I was in my 3rd year of nursing school, completing my community placement at an Early Years Centre. My Monday mornings were spent with breastfeeding Moms, and somewhere between the infant massage classes, the endless studying and thanksgiving celebrations I had… CONCIEVED?!!! I was going to be a mother. This was it. How exciting! How scary!! I wasn’t finished school. I was tending bar and waiting tables 3 times a week to help pay for my expenses. We were a pair of newlywed students living in a basement apartment. Would I be able to finish school???!!!! I NEEDED to. I could do it!!! But it was going to be hard with a new baby and family 5-7 hours away. What if I miscarry?!!? Where are we going to live?? I need to find a good midwife! Would I be able to find a midwife?! Have I been taking my prenatals?? Can I still exercise? What if I get sick?! These were the common questions and worries swirling through my brain in the early days of my pregnancy. It was exciting and scary but we worked through everything one step and day at a time. I often look back at my last 2 years of nursing school and wonder How did I do it?! How did I get through pregnancy, birth and a year postpartum in school and with a breastfeeding infant?
Life was so busy that those months seem like a blur of breastfeeding, nursing textbooks, long overnight shifts, scrambling to figure out childcare and pumping… oh so much pumping. I would pump in the morning before a day shift while eating my breakfast, twice during my shift and sometimes again when I got home after my daughter had nursed. Those days were marked by the sound of that breast pump. Now when I hear that sound I am reminded of the bittersweetness of that time. Reminded of the sadness I felt of having to leave my baby but also of the gratitude and satisfaction achieved from being able to meet many of my baby’s needs by preserving our nursing relationship despite our time apart.
Looking back I really can’t pinpoint an exact recipe for successful breastfeeding while managing separations but there were a few things that stick out in my mind as helpful factors. This may or may not be a helpful testament for nursing parents who are considering returning to school or work with an infant. But if anything the take home message from my experience is that it IS possible to continue nursing while returning to work or school and that it IS possible that nursing can even help make those separations more manageable.
Preparing for returning to school
Luckily a friend of mine had also completed nursing school with an newborn in tow. She kindly allowed me to borrow her pump and shared her stories of how she got through that first year. Hearing about other experiences similar to my own was a great source of support. Knowing that others before me have had completed school or returned to work while maintaining a strong breastfeeding relationship with their babies was motivating and inspiring.
Once my daughter Mia arrived in late June I breastfed on demand and we naturally fell into a routine. At the 8 week mark I started to pump once a day in the evening. I froze the milk and began to build a stash. I knew that Mia was eventually going to have to take a bottle while I was away so we prepared for this by building a frozen breastmilk supply and introducing a bottle at 8 weeks.
The most stressful part of motherhood for me has been coordinating childcare for Mia. This was much more difficult then I ever would have imagined. Because our family was so far away, we had to employ nannies to care for our daughter during the first few months of the school year. Mia was barely 3 months old at this point, and the guilt I felt was painful. For the second half of the school year we were able to coordinate a schedule between my mother, sister and mother-in-law where they would each take turns coming up to stay with us for weeks at a time. This was not only a great help but comforting to have family close by. Talk about it taking a village! Although it wasn’t apparent to me at the time, having that close family support was a huge comfort and support that allowed us to manage such a hectic schedule.
Occasionally I would have some colleagues ask me why I “put myself” through all that extra work of pumping in addition to breastfeeding. Why don’t you formula feed part-time and then breastfeed when you’re with her? You are using bottles anyway while you’re away, - was a suggestion frequently offered to me. As a new mother constantly filled with doubt hearing suggestions such as these was often hard. At first I would question if perhaps I would be less tired or if my daughter would miss me less if I used formula but after reflecting on this further, it was likely that my daughter would still need that sense of closeness and bonding from me regardless if I was breastfeeding or not, plus the having a solid breastfeeding relationship was a helpful tool for us to reconnect after time apart.
So how did I do it? Managing school and a breastfed baby. In short I think the key factors were 3 things:
1. having a way to express your milk and support your supply
2. Having a good support system which includes breastfeeding friendly childcare
3. Advance planning of #1 & #2
4. Being kind to yourself
The last one I think can be applied to any parenting challenge. Giving ourselves grace and space to be overwhelmed or tired is a big part of self-care that is oh so hard in the early weeks. A calming reminder that each stage of parenting comes with it’s own unique set of challenges and as the days pass the needs of your children will change as well. Slowly they become more and more independent and the demands on you as a parent will change.
So in hindsight, working at supporting my breastfeeding relationship during those hard times of early separations was more of helpful factor. It gave us a loving way to reconnect while ensuring that my daughter was receiving the best nourishment especially created for her. This in itself was a huge comfort during those long shifts away from my family.
Since then, my oldest is now 3.5 years and we have added a second addition to our family. I have completed a 15 month maternity leave with my youngest and have returned to work. I had no intentions of weaning my second once returning to work. Based on my experience with my oldest, I knew that breastfeeding and working is completely possible and worth it. The best part of my day is walking in after a long 12 hour shift and embracing my children happy to see their Mama. My youngest wants to latch immediately and my oldest will cuddle up next to us. What a heavenly moment that I know I will cherish forever.
This blog was graciously written by Melissa Anne Masse, a Group Parent.