I was a research-happy pregnant woman. I read every book, watched every documentary, and basically tried to over-prepare in every imaginable way for the journey that lay before me. I made lists. I took classes. I planned a natural childbirth to be followed immediately with lots of skin-to-skin contact and, as soon as possible, breastfeeding. The one thing I didn’t prepare for was breastfeeding not working out.
My mom had three completely natural childbirths and a combined 11 years of effortless breastfeeding experience. No hiccups, no problems, no electric breast pumps — just roly-poly babies and lots of happy bonding. It’s all I knew. So imagine my surprise when my son absolutely refused to latch for close to four hours after birth. My midwife wasn’t concerned; he had needed meconium suctioned immediately after birth, and they assured me that his throat was just irritated and he would start eating soon enough.
He would latch half-heartedly every few hours, but would almost immediately rear back and scream in frustration. I was exhausted and scared and had no idea what to do. Somehow his blood sugar stayed up and he didn’t lose too much weight in the hospital (he was over 10 pounds at birth), so they sent us home without much extra help. Thus began two weeks of profound sleeplessness, frustration, and concern.
Soon, my chunky baby had lost nearly two pounds, despite being on the breast every two hours around the clock. My husband and I were flabbergasted. Three lactation consultants later, we learned that while my little man was trying his hardest to latch, he just couldn’t transfer milk. There were no ties to be fixed or anything we could do; his mouth and tongue were just very poorly configured for breastfeeding. I was devastated and so, so tired.
In an effort to prevent nipple confusion, we embarked on a completely bananas journey of pumping, feeding him through a tube next to my nipple (a two-person job that took four arms and at least 30 minutes), supplementing with formula, and then repeating the whole process two hours later around the clock. Breastfeeding was the hill I was going to die on, and I very nearly did.
Eventually, in a moment of desperation, I just popped a bottle of freshly pumped milk into my baby’s mouth. And he couldn’t have been happier. He drank it right down and fell asleep contentedly. He started packing the weight back on. And I realized that I had another option before me: exclusively pumping. I decided to give it a try, and remarkably, it was significantly less insane than the schedule we had previously been trying to keep.
I pumped six times every 24 hours, including a session in the middle of the night (when I finally got to catch up on some reading). I learned how to sanitize a load of bottles in two minutes flat in the dark at 4 a.m. I discovered the magic of the hands-free pumping bra, pumping while driving, lactation cookies, and letting Poppa handle night feeds. Soon I could pump, feed my baby, eat my breakfast, and drink my coffee simultaneously. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
While it took some time to build my supply back up, soon I was pumping 45 ounces a day. Soon, my child was in the 99th percentile for height and weight. By 12 weeks postpartum, I was able to drop my middle of the night pumping session and finally get several hours of consecutive sleep. My husband and I could go on date nights, and he gave me every weekend “off” by waking up with our son at night and letting me sleep in in the morning. It was so much easier to go back to work with a pumping routine already in place. It was remarkable how doable something that seemed so impossible at first had become.
I set mini goals for myself: Just make three months. Then six. Then nine. Then a year. Now, I’ve been pumping for nearly 16 months. I’m weaning now, and I can’t believe I made it this far. My son is so happy and so healthy (he’s only had one 24-hour fever in his whole life thus far), and he’s as roly-poly as ever. And my husband has gotten to have the profoundly beautiful opportunity to bond with our baby just as much as I have through feeding him. To this day, they do bedtime together five nights a week, and still spend their weekend mornings getting their special one-on-one quality time.
These 16 months have been one of the biggest roller coaster rides of my life, but they have also been some of our happiest days. I’ve realized that breastfeeding isn’t all or nothing. Every drop of milk was a gift to my child, and those drops would have been just as much of a gift if we had breastfed five days or 25 months. I’ve learned that pumping is breastfeeding, and that moms who exclusively pump are some of the most hardcore badasses I’ve ever had the honor to meet.
Pumping moms: I see you. I see you fumbling with your pump parts with bleary eyes in the middle of the night. I see you washing the 10,000th load of bottles. I see you smearing your sore, cracked nipples with coconut oil for the 56th time today. I see you giving your pump the side-eye, secretly plotting to smash it with a hammer, then sighing and hooking up for yet another pumping session.
Take it one day at a time. You can do this. And whether you pump for one week or for two years, you’ve poured out your heart and soul to give your baby the very best, and you’ve done an incredible job. I see that too.
This piece originally appeared on Scary Mommy