FFF Friday: “The day my breasts stole my identity…”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They are also not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.

I relate on a visceral level to so many aspects of FFF Abbi’s journey, and I’m sure many of you will, too. Her story highlights how tough it can be adjusting to motherhood, and how breastfeeding difficulties can exacerbate an already emotional, difficult situation. There is no shame in admitting to yourself that motherhood is just one – albeit an intensely important one – facet of who you are as a person, and as a woman. It’s time we gave ourselves permission to see motherhood as part of who we are, rather than all of what we are.


The Day My Breasts Stole My Identity

The worst thing I heard during the first two weeks of my son’s life was “He only got half an ounce.” The second worst was, “Now your job is to feed your child.”
The first came from the sales clerk at a local retail establishment which claims to be a support network for breastfeeding women in my area and not a retail establishment, but my, do they know how to push the expensive nursing bras and clothing at you. She said this to me after I nursed my son in this establishment after weighing him, recording the pre- nursing weight, and then weighing him after feeding him. As a new mother of all of 10 days, I took this woman’s word as hardcore science, the word of God, and the authority on feeding. I took names for lactation consultants, bought the expensive bras, rented the pump, and cried the entire cab ride home with my son and mother. I thought it would be another few years before I screwed up my child, but apparently, I was starting early.
I emailed my friends who had babies that past year and asked for the name and number of their lactation consultant. I called the LC and she was available that afternoon, just 24 hours after my experience with the breastfeeding (non) retail establishment. She came over and sat down with me, my mother looking on, as she helped me get my son to latch, clucked her tongue and made sympathetic “mmhmmm” noises as I explained that he was born at 37 ½ weeks, not 40, and that he was a C-section, not a vaginal birth, and that I was still in a lot of pain and recovering from major abdominal surgery. She had an “aha” moment when I said he was born a little early and explained that while he was, as she put it, fully baked at 37 weeks, there are still little things that he may lack, like the ability to focus on my breast and the desire to breastfeed. I listened to her explain that I needed to feed him every two hours and that’s from when the first feeding starts and each feeding takes 40 minutes. After changing his diaper and burping him and getting him to stay awake long enough to eat, that leaves me with less than an hour to do things like sleep, shower, eat, check my email, function as the adult I once was. Then I said, “I feel like everything I am, everything I spent the past seven years working for has changed. I’m an educator, a chaplain, and almost a rabbi. Those are my jobs.” My LC looked at me and said those fateful words: “Now your job is to feed your child.”
The identity crisis that ensued in the next weeks was epic. My husband spent a lot of time mopping up after me as I cried at breakfast, dinner, and everywhere in between. I am in my last year of rabbinical school and will be ordained as a rabbi May 2012. I spent my year working as a chaplain, helping people who were dying while I was growing a new life. I am a teacher and write educational material that is highly regarded within my community. I spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get to this place. The idea of spending my summer “just being a mom” was one that had not yet hit me and I still had no idea how complex it would be. Just a few days before my son’s birth, I was working as a consultant on a national program. Now, my job was to feed my son.
This made me hate breastfeeding. The pain of breastfeeding, when my son would latch, was pretty bad, but nothing compared to the stories of bleeding and scarring that I heard from others. It was painful, but manageable with gel patches and warm compresses. My son and I would fight with each other to get him to latch onto my breast. He would arch his back and push his little hands against me and or put them into his mouth. I felt horrible as I held his head and tried to position him against my body. We couldn’t find a hold that both of us liked. Invariably, he would fall asleep. I was frustrated and he was frustrated and my husband stood by and watched all of it, feeling helpless. This was not bonding. This was not enjoyable.
Still, the pain was nothing compared to the feeling of having my professional identity stripped away and instead being seen as someone whose main purpose was to feed another person. I told my family, friends, and colleagues that I loved being a mother. I missed being a rabbi.
We took my son to the pediatrician when he was three weeks old. He was up past his birth weight, but still very small. The pediatrician asked if we wanted to continue to breastfeed exclusively or if we wanted to supplement with formula. Until that point, the only time my son had received formula was during the middle of the night feedings, so I could rest and let my body recover. When formula was offered as an option by the doctor, I jumped at it. Here was a medical professional telling us that we were not ruining our child by giving him formula. I went home and made my son a bottle and he happily ate it. I tried to nurse him later that day, but he just fell asleep. My husband looked at me getting frustrated and in pain and said that maybe it was better if I pumped. That was the last time I breastfed my son.
I pumped for another two weeks. I hated pumping even more than breastfeeding. I had low milk production and there was no way I was drinking any teas or taking herbs or supplements. If my body couldn’t do it on its own, something that a regulatory agency had not approved was not going to do it for me. I sat with the pump in the morning and the evening, scared to pump during the day because I was home alone with my son. If he needed me, what was I going to do while attached to the pump? Let him cry? Lose the milk? The rental pump was expensive, costing as much per week as a container of formula. By the end of my son’s fifth week, I was producing maybe four or five ounces of breast milk a day. When the rental was up, I had my husband return the pump and let my milk supply dry up. A few days later, my breasts were a normal size and didn’t hurt all the time. I was happier, my husband was happier, and my son was growing.
As I write this, my son is almost three months old. He smiles, coos, giggles, and has long and involved conversations with the animals that hang above him on his play mat. He follows me around the room with his eyes and loves to curl up and nap on his dad’s chest. He has a great relationship with both of his parents. I truly believe this is one of the many benefits bottle feeding has given our family. His pudgy legs and hands and full chipmunk cheeks are another.
A big benefit is that I am happier. I am not the only one who can feed my child, which gives me more freedom to be able to ease back in to my professional life. I can take a few hours a week and work on my sermons and education materials and not worry that I have to be home to nurse. I can enjoy my child and not see him as someone who is hurting me while I feed him. Formula was created for a reason and there are many children (including myself and my husband) who had it and are just fine.
I used to think of giving my son a bottle of formula as failing him because I could not even produce enough milk or having the patience to do what my Creator intended for me to do. As a religious and spiritual woman, I saw feeding my child as a holy act, made somehow less so because I could not provide it myself. However, I also believe in change and innovation within my religion, so why not in how I feed my child.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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11 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “The day my breasts stole my identity…”

  1. I didn't mean to imply that staying at home was the norm, or that moms should do without any gear. I understand that more than half of moms with babies work, many of them have to, and some moms aren't suited to staying at home. And no, I don't expect moms who are away from their babies to hand-express all their milk and figure out how to store it without buying a storage system and cooler. (I've never actually hand-expressed, but I would think that would take forever and be cumbersome and quite possibly messy.) Nor do I expect them to nurse in regular bras or have an existing wardrobe that is BFing friendly. I don't even feel that parents shouldn't buy BFing/ baby products they don't really need. Sorry if I came across that way.

    I was replying to Teri's comment “While some women can get away with not spending that kind of money, many can't, especially if they work outside the home.” I only meant to concede that once in a blue moon, a mom might be able to BF for free. My point in discussing the possibility of BFing without any gear, LC visits, lost wages or additional food expenses was that it's generally not possible. Also, I was a little afraid that if I insisted too vehemently that BFing is not free (although it almost never is– especially in the US,) that some woman would find this blog and tell the true story of how she BFed without spending a dime 😡

  2. Thank you for your story. I appreciate your religious viewpoints also, that is not something that is talked about much in relation to breastfeeding and mothering.

  3. Personally, I think the only moral imperative I have is to provide my child with a safe and healthy (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc) family environment. If that means I need to supplement with formula to do that, so be it. Do I think breastfeeding is important and should be encouraged? Definitely. Do I think that all women who are physically capable and willing to breastfeed should be supported in their choice to breastfeed? Without a doubt. However, not all women can do that. I feel that as a religious leader, the example I am setting is that each family needs to do what is best for them and that the family needs to be able to turn to the community for support.

    I think the true “evil” out there is the lack of support and education given to women who want to breastfeed, but just can't figure it out and can't make it work. Everyone told us to take breastfeeding classes while I was still pregnant, get an LC, rent a pump. Who was paying for all of this? If people like Dr. Narvaez want to start talking about moral imperatives, it needs to start with the moral imperative to level the playing field and start providing equal access for all mothers to breastfeeding resources, both in the prenatal and postpartum stages.

  4. “It is technically possible to BF with out any special gear (bras, tops, pumps, storage bags, creams, etc)”
    All very true, and I didn't spend a lot on my equipment either partly because a dear friend sent me her old pump and I had lots of stretchy clothes already. But if you are a mother who has to work outside the home after the end of your six to twelve week maternity leave, as 60% of mothers are, you will probably need a pump (and unless you're a B-cup, new, large pumping cones/shields). You will probably need new bras. You'll need bottles to store the pumped milk, cold cases, etc. Chances are since you're also paying for daycare these costs along with the time to pump will be significant. I totally agree with looking at the costs of BFing differently for women who do and do not work outside the home, but let's not pretend that the stay-at-home situation is the default when it isn't any more.

  5. I resonated so strongly with much of what you said. I ended up breastfeeding for only two weeks, because she too was not gaining weight, and also have a healthy, thriving baby.

    I'm so glad you had the support of your husband to do what was right for all three of you. That's invaluable.

  6. Fair enough. I suppose there are a few cases in which BFing is free. However, I suspect they're pretty rare here in the US. It is technically possible to BF with out any special gear (bras, tops, pumps, storage bags, creams, etc). Babies can also survive quite nicely without a stroller, carrier, rocking chair, changing table, baby bath tub, pacifiers, and other things we sometimes dub baby “essentials”. But in wealthier developed countries, most parents do buy at least a couple of baby products they don't absolutely need, because they're so handy. I realize many women manage to nurse without ever seeing an LC or taking any supplements, either. A BFing mom and baby might get by without any of the above 'stuff'. And perhaps mom loses no wages to BF or express milk. Mom still has to eat any extra 200 to 500 calories per day. I could construct a few scenarios in which she could get that extra food for free… but I think pulling it off every day for a year or two would be quite a stunt 🙂

    P.S. I understand that there's more to infant feeding decisions (and other choices we make) than money. i.e., Sometimes BFing– or FFing– is the best choice for a family even if it does cost more. On the other hand, if a family is considering cost in deciding how to feed their LO, I would encourage them to look closely at their individual circumstances. That way, they can better estimate the costs of each feeding method for them. (Okay, they can't predict everything that might happen, but they can set up a couple of likely scenarios.) 🙂

  7. Good points about who's paying for the BFing resources, both in your reply and in your original post. It frankly surprises me that people rail about the cost of formula, claim “breastfeeding is free,” and act as if there is no level playing field for breastfeeding because there is no financial incentive behind it, when quite a little industry has sprung up around breastfeeding. One of my LCs also had a boutique that sold every kind of breastfeeding accessory, bag, bra, pump, clothes, creams you can think of, and more. Maybe the money doesn't go to a large corporation, but does that change the fact that yes, people do make plenty of money off breastfeeding? When a nursing bra for a woman bigger than a C-cup (which is probably most nursing women, given engorgement and hormonal changes) costs upwards of 100 USD each, pump rental costs 20-40 USD per week depending on where you rent, you may need to buy different clothes depending on your size/prior wardrobe (for example, I owned NOTHING that was button-down or stretchy enough to nurse around), it's hard to justify feeling animosity toward the formula companies and not the folks who make breastfeeding so expensive. While some women can get away with not having to spend that kind of money, many can't, especially if they work outside the home. I have no issue with paying people for their services; I'm independent contractor. But the idea that “breastfeeding is free” is, for most people, about as truthful and useful the statement “virtually all women can breastfeed,” I've found.

    Thanks for your reply and your perspective.

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your story! You make a lot of compelling points from your changed identity, to a sense of obligation to BF, to the sale of BFing gear, to formula as a legitimate option/ not poison, to being a happy mom, etc.

    I must say though, when I first read, “Now your job is to feed your child.” I didn't interpret it in the same way(s). (Disclaimer: I have no idea what your LC actually meant.) First of all, I did not take it to mean that your only purpose in life was to feed your baby. Furthermore, I did not take the above quote to mean that you necessarily had to BREAST feed him. Please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing what you wrote/felt 🙂 I thought that someone was merely saying that your little guy needed to eat. Whatever method– be it BFing, pumping, combo feeding or FFing– you could manage and preferred would be fine 🙂

    Congrats and enjoy your LO… and all the other aspects of you life!

  9. Thank you for saying what many of us feel. One of the reasons that Hanna Rosin Case against BFing article resonated with me was that it pointed out the ways in which BFing can turn you into a total 1950s housewife – sometimes those who had no trouble at all and did not have hour long cluster feeds 12 times a day and whose children went to sleep easily don't quite get how that sense of responsibility weighing on you can drive you nuts. Interesting that you bring up the religious part because I read this article recently on circumcising baby boys and was marveling at how reasonable and non-judgy it was and wishing reports on BFing could be like that. And yet circumcision is even more tied up with religious obligation for so many of us.

  10. Thanks for sharing your story–you bring up some very good points that don't seem to get discussed enough in BFing circles, or if they are, it's in the context of condemning those for whom their work is a part of their identity.

    I'm curious, as a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi, a chaplain and religious leader–how do you feel about the idea of breastfeeding as a moral imperative? The topic has been raised on Psychology Today by Dr. Darcia Narvaez that it is “evil” to push formula.

    I'd love to hear your take on it, if you're willing.

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