How My Failure at Breastfeeding Made Me a Less Judgmental Mom

babyThere were endless probable and improbable things I worried about during my pregnancy, but breastfeeding was never one of them. Looking back, I’m both surprised and disappointed that I didn’t read anything on the subject to prepare myself. I was too concerned with the possibility of having trauma-related flashbacks during birth to really worry about anything else. It was just always something I planned on doing, and I took for granted I wouldn’t have any problems with it. I knew it was the best for my baby nutrition-wise, and as a working class parent, I also found it appealing cost-wise. All the natural birth and parenting books I read advocated it and whenever I encountered literature on formula feeding the messages were overwhelmingly unfavorable.

The connotation– that I’m ashamed to say I internalized–was completely negative and suggested that moms who used formula were selfish or negligent and didn’t care as much about their babies. While I think a sociological analysis of the factors that both facilitate and hinder breastfeeding is called for, that’s the topic of a future blog post. This one is about my own personal experience with breastfeeding.

After my daughter was born she immediately took to my breast with no issues whatsoever. When the midwife came to check on her at 9 days of age, I was elated to find out she’d gained more than twice the expected amount of weight for a baby of her size and age. I gleefully texted my best friends: MY TITS WORK! HOORAY!!! I was incredibly proud of myself, especially because I was nowhere near prepared for how much work, effort, discomfort, and sometimes pain went into breastfeeding.

When she was 13 days old, I tried to coordinate a visit with my parents.  Talking on the phone with my dad, he told me how proud he was of me. I preened and reveled in the warmth of his words until he began reciting the list of people he’d been talking to and I heard my brother’s name mentioned.

Although it’s widely known in my family that my brother molested me repeatedly throughout my childhood, he still maintains a relationship with my parents. As such, I have become resigned and accustomed to periodically hearing his name littered in conversations. Like the Republican party and lima beans, it’s an uncomfortable, objectionable fact of life. But hearing my daughter’s name used in the same sentence as his was like a visceral sucker punch to the gut. I went sweaty and icy cold instantly, totally taken aback by my dad’s cavalier combination of these two disparate names. One represented my unspeakably painful, scarred past, and the other represented a clean slate and hopeful future.

Feeling nauseous, I took a deep breath and said, “It makes me wildly uncomfortable to hear that you’ve discussed her with him. There is no reason for him to know anything at all about her. I don’t want you discussing my child with him. Is that clear?” The line was silent for a minute before my father said “Yes.” I hurriedly got off the phone and grabbed my not-quite-yet two-week-old daughter, held her tightly to me, and sobbed.

Several hours later, I began to feel somewhat normal again, though I was left feeling shaken for weeks. My parents had planned to visit the following day, but after our awkward conversation, I didn’t hear anything from them–not that day, and actually, not for another 3 months. During that time, everything essentially went to hell.

Any new parent can share horror stories of how arduous the fourth trimester is. Although I’d read that caring for a newborn was the hardest work I’d ever do, nothing could have really prepared me. I not only struggled with post-partum depression and anxiety, I was wild-eyed from exhaustion. As I learned how to be, and adjusted to becoming, a parent, I desperately needed and wanted to be parented myself. My mother-in-law did the best she could, and she was amazing in every way, but I very much needed and wanted my own parents, who left me completely high and dry.

During those months, our daughter became increasingly fussy. The pediatrician, our midwife, my mother-in-law–everyone–thought she was just colicky. A few friends relayed stories of their own children’s colicky spells, which sounded akin to what we were experiencing. Virtually incessant, shrill, inconsolable cries that didn’t seem to lessen regardless of what we did. During this time, her weight began to fluctuate as well. We were told that was fairly common among babies who were exclusively breastfed.

The pediatrician suggested my breast milk may not be sufficiently fatty and advised me to increase my caloric intake. He warned that if she kept losing weight, we may need to supplement with formula. It dawned on me that between battling my own exhaustion and emotional upset and caring for my newborn daughter, I’d not been eating a lot. We set up a follow-up appointment to check her weight. In the meantime, I literally began uncomfortably stuffing myself at every opportunity. Because she nursed all the time, and I knew there was milk there, it never dawned on me that the problem could be me.

During her follow-up visit, we learned she’d lost even more weight–so much so that she now weighed less than she had at birth. The situation was so dire our pediatrician wanted to hospitalize us and perform tests. I asked him to let us supplement her with formula over the weekend, telling him we would adhere to a very strict feeding schedule–if, by the time we returned, she hadn’t gained weight, then we’d go to the hospital. The doctor reluctantly agreed.

We returned home with our daughter and a bottle of formula and began an intensive feeding schedule. To our surprise and delight, the incessant crying stopped, and she actually began sleeping. When we returned, still terrified and exhausted, we were thrilled to learn that she’d gained several ounces–a few more, in fact, than what was required to keep us out of the hospital.

Thankfully, with formula, her weight continued to rebound. My poor daughter wasn’t colicky-she was hungry! I felt consumed by guilt that I’d inadvertently been starving my daughter, and full of shame and worry that I had to supplement with formula. I worried about her health and brain development and our bond. I worried I was a failure as a mother. I felt shame with each container of formula I bought.

I tried everything to get my breast milk to return. From affirmations and visualizations to rigid pumping and nursing schedules to eating buckets of oatmeal and domperidone, nothing worked. After months of strenuous effort, I finally had to accept that I would never be able to exclusively breastfeed my daughter.

Through that trying time, I learned many things. I learned that it’s ok that my daughter had formula. It kept her alive when I couldn’t! And while I detest the myriad individual and structural ways women are discouraged from breastfeeding, I am thankful formula exists to do that which I was no longer able to do on my own–keep my daughter alive.

I also learned the hard way that stress can affect breast milk production.The shock and distress I felt upon hearing my rapist’s name used alongside my baby’s name threw my body into tumult, creating warring chemical effects that halted my milk production. I learned that our bond wasn’t based solely or primarily on breastfeeding. I learned that while not as optimal as breast milk, formula didn’t harm her health. And I learned to divest myself of the shame or fear that I was a failure as a mother, because I did everything in my power to ensure her needs were met–even, or maybe even especially, when that didn’t match my plans.

Maybe most importantly–and certainly most ongoing–I learned that other mothers deserve the same compassion and understanding I worked so hard to give myself. I can’t know other mothers’ circumstances, and the judgement I ignorantly felt for formula feeding mothers prior to becoming one myself is unproductive, unnecessary, and unwarranted. I long for the day that all mothers may more easily make the choices that work best for them, their children, and their families. Hopefully, with more empathy and access to necessary resources like financial and emotional support, this will happen sooner than later.

Image Credit: Peasap

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