagina is back to its normal self and damn, she feels good.
PS: Like this piece? Want to meet Becky Fine-Firesheets and tell her in person? She’ll be helping to MC our first-ever LitCrawl reading THIS SATURDAY 10/1/2016 at Sidewalk Cafe. Be there, NYC!