Nursing Twins part 1: Can I will myself to lactate?

Today in ‘things I never imagined would become par for the motherhood course’: Evelyn, latched on while lying on her back with one foot on my chin, one foot in her hand and her free hand picking plaque off my teeth. Whenever we lock eyes she unlatches and says ‘hi’ 12-84 times until I give her a satisfactory response. Rowan, standing upright on the couch next to me, but down 6 inches because he’s pulled the cushion off. He’s trying to stay latched while jumping up and down as if on a trampoline. Every 30 seconds or so he has to take a break to give a gymnastics style salute and a shout of balance-victory. Nursing these days is never dull!

I’ve been wanting to write a bit about our nursing relationship, to give words to this intense and empowering experience because it has been more beautiful and overwhelming than I ever could have expected. In those first painful, challenging hospital days when latch issues and delayed milk were all I thought about, my goal of nursing for a full year felt about as plausible as me running a marathon with a baby in each arm. And then, all of the sudden the day came and went: 365 days of nursing these little people and it just sort of rolled on by, right into day 366. 6 weeks of days later and we’re still at it, with the addition of both kids finally learning the sign for ‘milk’. They now cuddle up to me about 165 times a day asking for more milk. What’s the sign for ‘mama is fresh out, please get me a snack and some wine?’

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This happened last december, and is my favorite picture of all time. It was, for about a week, the only way to successfully feed one baby while satisfying the jealous sibling who absolutely had to be held at the very same time. Whatever it takes!

Anyway. Breastfeeding can be a loaded topic, I promise this will not be my mama’s milk manifesto. I have no speeches to make (ok. maybe just one or two. mostly about things I wish had gone better!), motherhood is fraught with enough tensions and judgements and insecurities and I certainly don’t wish to add to them by furthering the divide between moms who breastfeed and moms who formula feed! I’ve done both and I have thoughtful, loving friends who do both. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience and hope it might inspire my fellow mamas to share your baby-feeding stories (the highs and the lows!) with me and other people in your life. How we nourish our children is a weighty question, and the day-to-day doldrums of endless breastfeeding or endless bottles, of leaky breasts or the smell of sour formula, it isn’t pretty work. It’s hard, beautiful, challenging mothering. I’m proud to join millennia of mamas who have given themselves over to the needs of their beloved babes. Feeding my children has taught me so much about my self, about how I think about my body and sacrifice and love. I’m so thankful.

Because I simply have too many feelings and thoughts about this year (and beyond!) I’ve decided to try sharing our nursing adventure over a few posts. If this isn’t your thing, please feel no obligation to read about my breastfeelings. I promise I will not ask you if you saw this post the next time we meet for lunch or bump into each other at the grocery store. But if you love over-sharing about internet-sensitive topics, read on!

So, Nursing Twins part 1: How a woman who knew nothing about nursing decided she could handle breastfeeding her twins.

Due to a health complication, my mom wasn’t able to nurse us and I grew up healthy and strong on bottles and formula. 14 years later I fed Gabe and Abby the very same way when they joined our family, first as foster babies and then as forever siblings. I loved getting to curl up with them after school, all snuggled up while they had their bottles. My sister had to use an NG tube for the first few weeks of her life in the NICU and the sweetness of finally getting to hold her in my arms and watch her hungrily guzzle a bottle was amazing.

Abby & Gabe and my fresh faced young self, march 2003
Abby & Gabe and my fresh faced young self, march 2003

In contrast, I don’t have many (any?) memories of friends’ moms nursing their siblings or even seeing many breastfeeding mamas in public. I don’t really remember learning very much about childbirth or breastfeeding in school, and even into my adulthood I didn’t understand the mechanics of how a breast could produce milk. For a long time I imagined the nipple just sort of opened up in a fire-hose fashion and delivered milk like a steady stream from a faucet. I had no idea it was more like one of those garden hoses with all the holes poked through the sides, spraying wild streams in every direction! I suppose I had some vague notion that I would like to try breastfeeding when I had kids but I had almost no idea what that meant or how a person was supposed to learn how to do it before they had a screaming, hungry baby in their arms.

When my hilarious, thoughtful, crunchy-wise friend Elsbeth had her first daughter a few years ago I got my first inside scoop on the world of breastfeeding. I remember being sort of transfixed/in awe as I watched her sit and nurse her four month old while chatting away with me as if nourishing a human being was no big deal and required no special concentration or struggle. Just a content baby cuddled up against her mama. Until I was sitting there in her dining room, my notion of breastfeeding moms was largely shaped by the sorts of fantastical accounts of nursing moms that appear from time to time in the news. Those stories usually go for the shock and awe factor and (in my opinion), do little to help normalize breastfeeding because they paint nursing moms as creeps who force their kids to nurse against their will because the mom wants a platform/attention. People talk about how ‘unnatural’ it is for a child with teeth/who can talk/walk/eat solid food to continue nursing. They balk at the idea that a mom would scoop up her fussing, hungry baby and nurse him in a store or at the park or on an airplane. They claim she’s an exhibitionist, that she nurses because she gets some kind of creepy controlling or sexual satisfaction out of it.

Rarely do we encounter complex stories of the moms who, after learning about the benefits of breastfeeding decide to try it and then face any number of challenges or a great learning curve as they find their way. There are moms who spend their first days struggling to establish their milk supply. Moms who fight through the rough early weeks of raw nipples and latch issues. Moms who must return to work right away and, after much effort, feel the weight of guilt that they aren’t able to pump enough to keep up with their little babe. Moms who are able to pump and spend hours every day for months hooking themselves up to what will surely be regarded as the medieval torture device of our time. Moms who, after many visits and much support from a lactation consultant, are able to finally experience a successful (pain free!) latch. Moms who ultimately find a balance between nursing and supplementing. Moms who are able to use donor milk or who nurse for as long as possible and then switch to formula for any number of reasons. The realities of breastfeeding are both more beautiful and more challenging that I ever expected and I so wish I would have learned about how varied the experience can be before my babies arrived!

For the long weekend we spent with Elsbeth and Nate and little M I caught many beautiful glimpses of what breastfeeding could be. Sometime later that year I watched the Business of Being Born and learned a bit more about some of the controversy that surrounds ‘natural’ childbirth, breastfeeding and how our culture influences these very personal first parenting choices. As I learned more, I started to notice more friends who nursed, especially in family-friendly Toronto. I saw patient moms helping wriggly babes settle in for a good meal. I saw moms who used those big shawl covers, I saw moms who didn’t. I saw moms who would retreat to a quiet and more private place when their little one was ready to eat and I saw moms carry their child through the mall, sit on a park bench or settle in at church, wherever was most convenient! (Later I learned it was even possible to nurse while wearing a baby in a carrier! The intrigue!) Contrary to every comment thread on any news article about a breastfeeding mother, I’ve never seen a mom nursing her 15-year-old or met a mom who bragged about the sexual nature of her nursing relationship. (because. what?! How do people come up with this stuff? The internet can be a horrible place.)

Before the twins were born I read books and scoured the internet for blogs telling the story of twin moms who made this mysterious process work for two. I watched (in mixed fascination and bewilderment) countless youtube videos of women tandem feeding. I read reviews of every brand of massive nursing pillow. I bought a nursing cover. I bought cotton nursing pads. I bought mothers milk tea and creams to soothe sore nipples and every other thing any wise mama told me I might need. I tried to be so prepared but I was pretty terrified that I wouldn’t know how to actually do it. That my body would just sort of stall out after all the gestating and laboring and my boobs would just kind of lie there, missing the cues for their opening number. Can you will yourself to lactate? I felt like my body was sort of mixed up about a lot of things (hello. babies are supposed to be born ONE AT A TIME.) and I didn’t have a lot of confidence that we could get this right either.

It was time to get some real answers. During my second trimester we began a series of birth classes with a lovely woman named Liz and she helped us wade through all the questions we didn’t know we needed to ask about how to have a healthy pregnancy, a safe and beautiful birth and how to be prepared for the days and weeks afterwards (breastfeeding!). Her perspective was a crash course in all these things though the lens of ‘natural’ birthing experience (i.e.: low intervention, empowering through education, drug-free pain management) and attachment parenting principles (breastfeeding, baby wearing, baby-led weaning, positive discipline, etc). She gave us so much good, evidenced based information that helped us make decisions that best fit our family and circumstances.

Because twin pregnancies are automatically characterized as ‘high risk’, we knew we wouldn’t be able to have a home birth or even birth in a tub in the birthing center at the hospital. Our birth would be, at best, a heavily monitored experience in a traditional hospital room. At worst? Well. You can read that at your leisure. Of course, in the end our two jumbo-sized babies were born perfectly healthy and safe via c-section and were quickly in our arms and I am so thankful but the experience was not exactly what I had imagined and has taken a long time to process. I think the intensity and interventions of their birth contributed to the challenges I had getting breastfeeding started. But, I will save that story for another post!

Nursing Twins part 2: Breastfeeding in the first two weeks {Guest post by Sheila Begin}

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perfect little just-born babies!
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