When I wrote my last Kveller piece about gradually weaning my daughter, Penrose, I felt peaceful and optimistic. My body didn’t seem to be protesting the changes, and I knew I was making the right decision.
Just a few days later, however, everything changed.
At my Wednesday afternoon Pilates class, I suddenly realized I couldn’t comfortably lie on my front. What had been slight discomfort was evolving into painful engorgement. I wasn’t sure what to do—I didn’t want to run the risk of stimulating more milk production by hand expressing or pumping, so I thought I might just tough it out. It got worse and worse, and by the time I saw my parents on Saturday I was wincing every time I lifted Penrose or put her carseat in the car.
My mother advised me to wrap my chest in an ace bandage, like she had done when I abruptly stopped nursing at 8 months. With my husband’s help, I bound myself that evening, trying to somehow smash the two rocks protruding from my chest into pancakes. I slept that way, only to find the situation even worse in the morning. Unwrapping and rewrapping was excruciating. I tried wearing a tube bra over a sports bra, which was a little better, but didn’t resolve the problem at all.
Adding to the discomfort was the fact that my self-esteem, usually robust, had tanked. I had seen a photograph of myself that my husband had taken, and instead of feeling kind and accepting of my slight belly and strong but far from smooth legs, I felt disgusted. I panicked that I had somehow, in the week and a half since Penrose had nursed, gained a lot of weight, and worried about changing my diet to accommodate the 500 fewer calories I’d be burning each day. I didn’t want to be touched or looked at. I wore a baggy top to my next Pilates class and fretted that I was a poor role model for my students. It was irrational and over the top, but I couldn’t make the feeling go away.
On Monday, desperately uncomfortable and down in the dumps, I reached out to the lactation consultant I worked with when Penrose was born. I wanted to try to parse the conflicting advice I had gotten from my mother, from the Internet, and from friends. I didn’t want to wind up with an infection, and since Penrose hadn’t brought up nursing in days, I definitely didn’t want to back track. She called me back while I was at work. I almost wept as I heard her kind voice across the line. She was full of praise for having nursed for 17 months, and so sympathetic to the pain I was in.
She advised that I wear a supportive sports bra but said not to wrap my chest, which can lead to blockages. She said to take an antihistamine or decongestant and advised me to start taking non-mini pill birth control as soon as possible. She also said it was fine to hand express, just enough to “get the lumps out.”
As soon as I got home, I brought Penrose into the bathroom, and while she was occupied with her rubber duck and frog, I got in the shower. It was so odd to hand express under the warm water while she was in the room. It seemed like a waste of perfectly good milk, but on the other hand, I was taking care of myself and helping my body cope with an upheaval. When I was finally more comfortable, I looked back on the process as cathartic, literally and metaphorically.
I saw my nurse practitioner the next day. She reiterated the lactation consultant’s advice and added that I should take 800 mg of ibuprofen every eight hours for a few days. After a nerve-wracking pregnancy test (common practice before prescribing birth control, and no, no more babies are on the way), I left with a few Benadryl to see me through and the promise of my birth control pills in the mail the next day.
With the antihistamine, ibuprofen, and birth control in the mix, my comfort level and my mood quickly lifted. It’s been almost four weeks since Penrose last nursed, and everything is finally back to pre-pregnancy normal. My belly and thighs aren’t magically smooth and flat, but they weren’t to begin with, and I’m able to accept myself for who I am again.
Weaning is a part of every nursing mother’s life, and I wish there were a more active outreach on the part of health care providers to support that eventuality. The right information is out there, and I’m glad I finally ferreted it out.