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Of Leeches and Barnacles

Brooke Runyan
Lincoln, NE, USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 1, 2010, p. 12

I grew up a leech. That's how my father refers to La Leche League babies. He affectionately calls them "la leeches." I know my mother was nursing or pregnant during my first 13 years of life, but I cannot picture her in either situation. I'm certain, however, that LLL values have been deeply embedded in who I am.

Growing up on a ranch, we saw calves nursing every spring, and saw how scrawny the orphans were that we bottle fed. When I became pregnant, I didn't realize how important nursing would be in helping shape the mother I became and to understand the needs of my baby. I was much too focused on the immediate prenatal care and developing a birth plan.

I was confident in my body's ability to nurture and protect my child and believed this confidence would enable me, in accordance with LLL belief, to have "alert and active participation … in childbirth [to] help in getting breastfeeding off to a good start." I believe this also protects mother and child from the side effects of medical intervention, which can affect the pair's immediate and long-term physical and mental health. Understanding the why of each medical decision was important to me. I didn't want protocol to determine our care in childbirth.

My birth story begins 13 days after my due date. I was prepared to wait it out, but had also read studies that convinced me it might be unsafe to carry past 42 weeks. With no indications of labor beginning, and a less than reassuring non stress test, we decided to induce labor. After 13 hours on a pitocin drip, I couldn't imagine how I could continue. The suggestion of an epidural (which had previously terrified me) sounded like my only option. I was finally comfortable. I must admit that it was wonderful. Seven hours later I seemed to have stalled. I was given the option of continuing to labor but warned that it didn't look good. In the case of an emergency cesarean section, I was told, my husband could not be present. I asked for a moment with my husband and, after crying, we decided to go ahead with the c-section.

As much as I wished my birth story had been different, I hope that my struggles in resolving it will allow me to be sensitive to others who make tough decisions. The nurses brought Chantelle to me in the recovery room within the first half hour and we nursed. She was a pro! She knew exactly what she was doing and it was beautiful. Soon after we were home, my milk came in, and I needed her to nurse as much as she needed me. Maybe we were a little too good at getting a supply going, as it was six months before I no longer needed nursing pads all the time.

The jump from being an individual to being a partner in a symbiotic relationship was difficult. It didn't take long to realize Chantelle was not one of those peaceful, cuddly babies. I only wish I could have discovered a reason for her colic. I tried charting everything she did, monitoring everything I ate, gastrointestinal medicines, and a lactose free diet. It was overwhelming. And yet, many times, when it seemed we would both dry up from crying, nursing soothed us both to sleep.

Nursing was what we did well. It gave me confidence when so many other things shook my new mother ego. Like many nursing couples, we had our bout of mastitis, yeast, and a nursing strike. The love and acceptance I received from my mother were invaluable. I thank her from time to time for continuing to "nurse" me. When I am agitated, all I need to do is call her, and she soothes my soul just like she's been doing in various forms for 26 years.

As I was pondering my father's endearing "leech" terminology, and watching Chantelle nurse for what seemed like the fifth time in an hour stretch, I started envisioning barnacles encrusting sides of a ship, feeling like a tired old ship being held down. I looked down at my baby barnacle, and my picture turned into an anchor -- the anchor that I provide to her little life. The anchor of love and nutrition that help steady her on the swell. I am proud and blessed to be that anchor, and will miss my little barnacle some day.

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