When I started the Fearless Formula Feeder back in 2009, no one was really talking about women who didn’t breastfeed. There simply wasn’t a narrative on this topic yet, other than a few rogue posts by brave (and beloved) parenting bloggers which were always followed by comments like “don’t worry, you tried your best!” and “Every drop counts! At least you did everything you could to give him the best.” This was one of my main reasons for starting the blog – because, as nice as it was to feel like people were patting women like me on the back for going through hell, I didn’t think women should HAVE to go through hell. And not just for the usual reasons people recite, like how we shouldn’t care what others think, and the importance of bodily autonomy, and blah blah blah, but because it really is okay to choose formula.
But the problem was, the women who seemed to need the most support, who were in the midst of a unique trauma that no one was recognizing, were those who had gone through hell. So I had to stand up for them, first. It was like advocate triage – you deal with the worst traumas while patching up the ones who can wait a little while.
I fear, though, that those people are still waiting, sitting in some virtual, sterile waiting room with bad elevator music playing on an endless loop, staring at the women sitting next to them and wondering if they really belong here. If they tried hard enough, if they have a reason to need support. If they still qualified as good moms, even if they quit breastfeeding after a day, an hour, or never latched a baby to a breast.
Julie S. is in that waiting room. In fact, her story submission got lost in my inbox, and I only unearthed it today (thank god, because it’s amazing). So she’s been waiting in more ways than one.
Julie- and all the others who’ve been comparing, wondering, worrying: I’ve been the woman in hell, and the one in the waiting room. I barely “tried” to breastfed my second child. And that’s okay. It has to be okay. I want you to feel proud that you listened to your gut, that – as Julie so perfectly puts it – you “made a decision”. There is so much power in that. When I was the woman in hell, I needed to see that there were those brave enough to make that choice and own it. It gave me the strength to break out of my self-inflicted prison and do what was needed to survive, to realize that it’s motherhood, not martyrhood.
So this weekend, after you read Julie’s story, do me a favor. Help me form a new goal for FFF: a movement where the women in the waiting room and the women in hell join hands, bust through the doors, and demand to be seen, demand to be heard, as one strong, cohesive, unit. Because the cold, hard truth is this: until the reasons don’t matter, the reasons are going to matter. Until it’s okay to not breastfeed, it’s not going to be okay not to breastfeed. And it is okay. It is.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Trying My Best? My Journey to Formula
by Julie S.
Maybe I didn’t “try the best I could” and maybe that’s okay.
Outside of about 5 weeks of some breast milk, my now 3-year-old son was exclusively formula fed, and now my newborn daughter is as well. I have an enormous amount of guilt, doubt, and insecurity surrounding the fact that I did not breastfeed my children for very long. I used to say I wasn’t “able” to breastfeed my son, but this was not really true. It was difficult, and there were obstacles that made it very challenging, but I could have pushed forward, plugged away, tapped out all of my energy and resources, and probably made it past those first seemingly impossible weeks. The same could be said for my experience with my daughter, although the challenges and the journey were different.
I read the Fearless Formula Feeder entries with a certain hunger to find absolution. “Yes, that was me!” I tell myself. But oftentimes, I read heartbreaking stories of “I did everything I could, to the point of my own exhaustion and sacrificing my physical and mental well-being, and still didn’t have enough milk”, or the baby still wouldn’t latch, etc. And I think to myself, “You did what was right! For you and your baby!”
But I suppose I don’t give myself the same slack, and maybe it’s because, in my estimation at least, I never “did the best I could” to the detriment of all else, and still have to stop breastfeeding.
When I was pregnant with my son, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t breastfeed. I didn’t really know much about the existence of formula. I didn’t even have a bottle in the house as per the recommendation of my lactivist friend who had nursed her three sons until age four. I didn’t read a book or take a class because I just thought, like many women do, that nursing came naturally.
Well, I learned real quickly that very few of my assumptions about breastfeeding were true. In the hospital, I was told that my “milk hadn’t come in yet” (later to learn that almost no woman’s milk would have come in so soon) and when my son was not latching successfully at the hospital, they were already syringe feeding him formula and sticking me on a pump by the end of his first day on Earth. By day three when I was being sent home, the lactation consultant sent me with bottles of formula. A variety of lactation consultants and nurses all had their own advice about how to get my son to properly latch, but all of them just left me confused and frustrated. I therefore went home confused and frustrated. And without a good plan.
The day my milk came in, I cried. I called my husband and mother into the room and showed them the huge wet spot on my shirt. What a relief. But by then, we had been supplementing with formula for almost a week, allowing me to actually get some sleep while my mother and husband and I took turns giving my son a bottle every two hours. My son eventually latched and seemed to be feeding okay, although in my mind he seemed like the slowest feeder in the universe. By then, I knew the “temptation” of formula and bottles. I knew the relief they provided me. I knew that I really liked not having my son chained to my body nearly 24/7.
That was a turning point for me. At that moment when my milk came in, I could have ramped up my efforts, called in a lactation consultant, gone to La Leche League meetings, and pumped like a maniac, and brought my supply and nursing skills to where they needed to be. But I didn’t. It was just easier, and obviously more desirable to me, to wean him from his already very rare breastfeedings.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I asked myself what I was going to do this time around (and many others asked me this too). By then I was a pretty well-established formula “advocate” in my mommy circles, but also didn’t hide the guilt that continued to plague me surrounding this issue. I knew I wanted to at least try to breastfeed again, but I was scared. What if I couldn’t prove to myself that I could do it this time? What if I was just never going to be one of “those” women who made breastfeeding look so easy and gratifying? Or, worse yet, one of those women who put everything on the line to make it work? What if I was just too lazy? On the flip side, would I be a huge hypocrite if I ended up exclusively breastfeeding, given all of my talk about formula advocacy?
My daughter was born and they asked if I wanted to nurse. I said yes. They gave her to me and she latched on immediately, like a pro, and sucked away for a good hour. I thought to myself that this was like magic, and I was blessed with an easy go around this time. That night, however, it didn’t seem so easy when she would latch on and suck like a maniac every five seconds, if she even took a break. My nipples felt like needles were being stuck into them and one of them was already cracked and bleeding. I dreaded every feeding, but pushed through somehow. The next day, her magic latch had suddenly vanished. She seemed to possibly have some sort of tongue tie, and the only way she would latch was with a nipple shield. But it was going okay enough, and my milk miraculously came in full force on day three as I was waiting to be discharged. My baby girl sucked like never before, and I realized she was satisfied to finally have some real milk coming out.
I was pretty happy with myself that I had made it home without a bottle or a drop of formula in my baby. I rented a hospital grade pump and took home some nipple shields. I had also formed some semblance of a plan with one of the lactation consultants (I did, however, ask for some free formula just in case. I was well aware how expensive it was!)
Nursing a newborn exclusively was new to me. I didn’t realize just how constant it was. I started to feel trapped, to feel chained to the house and to my baby, especially since I had never felt comfortable nursing in public but in particular not when it felt like I needed an army of hands and pillows and nipple shields in order to feed her. The nights were the toughest. The second night home, I just couldn’t latch her on anymore. My nipples were so raw, she was still fussing a lot at the breast, and I was just too tired. So I opened a bottle of ready to feed formula and gave it to her. I felt like a failure, but tried to talk myself out of that feeling. I was starting to wake up in a panic and my anxiety disorder was rearing its ugly head again. I asked for advice from others: Could I just give one bottle at night and have it still be okay? What if I pumped extra during the day? I just couldn’t bear to do all of those night feedings by myself with my body alone.
Days passed and I started giving more and more bottles. I wanted to get out and feel free. I wanted to go do things alone and be able to leave my baby home with my husband or another family member so I could breathe for a while. The bottles began to very obviously affect her desire and ability to properly nurse at the breast, and my motivation faded. I hired a lactation consultant but it didn’t remove the feeling of being trapped. Swiftly, I sank into a depression. I dreaded getting up to care for her. I loved her, but the anxiety around feeding her made it even worse.
I saw my psychiatrist who was very concerned about me. She wanted me to go back on a medication I had taken pre-pregnancy, one that was incompatible with nursing. She said she preferred I wean. So I did. I didn’t breastfeed again after that appointment with her.
I went on my full medication therapy and pulled out of my depression and anxiety fairly rapidly. My husband and mother both noticed how much better I seemed to be doing and feeling. I had had a rough pregnancy emotionally and this was the happiest they’d seen me in months. My excruciating incessant fighting with my husband decreased significantly.
But, there I was. I had done it again. I had stopped nursing and my baby was barely 3 weeks old. Those three weeks had felt never-ending, but it was an even shorter time than I had nursed my son. I talked to myself a lot, telling myself that I hadn’t failed. Telling myself that some women are just not cut out for it. Telling myself that Mommy’s health and sanity came first. And most of me believed it. Even with the “permission” of my psychiatrist and my pediatrician, who gave similar advice about my decision, I felt like I was just not sacrificing enough for my child.
This was a few weeks ago. My baby is now fully on formula and I am mostly happy with this. I am sad about stopping nursing and do miss that feeling of closeness with her. I don’t miss the full breasts, the bleeding nipples, and the limiting nature of it all. I have come to terms with it for the most part, but a nagging feeling still remains: I didn’t really do my best, did I? I tried, but not an old college try, right? I put in effort, but not enough. I sacrificed, but not like the best moms do. I didn’t fail; I made a decision. I didn’t give up; I decided to stop. I think of all those women who have “real” reasons: Low supply, cancer, major medical problems, etc. What was my excuse? Am I really just lazy, as I had feared?
I continue to struggle with this. I know I am a good mother to my beautiful, healthy children (who are both good sleepers—must be the formula! ). I know that I feel a million times better and my marriage is starting to get back to where it should be. I know all of this in my head. But, in my heart, I still doubt. I still doubt.
I am writing this piece in attempt to write my peace. I told myself that I would put my story out there, and then I would let it go. Because we all have something we wish we could have done better, but as moms we need to accept this and move on. So here I go: I am moving on.
Share your story: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.