Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In Celebration of International Breastfeeding Week: An Adoptive Mama's Tale

Let's start with the never(s): 

I have never been pregnant.  I have never purchased a pregnancy test, peed on a stick, and waited to see what it would reveal.  I have never felt a baby kick, hiccup, or "dance" inside my own body.

I have never held my breath and wondered if I would give birth to a boy, or a girl, or one of each.  

I have never had a sonogram picture of my offspring to frame or show off to my friends.  I have never had a blue or pink-themed baby shower where friends guessed the diameter of my middle and gave me monogrammed bibs.  

I have never given birth.  I've never had to decide between a hospital or home birth, between a bed or a tub, between natural childbirth or utilizing an epidural.   I've never had to create a birth plan or choose who would cut the umbilical cord. 

I have never had milk in my breasts.  I've never had to purchase a nursing bra, a nursing tank, nursing pads, or one of those bibs for my child that says, "I like milk." 

My children, all three adopted as newborns, have been fed formula via bottles from the day of their arrival into the world until their twelve-month birthday.

So why am I celebrating International Breastfeeding Week?  

Because, as I've shared before, it's always been my desire to breastfeed.  I know the physical and emotional benefits.  I'm from a family of breastfeeders.  I think a mom nursing her baby is beautiful.

So why didn't I do it?

With baby #1, who arrived after fourteen months of waiting, I didn't have the support.  There weren't communities of support like there are now.   When I brought up the possibility of breastfeeding an adopted baby to one medical professional, she scrunched up her nose and said, "I didn't know that was even possible."    Despite the resistance and lack of resources, a few times, while rocking my infant, I would offer her my breast.   Then I felt ashamed and artificial and quickly slipped her a pacifier.  What if someone saw me?  Or what if my baby latched and actually found comfort at the breast?  Failure and success were both scary.

Baby #2 arrived two years later, on the FIRST day we started waiting.   I had no time to research or prepare.  The baby was THERE, craving my attention as much as her two-year-old sister.   I was juggling a part-time job and two children under the age of two.  I was tired.  Overwhelmed.  And blessed.

Last summer, we started the paperwork to adopt a third child.   And like with all adoptions, one never knows the "due date."   But this time, this time I was going to fulfill my goal.  I was going to breastfeed.    I hired a lactation consultant, rented a pump, and started pumping and drinking mugs full of lactation tea.  

And then a delay.   Our state was at a stand-still on background checks, a required step in the adoption process.  We were told there was no end-in-sight as to when our background checks would be cleared and we could move forward with adopting.

I was discouraged.  And tired.  I was pumping 6x a day, working it around the needs and demands of an almost-four-year-old and almost-two-year-old, my part-time teaching job, and writing a book.    This wasn't the peaceful, happy journey I believed to be true of breastfeeding moms.   Articles on breastfeeding featured professional photos of mothers smiling down lovingly, dreamily, at their nursing babies.   I was staring at a groaning plastic machine that tugged on my nipples for ten minutes, six times a day, while my two kids took the opportunity to empty the cabinets or beckon for another snack or start a wrestling match just inches from the glass facing on our entertainment center.    What if I pumped for months and months with no baby in sight?    What if it took a year or years to adopt a third child?    

So, I gave up.  I packed up my tubing and flanges, returned to pump to my LC, put my nursing cover in storage.  And honestly, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

Two weeks later, our background checks were cleared. 

Two weeks after that, we were matched with an expectant mother.

Two months later, our son was born. 

And today, I'm kicking myself.  My bundle of joy is no longer a bundle.  He's almost seven months old.   He's tall, and he's scooting, and he's saying "dada," and he has two teeth.  Every day, he looks older.   

I've researched adoptive breastfeeding for years.  I have an LC.   I have the tools.   I have the opportunity, as I have chosen to take a break from teaching and stay at home with my children full-time.  I have an able-body.   Sheesh, I wrote an adoption book and even had a section on the importance of attaching and bonding to an adopted child, citing the benefits of adoptive breastfeeding!  Oh, and I facilitate a local adoptive mom support group of seventy women.  Oh, and yes, I'm a fairly crunchy mama:  I baby-wear, I recycle, we eat organic and vegetarian, and I use raw apple cider vinegar for every ailment.   So...

Why, why didn't I have the courage, the confidence, or the conviction to breastfeed my children?

The answer is multi-faceted for both myself and many adoptive mothers.

For one, there just isn't much support or resources for adoptive mothers wishing to breastfeed.   In fact, there's very little information on the importance of adoptive mothers bonding with their infant babies.  The research and support tends to focus on bonding with older children who have come from foster care or orphanages in other countries.    Though, this is steadily (and encouragingly) changing.   I connected with a crunchy, adoptive mother who happens to also be a stellar lactation consultant, and who had the drive to pour her knowledge into a current, comprehensive book on adoptive breastfeeding.    And there's the hard-to-find blog posts on the subject, like my new friend over at Slow Mama who spoke out about breastfeeding her preschooler for the first time.

For another, adoptive breastfeeding isn't all that common in contemporary, Western culture, so when it does happen, it's a real show-stopper.  If you think biological mamas have a hill to climb, at times having to defend their breastfeeding decisions, whatever they are, try being one of the women in my club.   Women like me who have milky-white skin and are raising chocolate-skinned, afro-headed babies.  (As if that alone doesn't turn enough heads and prompt unsolicited stares, comments, questions, and assumptions...)    Adoptive breastfeeding is yet another reason for people to stare, comment, question, and assume.    And most people, I've found, greatly underestimate the importance of the adoptive mother bonding with a child she didn't "home grow"; people often believe an adopted newborn is a blank slate, with no trauma related to the loss of his or her biological family.   It's not that adoptive parents need the public to approve their decisions, but it would be nice if those choices didn't induce the demand for justification.

Another reason is that adoptive breastfeeding takes work:  a lot of it.  Without a pregnancy, an adoptive mother must induce lactation using her chosen path which might involve prescription medications, herbs, massage, pumping, special foods/drinks, etc.    Sometimes women choose to utilize a supplementation device (a bag holds the milk and tubing connecting the bag to the mother's breast), though they can be expensive and require a lot of patience and practice as they can leak, break, or be rejected by the child.    A woman might pump for months, even years, with no baby to put to the breast.   She might never produce any milk, or only a little, rarely establishing a full supply, requiring the baby to not only breastfeed, but for the mother to supplement and possibly continue to pump.   Exhausting. 

Finally, the truth is that some women don't feel that they have earned the right to breastfeed a baby.  We didn't create 'em, grow 'em, birth 'em.    We didn't endure morning sickness, stretch marks, heartburn, weight gain, sleepless nights prompted by an ever-filling bladder.   Our scars aren't physical.   Instead, many of us quietly battle disease, infertility, miscarriage.   We have to prove our worth as a parent to our adoption agencies with background checks, home inspections, interviews, questionnaires, and training.   We are questioned at every turn.   To commit to breastfeeding takes an immense amount of confidence and dedication, which is hard for some adoptive mothers to come by when the journey to motherhood has been nothing but knock-after-knock, question-after-question, demand-after-demand.  Some perceive that adoptive breastfeeding is un-natural or inappropriate for the woman who hasn't birthed the baby ("some" including social workers, the child's biological parents, friends, family, and health care professionals).   

So where does that leave those of us who haven't birthed our children?  

Last month, my friend, who is a breastfeeding mama, middle-school teacher, and photographer, posted that she was offering mother and child feeding session photo shoots.   I immediately sent her a message and said, What about a skin-to-skin shoot?   She was in. 

So on a sunny Saturday morning, she came over with her baby, and she snapped hundreds of photos of me with my son.  In the background, her daughter cooed and babbled, while my friend smiled and gently directed and winked at my little one.   The shoot went well, and I anxiously waited for her to send me the pictures.

Two days later, the pictures were ready.  I held my breath and began to browse.

The photos were just stunning.  

I think when you see a photo of yourself, it's easy to criticize your looks:  your chin, your hairstyle, your thighs, your paint-chipped toenails.    But this time, I didn't go there.  I just watched picture after picture scroll through on my computer screen, each more beautiful than the last.  

All I saw was love.  Smiles.  Adoration.  Bonding.   Pink skin on brown skin.   Mother and baby.  My precious son. 


I think I'll continue to wrestle with my decision to breastfeed my son or not.   I am both overwhelmed and blessed with my three young children and my role as a stay at home mother.   I continue to feel a mix of guilt and relief for choosing not to induce lactation.  (So I'm trying out a Lact-aid with my son...slowly and steadily and also bottle-nursing).      

What I want adoptive mamas to know is that putting your child, whom you adopted, to your breast, is ok.  Your child very much needs that assurance, that time to learn your scent, your heartbeat, your voice, your texture.    You don't need to "earn" it, seek approval, or accept the judgement of others (or even yourself).  Quiet those disapproving, doubting voices and hear this:    

You are the mother. 

Breastfeeding Without Birthing author Alyssa Schnell spends much of her book talking about the protocols a mother might use to induce lactation.  There's charts and graphs and photographs.  All necessary to the book's goal.   However, woven throughout the chapters, Alyssa gently yet confidently reminds her readers of this:   nursing's utmost goal isn't to produce milk; nursing is about a relationship with your child.  

My son doesn't, and probably never will, receive milk from my breasts.  And in the quiet moments I have with him, I know that what he wants from me, what he NEEDS from me, is what I've been giving him all along:   love from my heart. 



This post was inspired by MOTHERING, who is celebrating International Breastfeeding Week.   Click here to read posts by other fab bloggers!  



  1. Amazing and beautiful post Rachel.

  2. Amazingly beautiful post Rachel.

  3. Thank you! Thank you for sharing! As a waiting family, I've gone back and forth multiple times about bf'ing our next child. I was blessed to bf our first child (home grown) and would love to nurse our next, but you're so right it's much more complicated!

  4. Great post! I am in the early stages of applying to adopt a newborn and I have mentioned to a couple close girlfriends that I would like to breastfeed. They were very supportive. However, one friend mentioned that when she was breastfeeding her newborn and supplementing with formula at night, the baby got "nipple confusion" because the baby uses different muscles to suck from the bottle and the breast. I know a lot of times adoptive Mama's don't produce enough milk to breastfeed exclusively, have you heard of issues arising from nipple confusion?

  5. Wonderful post. I've been breastfeeding my (bio)daughter for a year now and it's been a wonderful experience and about so much more than simply feeding a baby. Every mother, no matter how your child comes into the world, deserves the opportunity to breastfeed. Motherhood is not eared during pregnancy, through stretchmarks, or on the delivery table - its earned every moment after.

  6. What a lovely blog, Rachel. So heartfelt and real. I love the photos, too.

  7. This is beautiful! I pray your family continues to be blessed! Your post nearly brought me to tears! Thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Great article! I adopted six babies between 1983-1995. The first two I nurse primarily for comfort. With the first one, I think I was producing a little milk. I'll never forget when my first son had his first immunizations (before I learned more about them). He was miserable and screaming all night, expect when he was at my breast! He wanted nothing to do with a bottle or anything or anyone else. That spoke volumes!

    My second had a horrible weak suck, which made it so that nursing was comforting but I couldn't get food down him, even with the Lact-Aid. The professionals I contact said nothing could be done. After four months of a miserable baby who screamed constantly and was behind in his growth and development, and had ear infections that antibiotics didn't get rid of, I found a lady to donate some milk for him. The improvement was immediate and almost unbelievable! That helped me stick with it, with the rest of my children, and produce a partial, but significant, milk supply, just from nursing them on demand with the Lact-Aid and, with my fifth child, fenugreek and fennel tea.

    My last four babies self-weaned, three at around two, but one at age four. Anyone who has a child who needs the comfort of suckling the breast should go with it, whether they are producing milk or not. It's not sexual, it's natural and normal!

    I love the picture and wish I could post some of myself nursing my babies, three of whom are dark skinned.

  9. I exclusively breastfed our adopted daughter for 5 months. I had to stop due to extensive allergy issues but don't regret all the work I did to induce lactation at all! I pumped for 6 months before she was born (we had 1 failed adoption in that time period). I had an over supply of milk and using that frozen milk I have fed my friend's adopted baby :) Breastmilk is a wonderful thing but the bonding time is SO beneficial!! Would be happy to answer any questions if anyone has any. And to respond to the brown baby, pink momma breastfeeding- the looks do come! I just smiled and kept on!! :)

  10. What a wonderful, honest post! Thank you for sharing your story!

  11. Simply in awe. I love that you laid out the struggles of adoptive moms in such a clear, concise way. I am not an adoptive mom as of yet, but all those reasons you listed rang true for me as a mom, PLUS MORE. I get why parents think they can judge other parents (if she's doing it a different way, what if my way is wrong??), but sometimes I really wish we could all just relax enough to learn each other's stories. The stories are always more interesting than my assumptions.

  12. I had to quit due to comprehensive allergic reaction problems but don't repent all the perform I did to generate lactation at all! I injected for 6 several weeks before she was created (we had 1 unsuccessful adopting in that period period)Runescape 2007 Gold

  13. I am crying over here. Thank you for letting me photograph the two of you. I am blessed to call you a friend.

  14. Your post from scary mommy popped up on my Facebook feed this morning and I followed it here. I gave birth to my daughter Monday and have been struggling to latch her on since. I've spent a lot of the last 5 days crying, because i 'm "failing." I needed reminded that its more than the milk. Its the bond. Thanks!


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