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


45 thoughts on “How My Failure at Breastfeeding Made Me a Less Judgmental Mom”

  1. I am so sorry your brother molested/raped you, and that your parents are so clueless about it. I hope you can ask them not to mention him at all. You don’t have to forgive him, as I’m sure you’re aware. One thing: did you consider donor milk, at least for some of the supplemental milk?

    1. Hi Jennifer, I was actually fortunate enough to receive some donor milk, for which I was eternally grateful. Women who donate their breast milk are absolute angels! I didn’t include that in this piece because I was trying to keep the word count manageable. :) Thank you for your kind words.

    2. As a recipient of donor milk, I am very grateful for donors. However, this always kind of rubs me the wrong way when lactivists suggest donor milk as an option– that just wanting to use donor milk is enough. In Wisconsin, the demand for donor milk outweighs the supply, big time. Or, some donors want their milk to go to babies who can’t digest formula, ill/premature babies, babies with similar dietary restrictions, etc. Even if she was open to idea of using donor milk, it would not have been easy to do so exclusively. It just seems judge-y for an article about not-judging…

      1. I don’t think it’s remotely “judgey” to suggest an option that, believe it or not, some people aren’t aware exists. Donor milk is in high demand, and often inaccessible. That’s so true. But taking everything personally is as harmful as the judgement she’s addressing. When we become afraid to try to help others for fear of offending them with completely non-offensive suggestions, we’re in just as bad a place as we are when we don’t try to help at all.

      2. I agree with you. Also donor milk in our local milk bank goes to premature babies first and foremost, since they need it more then full term babies who can drink formula.

  2. My story is so similar to yours, from the shocking 2 week visit where the pediatrician informed us that our son had dropped a TON of weight, to supplementing and trying to pump around the clock (we had bad, bad latch issues that led to other problems), to eating oatmeal and trying medications. It took me quite a while to get over the shame of giving my son formula when I was able to give DD breast-milk exclusively for almost 6 months. But now, he’s a smart, healthy, thriving 2 year old and nobody knows the difference either way!
    All moms deserve our support. You never know what a new mom is going through just by looking at her.

    1. And I’m sorry about what you went though with your brother. I hope that your parents know never to mention his name in your presence, ever again.

      1. Thank you for your response, Lisa. I’m sorry you struggled with production and shame, too, and I am so glad both our babies are now thriving!

  3. Please omit the word failure. You didn’t fail at breast feeding. There were many factors that contributed to your production. Be proud of the obstacles you faced and conquered.
    Cheers
    Adele D, RM.

    1. *APPLAUSE*

      It’s true. You succeeded in providing as much breastmilk as you were able, every ounce of which counts! And then you succeeded in recognizing that there was a problem, and took steps to ensure that she got what she needed. You successfully did what was best for her, given the circumstances, and because of that choice, she’s thriving. At no point did you fail her. Sometimes the path to success just takes unexpected turns.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience. It really struck a chord with me because I also expected to breastfeed and I also had the experience of my daughter losing a ton of weight and crying when I thought she was surely getting enough to eat. The lactation consultant thought that mine was probably related to grief – my father died the week before I gave birth, and I was still in shock. It was hard on my pride to switch to formula, but there have been many silver linings – including my wife’s ability to be more involved with caring for our child. It’s like the lactation consultant told me – the most important thing is to feed your baby. And feed her we have!

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss, Amanda. Thank you for finding and sharing your own silver lining. I’m so glad your wife was able to be more involved (and bonded, I’m sure!) with your baby. Yay for family involvement and for feeding our babies!

    1. Thank you for responding, Hannah. My heart goes out to you, and I hope things are working out for you and your son now.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing, and I am so sorry for all that you went through. I don’t even know what to say about your parents; that is just terrible.
    I had a low milk supply due to a breast reduction several years ago. I, too, remember my son crying because he was hungry, and the absolute shame I felt in supplementing with formula. I felt like such a failure, and like I couldn’t do my best for my baby.
    It is now 9 months later, and I have, for the most part, let it go. He is happy and healthy, and the best baby!

    1. Hi Paula, I am sorry you experienced the same terrible shame and pain. I am so glad you’ve (mostly) let it go! I hope you continue to do so and that your sweet baby continues to thrive! Thank you for your response.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. My son is now 20 months old and to this day I miss the fact that I didn’t experience breast feeding him. After almost two months of pumping at most 2 ounces every 3 hours, two breast infections, domperidone and horrible post partum I decided to go with formula. Despite missing the experience I have zero doubt I made the right decision. I learned an important lesson that I know all of us mothers experience – how to hold many emotions at the same time!

    I am so sorry about your parents. I can only imagine the immense love and safety you have and provide for your daughter and the excellent mother you are!

    1. Amy, thank you for your incredibly kind and supportive words. I really, really appreciate that. I am glad you made the right decision for you and your sweet baby! That’s what matters most.

  7. My heart goes out to this brave mother. You are a success and should be proud of overcoming the obstacles of your way.

  8. My daughter was given a feeding tube the morning after she was born without my knowledgeby a well intentioned nurse who took her to the nursery so I could sleep. After that she really never did latch and I pumped breastmilk and put it in bottles. She lost weight and we wound up going to formula. I was devastated and beat myself up about it all. Heres the thing: shes now a healthy, lean, active 12 year old and watching her with her flock of girlfriends there’s no way to differentiate who was breast fed and who wasnt. Yes, breast milk is good if they can get it but in the end its really not all that important. Your mothering is. Your breastmilk, yeah, not really.

    1. I am so glad your daughter is doing well now and that you were able to ultimately feel ok, too. I think you really said it well at the end. It is the mothering that’s important. Thank you.

  9. I appreciated your article. I had to stop breastfeeding my daughter at 3 months when I returned to work, my job wasn’t flexible enough to allow for pumping. I felt shame with it, but at the same time, I felt it was a valid reason to stop and was happy with the few months I had. When my son came along, I was able to stay home and was really excited to exclusively breastfeed him for as long as we wanted. Like you, I didn’t think twice about problems. I had already done it once and this is what I chose so it was how it was going to be. When he was about 3 weeks old, he developed really bad diarrhea. He wasn’t sleeping, he was fussy, he was just so sick. I consulted help from his Dr, the lactation nurses and also la leche league. I was advised to change my diet, I did. I went off of dairy and a few other things. He was still so sick amd I was so exhausted. His poor belly would rumble and he would scream in pain. His butt was raw from the diarreah, his Dr even calling it a chemical burn and prescribing 50$ butt cream to cure it. And yet it didn’t. Nothing helped, until I gave him a formula bottle. It cleared up almost instantly. After being frustrated, exhausted and emotional, I switched him exclusively to formula at 6 weeks old. I felt so much shame and judgement. I thought if I was a stay at home mom, I should be breastfeeding, not to mention the benefits of it. Over time, I grew more confident in my decision, but was still so upset at the judgement. I kept reading articles about ‘the choice’ of BFing or formula feeding. I just wanted to scream, Sometimes it’s not a choice!! I found so many women so proud of BFing, posting pics and talking about it, but felt like formula feeding moms would be judged for doing that. I now feel like that whatever you choose or lack of choice, as long as your baby is loved and taken care of, you should feel joy and comfort in that. Period.

    1. Your experience sounds really difficult! I am so glad things worked out in the end, though. And I agree completely: sometimes it’s not a choice, and that can be so hard on us moms. I hope you now feel joy and comfort that you loved and took care of your baby, too. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Please don’t consider yourself a failure! I also underwent the same experience with my 6month old daughter. My family was completely against formula but I knew my baby was starving. Three cheers to formula and your decision to supplement your lil one’s tummy. Lots of love!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing all of your stories. I, like so many of you had trouble breast feeding for a few different reasons. The emotions that come with it are overwhelming. And I truly appreciate that we all have a place to discuss them here. I still often wonder…why didn’t anyone say it would be so hard…

  12. Brook – I am a mother of 5 kids 10 yrs – 10 months and even with all of my “experience” as a bfding mom, I had problems too. I nursed my first 3 babies anywhere from 12-18 months each, thinking it was so easy not complicated, other than bleeding nipples with my 3rd (and first boy). Then I had my 4th baby. All was good, she gained weight and I did what I always did. UNTIL my m-in-law was visiting and offered to hold my 5 wk old baby while I taught a piano lesson in my dining rm. Just to be safe, I pumped 2 oz (first time with this baby) and left it with her in a medela bottle. When I finished teaching, I hadn’t had a let down and went to get the baby and noticed the bottle was all gone. My m-in-law wanted to feed her so bad, that she just gave it to her. Within 2 weeks of that one bottle, she had nipple confusion and my baby was screaming all the time and had lost to under her birth weight as well. I see pictures of her gaunt skin sticking to her bones. Wow, I was so selfish to just assume I knew what I was doing and nothing was wrong. I tried pumping after the pedi appt and only got 1/2 oz. My milk was already basically gone, I was SO shocked. I usually had too much milk and even considered donating. I did not get help though, which I regret. I felt so much shame and guilt too, it really does happen to so many of us. She had formula of course until 12 months. She is a vibrant 3 yr old today and my 10 month old is nursing strong. Baby 5 was not planned, but I do feel like it gave me a chance to try again and avoid bottles before 6 wks for sure. I do look at formula fed babies differently as well, way less judgmental because like you said, we don’t know their circumstances. God Bless you and your situation.

  13. I applaud you on your bravery. Not only taking about the abuse you’ve endured earlier in life, but taking a stand for those who formula feed. Thank you. I am pregnant with my 3rd and do not plan to stress myself out about not being able to exclusively breastfeed. Life is too short, and I now know feeding via formula doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t bond with my children. I do wish other mothers and hospital staff were more compassionate towards mommies who cannot or choose not to exclusively breastfeed. The health and well being of my children are more important than the opinions of a stranger. I am just disappointed in myself that it took me 3 pregnancies to realize that.

    1. Hi Jessica, I want to tell you good luck with your third–and please don’t feel disappointed it took you three pregnancies to make any realization! Best wishes for you and all your babies, and lots of love to them and you.

  14. I’m sorry to hear everything you went through but have to say I am very impressed with the level of self-awareness you’ve developed in telling your story. It’s not easy to admit our failures — real or perceived — our challenges or even our judgments of others. Like you, I desperately desired to exclusively breastfeed our daughter. Instead, I had the rude awakening of a baby not thriving, a doctor wanting immediate hospitalization and a paralyzing conviction that formula was poison. Like you, the process made me less judgmental of other mothers and their choices, not just in regard to feeding but in all arenas. I realized how what we observe barely scratches the surface of what another parent has researched, thought about, or prayed about when it comes to their beliefs and practices. Every negative comment softened me to the plight of other mothers. Like you, we managed to bond just fine, her health is fine. She is no worse for wear. I, on the other hand, am forever affected, but I’d like to think it’s in a good way because the world needs more moms like us, moms who encourage others and lift them up in their parenting journey vs. those who sit back and scoff in judgement. So thank you for telling your story, and thank you for being there for others. It makes a difference.

  15. wow just wow. kudos to brook! I lost my first child so BFing was a mission of mine as well. I failed for different reasons but never thought until now that maybe it was stress induced as well. protecting my daughter from SIDS, even though impossible to prevent, consumed me. thx for sharing your story and triumphs.

  16. My dear cousin, you are so brave and beautiful!!! You are an amazing mother and strong woman. I was overwhelmed with emotion and pride reading this article. Thank you!

  17. Brook I am so happy your story was featured and thanks for sharing. I had the worse case of postpartum because I couldn’t breastfeed. I was so upset and I felt I was inadequate. It made me distant from my daughter and I wish someone would have told me to just give her some formula and my life would be back to normal. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story and for such kind words, Vanessa! I’m so sorry to hear you suffered, struggled, and felt inadequate. I hope we can move to a place where we can all see we simply have different capabilities and circumstances. Best of luck to you and your daughter.

  18. Thank you for this post. I bf for 5 days, spoke with 4 different midwives who all assured me he was fine and getting plenty of milk as I would leak whilst feeding. By the 5th day he was so jaundiceand had stopped weeing. he had to be hospitalised and started on formula so we could regulate his fluids. After that he was a different baby and started weeing. When I next saw the midwife she proclaimed “the only good thing about formula is baby will sleep more” this got me so upset. I’m disappointed that my worries were never addressed and I was still made to feel bad even though it was what best for my baby. I wish there were more support for bottle feeding mum’s.

    1. Your experience sounds so scary and hard, Toni–not only for your son’s health, but for your own needs not being met or really adequately addressed by your midwife. Thank you for sharing–I know that hard to be terrible. I hope you and your family are happy and thriving now. <3

  19. Thank you for sharing this! I was unable to make enough milk for my baby despite trying everything, and the experience has made me so much less judgemental of other moms. I really believed the myth that everyone can breastfeed and had midwives and lactation consultants who failed to acknowlege that I had insufficient tissue amd my baby was starving despite our efforts. It was beyond heartbreaking to give formula, but it saved his life and I know without a doubt that I did everything I could and am truly unable to supply enough. I was even lucky enough to be able to continue breastfeeding while supplementing with formula, but I know that is not always possible. The judgement from others has been hard for me, but the blessing is that now I never assume I know what another mom’s circumstances are.
    I too have a father who associates with, speaks to me about, and even gave a picture of my child to my abuser. My heart goes out to you and reading your experiemce has made me realize how bizarre this behavior is and consider cutting him out of my life!

  20. Really enjoyed your honest and heartfelt piece. Yes, breastfeeding is amazing when it works, but when it doesn’t women need support and compassion, not judgement.

  21. I’m living this right now and struggling desperately to preserve any breastfeeding relationship with my 4 week old daughter. She is my 5th and all my older children have been breastfed. I’m ashamed to realize how judgmental I have been and part of this feels like a punishment for that attitude. Thank you for sharing your story. You give me hope….hope that we will make it to the other side of this obstacle whole, thriving, and bonded.

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