Overcoming Early Feeding Challenges and Personal Loss
Name: Jessica Lee
Occupation: Economic and Financial Modeling Manager
Children: Daughter, age 2
How many children do you have, and how long did you pump?
I have one daughter who is now two years old. I worked until the day of my scheduled induction, and then I had 12 weeks of paid leave. Breastfeeding was really challenging for us, so I pumped from day one, and then continued when I returned to work. I pumped for about 6 months.
What were your expectations about breastfeeding versus the reality you experienced?
I knew I wanted to breastfeed, but I wanted to manage my expectations because sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work out, and I wanted to remember that the most important thing is to get the baby fed. And then the reality is that as a first-time mom, you just don't know what the hell is going on. I ended up with this weird experience where I was trying to manage my expectations and not put too much pressure on myself, and yet I ended up going through a really stressful first month with feeding.
I ended up with this weird experience where I was trying to manage my expectations and not put too much pressure on myself, and yet I ended up going through a really stressful first month with feeding.
What were those early feeding challenges?
After my daughter was born, my milk didn’t come in for almost a week. My doctor told me to feed the baby every two to three hours, and I kept trying to get her to latch for 20 minutes on each side, and it was painful and exhausting. We were first time parents and the doctors really insisted we must feed the baby every two to three hours from birth, but our daughter wanted to sleep. She was a good sleeper from day one and wanted to sleep four to five hours at a stretch, and there we were rubbing ice cubes on her feet and taking off her clothes, desperately trying to wake her up to follow the doctor’s feeding instructions. And yet she wasn’t getting the nutrition she needed from me, so that was very stressful. Our mantra was always “feed the baby,” so we sought the advice of a lactation consultant. We started a process where I would try to get the baby to latch for 20 minutes on each side, and then my husband would feed her drops of formula using a tiny syringe, making sure the flow wasn't too fast as to sabotage the breastfeeding, and then I would also pump to build supply. We kept that up for a few weeks, and then my husband did the math on the whole feeding process and concluded that the two hour process happening every two hours for 10 feeds a day - mathematically it just doesn’t work out and we needed to calm the madness.
That sounds really stressful. How did you change your approach once you realized it just wasn’t working for you?
We decided to let her sleep longer than the 2-3 hour interval and trust ourselves a little more. The nursing plus pumping in succession was really hard, so after another month I got in contact with another lactation consultant who agreed we needed to simplify the process. She helped me reduce my pumping sessions and helped me gain confidence that we were doing it right and my baby was getting nutrition. I also got a baby scale and weighed the baby multiple times a day before and after feedings to be confident that she was getting milk.
After a while I started going to lots of sessions with breastfeeding support groups. There's just so much anxiety in the beginning when you're trying to do this hard thing every 2-3 hours. Some days I really needed the support of those groups and the opportunity to get reassurance that I was doing the right thing. I was surprised because I was trying to be very intentional about managing my own expectations for breastfeeding, and yet as I tell this story, it sounds like I went through a lot of hoops and reached out to so many resources trying to make it work.
There's just so much anxiety in the beginning when you're trying to do this hard thing every 2-3 hours. Some days I really needed the support of those groups and the opportunity to get reassurance that I was doing the right thing.
It’s so difficult to maintain that perspective when you’re in the thick of feeding challenges.
I just remember being scared. My husband stayed home with us for the first four weeks, and then he took another 4 weeks of leave when I returned to work. After the first month, around the time he returned to work, I remember feeling really unsure about being by myself with the baby, and he was awesome. I remember one day he just stopped and said “you're doing a great job, don't beat yourself up,” and that was really helpful to hear. I was still obsessively weighing our daughter at that point, even as she was getting heavier every day.
I remember one day he just stopped and said “you're doing a great job, don't beat yourself up,” and that was really helpful to hear.
Is there a point where you felt like you finally got into a groove with feeding?
I remember calling my friend at six weeks and asking her at what point was I really going to feel like a pro at the feeding, and she said “I'm not going lie, it's going to take a while.” I remember still feeling unsure at six weeks, and I think that’s somewhat part of my personality. Some of my girlfriends just took to it right away and they felt super confident from day one. I think I hit my groove maybe two or three months in, but then I encountered another big hurdle.
What happened after you were finally in a groove?
My mom got very ill and passed away three and a half months after my daughter was born. It turns out that knowing how to pump early on even before I returned to work was kind of a blessing because I started making regular trips on the train from DC to New York to visit my mom in the hospital and to go to appointments with her. I learned a lot about pumping in different locations and the facilities that are made available to nursing moms. In many train stations there are nursing pods, although I never found one that was open and available, so I ended up pumping a lot in train bathrooms. My craziest experience was actually just pumping in my seat on the train right next to a stranger. Someone had previously assured me that there's so much ambient noise on the train that no one can hear an electronic pump, so I decided to just do that.
Wow, you went through so much on your pumping journey even before you returned to work. I imagine pumping at work was pretty simple in comparison to pumping in train bathrooms! But before we get to that, tell us what do you do for work:
I basically build statistical models, analyzing credit risk data and trying to make sense of what we're finding, and then communicating those trends in a way that internal teams of people who aren't quantitative can understand.
What is that work environment generally like?
I work at a huge firm, so there can be a lot of variation in the levels of support that people feel, and it's manager dependent. I’m very lucky to work in a group where there are men who are very focused on work product rather than on fixed hours, and they value flexibility and really encourage women, so I had a great situation to return to after maternity leave. I remember in one of my pumping classes the instructor emphasized the need to communicate your pumping needs to your boss and outlined how to ask for the pumping time you need, with the idea that it’s a hard ask to make and may not be welcomed by all managers. After that class I drafted a carefully worded email to my boss, and when he got it he was basically just like “yep, do whatever you need to do.” I feel blessed because I work in a huge facility that supports probably 1,000 employees. We have pumping rooms on at least two of our five floors, and it just so happens that my cubicle is across the hall from one of those pumping rooms, so it literally takes me 20 seconds to access a private pumping room. It was a great arrangement to pump at work.
How long did you pump at work, and how did you know when it was time to stop pumping?
I essentially exclusively breastfed up until about 6 months, though my husband would occasionally give our daughter a bottle of formula if it was too much of a hassle to defrost breastmilk. I pumped at work from the time I returned at 3 months to the 6-month point, and between six months and twelve months we gradually shifted away from exclusive breastmilk and more toward formula. My supply started going down, I think partly due to the stress of the situation with my mom, and the challenges of maintaining a regular pumping schedule between work and those trips to New York. I just couldn’t find a way to pump enough to fully support a growing baby, and so I made the decision to stop pumping.
What were your equipment essentials for pumping?
A portable, chargeable breast pump that doesn’t need to be plugged in, a hands-free pumping and nursing bra, and a nursing cover- those things were all essential for pumping on the go and trips. I also liked having a manual hand pump once I finally learned how to use it well. I loved having that in the car because there were a couple times after I returned to work when I forgot a random important piece of pumping equipment, so I couldn’t use my regular pump, and I had the hand pump as my backup to get through the day. I think I was pretty disorganized during that time of being so tired and dealing with all the emotions of having a young baby and returning to work, and I just needed a lot of redundancies.
I think I was pretty disorganized during that time of being so tired and dealing with all the emotions of having a young baby and returning to work, and I just needed a lot of redundancies.
Your story is a great illustration of how emotionally challenging the breastfeeding journey can be, even when you enter it with tempered expectations and a kind mindset. How do you feel now when you look back on your 6 months of pumping and nursing?
I honestly feel like a rock star, and I'm really proud of the way that my husband and I navigated the journey together. I don’t know that all partners would have been up for struggling so much through those early weeks, and my husband was behind me. He always said “I’m going to support you through whatever you feel is best, and we're going to do it together.” It was a pretty tough time with a lot of completely unexpected things that happened, but I feel like I did the best I could, and I’m proud of myself. I also feel lucky because I had the means to throw resources at my challenges. I hired at least two lactation consultants, and I had a great pump at home and rented a hospital grade pump to leave at work. I could buy a hands-free pumping bra, a nursing cover, clothes, a bag…I was able to afford these things, and so although it was hard, I also feel lucky because I was privileged to have resources to throw at the situation. I just want to recognize that privilege makes a difference.
I was able to afford these things, and so although it was hard, I also feel lucky because I was privileged to have resources to throw at the situation. I just want to recognize that privilege makes a difference.
Now that it's over, is there anything that you would recommend to other women?
Just try to be kind to yourself. It’s simple, but important. Be kind to yourself.
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