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Letter to my infant daughter: I’m sorry we failed to thrive

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When you were born you seemed so tiny to me. You weighed six pounds and six ounces, but what you lacked in size you made up for in spirit. By that I mean you cried a lot. If you were awake, you cried. You cried yourself to sleep. You cried in your sleep. You cried so much I thought you might never stop.

I nursed you for the first six weeks of your life, but from the beginning nothing about it seemed to go right. A poor latch maybe? Not enough milk perhaps? We never really got to the bottom of it. Either way, you were hungry.

We visited the doctor every couple of weeks, and then every few days. With each visit your position on the weight-percentile chart dropped, and with each visit I became more and more desperate. Twentieth percentile; twelfth; fifth; second. It was as if we were writing the same test over and over again with a worse result each time.

I asked the doctor: "Do you think she'll live to be one year old?"

She said of course and seemed surprised by my question, but I meant it. I couldn't imagine you making it to your birthday. You were so fragile and so unhappy.

We visited the lactation consultants. They called you a "nibbler" and surmised that you had an insufficient suck. When we left that appointment, my darling, I was the one who felt insufficient. They suggested that perhaps because you weren't taking enough milk I had stopped making enough.

In this most basic dance between a mother and her baby, you and I were full of missteps. All I could think about was my milk drying up while you were getting hungrier and hungrier.

Despite my hearty dose of "breast is best" education, I tried to give you a bottle of formula when you were a month old. No luck. You chose a breast without enough milk over a bottle filled with all the nutrition you needed, and there seemed to be nothing I could do to change your mind.

One day, when you were six weeks old, you became very dehydrated. You had been nursing almost constantly, and it looked as if you'd finally mastered a good strong latch, so I couldn't understand why you never seemed to have had enough. I would hold your tiny body on my breast for hours but you were never calm, never full.

Daddy and I took you to the hospital. They gave you intravenous fluids and eventually a feeding tube. You stayed there for six days. Each day a new possible diagnosis was discussed, and with it a battery of blood tests, sweat tests or catheters would follow. Your blood work was never quite right, and we had barely digested the idea of one potential diagnosis before another one was raised.

Meredith Miotke for the Globe and Mail

Was it your kidneys? Why were you peeing so much? What about metabolic disorders?

Eventually, with every conceivable and inconceivable disease ruled out, they settled on the most ancient diagnosis of all: Failure to Thrive.

Failure to Thrive. My daughter? But indeed, those three catch-all words did seem to define you in those horrible days. And they defined me, too. If you were a failure, what did that make me?

It was clear by then that breastfeeding had been a failure. Yet you still wouldn’t take a bottle. You absolutely, unequivocally, refused.

Your feeding tube stayed in, and I remained almost constantly attached to the breast pump kept in your hospital room. I pumped and pumped, desperate to produce enough “liquid gold” to insert in the tube that travelled directly to your stomach.

Finally, though, without warning and without spectacle, you gave in. You took your bottle. It was as if in that one moment you simply decided enough was enough, you would relent. “To hell with it,” I think you thought as you gulped down two ounces of formula.

Thank you for giving in.

My love, I’m so sorry that all of this happened to you. You were tiny and helpless and you needed me to know what was wrong.

Now you are seven months and nine days old and you can do so many things. You can sit up on your own. You can roll over. You love jumping in your bouncer. You shriek with laughter when I kiss your cheeks or tickle your tummy. You love your feet. You tolerate your bottle, though I still think you preferred my breast, deficient though it was. You like sweet potato and butternut squash and banana. You love me. You cry when I’m not there and you settle as soon as I take you in my arms.

You are not an “easy baby,” whatever that means. I think you feel things very deeply. You already have your own opinion about things. You need lots of downtime. You are happiest when it’s just you and me.

You’ve brought a profound peace into my life, and yet I don’t think I’ll ever be completely at peace again. I think I might feel scared forever. That fear I felt when you were sick, when you were starving but couldn’t tell us how hungry you really were, when I couldn’t imagine you ever being a one-year-old, I think I’ll always feel that, at least a little. An eternal, beautiful unrest.

But, my darling, you are perfect. You are, indeed, thriving.

Kathryn Decker lives in Toronto.

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