I haven’t written a really honest post in a while. A long while. Even my most “real” writing has been tied in a red bow and sprinkled with glitter because I’ve been paralyzed by comments that public vulnerability is unbecoming or immature or uncomfortable.
But then I think about my friends who’ve shared some of the hardest experiences in their lives– not with a vague post or an irritating woe-is-me attitude– but the ones who’ve just…shared. In beautiful, difficult, courageous words, they’ve shared about body image, abuse, and even the loss of children. Reading these stories has strengthened my faith, put into perspective some of my struggles, and allowed me to not feel so alone in certain fears, weaknesses, or insecurities. In no way do I find their words self-indulgent– instead, I find them entirely brave and human. After all, that is what we are. Human. Why pretend we’re not?
So that has led me here, to a topic I’ve addressed quite a few times on this blog, though glossed with humor or false strength. To a subject that has defined my self-worth for the last six months of my life, that trickles into every thought of my day, even though I’ve managed to make everyone around me think it’s behind me. I say all the right things to look like I’m in control, but I’m only in control on the outside. My inside is still all out of whack.
This topic might sound strangely unimportant to some of you, or particularly unworthy of the grasp it holds on my psyche. But we don’t always choose what challenges sink their claws the deepest into our hearts, and I’m done feeling embarrassed by my pain on top of the pain itself.
So here you have it:
I’ve made it clear on this blog that I have had a tough time breastfeeding. Even writing that word feels kind of awkward and embarrassing, like I’m referring to something extremely inappropriate for public conversation. But any woman who is granted the gift of having a child knows that feeding your baby isn’t weird…and shouldn’t be seen that way, whether by boob or bottle. Anyway, breastfeeding (gulp) is a word, an act, an expectation that has literally eaten away at me for six months.
I can’t do it. Not successfully. Not in the way all my friends and family have done it. Not where I power through the pain at the beginning to see light on the other side, when the baby eats happily to his heart’s content. Or the baby dives into his mom’s chest for comfort when he’s scared or tired or just plain misses her. I’m nursing, but in short, unsatisfying spurts, where my baby tries to humor me for a few precious minutes, popping on and off as I serve up half an ounce that he graciously works so hard to get.
He looks up at me with furrowed brows, politely asking me if he can be done pretending to suck because we both know there’s nothing coming out.
I learned months ago to stop begging him to keep trying. I get up, make him his six ounces of formula, which he happily downs as I wonder if that was the last time I’ll ever feel the sensation of feeding my child. Each time, I’m painfully aware that my supply is almost nonexistent, and that the bonding ritual I treasure so deeply is going to reach an end at any moment.
When I first fed Anders the day he was born, I felt proud. He latched as well as any brand new baby could, and I was mentally prepared to do whatever it took to nurse him for a year or more. Those first 36 hours, I dutifully set my alarm for every three hours, day and night, to feed my angel. Then he was swept away to the observation ward, followed by a brief stay in the NICU. I was still an inpatient myself, so even though I wasn’t right next to him, I still shuffled my way down the long hallway to his room every three hours, making sure my baby boy knew that Mom was here to provide for him no matter what.
But then Aaron and I were sent home, while Anders had to stay in the hospital. We knew it was coming, so I learned how to use the hospital pump, and spent the whole day pumping after each feeding in order to fill enough miniature bottles to last him through the night without me. It was the night after Christmas, and while my little boy was attached to tubes, laying helplessly in a clear plastic bin, I went home in tears, blankly staring at the empty carseat and telling Aaron that this just wasn’t right. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
We pulled our pump out of the corner of the nursery closet, where I’d stowed it with the expectation that I wouldn’t use it for the first few months. That night, I set my alarm for every three hours so not to lose my beginner’s supply, sitting in the glider all alone in Anders’ dark, empty nursery, trying to wrap my head around the last 48 hours as I hooked my aching body up to a machine and listened to its harsh rhythmic buzzing.
The next seven nights, we were allowed to stay with him in the hospital, so I went back to nursing as planned. Even though it was awkward because he was attached to a three foot tube and neither of us knew what we were doing, we did it together. I was proud when the lactation consultants came in and said I was doing a great job, despite fighting off tubes and wires that made changing sides an absolute nightmare.
I was almost two weeks into motherhood, and I’d never been able to carry my baby in my arms more than three feet. From his plastic bin where he slept, into the tiny hospital bed I shared with my husband. That’s it.
But I was nursing. And that was something to hold onto as I kissed my sleeping husband’s lips at midnight on New Year’s Eve, after I’d woken up for my scheduled feeding session.
Before we left the hospital, Anders successfully regained his natural post-birth weight loss, leaving the hospital a few ounces heavier than he was when he was born. Nurses and doctors told me how great we’d done with feeding him. He was thriving. His infection was gone. He’d be okay.
We got home, and he didn’t sleep for 24 hours. Well…he did 4 hours total in 24 hours. So I guess he technically slept a little. I did not. I weighed myself and noticed I’d lost 30 pounds in the two weeks since he was born. Probably because the hospital food was gross and I’d prioritized sleep over food. I made a mental note to myself to eat more, because even though I needed to kick the baby weight, I knew that I had to feed myself in order to feed my baby.
His sleep didn’t improve. It wasn’t the normal newborn sleep issue…it seemed more frantic than that. He was constantly upset. He incessantly turned to my breast, but then would pop off, crying even louder than before.
We went to the hospital five days later for his first checkup, and he’d lost weight. No more “Great job, Mama.” No more “Wow, look at all that milk you’re making!” Instead, I was told to keep trying, with a gentle look of pity and concern. Keep feeding every 2-3 hours, but come back in a week for another weight check.
The first few days following that appointment, I told myself it was a fluke. It was just gas pain, of course, which caused the crying. It had to be. I’d made plenty of milk in the hospital! He’d reached his birth weight, plus some! Milk supply doesn’t just disappear. I’d been bringing him to breast whenever he wanted it, feeding him every three hours even if he was sleeping, and doing everything like I’d been taught in my breastfeeding classes. It was a fluke that he lost weight. Just a fluke.
He kept crying. Louder still when I tried to nurse.
And then I joined him in the crying. I couldn’t stop. Not because the pain of a little monster grappling with one of the most sensitive parts of the female body, causing blisters and scabs and raw skin. Not because I hadn’t slept longer than 45 minutes straight in three weeks. Not because I still couldn’t walk normally. But because I knew my baby was hungry. I knew he wasn’t thriving. I was starving this beautiful child who I loved more than I knew possible.
I had to stop. Stop ignoring my painful instinct that told me Anders wasn’t growing like he should. Stop ignoring the people who love me most, who told me I needed to disregard the blogs and statistics and studies and Facebook statuses and well-meaning friends, and just FEED my baby. Stop crying. Stop analyzing. Stop fearing. Stop agonizing.
In the aisle of Target, looking less like humans and more like swamp creatures, Aaron hastily Googled “best formula”, and I grabbed a purple tub from the shelf. I felt shame as I walked past other moms in the aisle, wondering if they thought I was lazy or selfish. Bless the one woman who looked at Anders in his stroller and asked, “How old?” Three weeks, I answered. “Congratulations for getting out of the house! You’re doing great,” she said. We need more people like that woman in the world. She has no idea how much that one little pat on the back meant in that moment.
It’s not that I was emphatically anti-formula. Not at all. I just believed the lie that you can always breastfeed if you TRY hard enough. The truths and the opinions run together: Breastfeeding women tend to be more educated. Breastmilk has antibodies that formula doesn’t. Formula interferes with a baby’s sensitive digestive system. Breastfed babies bond better with their mother. Breastfed babies feel safer.
All I knew was that I’m a strong, determined, educated woman. Of course I’d breastfeed. I’d give my baby antibodies and nutrients that only a mother’s body can provide.
I’d stay up all day and all night if it meant nurturing my child. I’d make lactation cookies and drink mother’s milk tea. I’d take 9 fenugreek pills a day and have oatmeal every morning. I’d form a speed-dial relationship with a lactation consultant, help my child latch perfectly, and pump after each feeding to increase my supply. I’d stop pumping and only bring my baby to breast to stimulate. I’d chug water all day and sleep at every opportunity to recharge my body for the sole purpose of sacrificing it.
And I did all of those things.
I also self-loathed. I wondered if I misread cues and didn’t let him cluster feed enough, resulting in losing my supply. I wondered if not eating in the hospital caused the drop, even though in the hospital is when he gained the most weight on my breastmilk. I wondered if I should’ve told the nurse in the observation ward “no” when she asked if she could give him 1 oz of formula because they needed to prepare him faster for his blood work, and I said “okay” because I didn’t know what to do as a first time, terrified mother whose 2-day old baby needed blood work. I felt embarrassed, guilty, and envious when I watched my friends successfully nurse their thriving babies.
And I still do.
I logically know I did everything possible to exclusively breastfeed. That word: “exclusive.” It races through my mind every.single.day. People ask me if I’m breastfeeding and I say “Yes, but I do supplement with formula.”
“Oh, so not exclusively,” they say. My heart sinks.
I’ve nursed him as much as any exclusively breastfeeding mother. I have refused to miss any feedings for fear of losing the .5-2 ounces of milk I produce, depending on the time of day. Aaron has never taken an overnight feeding. (He’s offered, but I don’t want to skip and risk losing milk.) I turned down a huge promotion at work and point blank told my CEO it’s because I can’t pump instead of breastfeed– I need to be with my baby. (He was awesome and let me take Anders work, so I took the job and have ended up only pumping twice a week total during times Gigi watches him so I can make some uninterrupted calls.)
In the four times I’ve hired a babysitter, I pumped during each and every feeding time, even when it was supremely inconvenient. I remember once not being able to find anywhere to pump in Downtown Williamsburg, other than a single stall restroom with a line forming. I hastily plugged my pump into the wall, hoping standing water on the counter wouldn’t touch any of the pumping parts, and quickly attached the funnels beneath my shirt. I stood there under the fluorescent lights, staring at the cracking brown wallpaper for about two minutes with nothing coming out, shaking and sweating in my uncomfortably vulnerable state, knowing I was holding up everyone outside the door. I began to panic and cry, immediately shoving everything back inside the bag and retreating back to our little table at the cafe. I was shaking so badly that my husband had to take my bag from me to put all the parts properly away, including the still-empty bottles. My sweet husband had planned this getaway for my 30th birthday, and the first half of the day was clouded by my mini-panic attack. He was upset with himself for not thinking through where I could pump. I was traumatized and frustrated and guilty.
But even with all of that– even through the effort and dedication and unwavering priority– Anders is not exclusively breastfed. So to many mothers, I don’t qualify as a breastfeeding mom.
How defeating. I know it’s not about other people. It’s about the fact that I’ve bent over backwards to give my angel as much breastmilk as I possibly can since I know it’s good for him. But still. To do all that and still be reminded of not reaching the “exclusivity” rank…it’s crushing.
I’m reminded of his formula intake at every turn.
When people ask how he’s sleeping, and I tell them that he takes his naps in his crib and sleeps 10-11 hours at night (except during random weeks when he digresses for a few nights here and there), the immediate response I’ve heard over and over is, “Oh he takes formula, I forgot.” Nevermind the fact that I spent tireless hours helping my baby learn how to sleep in his crib, or helped him sleep through the night by providing downright backbreaking comfort, leaning over the crib without picking him up so he’d learn how to self-soothe on his own. Nevermind the fact that my friends with bad sleepers have said that adding formula to their baby’s diet hasn’t helped the sleep whatsoever.
Even the less outright comments get to me. When people mention that their baby nurses for comfort, or that they can’t wean their child off of the breast, or talk about the breastmilk in their freezer…I feel a distinct pain in my chest. No one means harm by these comments, but they rip me apart.
Logically, I know Anders is fine. He’s more than fine. He’s AMAZING. People constantly talk about how happy he is, my doctor tells me how healthy he is, and I know how loved he is. I focus on those things, and if the “formula conversation” is broached, those are the things I spout on about. I tell people it’s no big deal. That at first I fought it, but now I’m grateful for it.
And that’s true. But I’m writing this to tell the world that it still stings. No matter how logical I am, no matter how many kind friends and family and strangers tell me it’s okay, I still feel like a failure. It has spilled over into my self-confidence, affecting everything from my weight to my inclination to socialize.
Like I said, I’m not anti-formula, nor do I admonish mothers who willingly choose that route. It just wasn’t the one I wanted, and I’m not sure when or how I will ever fully feel like I’ve given Anders everything I could as his mom. I’m still scared that he doesn’t feel as bonded with me, that he doesn’t see me as a source of comfort, or that he will have some sort of health problem down the line.
I think the internet is a beautiful thing. It allows me to write this, which is therapeutic and *hopefully* helpful to other moms out there. It allows us to keep in contact with friends more easily. It provides us answers we wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also creates endless opportunity for comparison and an “expert on everything” society, which can damage people on a very deep and debilitating level. Whether it’s motherhood or body image or career status or relationships, we think we have to live up to the “ideal” in EVERY aspect of our lives, even the ones that are very much out of our control.
I’m working on realizing that I can’t blame myself for everything, and I’m trying to be “above” caring what others think. But I’m not there quite yet. And I don’t want to feel embarrassed for feeling guilty or idiotic for caring about opinions, all on top of still feeling how I feel. So I’m owning it in hopes that this post helps anyone who might be facing the same or similar obstacle. To you (and to me): No challenge or failure should determine your self-worth.
Logically, I know my self-worth comes from God. It comes from loving others and being kind. It comes from being grateful for what I have and being gracious with myself. I’ll get over this hurdle eventually, and I hope you do, too.