In this week’s FFF Friday, Perpetua, of Our Lady of Perpetual Breadcrumbs and ControverSundays fame (one of my all-time favorite bloggers, by the way), tells us it took her a year before she was able to talk about her breastfeeding/formula feeding experience. But I am so darn glad she finally got there, because the following FFF Friday story is pretty freaking awesome.
It never occurred to me to write about my breastfeeding experience until after I read this, a husband’s account of his wife’s failed attempts at breastfeeding. I read a lot of parenting stuff, but this was the first time I saw a story about breastfeeding gone wrong, no doubt because for many of us, the guilt and shame that accompanies this failure is a bit too much to blog. Right now my son is a 14-month-old dynamo who drinks whole milk with some cheerios on the side. He was exclusively formula fed from 1 month to 1 year of age. So, how did we get here?
I assumed from the start that I would breastfeed. I took the class, I practiced the “sandwich hold,” I read the book. The funny part is, I prepared myself solidly for a natural labor thinking it wouldn’t actually happen. But when I was prepping for breastfeeding I scoffed when I heard that most women give up after the first month. I planned to go for at least six months and then figure out what would be best for my child from there. I didn’t think about what would happen if I failed. I just trusted my body’s ability to do its job. But under that–if I’m going to be completely honest here–there lurks a mild though significant dose of classism. Those puny plastic 2 oz. bottles of formula with the screw-on nipples? Those are for 16-year-olds and bottle-proppers. They aren’t meant for me. I’ve got a doula, a birth plan, an organic diet.
Breastfeeding is my birthright.
Except that it wasn’t.
I feel lucky that I was able to give birth the way I wanted to. I had a fever during labor the source of which couldn’t be pinpointed, and IV fluids and Tylenol didn’t bring it down. We didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until much later, when we realized that, hey, that whole team from pediatrics? They aren’t in the room for everyone’s delivery. Our OB, smartly or not, did not tell us what the worst-case scenario was that made her call them in. I assume they were on hand in case of complications due to maternal fever.
Because I panicked over the possibility of infection, labor stalled around the 6-centimeter mark after progressing very well in a matter of hours. (I started labor at home at 11 PM on a Monday; I went to the doctor for a scheduled appointment and was at 4 cm by 11 AM Tuesday morning. I stalled out around 3 PM.) Because of the fever (which, again, I didn’t understand the gravity of) my doctor insisted on augmentation with Pitocin to get labor going again. If you’re familiar with these things, you know Pitocin is the first step on a short road away from vaginal delivery. In a usual-case-scenario, Pitocin brings on contractions quickly but intensely painfully, thus increasing the need for an epidural, which can then either slow labor again or impede pushing. And it only gets worse from there. Because I knew about that possibility (because I read the book, dammit! because I was prepared!), I refused the epidural and went drug-free, giving birth 7 hours later.
(Note: Pitocin isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. It’s worse. For me it was particularly bad because I needed to push before I was fully dilated, which resulted in 3rd degree tears. For those of you who don’t know, that’s one degree before the kind of tear that opens the wall between vagina and rectum. Even though I obviously didn’t want to go the Pitocin route, the fever endangered the baby’s health and my own. I’d have been wrong to refuse it. I know that for the strict natural birthers, my son’s birth isn’t “natural.” But if you can have your genitals torn in half without the aid of drugs and still tell me that it isn’t natural enough for you, well, you’re a stronger beast than I.)
My ability to give birth vaginally without an epidural gave me incredible confidence. Of course I would breastfeed. Of course this body, capable of delivering a healthy child, capable of withstanding the pain and effort of labor, would be capable of feeding my child now, for the next month, the next six months, the next two years.
Except that it wasn’t.
My son weighed 8 pounds, 10.5 ounces at birth. As soon as he was returned to me, my doula helped him to latch for the first time (it was a hospital birth, but we hired a doula to be my advocate and help me understand what was happening to my baby and my body). My son was never great at latching, and it was never easy–I couldn’t just “pop him on the boob,” as I’ve heard it described–but once we were set up he would do pretty well. He knew what he was doing, and I was doing my best not to get in his way. I saw the hospital lactation consultant, but that was just a formality. She taught us how to use a pump “just in case,” but we were good. We were Earth Mama and Earth Baby.
Before we were discharged two days later, the pediatrician asked that we return the next day for a weight check and a jaundice check. His jaundice levels were hovering at a not-good-not-bad level, but his weight had already passed the 7% loss mark. I wasn’t terribly concerned about either thing.
I should have been. By the next day he hit 10% and was going lower. And in the meantime, our breastfeeding bond started to break. He was weak, and tired, and weak some more. He’d latch and stop, or latch and pop off, screaming. He fell asleep feeding a few times, and I just left him there for hours at a time, but he wasn’t getting what he needed. What happened to Earth Mama? Her milk wasn’t coming in. In a month of breastfeeding attempts, minor successes, and glowing failures, my breasts felt full exactly one time. I never leaked. I never felt the exploding pain of a breast that needs to be nursed. For whatever reason, my body failed.
We were seeing the doctor every morning for weight/jaundice checks, and we weren’t given any option but to supplement with formula. The jaundice was still there, and the weight was still dropping. Those 2-ounce bottles with the screw-on nipples? Here, dear, these are for you.
And then I hit Day Five. Do y’all know about Day Five? Statistically speaking, it is the absolute worst postpartum day in terms of roller-coaster emotions, mounting physical pain, and, for me, dead black despair. (I didn’t know this until long after Day Five, or else I would have thought I had imagined it). That day I called my doula and asked for advice about the breastfeeding, which at this point was happening overnight, with bottle feedings during the day. And she? She recommended cup feeding.
That was her answer. I’m telling a person who has seen me at my most-intimate-of-intimates that my baby keeps losing weight and my milk isn’t coming in and I want to jump out the window or board a jet to New Zealand or both, and she tells me to go massage my breasts into a paper cup and tip the milk down baby’s throat. Cup feeding is recommended because if you use a bottle, you’re impeding the baby’s natural ability to latch and giving him an “easy out.”
I want to make this clear: we wanted to breastfeed. We didn’t even use a damned pacifier. I got upset when they gave him one during his hearing test, even though they had to because he was screaming like the little instigator that he is, and they couldn’t perform the test. But for some reason, the cup feeding thing? Pushed me over the edge. That was the moment I refused to listen to everyone but myself. That day, we rented a hospital-grade breast pump. Screw the mama-baby bond, at this point I just wanted to get as much breast milk into my child as possible. So I sat and milked myself for hours at a time.
And it was a good day if I got four ounces out of both breasts.
You are welcome to tell me that amounts don’t matter and that breastfeeding doesn’t concern itself with amounts and who knows how much comes out of a breast, anyway. You are also welcome to go screw yourself. That information is utterly useless when your child is starving and you feel more helpless than you’ve ever felt in your life.
I don’t even remember where he was when his weight bottomed out. Somewhere in the seven-pound range, I think. It’s written down in a diary, along with a painstaking daily account of every drop of food that has ever entered my child’s body during his first year. I know my baby better now, and I know that he is just a beanpole, as my best friend says. He’s really long, and he’s not chubby, and that’s who he is. But tell that to the mother of a 2-week old with visible ribs, a first-time mother who never held a baby until her own was placed squirming on her chest. At the time, I knew only two things: my child needed to eat, and my body couldn’t feed him.
So, in sum: baby loses weight, baby gets jaundice, baby loses more weight, parents forced to supplement, baby loses more weight, parents told to cup feed, mama cries and cries and cries, mama gets breast pump, pump doesn’t produce much more milk than baby, mama cries and cries and cries. Repeat last two steps for a month.
A month to the day of my son’s birth, I returned the pump. I did it. Me. I took it to the security room at the hospital. I’ll tell you right now: I wanted to walk down that hallway and never come back. I failed at what was to me the most important task I had ever been given. I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted to slip my child beneath my shirt and hear the sounds of a pleased baby with a full tummy. I wanted it so, so much. For him, and for myself, for my picture of who I wanted us to be together.
It took me almost a year to be able to talk about this experience without guilt, regret, remorse. For months, I obsessed over H1N1 and whether or not my baby would get it. I couldn’t buy formula at the store—I made my husband do it—because I was embarrassed. I felt like every cold, every weakness, was my fault.
I know better now. With time, I’ve gained a clearer perspective. And I’ve forgiven myself. But not for one second would I say it was easier to formula feed my child, even though formula was ultimately the right choice for him. I’d have sooner spent my life chained to a pump than go through what I went through last year. But my guilt doesn’t make me a good or bad parent, just as the liquid your child consumes doesn’t make you good or bad, nor does it determine who your child will become.
This is my story. My baby’s and mine. Every breastfeeding experience is as unique as every child. We cannot pretend to know what it’s like for the moms who succeed or the moms who don’t. Breastfeeding is an important health issue, and it should be supported, both locally and nationally. But formula feeding can’t be demonized. To do so hurts parents and their children alike.