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 also are 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 hope that if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, your outlook on health-related studies – heck, all studies – has dramatically changed. As Andrea points out so beautifully below, once you start looking at statistics as people, it’s impossible to see these things in black and white. Instead of being bitter about her experience, Andrea celebrates the gift of gaining such a mature and sensitive perspective. I wish she didn’t have to go through all that she did to get there, but I have to admit I’m thrilled that she will now be out in the world, fighting the good fight. The public health field could use more women like Andrea, don’t you think?
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Why Being Bad at Breastfeeding Made Me Better at Nursing
I would like to share a little bit about my breastfeeding experience, coming from a public health nurse who spends all day surrounded by problems like obesity, smoking, etc. Breastfeeding promotion isn’t directly my job but it is closely tied with my focus area. Here is my story of how breastfeeding gave me a better perspective on life and my job.
Let me begin by telling you all how incredibly perfect I am, or I thought I was. I don’t smoke, am at a healthy weight, walk 3 miles a day, wear my seat belt, have great cholesterol levels, and practice safe sex. Health was not only my game but my livelihood. I was a Purveyor of Public Health Pompousness, a Sultan of Smug. When I was pregnant I had dutifully made all my prenatal appointments and had memorized scores of rules and guidelines on how to raise a healthy child.
Did I plan on breastfeeding my child exclusively for the first 6 months and then until he was at least a year just like a good Public Health Princess should? Duh! Of course I would! And I’d do it smiling and smugly, probably judging others all the while.
Fast forward to 4 days after delivery, we had just been direct admitted to the hospital on a Sunday after his doctor got the lab report showing that after a night of breastfeeding every 7-40 minutes, my tiny son’s bilirubin had actually increased to what was now a dangerous level. It turns out what everyone had told me was “cluster feeding” was more like “starvation”. The nurse now weighed my son, had me breastfeed him, and then while she was out of the room I weighed him again. “Nurse?” I called out into the hallway. “Your scale is messed up, it says he only got 4 cc’s of breastmilk”. Unfortunately, the scale was fine. I was not.
I then learned that to keep him from having kernicterus and deposits on his brain he would have to get formula. I ran into a brick wall. Unfortunately, the wall produced more breast milk than I did. I went to the bathroom and cried. I didn’t want my perfect son to be tainted with what people who have never been in my situation call “artificial formula”. Not only would I be letting myself down, but also the World Health Organization! What if those guys found out? My perfect public health report card would be marred with an F for Formula or in my mind, Failure.
I fed him the formula, and he did what I had never seen him do–look content. And sleep. I was so mad that he was so much happier from a substance that didn’t come from me, but I was so happy to see him finally calm down after never having slept for much longer than an hour in the four days since he was born. After that I continued to nurse, feed formula, and pump in various combinations despite the fact that his diet was now at least 90% formula. The baby developed colic and seemed to never sleep. Postpartum depression reared its ugly head, which was unfortunately, surprisingly, and acutely exacerbated by pumping. After a few more sore, emotionally and physically drained weeks, I quit altogether. I had planned on breastfeeding for a year and barely made it a month. I would have never dreamed I’d be so terrible at something I thought was so important.
I returned to my job at a public health agency, acutely aware that I was in the percentage that we were trying to “fix” and having to explain to almost every person there that no, I wasn’t breastfeeding and no, I didn’t need a key to the mother’s room. It just hadn’t worked out for us. Though my co-workers were friendly and supportive, I still had an overwhelming sense of being judged. Maybe not by them so much as the set of superhero-themed posters I’d walk past every day at work like the one of a caped woman’s chest proclaiming “Breastfeeding-the True Superpower” that happened to hang 15 feet from my desk. Or maybe it was the news headlines in my inbox of the latest and greatest breastfeeding-related statistic, or even the can of baby formula that read like a warning label “Breastmilk is best for your baby…Andrea”. (I still don’t understand why formula makers make you feel bad about buying formula). Maybe I was hallucinating a little bit, but I felt as if everywhere I’d go I would be barraged by these well-meaning but personally hurtful messages. Even though I’d done the best I could, I still felt like a failure.
The reason I am bringing up the subject of judgement, whether real or purely imaginary, is because I had only recently discovered that I was not perfect and wasn’t taking the news well at all. I would rather not sit on the “wrong” side of a public health statistic. I felt like these women (some real, some imagined) who produce buckets of breastmilk and could bask in the glory of the AAP guidelines, those who have so much were judging those of us who had so little. The nerve! They have never walked in my shoes, so of course they shun formula. It’s easy to balk at formula when you’ve never needed it for your newborn’s survival! Then I looked in a mirror. Uh oh.
As a nurse I make more money than the average person in my city. I have never been in a situation that could even come close to real poverty. And yet I have, knowingly or unknowingly, judged the poor. Yet how could I, who have so much, judge others, who have so little? And without even knowing what it’s like to have so little, ever!
I get angry when I read about breastfeeding statistics. It doesn’t take into account everything that me and my baby went through (like how he got his tongue clipped because it was supposed to help, or how I had to go through horrible pain to produce what scant supply I could, or how formula was actually medically necessary), it reduces us into categories and not real human beings with real needs. Again, I looked in the mirror. What about obese people when they step on the scale? Do they want to be dehumanized into a number of pounds or defined by a body mass index? What do they feel when they are constantly hit with messages about how they are too fat and the obesity epidemic is destroying our country?
What about people who smoke? Is this what they feel like, that their statistic or label of “smoker” doesn’t tell the whole story of how hard they’ve tried to quit? Just guessing here, but they probably want to be seen for their successes and not reduced to the Fs on their public health report cards. And who am I to preach about how people need to lose weight when I’ve never had to lose a significant amount of weight in my life? Who am I to tell people not to smoke when I’ve never had to quit smoking or battle addiction of any kind? Or talk about safe sex when I’ve never been unable to afford birth control or ever had a partner unwilling to use protection? I have no idea the struggles people go through with their weight or eating habits or smoking, or what I would do if I only had $20 and I had to use it for food and make it last a week. I would probably eat a lot of bad food, and it is now abundantly clear that I am probably the world’s worst nurse.
My church said that every time you are sad, your heart gets bigger (it also said not to judge others lest you be judged yourself but I thought they were talking to other people and not me). I know that from personal experience to be true. Breastfeeding troubles made me incredibly sad, but that mental anguish morphed into self awareness, humility, empathy, and love. I am now much more sympathetic to other people that public health tries to fix, and to other mothers that may feel marginalized like I did, for whatever reason. Because I’ve had the gift of feeling looked down upon, I don’t want to contribute to any other person on the planet feeling like that, ever. I say gift because without feeling judgement and failure, I fear I would have gone through life as an overprivileged, under-aware snob–not the best qualities for a nurse or a mom or any other human being.
I look at statistics differently now. I try not to say or write anything at work without imagining a human face behind it. I try incredibly hard not to judge others for their decisions or for their life situations that might have not been a result of their decision making at all, and I try to politely point that out to co-workers who are under the same perfection delusion that I was once in. I wholeheartedly promote having support for mothers that want to breastfeed because it is hard, while viewing formula as a fine choice (if even a choice at all). I try, with varying degrees of success, to not judge the judgers because I’ve been a judger, too. A bad one. And in my spare time I stare googly-eyed at the beautiful child I’m lucky enough to have.
Having all that hard-won knowledge and pedestal-off-knocking has made me much more effective at my job as an imperfect public health nurse, an OK mother, an occassional blog commenter, and a most-of-the-time decent human being. Sure I still have a little pain that things turned out the way they did, but it’s that pain that taught me how to be human.
Share your story with the FFF community: E-mail me at email@example.com.