(This post was previously published on another site. I’ve seen a resurgence of conversation on this topic lately and I thought it was time to bring it back. I wrote this 7 years ago — when my daughter was about 3 months old, when I was still in denial about my PPD, when I cried every day, when I was doing the best I could just by waking up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other. I have more posts like this. I have been there. And if you’re there too, there are people who can help you. Please talk to your doctor and don’t be ashamed about getting what you need.)
August 10, 2011
There were very few things that I thought of as “absolutes” of raising a baby.
What I mean by that is, I planned the best I could, but I honestly had no idea what it would really be like after she arrived. You can have the very best intentions about things, but when faced with reality, sometimes your planning can go all to shit. I was fully aware of this. Therefore, I planned and nested like crazy, but I also accepted that the majority of my mommy behaviors were likely to be completely fueled by instinct and/or insanity.
Of course, I did have some steadfast ideas in my head. Things that I would do because they were the “right” things, or the socially acceptable things, or the ridiculously idealistic things, or the things I’d read about or saw on TV and seemed feasible.
(I am nothing if not easily influenced by primetime programming.)
One of these things was breastfeeding. To me, that seemed like not only a frugal, responsible choice, but also one that was best for my baby according to just about EVERYTHING I read. Breastfeeding. No problem. It’s natural. My mom did it, my friends did it. It was obviously the thing to do. I craved the bonding time with my daughter; I wanted her as close to me as possible at all times. Sounded like a win-win to me.
I wasn’t delusional enough to think it would be EASY, however. My friends had horror stories of weak latches and mastitis, of weaning and round-the-clock feedings. No problem. I knew this whole baby shenanigan wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, after all, and I was game. Bring on the nursing bras and the boob cream. I planned to nurse my daughter for a year at minimum. I was ready for it.
What I WASN’T ready for was a low milk supply.
In the hospital, my colostrum was slow to come in, but it was there. I soaked up every bit of knowledge the lactation consultant had to give, took my baby home with me, and waited for my real milk to arrive. I nursed her every hour because she would scream bloody murder if I didn’t, bit my lip in pain when I cracked and bled, and decided that I could handle anything now. Feeding the baby. That was all that mattered.
Of course, like most babies, my daughter lost weight after she arrived. Not an alarming amount, but since my real milk decided to take its time also, her weight loss was a bit more than the doctor liked to see. “Not to worry,” he told me. “Once your milk comes in strongly, she’ll put it right back on.”
My sluggish milk finally made it’s appearance, and she gained a couple ounces. “You’re doing great,” the doctor said. “I’ll see you at her six week appointment unless you need me.” My daughter was still wanting to nurse every hour, but I figured that’s what she needed to gain weight, and so we carried on.
When she was two weeks old, and things were still the same, if not more frustrating, I began to worry. The baby didn’t sleep at night, she wanted to nurse constantly, and since she spent the majority of her time in my arms, I could tell she hadn’t gained much more weight. I took her in to get weighed.
She hadn’t gained anything in over a week and a half. I stood next to the scale cradling my baby and crying. Something was wrong and I didn’t know what to do, so back to the doctor we went. “It’s time to supplement with formula,” he said. “She needs to get back up to her birth weight. I don’t see this as a permanent situation, I’m sure it’s just that your milk isn’t fully in.”
As soon as he said it I knew it was true. I didn’t have any of the usual conditions associated with breastfeeding: I never felt engorged, my breasts would rarely leak, and I never experienced the feeling of the milk “letting down” that everyone talked about. But I was optimistic. I saw my doctor for a checkup, I took the herbs, I pumped like a maniac, I ate the protein and the oatmeal and anything else that anyone recommended.
I cried every day.
Not being able to provide your child with something she desperately needs, when you want to so badly, is the very worst feeling in the world. According to most lactation consultants, only about 5% of women have a legitimately low milk supply. I don’t know if that’s true — and I’m sure the other fifty or so women who attended the breastfeeding support group with me would be skeptical as well since the room was often filled to capacity — but I will tell you this: I never once considered that this would be a problem.
I prepared myself for the pain, for the sleepless nights, for the endurance of breastfeeding. What I couldn’t prepare for, what I never considered, was that I wouldn’t have enough milk to matter.
As soon as I started supplementing, my baby’s attitude changed drastically. She became a happy, contented baby who would actually sleep for a few hours at a stretch. That made me feel SLIGHTLY better, but I still felt horribly guilty every time I mixed her a bottle. I doubled my pumping time in order to have at least SOME breast milk to put into each bottle.
I had to go back to work when she was only 3.5 weeks old, and that didn’t help the situation any. Even though I was barely in the salon part-time, it made the entire pumping and nursing routine even harder, and I hated that I had to leave her at all.
It got to the point at about six weeks of age where all I was doing was pumping, feeding, and sterilizing in a monotonous haze. I could rarely nurse her now since she would get so frustrated that nothing was coming out. She wanted me to hold her but I didn’t have time, which made me feel awful. My brain kept saying “You have to pump you have to pump” to alleviate some of my formula guilt with the paltry amount of breast milk I could provide.
I started hearing voices in the rhythm of the pump: the stimulating mode said “wanna help wanna help” and the milking mode said “make it make it.” I was losing my mind and the stress didn’t help my milk supply at all.
Finally, at the breastfeeding support group, I had my final breakdown (about that! Plenty more breakdowns to come later!) The lactation consultant sat with me while I cried. “This is not the most important part of being a mommy,” she said. “There are so many years ahead for wonderful times with you and your daughter. Do not let this ruin this time for you.”
At nine weeks I put away the pump for good. I tried on occasion to nurse her at night, but what they say is true, once they are used to the bottle, unless you have a healthy flowing supply, they are easily frustrated. I cried again on the day I realized that there was really nothing left. Even though I knew deep down that I tried everything I could, I felt (and still feel) like I failed.
I do believe that breastfeeding is best. I wish it had worked for me. If I could go back, there are so many things I would’ve done differently, even though I’m not sure it would’ve helped. But I know more now, so maybe. But I also do not believe that formula is a fail. Nothing is a fail when it means your child thrives. We are so lucky to have formula — that is what I tell myself every day. I am so lucky to have another option when so many mothers across the world don’t.
The part I don’t understand is how as mothers we can be so harshly superior with one another.
Breastfeeding didn’t work for me, but it wasn’t because I was lazy. Far from it, in fact. I’ve been lazy about many other things in my life, but not about this. The attitude towards supplementing and full-time formula can be unfair and judgmental. Every situation isn’t the same. And every choice is personal, and sometimes out of our control. Our goal as a community should be for the babies to grow and thrive, and for us to support each other no matter what, united with the idea of babies achieving their highest good.
I know that sounds corny and dramatic as fuck but I’m really tired of the two camps clashing with each other. I’m tired of defending myself, and tired of hesitating before answering when people ask if I’m nursing. Not every formula baby is neglected, just like not every breastfed baby is more loved. The lactation lady at my support group always says “Our goal is to feed the babies, no matter how it happens.” As new parents, we beat ourselves up enough for various reasons without other people chiming in.
So now I’m just ready to own it. I’m doing what’s best for my daughter and I am not ashamed.
I give my baby formula because she needs it. She is beautiful and healthy and thriving.
Haters to the left.