"Are you breast feeding?"
It's a question that so many people feel entitled to ask you as a new mom, as if they would dare ask you if you wax your bikini area or when the last time you had a bowel movement was. Breast feeding is such a personal decision, one that sometimes we don't have a choice in at all, and something that really involves only the mother and the baby (and maybe the partner). But so many people feel that your worth as a mother and a woman (!) is defined by how you answer this question. Society has conditioned us to believe that breast feeding will come easily and that it is the most natural thing, that there are no things that could come in the way of a woman who decides that she wants to breast feed: "It's up to you, just decide and commit and you will do it!" I certainly believed this before I gave birth. So, I'm here to tell you that that's not my story at all. I wanted to breast feed before I gave birth. Even before I got pregnant, because as we've all heard and internalized, "breast is best" right? I had everything ready to exclusively breast feed and eventually pump before I had my baby but there were some complications after a long labor and birth that jeopardized my baby's health and later, my mental health. The situation dictated that I needed to give my baby formula on the second day of her life. We were separated while she did treatments during the first week of her life and the stress of running around to doctors during a pandemic and having repeated blood tests done on a newborn who screamed and was covered in bruises from being pricked so often stressed me out to the point where my milk never fully came in. Added on to that was the fact that her birth affected her facial muscles and she couldn't open her jaw enough to latch well and when she did latch, she would push her tongue out and disconnect herself almost instantly. I was completely exhausted even before I met my baby after being in labor for several days, so when lactation consultants told me to wake up and pump every 2.5-3 hours in addition to caring for a helpless and hungry baby, I was pushed to the edge of my sanity. I lost my appetite and my sense of self, I was in pain and healing from the birth so I couldn't sit to try to nurse her. And I constantly felt "behind" schedule for pumping, like I was a terrible mother for not being able to giving her "enough" milk or not being able to latch her, despite all the reasons why this happened. My baby needed that formula to thrive but I felt so guilty, like my world shattered into so many little fragments when I gave her the first 10 ml in the hospital that I thought I would never breathe deeply again. Of course, the hormonal changes did not help in any of these feelings. If anything, everything felt so much more harsh and magnified. I spent the first month of my baby's life not bonding with her, but trying to live up to this unattainable ideal that just was physically impossible for me and her. I usually need to be in complete control and know what to expect in all aspects of my life. Being in the middle of a pandemic wasn't helping any of this feeling so out of control either. I didn't feel comfortable seeing friends or hiring outside help and the way our infant feeding journey was playing out just made me feel so much more alone. This was such a foreign feeling to me, to not succeed at something I sought out to do, that I quickly started the downward spiral past the "baby blues" and right into the beginning of post-partum depression.
All because I felt that my worth as a mother was defined by how many milliliters I was able to pump or how many times I was able to latch my baby.
And the messages that I should be “grateful” for this, those were the worst, they made me feel like an ungrateful, terrible person and also like a mother who was not living up to her role as a mother. “You should be grateful your baby is taking a bottle, that means your husband can help feed her and it doesn’t all fall on you. You must have so much more free time for yourself!” Well, yes, I am happy that my husband can help feed my girl and gets to bond with her considering the circumstances but no, I am not happy I cannot breast feed! I didn’t ask for this. And no, I do not have free time because I need to pump! Why does gratitude need to exist instead of grief, why can’t I feel both things at the same time given this situation and why “should” I feel any which way?
I constantly felt like my body was betraying me (a feeling that was too familiar and caused the same rage as it did before I was pregnant) and I felt a sense of obligation to fight and keep pumping and latching and swallowing supplements, all to get my milk. And the guilt. So much unbearably heavy, sticky, disgusting guilt. Guilt that made my skin crawl and cry to every person who asked me how I was doing. And the shame. The shame that grew out of the guilt took hold inside me like an invasive vine, suffocating and killing the tree it grows on, smothering and blocking out the sun. I had no will to get up in the morning, feeling like every day would feel just as the last did, a total failure in which I came up short and that there was no point in doing it all over again. The shame slowly turned into self-hatred. I mean, in all of the new mom “support” groups everyone seems to succeed in breast feeding, they share pictures of their milk stashes and happy, fat, fed babies. They keep talking about how their babies "love the boob" and how much time and how much of themselves they are sacrificing feeding them exclusively breast milk but how bonded they are so it is all "worth it." The voices in my head were screaming "What is wrong with me?! Why can't my damned breasts just make enough milk, I mean that's their purpose, right?! Or are they just ornaments to attract mates that I have been lugging around for 18 years? And if so, they are useless to me now. I can't look at my breasts without wanting to scream!" So after 3 weeks of feeling worse and worse and crying all day instead of enjoying my baby, I got a wake-up call: I knew I was depressed and struggling every hour of every day but when the nurse at my baby's 1 month weigh-in, a total stranger, gave me a survey and reviewed the results and then told me objectively that I'm suffering from PPD, that broke me.
I did not want this to be my story. Our story. I wanted to do better for my daughter. So I said no more pumping and decided that I am going to latch her only to bond with her and for us to enjoy each other's company.
She will get all her nutrition from the formula that has been feeding her this whole time, the formula that helped her with the blood group incompatibility that led to coombs positive jaundice in her first week of life. The formula that she was able to eat from a bottle despite having a tight jaw that couldn't latch on to my flat nipples. The formula that is backed by scientists and research and ensures that she is getting exactly what she needs. My job as her mother is to give her love, warmth, and touch. Contrary to what I felt before, skin-to-skin is not pointless if it doesn't stimulate your milk, the point is to feel close to your baby! And guess what? Since making this unbelievably difficult decision a couple of days ago, I have been so much better! We are bonding, I smile at her and she knows I am happier because she smiles too. I talk and sing to her instead of feeling as if I failed her every time I look at her. I am crying less, though I still cry when thinking about our feeding journey because I feel robbed of our special time in the beginning. I am seeking out help for my depression because I know how quickly things can suck you down into the vortex that sees no good in anything in life, even with a sweet and healthy baby at home. I am not saying this journey is over and I have resolved my feelings, the opposite actually, it probably has just started really. Because people won't ask if I've waxed or when I pooped but they will continue to ask how I'm feeding my baby. MY BABY. And I will need to learn how to answer that without being pulled back to all my struggles. But maybe people also need to stop and think about what they are asking before they open their mouths and consider how this personal question may cause things to resurface for a mom like me? I am sharing my story because I feel like these things aren't talked about enough, even though we know that fed babies are happy and healthy babies. There is still this stigma surrounding failed breast feeding journeys. And there is definitely a stigma surrounding post-partum depression because so many women feel really sad and down after birth but not one of them brought it up in all the support groups I am a part of. Not one offered to share her experience to make the next woman feel a little less alone. If we just ignore this very real part of life, it doesn't make it not exist, so why are we not talking about how raw the baby blues really make us feel? And I feel like no one talks about how the physical recovery from birth, even the most positive birth, and the crazy hormone lows, can take a real toll emotionally and mentally on a mom, even without all of the infant feeding issues that may come up! Especially during the social isolation of this pandemic... so this is me talking about it.
The lactation consultants and even some friends that I am sure meant well were so adamant about being able to succeed as long as you "stick to the schedule". But what if that doesn't work for everyone so soon after giving birth? What if I needed to fail at this to learn to give up control as a parent? Do we ever have total control as parents? If you have made it to the end of this story, I just want to say that I see your struggles and I hope you can hang in there and get the help you need. You should not feel alone so please don’t try to “tough it out” for the sake of being a martyr to the breast feeding cause. I am so in awe how any woman does this more than once in her life to have multiple children, I guess there are some things I still need to process and work through. Even if it is like everyone says, that you forget everything from the post-partum period, it's hard to imagine I'll forget everything from this past month; this was the most difficult month I have endured both physically and emotionally.
But us women, we are so strong it's unbelievable. We are resilient.