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Breastfeeding through Traumatic Times

Theta Pavis
Jersey City NJ USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 1, January-February 2006, pp. 20-21

When my daughter, Delphine, was just two months old, my family suffered a blow. On Valentine's Day, my younger sister, Jorelle, was in a terrible car accident and sustained a severe head trauma. Our lives tilted on their axis that night and they haven't been the same since.

Needless to say, my days of early motherhood have been nothing like what I expected; they have been laced with pain, grief, and depression. But there have also been wonderful moments, and many of these I attribute to breastfeeding my baby. I have also been blessed with an extremely supportive, caring husband, Patrick, who has always encouraged breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has kept us close and helped me build a strong bond with my daughter. It has also helped focus me as a mother during this traumatic time.

The day after my sister's accident, I traveled about two hours from my home with my husband and baby to upstate New York. My sister lay in a coma and was not expected to survive. For the next three weeks my baby and I remained in New York; I went to the hospital each day to see my sister.

Before the accident happened, I was just beginning to adjust to new motherhood. I had a wonderful pregnancy but a very difficult delivery, which culminated in a cesarean birth. I had hoped for an unmedicated, natural birth, but that was not what happened. I was angry and in pain from the birth, but I was overjoyed with my daughter. Delphine was strong and beautiful and nursed soon after she was born. In the recovery room, she latched on by herself and breastfed for almost half an hour, while my mother, doula, and husband all supported me.

I am the oldest of four children and this was the first time my mother had become a grandmother. Life was special and sweet and I was enjoying my new family. I also had the unusual and wonderful experience of living upstairs from my mother and brothers. My husband and I felt especially lucky to have grandma right downstairs from us. Jorelle was very excited about her niece, and often came to visit and hold the baby. The last time we were together before her accident she helped me give Delphine her first real bath. We are a very close family and the fear and pain over my sister's medical situation and her grave prognosis have profoundly affected all of us. In the midst of this, I was learning to be a mother for the first time.

In retrospect, I realize that when we first got to New York, I was able to function well because I was still in shock. I tried not to think about my fears for my sister and focused on basic tasks instead. I kept telling myself that I had to eat and I had to shower everyday, that I had to take care of myself because the baby was connected to me and needed me for sustenance.

I had bought some breastfeeding tops during my pregnancy, and they made a big difference. I wore the same clothes over and over again for weeks, but I washed them and worked hard each morning to look my best. I spent a lot of time with my baby each morning and in the afternoons I would go to the hospital. I had attended my first La Leche League meeting while pregnant and had gone to a few more meetings before the accident. Talking to one of the other mothers and to our Leader helped me stay connected and feel supported while I was away.

During that time, I breastfed Delphine everywhere: in the hospital lobby, in the family waiting room, at the diner, in the hotel, and at family meetings where we discussed my sister's situation. Leaving my baby to go to the hospital was hard. At home I had just begun longing for a little time by myself, and my husband had started to care for her while I took a walk or did something else for myself. Suddenly I had to leave her all the time, every day, sometimes for hours. I worried about the amount of stress my daughter was being subjected to.

My husband brought my pump up to New York, but forgot one tiny part. I remember having everything set up in the hotel bathroom and realizing that this tiny piece was missing and just burst into tears. The next day, my brother found the missing piece for my pump at home and returned with it.

I pumped in the morning and left my milk for Delphine. I really didn't want to supplement with formula, especially since my sister had been particularly horrified at that idea when she had accompanied me to an early pediatrician's visit. But I was not producing enough with the pump, probably for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was stress. I did end up supplementing a bit, but it worked out. We had a lot of help from family and friends who watched the baby. Some even offered to take Delphine for me if I "could just get her on a bottle." Others criticized me for sleeping in the same bed with the her or strapping her into a front carrier. But I knew that no matter what, we needed to stay together.

One morning in New York, I woke up and turned to look at my little daughter, happily lying next me. She was awake, too. We lay staring at each other and then, at the same time, we both smiled. She has given me such love and laughter, and I am happy to still be giving her a great start with breastfeeding.

Today my sister is alive and awake, although she has sustained a traumatic brain injury. She is re-learning everything: walking, talking, and eating. Alongside her, my baby is learning to do these things, too, which can make for a surreal experience. Now we are back home and visit my sister each week in a rehabilitation hospital. My sister is able to hold her niece and they can smile at each other, which is very rewarding to see.

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