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Can Exercise Hurt Your Breast Milk? [A Study in Mother Guilt]

Posted Sep 05 2010 7:05pm

A mother's love - they say that nothing is more powerful. (At least if you believe Harry Potter, which of course I do. I'm a sucker for green eyes.) So if this is true then I know the second most powerful force on the planet: A mother's guilt.

Whether they hand it to you as you exit the hospital, a neat little package of the shame you carry for sending your precious infant to the nursery to spend his first night on the planet alone amongst the bright lights and loud noises or whether you don't discover the little box hidden like a pipe bomb under the baby seat that you realize you've installed incorrectly and yet have been using it to tote your fragile baby around for months, it is an inevitability. It hits you like a knife to the stomach twisting your innards as your mind races to all the what-could-haves and thank-God-it-didn'ts as you repeat the Happiest Baby on the Block like so many nursery rhyme Hail Marys in an effort to prevent the worst by imagining all incarnations of it. Once the guilt has finished consuming you from the gut upward in its fiendish flames, it settles in quietly, rock-like, deep inside your person. Some mothers carry their neutron-star guilt in their stomachs perpetually churning with acid, others in their heads in the migraine spot right behind their eyes, but I, I carry mine in my heart. With every beat of my own I can feel the pulse, like an echo, of the hearts of each of my children. From their utmost beginning their hearts have beat inside me - how could I not still be swayed by their rhythm?

I shall tell you all the facts. There aren't many, it won't take long. Indeed, on the grand scale of parental mistakes this one is perhaps minor. But it is the thing that it represents that so wounds me: my ability to hurt my children even while doing my best to protect them. But I am ahead of myself.

Anyone who has had a baby, seen a baby, read about a baby or just happens to have breasts will know what a contentious topic breast feeding is. Breast is best! The zeal imbued into this cannot be overstated. It's healthier for both mom and baby - it is a magic elixir that prevents health problems now and in the future! Plus, it's free. And yet, knowing this as all of us breast-endowed women (and most men too, I'd wager) do, how is that the vast majority do not breast feed? Or if they do, they don't do it for long?

I'll tell you why. It's hard. It may be a natural process but it sure doesn't come naturally. At least it didn't for me. Nobody told me how much it would hurt - like rug burns with the scabs getting ripped off every 2-3 hours around the clock - until the baby's suckling finally turned my nipples into pencil erasers. Nobody told me of the yeast infections passed back and forth like some insane game of hot potato but where the winner gets their mouth painted purple with gentian violet. Nobody told me of the stage where infants turn piranha and, literally, bite the one that feeds them. Nobody warned me of the nursing strikes, the engorgement, the clogged ducts, the cumbersome nursing bras, the mastitis, the banning of all medicine except worthless Tylenol, the double pump milking machine that is so similar to the ones they use on cows that you can't help but moo, the spontaneous public let downs at the mere thought of my baby's cry. ( On an airplane, wetting a stranger's head no less! The only thing that could have made that flight more perfect was if my last name were Joad.)

I don't tell you this to discourage you from ever nursing but rather, having been through all of this multiple times, to explain to you why nursing means so much to me. I have fought so hard to do this simplest of things. To be the mother who can feed her baby.

But now for the facts I promised you. The Jelly Bean was born hale and hearty at 8 1/2 pounds, by far my smallest baby but fairly large as babies in general go. She took to nursing right away and at first all seemed to go well. She was back up to her birth weight by two weeks, just as expected. She pooped and peed like a champ. But along about 3 months, something changed. She stopped gaining weight. The doctor wasn't overly concerned. "Bring her back in a month for another weigh-in." I did. But at that check-up and every check-up that has followed, her weight percentile has continued to drop. Eventually the doctor suggested a lactation consultant who in turn suggested a number things of which I all tried. While she still didn't gain any weight, I comforted myself that she was meeting all of her milestones and seemed happy and healthy in every other measurable way.

And then she weaned herself. Or perhaps my milk gave out. I think the problem might have started with my breasts. I began to notice her fussing when it came time to nurse and despite her frantic sucking, the milk would not let down. Eventually she stopped trying to suck all together, straight-arming me and crying whenever I laid her down to nurse. I, always stubborn, refused to let the nursing go. I went for days trying to keep feeding her only to continue to be rejected. Finally, after a particularly teary session on both our parts, I gave up and made her a bottle of formula. She didn't like that either. At my wit's end, I called the beleaguered pediatrician again who said I either had to get her nurse again or to take the formula and it had to be done now. My milk was finished. I enticed her to drink the bottle by adding a sprinkling of Strawberry Quik powder to it (desperate times call for artificially flavored measures!).

I am happy to say that Jelly Bean loves her formula now (and we no longer have to spike it with Quik to get her to drink it). I am also happy to report that in the few weeks she's been on formula her weight bounced up to the appropriate percentile quite quickly. All's well that ends well. Right?

Those are the facts. Now for the questions. Was my milk compromised because of my obsession with losing the baby weight? Was her failure to gain weight due to my early and intense return to exercise? Or because of my very restrictive diet? It was during those middle months of my being a no-wheat, no-dairy calorie-counting vegetarian that she lost the most ground. Was my tumble into sane eating too late? The question that haunts me: Did I sacrifice my daughter's health on the altar of my own vanity?

My guilt may be misplaced. There are other explanations, other narratives I could tell for this story. (At the very least, the process of weaning has called down a hellstorm of hormones that alone could account for my angst.) And yet the guilt gnaws at me. I carry their very lives in my hands - how could it not?

If you're a mom - how did nursing go for you? Were you able to nurse and exercise with no problems? If you aren't a mom, what do you have irrational guilt about? Or are you one of those rare women (whom I envy) that is impervious to guilt?
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