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Slave to the Pump (Part 1)

I starting writing this piece in January 2005 when I was at home with our child and really stressed with pumping, scheduling, etc. I needed to get it all out—just for a peace of mind if nothing else. I would like to share it with you—and maybe some new mothers who I may be able to help, in some way, feel better.

Slave to the Pump, Part 1 (started January 2005; unfinished)
As a new mother, I cannot tell you how scared I am! Time and time again, I’ve read that there are no instructions on how to parent … and that is so true! Yes, there are books that provide advice and magazine articles that suggest what a parent should do in certain situations, but as a first time parent, no book or article can really prescribe all the right remedies.

First off, our little boy was born prematurely at thirty-four weeks. For the first three weeks of his life, I was a permanent fixture at Albert Einstein’s NICU. My husband visited with our baby every evening after work and dedicated more time during the weekend, but I was almost obsessed with being there for our baby. I felt that I owed it to him to spend countless hours going back and forth to the Neonatal Unit—his home away from home … and I don’t regret it one bit. I formed wonderful relationships with the angelic staff of nurses and the doctors who took excellent care of him.

I had planned on breastfeeding and read a tantamount of material on the subject. My husband and I even prepared a birth plan (and we were the laughing stock of the Labor and Delivery Staff—after all, who’d ever really follow a birth plan during the chaos of childbirth??) that repeatedly stated the importance of breastfeeding once our baby was born. He was to be brought to my room immediately along with the Lactation Consultant—no ifs, ands, or buts about it! Well, you can imagine how having a premature child changed everything. What was to be almost predictable was now a complete surprise and whether we were ready or not, our little one was ready to enter this world. All my dreams for breastfeeding were put on the back burner.

Introduction—the Pump … the breast pump became my best friend and my enemy. We have a love-hate relationship. I pump because breast milk is what is best for my baby—that’s what I love about expressing my milk. What I don’t enjoy is the schedule. In order to produce a good milk supply, you must implement an every two- to four-hour pump timetable. I found myself pumping like a mad woman. Wanting the very best for our premature child, I pumped every three hours—waking up during the wee hours of the morning despite the fact that I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep my eyes open long enough to piece the pump parts together. I even purchased fenugreek, an herb taken to aid in the production of more breast milk. I am not sure if it was mind over matter, but I did notice an increase in my breast milk supply. How happy was I? Words could not truly express. Truthfully, previously having a low milk supply made me feel inadequate—now I felt like a real woman, a real mother, a real nurturer.

The NICU provided sterile three-ounce containers. When expressing my milk, the requirement was to use these containers along with nametags that the NICU printed and then bring them to the hospital for the baby. I was pumping so much and now filling up the three-ounce containers that the nurses had to freeze much of my breast milk. Later, I found out that there was a pumping room available, so instead of pumping for several hours at home, I now left early and spent almost entire days at the NICU while pumping every three hours. This made me feel closer to our baby. I could now have more time with him due to the convenience of the on-hand pumping facility. Guilt was on the back burner … for now. Because I was spending so much time pumping, I had to remember to eat. The nursing staff acted as my mothers and kept on me about getting some food in my stomach. Eating well and at least three times a day is what keeps the breast milk flowing. Hiro, the sushi guy in the hospital cafeteria, made a delicious avocado and crab roll (my main lunch staple) served up with a side of great conversation. We spoke about his sons and I told him about my little joy in the NICU.

Finally, the day came when our little one was released from the NICU. It was December 29, 2004, just in time for the New Year. Who could have asked for a more wonderful gift? We were so happy—we no longer had to leave our baby at the hospital. We would have our son at home with us, where he truly belonged. However, soon after his arrival at home, the doubts, worries, adjustments, and arguments began. Although the NICU was our baby’s temporary home, I became so dependent on the schedule and staff. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. All of a sudden, I didn’t know how to handle this new little life.

I called the NICU so many times those first two weeks that our son was home that the nurses probably thought I was mad. I wanted to make sure that the baby was being fed at the right times. I was afraid that I would miss feedings or that he would have difficulty taking his milk. See, at the NICU, the around the clock staff watched his every move and ensured that he was “nippling” properly. My fear was that he would no longer suck from the bottle nipple and that I would eventually have to get the milk to him via the dreaded feeding (gavage) tube. I started to have day and nightmares. I would second and third guess myself and my husband. This didn’t make things easier. I was just so afraid that I would do the wrong things. I kept feeling my baby’s head for the “soft spot,” hoping that it would always remain intact because if it started to sink in, that would mean that he was dehydrated. I checked his diapers to make sure he wet at least eight times a day. As breast milk is already digested, he was able to move his bowels regularly—so that I didn’t worry about.

And then there was advice coming from everywhere. Friends and family poured it on. “Premature babies should be handled just like full term babies—we’ve had two in our family and they are just fine,” or “Give him water—he’s thirsty, give him gripe water for his colic.” This just served to confuse me more. Was I doing the right thing? Am I a good mother? At that point, I just didn’t know. I was almost like a robot, mechanically doing all the things the nurse told me to do when I took our baby home. I fed him every three hours, changed his diapers religiously, pumped milk every three hours, boiled bottles and nipples, bathed baby twice a week, hand-washed all of his clothes. And in the midst of all this, I watched him like a mother hawk. Every sound that he made, I was right there by his bassinet, checking on him and praying that he would not succumb to SIDS, have a bout of sleep apnea, or spit up in his sleep without me being there to clear his oral and nasal passages. I felt like I was going crazy. I was sad, scared, angry, lonely, depressed, tired.

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