My husband and I have three children; but I have never given birth. My two daughters and one son came into our family through adoption.
As a result, I’ve been asked more times than I care to remember about what I feel I’ve missed out on by not having biological children. Didn’t I want the pregnancy experience? The gender-reveal party? The sonograms? It was hard for some people to understand why I would intentionally forgo “the miracle of childbirth” and not choose to have my “own” children.
But to clarify, all of our children are “our own” children. And choosing to build our family through adoption, rather than biology, was an easy choice for us. In my early twenties, after a year and a half of illness, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that can not only be passed on to a biological child, but can also make pregnancy dangerous for both mom and baby.
We then waited 14 excruciating months for our first child, and during that time — being a Type A lady such as I am — I fervently researched all things related to adoption and parenting. I knew that at any moment, I could become a mom, so I needed to be ready.
During one of my frequent trips to the library, I found a book on breastfeeding (since adoption books are often clustered with pregnancy and breastfeeding books) and thumbed through. Smushed in the very back, between chapters on feeding a child with special needs and how partners can be involved in feedings, was a chapter titled “Adoptive Nursing.” There were only a few scant pages on the subject, but I was intrigued.
Some of this was because I come from a family of breast feeders myself. Almost every one of my aunts, older cousins, and grandmothers breastfed their babies. And not the hide-myself-under-a-nursing-cover kind of breastfeeding we typically practice today, but the feed-that-baby-no-matter-who’s-looking kind of way. (Yes, even if — gasp — men are present.) It’s what women in my family did.
And now, right before me, was proof that I could do it myself.
With my interest piqued, I decided to bring adoptive nursing up to a few medical professionals. Each time, I was met with one of two responses: surprise (“I didn’t know that was possible!”) or disgust. I decided to continue researching on my own, but to be honest, I came up with very little. This was back before Facebook and other forms of social media were super popular, so my resources were very limited. I knew that a few medications could help induce lactation, along with pumping and certain foods and herbs, but as a fairly new diagnosed type 1 diabetic, I was nervous to do anything that might upset my already volatile body.
Then one day, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we received a phone call from our social worker saying we were parents, and our baby was already here. I had no time to consider nursing her. New to motherhood and to transracial adoption (which brings about its own challenges), I pushed aside my desire to nurse my first child. She did, however, receive a month’s worth of breastmilk from my sister-in-law, which I considered a tremendous gift.
Almost two years later, we decided to begin a second adoption process. Knowing how long our first journey was, we anticipated a lengthy wait. As we begin to sign papers, schedule our home inspection and interviews with the social worker, and complete our background checks, adoptive nursing crossed my mind again. I figured that once all of our paperwork was complete, I would pick the researching back up. However, on our first day of waiting, we were chosen to adopt another little girl, who was already born and waiting for us to bring her home.
Once again, nursing was pushed aside.
Two years later, like clockwork, we chose to begin another adoption process. This time, I was determined to nurse. I met with a lactation consultant, rented a hospital grade breast-pump, and began drinking herbal “mother’s milk” tea. I was supposed to pump six times a day, the middle-of-the-night not excluded. I chose not to follow the Newman-Goldfarb protocol (developed for mothers inducing lactation without a pregnancy) because it involved taking a few prescription medications that I was scared would upset my blood sugar control.
Then, as with most adoptions, we hit a roadblock: We were unable to get background checks done in a reasonable time frame due to some red tape with our state. I was exhausted from pumping several times a day with no baby in sight, so I packed up the pump and returned it to my lactation consultant and resigned that I would probably never be able to nurse a baby.
Four months later, having cleared the background check situation, our son was born and placed with us. Like my other children, he was formula-fed by a bottle. Though I was very busy with a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and now a newborn, my desire to nurse was in full-swing.
As author and lactation consultant Alyssa Schnell shared with me, nursing is ultimately about the relationship — particularly for moms-by-adoption and surrogacy. We need to bond with the babies we didn’t conceive or “house” inside us for nine months, and likewise, our babies need to bond with us. Of course, nursing is just one way that bond can be fostered. And while making milk is very important to some mothers, to others, it’s about strengthening the tie between the baby’s new mother and the child. Thus, some mothers-by-adoption make no milk at all, or make very little, but still nurse their babies in addition to supplementing through a supplemental nursing system.
At this point in my adoption and parenting journey, I had all the knowledge I needed to begin nursing my son, but I was scared. The voices of others who though nursing a child I adopted was strange or unnatural or simply silly played in my mind. I worried we’d be unsuccessful, or that somehow my baby would give me a look that said, “Are you kidding me, Mom?” So I continued to feed him, one bottle at a time, my heart telling me to do something different.
I tried to nurse my son off and on when I could. Our home rarely offered the peace and quiet we both needed to relax and concentrate. When I had the opportunity, I would offer him my breast, but he struggled to see that as a means of comfort when he had his bottle and his pacifier. I felt my heart sink each time he rejected me. He was growing and changing so quickly, and I felt that the possibilities were slipping through my fingers like sand.
Finally, when my son was about 5 months old, he nursed for the first time. I was rocking him quietly in his room and decided to try one last time. I told myself if he didn’t latch this time, we were done trying. He latched on, only for a few seconds, and my eyes grew wide in disbelief. A few days later, he latched again. Every few days, he decided to give nursing a try. I remember one evening, while quietly rocking him, he nursed for close to five minutes straight.
We didn’t nurse every day. But when we did, it was so sacred. He was so happy, as was I. I remember vacationing, and he was very upset one night at bedtime. The house we were staying in was unfamiliar to him, and he was struggling to settle down and close his eyes. But when he began to nurse, his heart rate slowed and his body relaxed. He felt safe and nurtured. And in the midst of parenting three young children, I had the opportunity to sit and bond with my youngest child, relishing in the quiet beauty.
Looking back now, I wish I had found the courage to nurse all three of my children earlier on and to shush the negative voices. I wish I wouldn’t have waited for the perfect research to come out to just give nursing a try. I wish I never would have quieted my mommy instincts.
So many of us feel passionately about how we feed and nurture our babies, but as a mom who didn’t give birth to her children — as a woman who wanted motherhood so desperately — all I can say is that any way a mom chooses to pour out love to her baby is the right way.