Guest post by Razan Anabtawi
The days may be long, but the years are very short.
Breastfeeding is a magical act. I have always heard that but never truly understood why or how until I started breastfeeding myself. You see, on an emotional level, breastfeeding is like a catalyst for bonding between a mother and her child. It is intimacy, security & comfort for a tiny human in a brand-new world. A brand-new world. No wonder babies crave breastfeeding so much. I am guilty of oftentimes breastfeeding past “feeding” time, just because Kinan does not want to let go. I absolutely love breastfeeding, but for me, this new experience came with a wave of amplified, sometimes draining, emotional shifts.
Waiting on Postpartum Depression
I had heard a lot about postpartum depression even before getting pregnant, and to a certain extent I was waiting for it. It is perhaps one of the most discussed and popularly known mood “disorders” associated with pregnancy and birth. In fact, Palestinian society, while in my opinion is lacking general awareness and recognition of mental disorders, widely recognizes postpartum depression and actively validates the experience of mothers going through it. I have heard about it, read about, been cautioned about it, and all in all I was waiting for it.
You see, birth overwhelms your body with a stream of intense emotions, some are familiar, but most are not. And as a new mother, I was immersed in the changes happening, and all the new emotions that ensued. Between this chaos and the actual real human baby I had just created that needed my constant attention, I was barely able to process any of it. There was so much raw love, bonding, & joy, but there was also so much sadness. The kind that engulfs.
At first, I wondered if this was in fact postpartum depression. But then I started to notice pattern for these waves of intense negative emotions; at times bringing me down and at others simply nauseating me. In all honesty, I was not even keeping track, I barely had any mental energy to focus on anything other than Kinan, but in the early weeks of breastfeeding, these waves came in the form of intense floods of tears that I just could not explain.
They came at times when I was feeling anxious and overwhelmed, but then it also happened when I was happy. Genuinely, whole-heartedly happy. I continued to observe this pattern, and it held true. Almost every time I would begin to breastfeed, I would feel this wave of sadness, almost hollowness. Count almost two minutes, and it passes. I later found out this is simply a dopamine drop that occurs with the release of Oxytocin & Prolactin with breastfeeding.
The magic that is Oxytocin
Oxytocin is oftentimes dubbed as the love hormone. It is released in huge amounts during birth, and later every time a woman breastfeeds as it facilitates both processes, it also facilitates the shrinking of the uterus after giving birth(!) In fact “recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, bonding, and maternal behavior”. From what I have gathered, it plays a major role in attachment security which is one of the reasons mothers are encouraged to breastfeed as long as possible. The whole thing is just absolutely magical.
On a chemical level, “Oxytocin begins to be released almost immediately after your baby begins suckling — or you begin pumping — at the breast and is released in small pulses for the first 10 minutes, while prolactin is released more gradually for about 20 minutes after you start nursing. Once oxytocin is released, it inhibits dopamine”. While for most, this drop in dopamine occurs gradually and in so goes unnoticed, for a few like myself, it occurs quickly resulting in a brief wave of negative emotions.
I do not feel it as intensely these days, perhaps because I have learned how to absorb the drop and remind myself that this is simply a passing moment. Instead, I choose to focus on Kinan who now likes to steal glances as he breastfeed. I have felt this drop while pumping sometimes but definitely not as intensely or as long, and I am not really sure why. Oh, I now also make sure I eat before pumping or breastfeeding just in case I end up feeling noxious.
What I found most curious through all of this was the contradiction of experience. I mean, here I am in the midst of one of the most intimate, bonding and loving moment, an absolute favorite of mine, and I am surprised by this wave of intense often sad emotions. Apart from an explanation on a chemical level, I have yet to emotionally resolve this, but I suppose reality can withstand some contradiction.
This is the first great contradiction in my motherhood journey & I am certain there will be others. I am slowly realizing that this experience is almost a test of my malleability. My ability to adapt to new realities, shifting expectation, and to negotiate an experience filled with contradiction. This is so hard, which is why I have so much admiration for other parents on this journey, but as another mom pointed out to me this week: The days may be long, but the years are very short.