Ashlee Dean Wells and Nova (31 months)
Xavier was 26 days old the first time I was able to feed him from my breast. Up until that point it had been all breast pumps and feeding tubes. 26 days before that day, my dreams for a happy homebirth were rapidly dashed with a late night hospital drive as contractions came too fast to stop. I fought the urge to push as they examined and x-rayed me and in the 45 minutes that seemed an eternity I heard him scream for the first time. My mind tried to wrap around this life that was a boy that was mine and that 28 weeks was far too soon all at the same time.
Despite our challenges I was determined to breastfeed exclusively. We refused supplementation, we researched, we held him skin to skin for as many hours as we all could tolerate and I pumped and pumped and waited for him to be ready. 26 days in he was more than ready, I saw him root around and suck, the nurses agreed as we snuck him licks and tastes but we needed the doctors blessing to withdraw real feeds and allow him to nurse. So we asked trepidatiously if I could put him to breast, a question, a situation that in itself is heartbreaking. To have to ask permission to feed your own child the way that nature intended pulls at your very being.
The doctor that day was not my favorite but we were all determined that it was time so with my favorite nurse by our side we asked as he left Xavier’s bedside following morning rounds.
He told me he was not ready, that we needed to wait and we pleaded. We discussed stats and studies and insisted he was strong enough to try. Finally the doctor, tired of fighting with me told me to go ahead, give it a try, page him when we failed and with a huff walked away.
Surrounded with pillows and too many hands I pulled all 4 tiny pounds of him up to my breast, he looked up at me for a moment and then latched like he’d been born to. He sucked and gulped with the most peaceful expression and the moments ticked on slowly until he slept in my arms. Tears dropped from my face to his as I heard our nurse whisper from behind me, “You did it. You two. You did it.”
Over the next 20 days we transitioned fully from tube to breast and he came home to us without incident. The next 3 years I was able to nourish him, comfort him and sustain him with my body, with my breasts. An ability that softened the sting of my inability to carry him to term.
Days after his third birthday he sat me down and told me he was all done with “Nonnies”, he kissed my chest, snuggled up and meant it. I may have cried and longed for more moments but while I never knew exactly how our nursing relationship would meet it’s end I’m so happy that it continued until he was ready to see it go. It was so worth fighting for.
4 years later I was in a very different place, a new city, a new life, my then 7 year old Xavier by my side. The morning of my wedding day we learned the baby we were expecting was two babies. Twins. And later that evening along with our wedding guests we learned they were girls.
Over the next two weeks we traveled the country and named them, Nova Emery and Aurora Eisley. Our girls, the twins, one active and joyful, the other subtle and sweet. I daydreamed about all the normal things us mothers do but was amazingly excited about my dreams for the pregnancy itself, our birth experience and the opportunity to breastfeed two babies simultaneously.
Life as normal had barely resumed when it’s ability to ever exist again would be shattered. At our 20 week ultrasound it was immediately clear that something was not well with our girls.
That Friday I heard the words Twin to Twin Transfusion syndrome for the first time. MoDi. Stage 4. That Monday we learned just how critical our girls were, that in 2 short weeks one of our babies had stopped growing, her fluid all but disappeared, her heart stressed and the other now overwhelmed with fluid and blood, both at risk. Aurora became our donor. Nova the recipient. We opted for surgery to sever their vessel connections, our only chance to save them both.
Our surgery was successful. Liters of fluid drained, connections severed. The next 18 hours were blissful. I watched them flit and flutter on ultrasounds every few hours, I slept with a peace I’d never had before. We woke in the morning and headed down for one last ultrasound before we were discharged for the long journey home. The ultrasound tech scanned the babies and left to get the doctor. We assumed he came in to admire his handiwork but instead he grabbed my hand with tears in his eyes and told me how sorry he was. Aurora’s heart was no longer beating. He was sorry. She was gone. The next many hours are a blur. Hugs and tears and somehow we made it home. I closed myself in the bathroom, stared at my copy of Mothering Multiples and wept as never before.
Grieving one life while welcoming another is a new reality for us. We were told that our survivor was healthy, she was monitored closely, she was going to make it healthily to term.
Until she didn’t. Until I woke up in labor at 3 am somewhere between week 23 and 25. Until we spent 12 hours and one emergency csection trying to buy her time. TTTS, Prematurity, 1 hospital transfer, 2 brain surgeries, Profound Hydrocephalus, VP Shunt, 100 days and home.
The surgery meant to save our girls left me Nova and I with a nasty E. Coli infection that could have killed us both. While I am angry at my body for expelling her early I simultaneously applaud it for ultimately saving us both. For giving me my two girls to hold if only in separate moments.
Once again I found my world run by breast pumps and feeding tubes. This time around my baby was still too small and weak to nurse on day 26 or 46 but on day 57 she latched and sucked. Over the next 50 we fought to continue. To teach her to eat without backsliding in the process. My supply tanked and I did everything I could to get it back up. Supplements and oatmeal. Water and almonds. Despite smelling like maple syrup I was getting less with each pumping. Reglan was prescribed and despite the warnings I was desperate to feed my surviving daughter. After all we’d been through, I couldn’t fail at this too.
We brought our baby home after 100 days still dependent on a feeding tube. It meant coming home and we knew what to do. Every 3 hours we did a dance that took about 2 hours in itself. She would nurse for 30 minutes, I would pump for 30 minutes then she would get a feeding over the pump for 45 minutes. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
I was exhausted. It was worth it. I was exhausted. Was it worth it?
7 days later we pulled the tube. I couldn’t do it anymore and she was doing well so we decided to give it a go. The worst that could happen is that we had to put the tube back but I was damned determined and this little fighter had proved time after time that so was she. She continued to nurse amazingly until the worst comedy of errors ensued.
My prescription for Reglan ran out and my doctor refused to refill it stating I’d already been on it too long. As a result my supply tanked and as I had not weaned off the drug, a drug known for nasty neuro and psychological side effects, I hit bottom. I’ve never met an anxiety or depression I couldn’t conquer but suddenly I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t feed my daughter, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function. My doctor told me the side effect was normal. To give it two weeks. If I didn’t feel better then it was likely PPD. I KNEW it was the medicine and I hated her for not doing anything. I hated myself for needing it. I felt trapped and desperate and in the meantime my sweet baby needed to eat. I’d nurse and pump but she was still obviously hungry and while pumping usually yielded several ounces a session, 24 hours of combined droplets barely rose to 10ml’s. My stash was useless due to a milk protein allergy and I was out of options.
For three days my daughter drank straight formula and while I justified it’s necessity and worth, it made me utterly heartbroken. I broke down in the waiting room at her ophthalmologist because she was hungry and I couldn’t feed her. I had failed her, my body had failed her once again. She was happy and healthy and after all we’d been through this had to be okay but after all we had been through I needed my nursing relationship with her more than anything.
Desparate, and still furious with my MFM, I asked Nova’s pediatrician to prescribe Domperidone for me. To my surprise he was happy to if it meant her having a chance to nurse again. I took it religiously and waited. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to kill myself attempting to relactate but if it happened I would happily resume. So we hoped. So we waited.
Several days later I was sitting at my desk in my studio with Nova in my sling and I suddenly started leaking, I felt full again. I had milk again. I ran to tell my husband, then attempted to get her to latch. Lazily she took to it, she drank, I cried. We nursed every hour those next few days, I held her naked against my skin, nothing was more important than getting her to drink from me. We weaned down the bottles until they were no more, she nursed, she nursed, she grew.
Nova is now just over 2.5 years. She has been exclusively breastfed since February 2013 and is doing remarkably well. Up 18 pounds from her birthweight and hitting all of the milestones that nobody said she would. I have recently weaned fully from Domperidone and I very much credit the drug and our dedication to saving our precious breastfeeding relationship. I hope to continue nursing Nova until she decides she’s done.
Breastfeeding has allowed me to mother my children, all three of them, with a graceful connection that I never anticipated - one we've fought hard for but eased into with comfort and celebration over time. And whenever, wherever, she needs to nurse -for comfort, for sustenance, for connection I will allow her to for all the reasons personal and those our society is still struggling to understand.