Two weeks after my second son was born, I woke up one morning with swollen wrists that were too stiff and painful to hold my baby. Using my forearms, I handed our son to my husband and whispered, “It’s back.”
It, in this case, was arthritis that had plagued me since before I hit puberty. Brought on by a virus? Possibly tied to that horrific case of the chicken pox I had in sixth grade? Or maybe passed down from an elderly aunt? All the doctors had different opinions. I just wanted to get through my ballet classes in one piece, and maybe work on my tennis game.
I did, and then some, thanks to a cocktail of anti-inflammatory drugs I took for years. I am the first to admit I’m one of the lucky ones–mostly keeping the disease at bay and only suffering intermittent flares. Emotionally, I’ve wavered between denial and disbelief that my body could fail me in such a profound way. But hey, does anyone feel differently in high school?
When I got pregnant with my older son, I decided to go off all of my medications to avoid passing anything to the baby. And while I was pregnant I felt great. (Something about your autoimmune system being suppressed during pregnancy helped my body settle down.)
It was the birth of my second that sent me reeling, and that old let down feeling of my body not working came rushing back. Only this time it was worse: Being in too much pain to hold your children is excruciating. And yet, I was unable to not hold them, and so I felt myself gritting my teeth and holding back tears while wrapping my arms around their little bodies.
Chronic illness comes with a full set of baggage: Praying that you don’t pass whatever it is on to your children; learning what triggers or eases a flare, and avoiding those scenarios at all costs; pushing constantly to feel “normal;” defining a new normal.
I saw the rheumatologist often in the first few months after my second was born. I was limited in my treatment options, so long as I kept breastfeeding. And I wanted to keep breastfeeding. There were women at this point, I’m sure, who’d wean without much thought; it was that painful. But I kept going.
Sometimes I wondered why. Was I being a martyr, proving that the disease wouldn’t define me? Was I choosing a harder path just to see if I could? Was I really so stubborn that I couldn’t let biology and my own body guide me toward a decision that was probably inevitable?
Then after a few months, just as the doctors suspected would happen, the flare began to dissipate. I started to feel better. My decision to press on with nursing seemed worth it, and I was enjoying myself more than I did with my first. I weaned at four months with my older son, and this time, four months gave way to five and then six. Pumping isn’t so bad, I told myself each time I hauled out my “milk machine” at work. I can make it to a year!
And then in the past few weeks, as we neared the seven-month mark, something changed. I’m dreading the pump. I’m tired. My supply has dropped and I’m sick of fenugreek, oatmeal, and mother’s tea. I’m ready to wean. I feel guilty.
I’d been agonizing over the decision when I suddenly realized why I feel the way I do. It was an epiphany that came to me while I was trying to explain my dilemma to my husband. Nursing is one of the only times my body has done what it was supposed to do. In these lumpy post-partum months, that’s given me strength when my hands and wrists and knees and feet have not.
Oddly, coming to this realization is giving me a little bit of courage to wean, something I want to do but have felt guilty about. My body hasn’t been my own for 17 months (counting pregnancy). There are moms who go a lot longer, but I’m not one of them. I’m proud of myself for making it this far. And for once, I’m proud of my body.
For more stories from parents struggling with health issues, read one mom’s fears about parenting with epilepsy, how pregnancy helped cure one woman’s Crohn’s Disease, and what it’s like to be a parent with cerebral palsy.