Breastfeeding as a Mama with a Chronic Disease

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“Mama milk?” I proposition her, as she sheepishly stares and soft-smiles at me. She goes towards the goods and acts as if she is about to latch on. Just as she gets close enough, she smiles, laughs, and says, “No thank you, mama!” in her toddler-like speech. 

It’s become a game now, this process of weaning. I will continue to offer her the opportunity from time to time as she shows interest, but overall, this chapter in our relationship is closing. I’m surprising myself by how sad it makes me. I never really cared about breastfeeding pre-/during pregnancy. I was just excited to try it because I thought it would save us some money on formula; I didn’t expect it to become so special — even sacred — to me. 

breastfeeding as a mama with a chronic disease - meeting your baby's need is a powerful thing
Probably one of my favorite photos ever: the first time I nursed in public without feeling any hesitation.

The Diagnosis

I was diagnosed at age 20 on a humid Alabama spring night. Type 1 Diabetes runs in my family (skips a generation), so we weren’t too surprised. Usually, the diagnosis occurs in the childhood years, but we didn’t know there is also a window of diagnosis during early young adulthood. I spent 20 years of my life living carefree, and everything changed on a dime. No longer could I go for a run, execute a meeting/presentation, even drive my car, etc. without having to set my body up to be able to simply function. I had an inkling this may play into our ability to conceive, and I was right.

PCOS is common in women with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) due to the link between the body’s production of insulin and fertility. People with T1D do not make insulin on their own. Because of this, we must manually inject insulin via shots or insulin pump. Sometimes, certain women’s bodies respond not-so-well to this, which ends up resulting in the development of PCOS in addition to T1D. 

Journey to Motherhood

My husband and I struggled with infertility for 2.5+ years before becoming unexpectedly pregnant with our miracle girl, Nora Jo, in July 2017. I say “unexpectedly” because we were between fertility treatments and were about to start another one after our vacation; I found out the day we arrived home from vacation that I was pregnant, without medical intervention (which I was told by a doctor would not be a possibility.) Throughout our years of dealing with infertility, I struggled with negative thoughts and feelings regarding my body “failing” me and us; I felt frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t just get pregnant like so many of my peers. 

My pregnancy was high-risk from the get-go due to my T1D. I always keep a tight control on my blood sugars to be as healthy as I can be. However, fertility/pregnancy-tight-control is just a whole new ballgame. I had to make sure I was within the confines of perfection at all times to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby; it was extremely draining in every way.

My first and second trimester were full of scary low blood sugar episodes and seizures. Once I hit my third trimester, I dealt with constant insulin resistance and mitigated high blood sugars. All of this was in addition to grappling with the “typical” unpleasant symptoms of pregnancy that we are all too familiar with. I, once again, felt frustration that I couldn’t  just have a “normal” or “easy” pregnancy . . . it felt, again, that my body wasn’t able to perform the way I hoped and expected it should.

The Moment of Truth

Nora Jo finally entered our world on March 22, 2018 (after over 30 hours of labor and a failed induction) via emergency c-section. I didn’t know much about breastfeeding pre-delivery (because, admittedly, I didn’t make the effort.) However, I did know that the coveted golden hour of skin-to-skin following delivery was pretty crucial in setting the tone for a successful breastfeeding relationship. I felt robbed of that special bonding time and was nervous about the implications that could have on our relationship, breastfeeding and otherwise.

To my surprise, Nora Jo latched on immediately and instinctively, and that was pretty much that. Breastfeeding has been the first part of my motherhood journey that has felt “easy” and has come naturally to me. And as a mama with a chronic disease that frequently calls the shots, this has meant the world to me, more than I anticipated. I never mean to boast about our journey, but I do want to celebrate and appreciate my body for all it has accomplished and given me. 

Don’t get me wrong — it hasn’t been unicorns and rainbows all the time. There were plenty of times, especially in her first year, when I was ready to move on. I’ve always just taken it one day at a time (or one feeding at a time, rather) and followed her lead. Whenever she shows me she wants to nurse, I rise up to meet her need. Whenever she shows me she’s not interested, I simply walk beside her.

breastfeeding as a mama with a chronic disease - a mama's body is powerful

Embracing Newfound Courage

This whole breastfeeding journey has shown me the loveliness of give-and-take, and it has given me a new appreciation for my body. I am not a failure, and neither is my body. My body happens to have additional hurdles to overcome when it comes to any aspect of motherhood, but every day, I wake up and fight them all.

I frequently worried about my daughter watching me navigate a chronic disease, but I’m not afraid anymore. I know she will witness a strong woman with fight in her knowing her worth and always trying her absolute best in any scenario. Our breastfeeding journey is so special to me, but most of all, I’m grateful for the lessons it has taught me that I wasn’t expecting as a woman with a chronic disease.

On To the Next . . .

This chapter of breastfeeding with a chronic disease is coming to a close. We are moving forward with renewed strength, clear heads, and appreciation beyond belief. As with everything in mamahood, here we go, on to the next.

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Audra Smith did not spend her childhood in Alabama, but got down here as fast as she could! Originally from Ohio, Audra met and married her husband (of nearly 6 years now), Brian, while in college, and they decided to move to Alabama on a whim a year after graduation, resulting in the best decision ever made. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Family Studies/Child Development. Audra spent the first few years after the move working for The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa within Early Childhood Education. After years of working in close proximity to Big Al, it’s safe to say now that she is a faithful Tide fan. Audra is an Army National Guard wife due to Brian’s military service and dedication to the great state of Alabama and our country. After enduring years of infertility, Audra and Brian were miraculously blessed with their daughter Nora Jo, who was born in March 2018 in the heart of Birmingham. Audra now resides in the Chelsea area (Sterrett) with her husband Brian, daughter Nora Jo, and living security system (lab/hound mix) Hamilton. When she’s not wrangling and chasing after a spunky toddler, Audra enjoys a good book, just about a million cups of coffee a day, embracing/celebrating the wild ride of postpartum, any DIY crafty project, and being on the water. She initially went to college for Vocal Music, and still enjoys music and singing very much as an outlet (even if she’s mostly singing “Baby Shark” these days.) Audra is passionate about raising awareness for Type 1 Diabetes, as she lives with this disease every day. Audra is currently a stay at home mom who makes it a priority to cultivate side projects related to her passions. She enjoys connecting with other mamas, women, and anyone who needs someone to talk to. Instagram has become a virtual tribe for her, and if you’d like to participate, head on over to @audrashoupesmith whenever you need a dose of “real life.”