Julie Schantz: My Birth Hero!
Today’s “Birth Heroes” post features Julie Schantz, a super-wise, rock and roll, earth mama-of-two friend of mine from Asheville, North Carolina. How do I know Julie? Let me try and make this story as non-convoluted as possible: In my early years as an indie rock snob (circa my late teens/early twenties), I was an especially big fan of a band called Guided by Voices. (Still am a big fan of theirs.) I was also an active member of their listserv/online email group thingy/rabid fan club, “Postal Blowfish.” About ten years ago, the women of Postal Blowfish decided to create their own online group, “A Girl Named Captain” (AGNC). We’ve seen each other through boyfriends, marriages, and divorce, pregnancies, births, and deaths, career beginnings and career endings, and just about everything in between. And that’s where I first “met” Julie. She has been a wonderful inspiration to me and the other women on AGNC, as I’m sure she is to the women in her local community.
Here, Julie tells the stories of her two home births. She also tells the story of her challenges with breastfeeding and her eventual diagnosis with hypoplastic tubular breasts (or “mammary hypoplasia“), a condition that makes exclusive breastfeeding impossible for many women. Stories like hers are so vital to understanding not only breastfeeding advocacy and support but also mother and infant support. I thank Julie for her willingness to share these stories.
1. Could you share a little bit about your birth experiences with your daughters?
i feel so fortunate to have had two wonderful home births.
pregnancy #1: we were living in miami, fl when my first was born and knew from very early on that we wanted a midwife. when i found out i was pregnant, (from a home pregnancy test) i called my regular ob/gyn and they told me i could see the doctor in a month. i just wanted to make sure i was actually pregnant! it was then that i realized i wanted/needed more intimate care than that so we met with one of the only nurse midwives in miami (at the time) and we absolutely loved her. the whole pregnancy experience with her was amazing and loving and i still wish that every women, whether with a midwife or doctor, can have that type of care at some point in their lives.
birth #1: i started to feel a lot of braxton-hicks on a tuesday, feb 29th (leap year) around 5 pm. they lasted for an hour straight before i called my midwife. she told me to go home and time them for 30 minutes and write it all down. even that early on i think i was having them every 3-5 minutes and they would last about 30 seconds. but i guess she could tell i was in the early stages by the way i sounded. plus, i could breathe through each contraction with ease. of course i didn’t sleep that night at all due to the excitement and anxiousness. i think i called her at 1 am as the contractions got stronger but still she could tell i was fine laboring on my own. at 7 am wednesday morning, i lost my mucous plug (as she had predicted i would) so we decided to meet her at the house we were planning to give birth in; the house i grew up in and where my parents still lived. we met her there at 9 am. because i had been laboring for so long and could tell they were getting more intense, i was assuming she would check me and tell me i was dilated at 5 or 6. it was a bit discouraging to hear that i was only 1cm dilated. we spent the day outside on the deck, visiting with family and friends, eating, listening to music, playing music, rolling on the yoga ball (that felt soooo good) and just celebrating new life. my large jewish family always fills up the hospital waiting room when one of us is giving birth, so why would this be any different? there were literally 50 people in and out of the house that day. i was progressing without any issues, but it was slow moving. and i was starting to get tired. around 6 pm, when i said no to a visit from my best friend, my midwife knew i had begun hard labor. i can remember doing squats with my husband supporting me, standing in the shower to get some relief, getting in the birth tub only to find that it was not working (so my brother, who flew in from atlanta that day, was bringing pots of boiling water and dumping them in the tub to try and warm it up), i vomited in the tub so had to get out anyway, and at one point i told my midwife that i was done. i told her i didn’t care anymore and she could just do whatever she needed to do to get the baby out. i didn’t even want the baby anymore! that’s how exhausted and out of my mind i was. the pain was so intense that my mind just checked out. i think it was the only way i could actually deal with it on a physical level. anyway, she kept encouraging me and i kept doing whatever i could to hang in there. the way i remember the rest is as if i was looking down on it all happening to someone else. i think around 12 midnight she decided to break my water, hoping it would speed things up, although i believe i was finally close at that point anyway. i felt most comfortable leaning back on the bed during the last 2 hours and while i pushed. at first, my screams were very inefficient and high-pitched. i didn’t take a class on how to breathe but my screams were uncontrollable anyway. i tried lowering the pitch and doing what i could to make them come from my abdomen, but i was pretty beat at that point and not really conscious of anything i was doing (or not doing). i finally pushed her head out and to everyone’s amazement, her eyes were open and she just looked around the room very calm and peaceful-like. my mom was holding up a mirror so i could see this incredible miracle. it seemed like a few minutes before i pushed her shoulders out and then the rest of her. 36 hours of labor (8 of them very difficult), and i had the most beautiful baby on my chest. March 2, 2000, 2:37 AM. almost before i could even take it all in, my midwife got serious and told my husband to take the baby and for me to tell my body to stop bleeding. i wasn’t feeling another contraction to deliver the placenta but i was bleeding too much. the assistant jammed 2 shots of pitocin into my thigh and a few minutes later i pushed out the placenta. i did hemorrhage but not enough to require hospitalization. and i tore but they stitched me up. the 5 days of recovery at my parent’s house was no picnic and even the first 2 months was very difficult. but the pregnancy and home birth experience was so special (albeit totally exhausting and difficult), i chose to have a home birth with my second child too.
pregnancy #2: we were living in asheville, nc and having so many midwives to choose from, we spent some time meeting and interviewing them before choosing a woman who had delivered my good friend’s babies. and after hearing her birth stories, i knew she was the midwife for us. she was definitely more hands-off during the pregnancy but that was fine since this was my 2nd child. (the nurse midwives in town refused to do a homebirth with me because of my hemorrhaging with my first baby). only nurse midwives are recognized legally in NC so i had to see a doctor as well for certain things. and because my brother’s wife had just given birth to a baby with heart disease, my mother insisted we take a super duper ultrasound to check our baby’s heart. there was definitely more poking and prodding around during this pregnancy because of my niece’s incident, and because i was 35, but still no internal exams. and everything was progressing nicely. my midwife knew about my 1st birth and that i hemorrhaged so she was prepared for that. on october 30th, 2005, 2 1/2 weeks before my due date, i experienced a pain with every breath i took, and because of it, was taking short breaths, which caused other breathing issues. i believe the pain i was feeling triggered contractions (though they felt like braxton-hicks) so my midwife sent me to the hospital and met me there. my vitals, as well as baby’s, were perfect, thankfully. after lots of xrays and other tests, but no diagnosis, they wanted me to take one more serious nuclear test that the technician said he would not agree to if it was his wife or daughter who was pregnant, so we left! so, after 12 hours of consistent braxton-hicks, i took some tylenol and felt much better. and the contractions stopped. it turned out to be a sore shoulder muscle that is attached to my first rib, so with every breath, i felt the pain.
birth #2: one week after that incident, around 2 pm, i felt true contractions and called my midwife. i think the midwife and assistants started showing up around 5 pm and again when she checked me out, i was only 1 cm. she told me i was at 2 though so i wouldn’t feel too discouraged. we discussed breaking my bag of waters early on to try and avoid a repeat of my first birth, and while i really didn’t want to intervene with the natural process at all, i trusted her completely, so we agreed to it. i tried sitting in the birthing tub again but couldn’t get comfortable. for me, lying on my side on the couch was best. i labored there most of the time. around 12 AM i was at 6 cm and felt like i needed some help moving through the contractions. my midwife sat right next to me and for the next hour or so, she helped me consciously breathe and move through each one, so efficiently, that i felt ready to push! i had remembered that pushing my first out felt EXACTLY like having a bowel movement, so i was prepared this time. in one, large, bowel-movement push, my 2nd daughter was born, november 6th, 2:01 AM. unfortunately, the same thing started happening with my bleeding. i was hemorrhaging but not feeling another contraction to deliver the placenta. my amazing midwife knew she had to go in and up, (to her elbow!!!), and pull out a blood clot, which is what she did. i also received another 2 shots of pitocin. i tore again too but not enough to require stitching. recovering in my own home was much easier and having only a few people in the house was also very nice. we hadn’t realized how much that would affect us the first time, but still, i wouldn’t change either experience for anything in the world.
2. Why was choosing a home birth important to you?
neither my husband nor i like hospitals and i really wanted personalized care with someone i could trust and feel close close to and who would treat me and my pregnancy with love and care, commitment and dedication. most ob/gyns have so many patients, it’s really difficult for them to offer that type of care. i do not view pregnancy as an illness, especially for low-risk mamas and i really wanted to bring my babies into the world in a loving, warm space, as naturally as possible, and i thought the chances of that happening in a hospital were minimal.
3. After the birth of your second daughter, you were diagnosed with tubular hypoplastic breasts, or mammary hypoplasia. Do you mind sharing your experience? In what ways did this journey change your perspective on birth and breastfeeding?
from the beginning, even after my first was born, our plan was to breastfeed. there was no reason to think i couldn’t. after 10 days without a bowel movement and with her continuously losing weight and screaming and crying non-stop, the pediatrician told us to supplement with an oz of formula at each feeding but to continue to breastfeed as well. after that first oz, she finally had that glazed-over, drunk look and was quiet and content for the first time. i continued to nurse, pump, drink teas and other concoctions, saw lactation specialists and went to la leche league meetings, etc., but nothing made a difference in my supply. as difficult as it was to accept, i decided to stop trying to breastfeed when she was 5 or 6 weeks old. at that point, she didn’t want to have anything to do with my breasts anyway. we all just chalked up the lack of breast milk to stress, but i felt there was something else i could have done, so i lived with guilt for the next five years.
i felt like i had a second chance with my second baby. the support system i had was completely different (read: more conducive to successful breastfeeding) this time around and i knew so much more and had so many more friends with children. we were the first of our friends to have a baby the first time around, so really, we knew nothing back then.
after my second was born, i nursed within about 30 minutes and everything seemed fine. it’s hard to tell the first 2 or 3 days but my positioning was much better this time as my nipples did not crack and bleed like they did with my first baby. however, when she was 10 days old, my sister had a 5 day old baby and she commented on how much her baby had grown and how she could already see that she was so much bigger. when i looked at my baby, i didn’t see that. she also hadn’t had a bowel movement yet but because she was mellow and quiet and slept all the time, i thought she was fine. all i could compare it to was my first experience. when my midwife came over on that 10th day to weigh her and she had continued to lose weight, she told us we had to supplement. i broke down and cried for 3 days. how could this be happening again? why isn’t my body doing what it’s supposed to do? what was wrong with me? what could i do to make it better? was my vegan diet the culprit? was i not nursing often enough? was the pacifier causing the problems? i had so many questions on top of my depression. all i wanted to do was breastfeed this baby and it just wasn’t happening. AGAIN!
when i stopped crying, i went to see lactation specialists, la leche league meetings, spent hours on the computer researching my problem, and i talked to everyone i knew. i had a schedule to pump and nurse and supplement. i bought a lact-aid nurser and had a friend of a friend come over and show me how to use it. for her, this system was successful and turned her low supply into more than she needed. i committed to 3 weeks of pumping, nursing, supplementing, preparing, cleaning, mixing concoctions, drinking teas, going to meetings, and even taking a domperidone prescription. forget that i was completely ignoring my husband and other daughter, or focusing on other ways of connecting with my newborn. i was so determined to get my milk supply up, i would stop at nothing. it was consuming my life and it wasn’t a pleasant experience, especially when there continued to be no increase.
one day when i was calling the lact-aid company to order more bags, i asked the nice woman on the phone if she knew any reasons why a woman wouldn’t have enough milk. she said that stress is a major cause but the supply can increase fairly quickly once stabilized, a woman who has had a breast reduction and maybe had some of the ducts removed or cut, and she said something else that i had never heard before. she said that she heard something about tubular-shaped breasts being problematic. i always thought i had funny shaped breasts but had heard many woman thought that about themselves. i had never fit well into any bra as there was always a lot of extra material in the cup size. she didn’t know anything else about this so i didn’t think too much about it. a few days later i was at a la leche league meeting and there was a woman there telling her story and it was EXACTLY like mine. at one point she talked to a doctor who had given her an article to read and in the article it mentioned something about tubular-shaped breasts. a light-bulb went off and as soon as i got home, i searched online for *funny shaped breasts and breastfeeding*, because i couldn’t remember the *tubular* part. even so, there was a page or 2 that caught my attention. tubular hypoplastic breasts, or insufficient glandular tissue, or underdeveloped breasts is what i read about. this is a condition that is said to be developmental and happens during puberty, but i believe 100% that it is a genetic condition. studies show that only 5% of women have this condition but in the past 5 years that i have been talking about this with people [with breastfeeding challenges], i would say at least a third of them felt they had this condition or knew someone that probably did. my own 2 sisters-in-law have it! (my mom and sister have very full breasts and do not have this condition, but i believe my paternal grandmother did.)
characteristics to look for:
- tubular shaped breasts (many different sizes)
- lack of glandular tissue underneath on rounded part of breasts (where many milk ducts are)
- two different sized breasts (noticeable)
- no change in breast size during pregnancy
- breasts are not sensitive
- large nipples/areolae relative to breast size
- large space between breassts
i have all of these! however, there are different levels of this condition, from severe to mild. i would say i am moderate.
if you do have this condition, [and if it does affect milk supply], there is nothing you can do to fully sustain a baby. while some women might produce three ounces of milk per day, others might produce a tablespoon.
as i was reading this information, a GINORMOUS weight was lifting off of me. i began crying tears of joy, because i had actually found the real medical reason why i couldn’t sustain my babies. a flood of emotions came in as well. i was angry, confused, relieved, happy, sad, and more. why hadn’t the specialists told me about this? how could i educate people so they would know about this real condition? and so many more questions. i felt overwhelmed but also free. i was happy to stop the crazy schedule of pumping, preparing, cleaning, nursing, etc. and focus my attention back on my family and other ways of bonding with my newborn.
this epiphany was incredible for me. whenever i had the chance to discuss it with someone, especially if they were pregnant, knew someone who was pregnant or having trouble breastfeeding, a midwife, a student midwife, a doctor, lactation specialist, or any woman for that matter, i did. among all the people i discussed this with, many of them felt the same weight lifted off them. one woman was a mother over 30 years ago and never knew why she couldn’t breastfeed her 3 children. i contacted my midwife, pediatrician and lactation specialists in miami to let them know what i had found out, in case they ever came across this again, maybe they could be more helpful to the struggling mother.
for me, the greatest thing about this was that i learned to stop judging women for bottle-feeding or using formula. it doesn’t matter if they are choosing to bottle-feed or if they simply can’t breastfeed. i don’t know their situation or their experience and if that’s what helps them to be the best mom they can be, i support that.
4. What were some of the most helpful comments and words of wisdom you received about feeding your baby? Which comments were least helpful–or even hurtful?
the greatest moment through the entire six years before my diagnosis was when a la leche league leader watched me attempt to nurse and she compassionately and empathetically looked in my eyes, touched my shoulder, and said, *you may not be able to breastfeed. some women can’t.*
up until that moment, i had heard everything from, *just feed your baby already* and *you’re starving her* to *just keep trying. you can do it*. i realize that the people telling me to keep trying and that i could do it were trying to be supportive and encouraging, but because i couldn’t do it, i kept feeling like a failure. that was hard.
5. What words of advice and encouragement would you give to women who also have one of rare medical complications (or really any complications) that make breastfeeding difficult, if not impossible?
as hard as it can be, try to accept the situation, tell yourself you can handle it, and move forward. don’t lose sight of what’s really important, which is to feed your baby, even if it’s formula from a bottle. if breastfeeding is important to you, try your hardest to make it work, but don’t sacrifice precious time with your newborn. be as present as possible, no matter how you feed baby. look into baby’s eyes, hold him/her, touch baby and you can connect and bond on so many different levels. they will thrive and be healthy, happy, feel loved and be safe. (and you will remain sane.)
*BBI note: Please note that the only sure way to assess whether or not mammary hypoplasia will affect a mother’s milk supply is to actually assess her milk production after the birth of her child(ren) and after she has tried to establish breastfeeding. And if you are one of the many mothers who face breastfeeding challenges, please seek out the help of an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant)!