FFF Friday: “My breastfeeding challenges have made me more compassionate.”

It’s Halloween, and I am in a major candy coma.

But I still wanted to take a minute and post Colleen’s excellent FFF Friday submission, because it raises such an important point – one that I’ll be keeping in mind when I speak at MommyCon tomorrow for the #ISupportYou movement. Colleen shares how her mind expanded after facing her own challenges with breastfeeding, and how this experience altered her world view. Policy becomes less black and white when you’re living and breathing it, you know? And this is why listening is so essential. If we were all open to hearing other people’s experiences and feelings, empathy would come far more effortlessly. It’s difficult to really understand something unless you’ve been there. But if we can take the time to think more deeply about all the what-if, if-thens, etc, maybe women will stop feeling so bereft and start feeling empowered. Or maybe it’s just the candy talking.

Happy Friday (and Happy Halloween), fearless ones,

The FFF

Colleen’s Story

I was a huge fan of breastfeeding before I actually breastfed a baby.

After all, breast is best, right?

At the time, I worked for an international humanitarian organization that supported many breastfeeding promotion programs in the developing world. The programs were truly laudable, but I had never even considered that there might be an alternative point of view – that, even in the developing world there might be situations where a mother might not be able to or want to breastfeed, and that in those situations helping her baby get a supply of safe formula might be the truly humanitarian thing to do. Now, I look back on myself refusing to accept donated formula during disaster situations (the organization’s well-intentioned policy) and wonder if this was really the best way to go.

I am also ashamed to admit that when a friend quit breastfeeding after a few months I secretly judged her, convinced that she hadn’t tried hard enough, and that she probably was ill-informed; someone who had quit because she just didn’t know about the benefits of breastfeeding for at least a year.

Then I actually breastfed two babies and had to change my tune. Unlike many mothers who struggle with breastfeeding, I didn’t struggle due to lack milk – but rather due to too much. I spent many weeks with engorged breasts, painful cases of mastitis and plugged ducts, searing nerve pain, sore nipples and other problems. I experienced both the “joy” of pumping at work and the “joy” that comes with being the parent responsible for nearly all the night feedings (after all, even if your husband is willing to help, you might as well be the one to get up night after night if you wake up anyway due to painful engorgement and leaky boobs). Were there some benefits to breastfeeding? Of course. I did like knowing that my children were receiving the health benefits that come with nursing. However, after reading the medical literature, I have come to believe that the benefits, although certainly there, are not nearly what the popular literature has made them out to be. I mean, is it not true that my husband, and millions of other Americans born in the sixties, never drank a drop of breast milk and turned out just fine? (The hairstyles they had in the eighties notwithstanding).

So, when my second child was seven months old I decided I had had enough. It was time to thumb my nose at the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, Dr. Sears, and all the other authorities who recommend breastfeeding for at least a year, and become a real live, honest-to-God “fearless formula feeder.” Well, maybe a “fearful formula feeder” – most of my peers breastfeed for at least a year, and often when I mix a bottle in a public setting I fear judgment. Of course, this is probably because my previously-thriving son has now become an obese, asthmatic infant with chronic ear infections. (Just kidding). Actually, my son is doing great and I feel physically and mentally much better. I feel strongly that quitting breastfeeding was the right decision for me – I am now a happier mother – and that it was therefore the right decision for my family.

My breastfeeding challenges have definitely made me more compassionate – if I ever go back to working in the international aid arena I will have a more nuanced view of what is “best” for babies, and I will never, ever judge a woman for her infant feeding decisions again.

I am so grateful to the FFF community for offering infant feeding support to all parents. Of course a breastfeeding mother should be supported, allowed to breastfeed anywhere she needs to in public, and given space and time to pump at work. By the same token, a mother who can’t or doesn’t want to breastfeed should also be supported and not made to feel like a terrible parent. Finally, we should acknowledge the fact that breastfeeding isn’t an either/or proposition –many, many parents “combo-feed,” breastfeeding sometimes and using formula sometimes.

It’s time for the health care, baby care, online parenting communities and various “mommy bloggers” to stop haranguing women for their infant feeding choices. What is right for one family might not be what’s right for another. Being a parent is hard enough, and we all deserve all the support we can get.

***

Share your story: Email it to formulafeeders@gmail.com.

You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed, because it shouldn’t matter.

This past week, Emily Wax-Thibodeux’s excellent essay, “Why I don’t breastfeed, if you must know”, went viral. As it should have. It’s a cutting, heartfelt expose of just how ridiculous the pressure to breastfeed has become, made all the more powerful by the author’s recounting of her double mastectomy.

Unfortunately, even breast cancer didn’t stop the haters from hating.

“95% of the time people don’t breastfeed for reasons other than terminal illness. This is a red herring argument. She shouldn’t feel bad for having a legitimate reason for not breastfeeding and if she does then its really a personal problem,” said one comment on a Today.com thread.

“We all understand should and can are different. A mother who cannot breast feed is different than a mother who can but chooses not to…Breast milk is better for an infant than formula, I don’t think there is a doctor, nurse or midwife who would say that formula is better…Shame people would criticize this mother who CANNOT breastfeed like it was her choice,” wrote another (who happened to be male).

And then there was the woman who insisted that “(t)here is absolutely zero systematic or general judgment against infant formula or bottle feeding. It is the absolute expected norm by the majority of adults and parents in our culture. No one cares if you feed your baby infant formula or use a bottle…Most children start on the breast. Most children are weaned. Most children are given formula and fed with bottles. There is no public backlash against infant formula or bottle feeding. But here’s an article that pretends “infant formula shaming” is some actual thing. No. It isn’t. Not in the real world of critical thought and evidence. The data doesn’t support this notion at all.”

In the FFF community, there was tremendous support for Wax-Gibodeux’s piece, but an underlying concern about the title – because why must we know why she isn’t breastfeeding? Is shaming more acceptable for some mothers than others? What is the litmus test that rewards us with a breastfeeding “pass”? If a double mastectomy doesn’t quite cut it, I don’t know what will.

So maybe we should stop giving reasons altogether.

For those who fear formula as a product, no reason in the world is sufficient for a baby to be given anything other human milk. It doesn’t matter if the baby has to be wet nursed by someone with an unknown medical history – that is still better than formula.

For those who like to shame mothers – because that’s what it really is about, enjoying the act of shaming, of making yourself feel superior, or feel better about your choices by questioning those of others – no reason in the world will make a mother above reproach. She could always have done more – after all, breastfeeding is 90% determination and only 10% milk production, as a recent meme proudly stated. Best case scenario, she might get pity – but pity carries its own heavy scent, similar to the sour stench of shame.

Giving a reason for why you didn’t breastfeed is pointless.

That doesn’t mean telling your story isn’t important, because our narratives matter; they help those floundering in their own messy journeys make sense of what’s happening and find community with those who’ve been there. But there’s a difference between telling your story and owning it, and telling it to defend yourself. One gives you power, the other takes it away. 

We are at a turning point, I hope. Jessica Martin-Weber of The Leaky Boob has taken a stand against romanticizing the reality of breastfeeding, and is helping those in the breastfeeding community feel comfortable with bottle (and formula) use. When one of the leading voices in breastfeeding advocacy speaks out against a culture of fear and rigidity, that means something. Wax-Thibodeux’s piece has brought many powerful voices out of the woodwork, allowing women who’ve swallowed their shame to regurgitate it, and make the uninitiated understand just how sour it tastes.

Now is the time to draw a line in the sand. This conversation has moved beyond breastfeeding and formula feeding and whether one party is more marginalized than the other, or how superior one product is nutritionally to the other. We’ve been there, done that, and nothing has really changed. We’re all still hurting. We’re all still feeling unsupported, unseen, and resentful, like a 3-year-old with a colicky new sibling. Now, we need to stand up, collectively, and say it doesn’t matter why I am feeding the way I am. It is not up to anyone else to deem my reason appropriate or “understandable”. I’m going to stand up for anyone who has felt shamed about how she’s feeding, instead of just people who’ve had identical experiences to me, or those who I feel tried hard enough. 

A breastfeeding advocate shouldn’t be afraid to admit she questions aspects of the WHO Code. A breast cancer survivor shouldn’t have to have awkward conversations about why she’s bottle feeding. A woman who chooses not to breastfeed for her own personal reasons should not have to lay those reasons out in front of a jury of her peers.

This Tower of (breastfeeding) Babble has reached a fever pitch. It’s time for it to come down. Pick up your axe and start chopping. And next time someone asks, simply tell them, “You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed. Because it shouldn’t matter.”

 

The 2014 #ISupportYou Project: ISY Week of Service, Nov 1-7th

Sup·port

transitive verb \sə-ˈpȯrt\

: to agree with or approve of (someone or something)

: to show that you approve of (someone or something) by doing something

: to give help or assistance to (someone or something)

Full Definition of SUPPORT

1: to endure bravely or quietly :  bear

2 a (1) :  to promote the interests or cause of (2) :  to uphold or defend as valid or right :  advocate <supports fair play> (3) :  to argue or vote for 

b (1) :  assist, help <bombers supported the ground troops>(2) :  to act with (a star actor) (3) :  to bid in bridge so as to show support for

c :  to provide with substantiation :  corroborate <support an alibi>

3 a :  to pay the costs of :  maintain <support a family> b :  to provide a basis for the existence or subsistence of 

4 a :  to hold up or serve as a foundation or prop for; b :  to maintain (a price) at a desired level by purchases or loans; also :  to maintain the price of by purchases or loans

5: to keep from fainting, yielding, or losing courage :  comfort

6:  to keep (something) going

 

There are many definitions for the word support. And many arguments within the parenting community about what that word should mean, could mean, does mean.

Does it mean that you agree with someone’s choices, 100%?

Does it mean holding up signs and getting media attention for “stopping the mommy wars”?

Does it mean demanding equal representation, equal respect?

Does it mean something global, local, or personal?

You’d think that because we included “support” in our organization’s name, we’d have a clear definition in mind, a way to clearly explain what the word means to us. But the truth is, we don’t. When we started #ISupportYou, it was just a hashtag; a vague idea that we wanted to make all moms feel included, and worthy of support and community. We knew we wanted to show the world that the way we feed our babies doesn’t define us; that we are not “breastfeeding moms” or “formula feeding moms” but moms, and women, and individuals, and employees, and sisters, and spouses, and girlfriends, and daughters, and friends. We wanted to help other moms reach out to each other and recognize that at our cores, we all want the same thing: to be seen. To be heard. To matter.

This year, ISY is taking this vague idea of support to the next level. We want to put actions to words, to go beyond some glossy media idea of what support looks like, and get down and dirty with what it feels like. That’s why we’re hoping you’ll join us for our inaugural #ISupportYou Week, Nov. 1-7th, 2014. 

During ISY Week, we’re encouraging everyone to take all the energy we waste on silly online arguments to the streets of our own communities, and beyond. Find a way to bring one of the many definitions of “support” to life. Better yet, decide what support means to you, and do something about it. It can be something small, or something big. We’ve put together a list of our own ideas, but we’re excited to hear your ideas, too.

Between Nov. 1-7th, do one thing to bring the ISY message from virtual to flesh-and-blood life.  It can be one of ours, or one of yours. Then tell us about it. Tweet or post about it, using the hashtags #isupportyou and/or #ISYweek. Write a blog post about it, or shoot us an email so that we can share your stories on our blogs, and inspire others to drink the kool-aid. (It’s delicious. We promise.)

Ideas for #ISupportYou Week:

1.  Be a Coupon Fairy. Leave coupons for formula, bottles, diapers, or breastfeeding supplies in the baby aisles of your local stores, attached to post-it notes with the #ISupportYou hashtag and a short, encouraging message to whatever random parent finds it.

2.  Pay it forward. Pay for a mom or dad’s coffee, etc when s/he’s behind you in line with a screaming baby, or just looks exhausted or overwhelmed.

3.  Volunteer at your local women’s shelter. Lead a breastfeeding support group, a formula feeding group, or an #ISupportYou group (details to come).

4.  Bring a care basket to a new mom. Include items that support her feeding choice, but more importantly, items just for HER…m&m’s, lip balm, sitz bath, magazines, pretty water bottle, cozy socks, notepad/pen, note of encouragement, hair ties, etc.

5.  Donate generic new mom care baskets to local domestic violence or homeless shelters, with wipes, diapers, food and other useful items.

6.  Bring breakfast pastries/bagels to your next new mom’s support group

7.  Mail 3 real letters to moms that you know, with message of encouragement

8.  Leave post-it notes with the #ISupportYou hashtag and encouraging messages everywhere. Attach them to extra packs of wipes in a public changing area, or stick them on bulletin boards at the play place down the street.

9.  Commit to setting up an #ISupportYou (ISY) group in your community in 2015. We are currently developing materials to help interested people start these groups, and hope to see some popping up in early 2015. Email isymovement@gmail.com for more information.

10.  Do a teach-in with a group of pregnant mom friends on feeding 101. Ask a friend who feeds differently than you do to co-host it.

11.  Write a blog post with “10 Ways To Support A BF/FF mom”.

12.  Donate your feeding items to a local homeless/domestic violence shelter.

13.  Share ISY with your care providers – OB, pediatrician, therapist, daycare provider, etc.- so that they know where to guide new parents for support.

14.  Find a way to support a mom who feeds in a different way than you do.  Wash bottles at her house, buy her a can of formula, buy her a care package of lanolin and fancy breast pads, etc.

15.  FEED HER!  Find a new mom (or even better, a not so new mom, who needs it more!) and make/send dinner.  Or breakfast that is easy to reheat (egg sandwiches, casserole, etc).  Fresh fruit, surprise morning coffee, all with a note of encouragement.

16.  Set up a time each day that you will text a mom friend who needs encouragement (every day at 10:30 I will text her a “love note”).

17.  Call your local breastfeeding center and ask if they have any needs (scholarship fund for classes, etc.)

18.  Lead a “safe use of formula” workshop for daycare providers

19.  Ask to have a chat with facilitators of New Parent Support Groups, and encourage them to be inclusive to all feeding methods in their sessions.

20.  Call a local teen mother’s group and volunteer to be a breastfeeding or formula feeding mentor/peer counselor.

21.  Do something kind for YOURSELF. Write a letter to your 9 months pregnant self, or your 3 months postpartum self, telling her how proud you are, tips you’ve learned, etc.

22. Donate to organizations which support struggling postpartum moms. For example, Postpartum Progress, the Postpartum Stress Center, or the Seleni Institute.

We really hope you’ll join us in cutting through the bullshit and getting new parents the help they need to feed – and parent – with love, respect, and yes, support.  Put Nov 1-7 on your calendar, and chat with us during the week on Twitter and Facebook to let us know how things are going. Share your ideas, your experiences, and your reactions. Let’s get this party started, shall we?

It’s time. For real.

- The #ISupportYou Team

 

FFF Friday: “It’s not worth having the best moments of motherhood stolen from you…”

I‘ve been thinking about labels lately. Exclusive breastfeeder. Formula Feeder. Combo-feeder. Exclusive Pumper. Attachment Parent. Natural Parent. Conventional Parent (um, for the record, I don’t think anyone calls himself or herself a “conventional parent”, but I do hear this term bandied about rather derisively in certain circles). 

Sometimes, it feels like you need a punch card to be part of a specific parenting philosophy. For example, if you’re a “natural parent”, that means you exclusively breastfeed, babywear, cloth diaper, and eschew epidurals and interventions, But what happens if you don’t get one of these items punched on your membership card? Can you still find community? Or, more specifically, can you find a community that accepts you for who you are, and doesn’t ask you to make excuses, or hide your true feelings?

The problem with treating parenting as a “style” or “type” is that raising a child is a fluid, ever-changing experience. I fear that in our human desire to find community, to find a tribe, we limit ourselves. An exclusive breastfeeding mom can feel just as much anger towards the pressure to breastfeed as an exclusive formula feeder (see Gamze’s story, below). I’ve seen formula feeding moms turn rabidly judgmental, and I’ve also seen them divide themselves in an ugly game of those who “had” to formula feed and those who chose to. 

In the following FFF Friday, you’ll hear from Gamze – a mom who happens to exclusively breastfeed her child. That certainly does not define her. In fact, she resents the system that tells women that their feeding choices have anything to do with what sort of mother they are. These are the conversations we need to have; these are the stories we need to share so that women don’t continue to be bogged down by defensiveness, resentment, and fear. We are not how we feed. We are our stories. We are so much more. 

#ScrewLabels.

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Gamze’s Story

I guess my story could be ‘marketed’ as a triumph over adversity, one that “should inspire all new mothers to keep on trying and to have faith that if they try hard enough, they too can succeed.” But in reality, it hardly is. Yes, I still breastfeed my 11 month old beautiful, healthy son. For what it is worth, he was (dare I say the magic word?) exclusively breast-fed from when he was 40 days old until he was 6 months old. He still receives only breast milk in addition to his solids.

So you might ask, “why are you writing all this?”

I am writing because the first 40 days of my son’s life and the first 40 days after my having given birth were a completely different story. A traumatizing, sad story.

I was breastfed. In fact, everyone in my family – across generations – was breastfed. Naturally, I had no question about how I would feed my baby when he was born. I was convinced that I would not put “commercial” formula in my baby’s tummy ever. (God forbid!)

My son was born post-term after 30+ hours of labor that I really was not ready for. Again, all the women in my family gave birth very easily. I am my mom’s first born and she had me in just a breezy 7 hours! And with no pain killers, might I add? I was convinced my experience would be a repeat performance. Maybe not by 7 hours but surely by 10… And no epidural (or so I thought!). I did end up delivering with an epidural because I had not slept for 2 days by the time labor started progressing and I was completely wiped out. I needed those 2 hours of sleep. So much for natural birthing!

Then my son was born. He was beautiful, healthy and mine! He was a little over 4 kilos (that’s just shy of 9 pounds) so they called him the “big boy” at the hospital when he was born. They placed him on my chest right away after he was born and he seemed to be suckling very happily for 45 minutes. I thought “Yes, we’ve got this!”. We hadn’t… Not by any stretch of the imagination.

He was very alert and pretty quiet during the day. During those 4 days that we stayed in the hospital, latching was a nightmare. The nurses and midwives kept thrusting his head toward the nipple, latching him was next to impossible, despite all the books and pictures I studied, he did not look like he was rooting… It was a bloody painful mess. He screamed every night at the hospital from 10 pm to maybe 2 am after being put at the breast repeatedly and then just passed out tired on my chest. I could not wink for fear that he would fall off of my chest. For 4 nights I did not sleep! The midwives said he must have colic (he was crying so hard) because I clearly had plenty of milk (read: painful engorgement). We got home and he still was screaming at night, nothing we did could appease him. He was producing wet diapers but not soiled ones. We went to a pediatrician because we thought maybe he is constipated? Looking back, I still feel terribly guilty and stupid for not realizing that he was starved. The pediatrician said something that made my world crumble: “Your son is just very hungry!” I had not managed to feed my baby! What kind of mother was I? Really, I thought a week old could be constipated? I am doing a freaking PhD! I have a degree from an Ivy league school!

So, after all the self-blaming, the self-pity, the crying, I went to a lactation consultant. She asked me about any underlying conditions I had. I had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis but was on hormone replacement therapy and was doing fine. She said that the disease made lactation levels fluctuate and that probably was the culprit. She also said, “Your priority is to feed your baby! Give him formula now!” He had lost 200 grams. That is 5% of his body weight!

I cried giving him his first bottle of formula. I cried all the more because he gulped it down and wanted more. My feelings of inadequacy kept eating at me. He was 10 days old now and was combi-fed. I was in such excruciating pain every time he tried to latch that after a while I just pumped whatever I could pump and topped up with formula. I did not want him anywhere near my breasts. I thought maybe he had a tongue-tie but everyone (all the lactation consultants, the doctors we saw) said he was fine. (Many months later, after his teeth came in, we found out that he in fact did have a lip-tie and a tight tongue frenulum. That probably was the reason why he could not latch in the first place. Later, I also found out I had no milk supply issues).

My mom, who had been there since before the birth to help us out, kept telling me to stop pumping and get some sleep. She told me that I had tried hard enough and that the colostrum I fed him the first three days was gift enough. Although I have no recollection of this, apparently I kept snapping at her for telling me to stop pumping when she very well knew my milk would completely dry out if I did.

So, I pumped and I pumped and I pumped. And I didn’t sleep. And kept counting the ounces of milk I produced and that was dwindling. An added bonus: I felt like a cow. I did. I joked about being a cow hooked on to a milking machine (aka the double breast pump). My son was getting most of his intake from formula now. I could only give him maybe 1 ounce or 2 ounces of breast milk every other feeding. I looked terrible. I felt even worse. I could not go out, I had not seen another adult (save my mother and my husband) for weeks. Did I say, I did not sleep? (By this point, I spent all the little ‘free-time’ I had obsessively reading EVERYTHING I could find on low milk supply, exclusive pumping, you name it, I’ve read it! That’s when I found the Fearless Formula Feeder website. Thanks to a wonderful suggestion from a friend.)

Why did I think having a baby would be such a great idea anyways? I could not remember any more. So, I loved my son but I hated being a mother? Did I even know what being a mother meant? Was motherhood just about breastfeeding your child and feeling miserable and defeated because you couldn’t? So one fateful day, I decided I would stop pumping. I would accept the reality and do whatever my son needed to have a happy, caring and somewhat rested mother. Even if that meant formula-feeding full-time. And I would try one last time to get him to latch. If it worked, it worked. If not, he didn’t care. He seemed perfectly happy guzzling down his bottles anyhow.

I tried one last time to put him to the breast. He was 40 days old. This time, it worked. I felt a brief period of euphoria. Eureka! I did it!

Sorry, what did I do again? Nothing, really. It was sheer luck – or coincidence or whatever you might want to call it – that he could now somehow (miraculously) latch and feed at the breast.

Looking back, I don’t see a story of perseverance or success. All I know is that I needed to let go of my judgments and preconceptions but that it is easier said then done. I think it is time to acknowledge that the way a mom chooses to feed her baby is not an indication of how good a mother she is or will be. It really isn’t. It is not worth having the best moments of your motherhood stolen from you just to follow some generic advice about what is best. I will never again be a first-time mom. My son will never be that tiny, that wrinkly. I will never be able to reclaim the time I lost with him in my blind quest to provide him with what I thought was best. Now, I am thoroughly convinced that what is best for a baby is a sane, loving, well-rested and happy mother. Yes, now that it doesn’t hurt like hell and deprive me of my sense of self-worth, I do love breastfeeding. I love the convenience. I love the closeness. I love that when all else fails, the breast can calm my little son down in a matter of seconds. But I also know what it feels like to be judged for supposedly not having tried hard enough or to have people feel sorry for you because you tried so hard and ‘failed’. And I am saddened to see so much of that judgment being passed around as if there wasn’t already enough to make new mothers self-doubt and feel inadequate. And that’s why I wanted to share my story.

***

Share your story: email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com

FFF Friday: “Enabling their rudeness perpetuates the problem…”

This is one of those FFF Fridays that will make you want to riot in the streets. Which I highly encourage you to do. I’d join you but I have a raging migraine at the moment, so I’m just going to sit here quietly and read Natalie’s post, and gingerly raise my fist in solidarity.

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Natalie’s Story

My mother breastfed me exclusively in the late 70’s in a place where most people were formula feeding, and she was pretty defensive about it. There’s a picture of me at two years old giving a toy bottle (it came with my peeing baby doll) to my teddy bear. When she would show me the picture when I was older, my mother always told me that it’s OK that I’m playing with the bottle, but it’s not really good, because breastfeeding is better.

Fast-forward thirty years or so, I’m pregnant, and my mother’s crunchy beliefs are mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that public health entities present all kinds of “data” to support it: breastfeeding will prevent obesity, cancer (which my mother died of), asthma, allergies, and a slew of other infectious diseases in your children, who will also have higher IQs. And then there are the supposed benefits for mothers: immediately losing “baby weight,” keeping your period at bay, reducing cancer risk for yourself.

Sad to say, the baby weight one really attracted me. I’ve had body dysmorphia since age twelve, and two years prior to my pregnancy I started exhibiting signs of hypothyroidism, including significant weight gain that no amount of careful eating or exercise would shake. The hypothyroidism wasn’t caught or acknowledged until my second trimester, when I also started getting medication for it (I got on the meds and people instantly started complimenting me on my thinner face). I felt better as well, but I couldn’t wait for breastfeeding to straighten me out further postpartum and get me back to my previous thinner self. I also have large breasts, which were always an issue in my dysfunctional family; my parents did not approve, not that I could have done anything about it. I was really looking forward to breastfeeding to give my breasts a meaning beyond early-instilled humiliation. I wanted to feel something about my breasts other than that they were so sexual as to be unattractive.

I was so gung-ho about breastfeeding that I spent almost three months of my pregnancy in a state of fear and dread.  My rather negligent and inconsistent OB practice attempted to treat me in a haphazard way for gestational diabetes because I was on the high end of normal, though within normal range, on the glucose test. Their endocrinologist is running research (without obtaining patient consent, I might add) to attempt to prove that far larger swathes of the population have it or are at risk for it than previously supposed. She appears to be sort of shoehorning data (that is, pregnant women at the hospital and the treatment they undergo) to support her theory. Unbeknownst to me I was one of them, even though I didn’t have gestational diabetes and they eventually admitted that the treatment wasn’t medically necessary.

I was so anxious because I’d read that babies born to GD mothers are automatically given bottles at birth. A LLLI representative and every other website I’d read told me that just one bottle would ruin the breastfeeding process forever–which would therefore ruin my kid, or so I believed. These were mainstream websites, traded back and forth on the internet in mainstream online birth month groups I belonged to. Or else were from my own research. Or were recommended by rational, educated people I knew.

Whenever I asked nurses at my appointments, or other hospital officials–like the one who ran our childbirth class, who warned about the dangers of formula feeding—about it, they’d say, “Well, DO you have GD?”

“…no…I mean, I don’t know, they said no, but they said I need the treatment anyway…”

“Well, if you DO, they’ll give a bottle—but breast IS best, I’m just warning you—and if you DON’T, they won’t! Which IS it?”

It was “no,” but it took my husband coming in with me to an appointment towards the end of my pregnancy (and demanding the same answers I’d demanded earlier) for them to stop warning that I was going to get GD treatment “fairly soon, at some point, be ready” and to admit that it wasn’t medically necessary. I even wrote in my “birth wishes” that no bottles could be given without my consent, and had the pleasure of being treated like a Birthzilla by the nurses and OBs, with lots of side-eye, reminders that the health professionals know best, and “you DO know that our hospital is trying for baby-friendly status, don’t you?”

In part, I was so assiduous about internet research and doing what official, “scientific” sources tell me because I’m an American transplant in Canada, and I’m living far from my family or any support network I can really rely on. My mother is dead and my family has never really been the supportive kind. My husband’s family lives overseas. I did have the presence of mind to join a mothers-and-babies group while I was pregnant, and it’s an amazingly non-judgmental group for the most part, with many formula feeders in it—formula feeders with lovely, healthy, happy children. I acknowledged this, but, as with my feelings concerning everyone else’s body shapes and sizes versus my own, I believed that everyone else was fine—beautiful, even, no matter what–but that I had better breastfeed or else.

I was induced when my son was fashionably late, and we had the clichéd but totally-real-for-us bonding moment where we gazed into each other’s eyes. My son was beautiful, happy, healthy, large though skinny, had good scores, and was interested in eating. I had the chance to breastfeed after they finished stitching up my third-degree tears. I had watched videos but didn’t really know what to do on the ground. I put him to my boob and nothing happened. The nurse said not to worry, he didn’t need anything right now, and it was time to go to the mother-baby ward and I could try again later.

In the ward, the supercilious new nurse lectured me for not having breastfed yet, since my baby had been out of the womb now for four hours and I could have done it twice. I was so tired that I was incoherent, though happy, and managed to mumble that I wasn’t really sure what to do. She sneered, “You did prepare for this, right? You did at least watch a video?” and left. It was 3 AM and I’d been awake for 36 hours. A few hours later, when I asked for help with breastfeeding anyway, she bent my hand, which had blood running down it because she was bending it at an unnatural angle around an IV, and then yelled at me when I asked her not to and pointed out that I was bleeding so much from her forced bending that blood was going back into the IV tube. “Do you want to breastfeed or DON’T you?”

Nothing much came out that I could see. Even the colostrum was negligible. I sat zombie-like in a “lactation class” with my husband and baby and five other couples, still dragging the IV tree (an OB decided against medical advice from the OB at the birth that I needed the IV in for another twenty-four hours for an infection that clearly wasn’t there), watching the lactation consultant fondle a plush breast. I was still smelling like birth goo, wearing a hospital gown that was bloodstained on the butt. No nurse would help me take the gown off around the IV, or clean myself—they were only concerned with breastfeeding. A series of nurses who were somewhat kinder but no more competent then the previous one taught me what I now know are incorrect latches that raised blood blisters. My breasts felt like they were on fire. My baby screamed for another day and night until we were discharged. My third-degree tears were agonizing and all I got was Tylenol. They and the bloody IV meant I could never get in a bearable nursing position while in the hospital. We rang for a nurse in desperation the second night and she sneered at us for not quieting our son down with my boob, which we had tried to no avail. Except for me a few hours after the birth, neither my husband nor I slept for about four days.

Our baby continued to scream when we were home. We were clinging to sanity by a tenuous thread when we went to our son’s 48-hour pediatrician’s appointment. The pediatrician took one look at our baby—he was still howling, with a look of desperation and anguish in his eyes–and remarked, “Well, he’s NOT huge.” I wondered what she was talking about—he was long and skinny and looked like me as a baby, except that I had been premature and had weighed about five pounds. The nurses in the hospital had said he was fine and that he needs to get used to the idea that he’s only getting breast milk, after all.

She pointed out gently that he had lost 12% of his body weight, that he had orange crystals from dehydration in his diaper, and that he was very hungry. She told us that we needed to give him formula, that we should try the ready-to-serve liquid kind because there was no point in going for powdered and fussing with all that stuff since I was planning to breastfeed. My husband checked out with our son, and I sat in the examination room alone and bawled silently until I could control myself. I hated myself for causing my baby suffering, even accidentally, and because I was already starting to feel physically like a failure as a woman. My body had changed so much, even before pregnancy, and was failing me, and now I was failing my son.

Giving my baby formula and watching him relax and sleep was one of the scariest, most relieving things I have ever done. I wish that it hadn’t been that way, because there was no reason for it to be that way.

My milk came in a few days later, when I took a brief nap and woke up in a chilly pool of it (good times!). I worked on getting my baby to exhibit what I thought a good latch was from all the literature I pored over, but it wasn’t happening all that well. His sessions were always very long. I both read that at this stage I couldn’t let him use me as a pacifier, that each feeding should last maximum thirty minutes…AND that I had to let him eat as long as he wanted.

My stitches continued to bother me to the point that I had to fashion a donut out of a towel for six weeks in order to sit down (and breastfeed) at all. I would sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry because they hurt so much, long past the time they were supposed to get “better.” The nurse at my OB practice told me crisply over the phone when I begged for advice that they were not responsible for me again until the six-week appointment and that I should consult my family doctor. My family doctor said, “I don’t know what to do. Isn’t that something your OB should take care of? Ask them.” I dreaded the pain of sitting but did it anyway, because I was terrified of not breastfeeding at all. (No variations of lying down worked for us either—my baby didn’t recognize it as a viable eating position.)

Then, my endocrinologist told me I had to go off thyroid meds for two months, I assume so that she could see if I only needed them in pregnancy or needed them long-term. My supply plummeted instantly. For the space of a week, feedings on demand became deranging twelve-hour long marathons. I didn’t sleep. My baby would scream and cry if he wasn’t on my breast, and would nurse fretfully the whole time when he was. I called LLLI, only to be told that by “allowing” an induction and epidural and formula supplementation, I had RUINED my supply. In a pissy, aggrieved voice, the LLLI representative said, “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have done that, exactly, but you shouldn’t have done that.” She also told me that there was nothing wrong with twelve-hour feeds, that it was only a problem if I made it one, and was I dedicated enough to do what it takes? And do I co-sleep? Because our not co-sleeping is also harmful!

Next, I saw about ten lactation consultants at the hospital and local public health office, who said:

a)   According to their weighing numbers, I was producing “enough” for my baby (who was at the 95th percentile in height and 25th in weight, and always hungry);

b)   My baby’s latch is good. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Except it isn’t. Etc. But no instructions on how to make it better, other than “keep trying;”

c)   My body would eventually produce what my son needed if I really worked at it, because our bodies were made to do this;

d)   Only 1-2% of women have supply issues and it’s inconceivable that I would be one of them, especially with those breasts;

e)   I should nurse for ten minutes on each side, pump for fifteen minutes on each side, and then formula feed WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT IT IS WRONG AND BAD FOR BABIES—DO I KNOW THIS? Until he’s done, and then repeat the whole process every 1.5-2 hours, while taking blessed thistle, fenugreek, and Domperidone (which I did not continue with because it made my breasts hurt so much that nursing was impossible);

f)     Nobody “really needs” the size Large flanges for the pumps (I did, because hello, G/H cups while lactating!), though they sold them to me reluctantly after I insisted;

g)   Also, they kept trying to push hand expressing on me, even though I had severe “mommy thumb” from trying to wrangle my large breasts, because “women have been doing this for thousands of years.” (If there’s any sentence I really hate now, it’s “women have been doing this for thousands of years.”) After letting them corral me into trying it in front of them, I said, “ow, this hurts, I need to stop,” and the lactation consultant replied loudly, “YES, ISN’T IT GREAT.”

h)   My goal should be the cessation of formula feeding and the adoption of exclusive breastfeeding. But it was MY CHOICE, of course.

Incidentally, the literature from the hospital on breastfeeding says that formula feeding carries an increased risk of death. DEATH.

 

This breastfeeding advice, combined with the rest of the abysmal prenatal medical experience, which is not worth going into now, created perfect conditions for my postpartum depression. It didn’t help that my husband has anxiety that usually manifests itself as obsession over finances, and he would stand over me while I was pumping and cluster feeding, saying, “this HAS to work. Formula is EXPENSIVE.” Ironically, the postpartum depression help I’m still receiving at the hospital seven and a half months out is great, and probably the best health care experience I’ve had in Canada. However, I probably wouldn’t need it if I hadn’t had such bad prenatal and postpartum care, and particularly if I hadn’t been subject to the militant breastfeeding propaganda.

At around week 12 of my son’s life, I decided that enough was enough. I hated pumping and usually never got more than two ounces at a time. I preferred getting enough sleep to trying to do the “right” thing, and I was done trying to make exclusive breastfeeding work. I stopped pumping and could finally focus enough to bond with my baby. He started nursing vigorously, maybe because he had energy because we upped the formula, and I could finally see what that proper latch thing was all about. My husband gave him bottles and also got to experience the lovely bond that feeding can facilitate.  More formula feeding in public meant I didn’t have to be so crushed by the comments I overheard most of the time that I nursed in public with my large breasts. (My baby never did take to the cover.) I didn’t have to keep searching for nearly mythical, overpriced nursing tops that would accommodate both my breasts and my narrow torso. We would breastfeed in the morning for my baby’s first breakfast and Hobbit-like second breakfast, in the evenings, before bedtime, and when I remembered during the day—or when he wasn’t too hungry, because breastfeeding while hungry enraged him. Wouldn’t you rather have a full meal when you’re really hungry than a steady stream of tiny snacks?

It makes me furious that the public-health-run Living and Learning With Baby class I attended—for people who might not otherwise have family support networks–would only present breastfeeding-related info, despite the fact that probably about half the class was formula feeding their babies. It makes me furious that hypothyroidism is known to be a potential factor in low milk supply, yet my endocrinologist said dismissively when I asked her about it at my two-month postpartum appointment, “yeah, I heard about that, I read an article…but I don’t know anything about it. I doubt it’s important.” It makes me furious that a “baby-friendly” hospital that is adamant that you must breastfeed exclusively to avoid doing horrible things to your child…has an endocrinologist on staff who insists that you do things that will likely further jeopardize your milk supply. Or has nursing staff who are willing to let you hallucinate with fatigue and your baby starve because of their ideology. “Baby-friendly,” my a**. Not baby-friendly OR mother-friendly—more like lactivist-friendly!

And I haven’t even gone into the non-medical pressure: my otherwise lovely belly dance teacher, mid hip-swivel: “are you breastfeeding?” “Yes, but—“  “GOOD GIRL.” (Not wanting to hide what I was doing or misrepresent myself, I told her I was combo feeding and watched the smile fall off her face.) Every woman we know from my husband’s world region, combining collectivist society-style judgemental attitudes with newly-acquired North American values: “are you breastfeeding? OH NO DON’T GIVE FORMULA. IT WILL MESS UP YOUR SUPPLY. YOU HAVE TO STOP WITH THE FORMULA! BREASTMILK IS LIQUID GOLD.” (Funny, isn’t urine liquid gold?) Or my best friend’s mother staring at my chest when we’re on a visit to my hometown: “You’re not just breastfeeding? It’s weird, you don’t LOOK like you’d have a problem.” My best friend, trying to be helpful, warned me that I was pouring GMOs into my baby by giving him formula, and I might want to try GMO-free formula (which, as far as I can tell, is quite expensive and not for anyone younger than twelve months). Another friend, who doesn’t have children, informed me that formula was unhealthy and I should try feeding him goat’s milk.

And then there’s the whole hushed, reverential, and frankly paranoid attitude people have these days towards breastfeeding vis-a-vis drugs of any kind, even people who really should know better. My therapist asked me whether I should really be taking thyroid meds because I was breastfeeding. (Answer—YES. If even the ridiculous LLLI militants say it’s OK, it’s OK. The meds can only help, in this case.) My pharmacist, who knows I’m combo feeding, when I asked her if I could take NeoCitran or zinc lozenges during a debilitating upper-respiratory infection, said “well, OK, but only ONE per day! Baby is nursing! Drugs are bad for baby!” Motherisk, the very conservative entity in Canada you can call with breastfeeding and drug interaction issues, said it was fine to take as much as I needed, and it wouldn’t harm the baby but might cause a drop in supply. (At this point, breastfeeding was largely ceremonial for us, so I didn’t really care.) The Motherisk nurse also asked me how I was feeding my baby and tried to shame me for not breastfeeding exclusively, but I told her that I wasn’t interested in her input on this matter. (I wish I could have been so bold when another Motherisk nurse shamed me for my pre-pregnancy, hypothyroidism-induced weight when I called to ask if I could eat nutritional yeast while pregnant, but hindsight is 20/20.)

So this is what I do now: if someone expresses anything other than neutrality or approval when they ask about our baby-feeding habits, I lecture them passive-aggressively about hypothyroidism and its effects on milk supply until their eyes glaze over and they wish they had never said anything and they change the subject. After all, they brought it up, so they should be willing to hear any response they elicit. If they don’t change the subject, I warn them that I’ve vowed to myself to expunge all undermining negativity from my life at this vulnerable time, and I’d rather not expunge their presence. They usually stop.

When we buy formula cans—the generic Wal-Mart kind, because that’s what we can afford—that say “breast is best” on them (the message that used to crush me), I write “F**K to you!”—a direct quote from Borat–over the message in thick black marker. It’s petty, I own it. But it makes me feel better.

I don’t hide the fact that I’m formula feeding, though I would not blame anybody for doing so. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me in public that breast is best when I’m bottle feeding my child, just so I can threaten to report them to the police for harassment. Or else I will wave them away and say “shoo,” because their opinion is as welcome to me as a stray dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Politeness be damned—I think that enabling their rudeness perpetuates the problem, and I now feel strong and belligerent enough not to.

But I wish I hadn’t believed the hype. My baby is thriving on formula with a little breast milk. According to the lactivists I read or talked to, I should have gotten my period long ago because any flagging in breastfeeding dedication, even sleeping through the night, will bring it back, but at seven and a half months postpartum I still don’t have it. I didn’t have “baby weight” other than the baby to lose, but I actually experienced significant drops in my pre-baby hypothyroidism weight specifically during those times when my supply dropped, NOT when I was mostly breastfeeding. So if anything, the opposite was true for me, and breastfeeding LESS helped me lose weight.

I’m also one of those people who can’t handle severe and prolonged lack of sleep because it exacerbates my depressive tendencies. I have a husband who’s willing and interested—enthusiastic, even—about caring for our baby, but we have no relatives around upon whom we can rely in a pinch. No friends that we’re close enough to that we can just drop the baby off with when we’re desperate, tired, or sick. We can’t afford a babysitter. Under the circumstances, nursing round the clock for months on end at the expense of our sleep may not have been the responsible choice.

It’s also interesting to me that the person who was the most directly involved with my baby’s health—his excellent pediatrician—was the one who urged us to supplement with formula. If that lactivism stuff had a strong basis in fact, wouldn’t SHE have been the one to warn us about his IQ, projected potential weight, and chances of asthma and illness?

I do like breastfeeding now, because the pressure is now off. My baby does it for comfort or “dessert,” which comforts me. I will be a little sad when my baby weans totally, but I can see now that it’s such a little part of the whole bonding and growing process. The next time around, if I am so lucky that there is a next time, I’m not going to read any propaganda, not going to see any lactation consultants, not going off my thyroid meds, and if I have a supply problem at the outset, I will address it immediately so my baby does not suffer. If this happens in the hospital under the gimlet eye of “baby-friendly” nurses, so be it.

Recently, I was rereading one of my favorite books, The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, which spans the era from the 1880’s to the end of World War I. I was struck by a throwaway line in it, about how Imogen, one of my favorite characters, was unable to breastfeed her baby at all. The author just mentions it and then goes on with the story. As though it’s normal. Probably because it is. No judgments of Imogen as a mother, no mention of how “tragic” it is, no comparisons to Imogen’s stepdaughter, who gave birth at the same time and had no problems with breastfeeding. I was extremely grateful to the author for it. We need more narratives like this, which is one reason why I love this site.

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Want to share your thoughts on feeding babies? Talk about your experience? Shoot me an email at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

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