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Trusting Tristan

Sara Paullin Casto
Columbus OH USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 5, September-October 2006, pp. 202-203

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. The student: Sara, a first-time mother. The teacher: Tristan, born 10 weeks early. The lesson: trust.

The early weeks of Tristan's life are a blur for me that involved donor human milk through a tube to Tristan's stomach, a potentially serious heart problem, and a blood transfusion from his father -- all amidst a deep postpartum depression that threatened to swallow me. And pumping. Always pumping.

To me, mothering a baby means breastfeeding. Both my mother, Kathi, and my husband's mother, Demi, were La Leche League Leaders. My husband, Trevor, and I internalized the importance of a mother's milk. While I couldn't carry Tristan to term, we were determined that he would breastfeed.

Within hours of his birth, even before the nurses would let me hold my son, I cradled the flanges of a pump to my breast. We rejoiced days later when Trevor received the first milliliter of pumped colostrum from a syringe. And we rejoiced again when I was finally able to pump enough to meet his needs. I kept ahead of him...just barely. But he was getting my milk!

I soon learned, though, that the hard part was yet to come. When Tristan finally had the necessary reflexes, teaching him to nurse was a complicated tango with one step back for every two steps forward. We desperately wanted to bring him home from the hospital, but couldn't until he no longer needed the tube to his stomach. With much trepidation, we finally agreed to using bottles of my milk. Yet the effort of nursing and then bottle-feeding was still too much. We tried an at-breast nursing supplementer and found that Tristan could get more milk with less expenditure of energy. We were there -- he took milk at the breast! At seven weeks, we finally brought our baby home.

But "happily ever after" eluded us still. Even with the nursing supplementer, most of his feedings would start with nursing and finish with the bottle. Tristan continued to fall asleep before taking much milk and I was still prodding him in endless ways to keep going. We tried different positions, various latch-on techniques, and even suck training. Trevor and I met with a lactation consultant, read books, and searched online for something new to try. I came to hate the supplementer that I had once loved because it brought my baby home. Tristan seemed to be learning unhelpful habits and I resented having a contraption between us. And during all this, I was pumping up to 10 times a day to keep up with the bottle feedings. I despaired over ever nursing him without contraptions, without bottles, and without the endless pumping.

Finally, I gave up. I accepted the fact that I might never have the idyllic, relaxed nursing relationship I wanted with my son. I decided I had to enjoy the nursing relationship we had. I read novels while nursing instead of focusing on whether his sucking was nutritive. I stopped using the nursing supplementer. I let him doze off. And we brought him to our bed to sleep with us rather than getting up to keep him awake and eating.

Then suddenly there was a change in Tristan. He was getting more milk while nursing and was not so tired afterwards. He nursed for hours with short breaks to rest. Literally overnight, I went from needing to pump at least seven times a day to fill his bottles to pumping one time. He was nursing, growing, and thriving and we gloried in the tranquil nursing relationship that I had fantasized about. Rather than looking for the "answer," what I really needed was to let go and trust Tristan. What a revelation! So simple, yet so profound. And so easy to forget.

Happy months went by. When Tristan was five months old, I went back to work and he stayed home with Trevor. I was pumping again and, once again, struggling to express enough. I was reading books and looking everywhere for ideas. Trevor and I were trying everything we could think of to help me produce more milk and keep Tristan satisfied without resorting to formula or encouraging solids before he was ready. Then, at eight months, we weighed Tristan and learned he was on the low end of the weight charts.

I felt completely inadequate. I shared my distress with some friends who were also new mothers. They insisted that my adequacy as a mother was not derived from my breasts or my brains, but my heart. To be a good mother, I simply needed to love my child and let that love guide me to do the best I could. And my best was enough. It was the message I needed to hear...trust myself, trust Tristan.

That evening, we offered Tristan sweet potatoes. We had offered him cereal and sweet potatoes over the previous weeks, and while he was interested, he did not eat much. But that day, he discovered that he really loved sweet potatoes. He greedily ate spoonful after spoonful every day for the next few days. And when we took him to the doctor again, we found that he had gained an entire pound! Once again, instead of looking for "answers," what I really needed was to trust Tristan. And trust myself to be the mother he needed.

Tristan is now two years old and still nursing, growing, and thriving. I know I have not mastered the lesson of trust. My training started with nursing, but it continues with new challenges. Every day, I am incredibly grateful for my persistent teacher.

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