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 think my mouth is permanently stuck in an agape position after reading the following submission from Amber. With all the talk of physical impediments to breastfeeding, no one ever stops to consider that conditions that have nothing at all to do with your mammary glands can wreak havoc on a woman’s breastfeeding experience.
While Amber’s story is especially dramatic, anyone who is dealing with a medical crisis while simultaneously learning how to parent and figuring out how to nourish a baby has the right to say enough is enough. Until someone walks in your shoes, they have no clue what the “right” choice is for you – or for your child. We commend breastmilk for being woman-made rather than created in a lab, and this is of course a true and typically wonderful thing – but our bodies sometimes screw up. That’s okay. We’d never tell a person with a disease that their condition should define them – and yet in the realm of childbirth and motherhood, we are constantly allowing ourselves to be defined by the physical.
That has to stop. Now.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
When I was pregnant I told myself what I thought was the truth: I would try breastfeeding, but if it did not work out I would accept that. Because breastfeeding isn’t all unicorns and leprechauns like mommies-to-be are told it is. Breastfeeding can be Hell, and it’s ugly little hand-basket too.
So let me tell you about my own personal hell. First of all there are a few important health details that play into my “failure” at breastfeeding. The first and most obvious is that I have Type 1 Diabetes. You know, the one you get as a little kid, and not from over eating. That being said I have particularly aggressive diabetes. I take unusually large amounts of medications, and they still don’t keep my disease in check. And for some reason, Diabetic mothers statistically have more trouble with milk production than otherwise perfectly healthy mommies.
Needless to say, I knew from the second that second blue line showed up that I was in for 9 months of unending terror, unimaginable pain, and quite possibly…death. I had experienced 2 prior miscarriages, both of which nearly killed me, and had been told by many doctors that in my case I may never be able to birth a live child, and it could be life-threatening if I ever tried. I took precautions to keep from getting pregnant, but after 4 years from the last time my birth control failed and I miscarried it happened again…I was pregnant.
I sat on the toilet, shaking all over, cold sweat covering me with my panties still around my ankles…staring at the “you’re knocked up” line that had popped out before the control one had even begun to show up. The Fear hit me like an ocean tide and I screamed silently in terror for about a minute. Instantly I loved this baby, instantly I would give my life for it…I was simultaneously trying to accept the fact that this baby would not live. I could not let myself hope that it would survive my treacherous body, for fear that I would not survive the loss of another baby.
I told my then-fiancee, who knowing full well my medical history, was also hit with The Fear, but to a slightly lesser degree: my fear was mostly for the baby…his was mostly for me. We…mostly I…decided to keep it. I am stoically pro-choice, but the key word there is “choice” and it is not one I can bring myself to make. When faced with keeping the baby I am like a two year old who has gone wild after realizing the word “mine” means it belongs solely to them.
Just for the record I was right… It. Was. Hell. At 32.5 weeks pregnant I went pre-ecclampsic, like I knew I would eventually. I “knew” this as in I am a great believer of statistics, which told me that diabetics have a 30% higher risk of this complication. So I monitored my blood-pressure daily (if I’m being honest, it was actually a few times a day) at home, and at 33 weeks it was getting worse, and I was feeling worse…something just wasn’t right.
I was admitted to the hospital, and given the likelihood that my baby would be born early I was given steroid shots for the baby’s lung development. Which meant that I had to have my blood sugars checked every hour for the next two days, and be kept in the hospital, as steroids can screw up your levels out of nowhere! Which meant that I had not slept…not one single minute…for 3 days straight when our daughter was born.
My fiancee and I had planned to get married on Valentines Day because I like to consolidate my holidays like that. It would be a month before my “scheduled” c-section. Because although I would not even be attempting a vaginal birth, there was nothing elective about it…with asthma, a hernia, diabetes, pre-e, and the fact that I am exactly 5 feet tall with a proportionate pelvis…all of these things gave me about 10% chance that I could go through labor…for like 5 minutes…if I insisted, and then be rewarded with a c-section anyway. So I fully embraced the c-section inevitability, because I wanted to survive. And in the end all I wanted was a healthy baby, no matter the pain, or the scar, or the public judging I could receive.
SO…here we were in the hospital, coincidentally ON Valentines Day, and there was bad news…I was dying. I had such extreme edema that fluid had started to build up in my lungs, and I could barely breath even with the oxygen mask. It was getting dangerous for me and our little girl. If we did not take her out today we would both die. But we waited a couple hours…we had already done all the planning, only the venue had changed. We would be married less than 3 hours before my daughter’s birth. In the hospital, with our parents and grandparents clustered around us while I lay gasping in a hospital gown, hooked up to about 5 different machines, and a dozen different chords.
It was beautiful . And I was pleased that out of the 17 people in the room most of them had no idea that I was dying. I am awesome at downplaying my pain. I couldn’t hide it completely though…my husband’s(!) grandmother had been a nurse for 50 years…and The Fear was barely contained in her face as she saw me, every part of my body was retaining water, and I had gained 4 pounds in the last day…all of it fluid (I know this because I couldn’t eat before surgery). I was also pleased that I was wearing underwear. It’s a small detail, but hey, I’m happy
So after we were wed and before the surgery I remind my husband: you must pick her. If only one of us is to survive it MUST be her, no matter the odds. He agrees, knowing that I would never speak to him again if he did not. We have talked about this before, and he knows the choice I expect him to make, and I know the cost. I am taken to the OR, alone, because my condition is so severe I must be put completely under so they can control my breathing (there is so much fluid in my lungs it is almost impossible for me to breath at all). They put a tube in my artery to do this. Since I was out for that part I didn’t figure this out till awhile after I woke up. Not a fun wake-up surprise to find a tube in your neck.
I do not fully remember the day following. I did not react well to the anesthesia, and was in no way lucid at all (the 3 days of exactly NO sleep may have played a part in this). I was in ICU, my baby was in NICU…the two don’t connect. So I didn’t really meet my Cupcake till a day and a half after she was born, but I really don’t mind much…I don’t remember most of it But I can say I was in surprisingly little pain from the c-section…the edema was still excruciating, but the surgery went swimmingly. In fact, my edema was SO extreme…I lost a toenail. That’s right, my feet swelled to such epic proportions one of my TOENAILS came off!!!!!!!
We met, she was perfect, and tiny…little over 4 pounds. Skinny, tiny, beautiful, my precious. She recognized me! She heard my voice and her eyes popped open and she craned her little neck around to find me! The only time she had ever done that the nurses said. I held her and I knew her…I recognized her too, this tiny girl I had never seen before. She could breath on her own by this time, but spent all of her time not in my arms in an incubator. I held her as long as I could take it…I was still in so much pain, and could barely sit because of the edema (my legs would swell more and more the longer I sat or stood). And throughout my 8-day hospital stay I pumped with the hospital grade breast-pump dutifully as often as I could.
But it was painful…god it was hell. And none of the nurses, doctors, or lactation consultants could figure out why it was hurting so bad. It shouldn’t, they told me…but after a few days it was almost unbearable…even with the vicodin I was on my entire chest hurt more than my c-section.
I persevered. I was told the rampant lie that it would stop hurting…as if by some magical day my tits would just get used to it. Because my Cupcake was premature she could not directly breastfeed, and was fed through a tube through her nose. The entire time she was in the hospital (2.5 months) I only tried breastfeeding her 4 times, during the 1st month.
She was terrible at it, if I’m going to be honest about it. One thing no one ever seems to mention to new moms is that breastfeeding is actually done…like, 95% by the baby…the actual WORK is done by them. Cupcake did not work. She latched just fine! But then she sat there…staring at me with confusion…as if *I* should be the one squirting what miniscule amounts of liquid I was able to make into her mouth. She did not suck the first 2 tries. Hours of sitting in a chair with a baby hanging off my teat was not exactly satisfying when I knew she wasn’t receiving a drop of sustenance and all I recieved was pain. I never felt like we were “bonding” …I just felt used, and very uncomfortable with everyone’s invasive interest in my private parts. I bonded with her before she was born, I loved her the second I knew she was there. And we formed a “relationship” while I cuddled her all day in the NICU, and took on as many of the Nurse duties as I could. I fed her through her tube, I changed her diapers, I took her vitals, I bathed and changed her…we were bonded just fine. But I tried some more ’cause hey…I’m no quitter, and I was assured by the entire medical staff that she would eventually just “get it.”
And then it seemed she did! Hooray! Success! ….it was not…we did a weigh-feed-weigh…there was no difference in her weight at all…not even a tenth of an ounce. And I was honestly not surprised: I had never been engorged, never felt a “let-down” of milk…I kind of just slowly leaked 1/2 to 1 ounce of milk at each pumping session…it never really flowed. The most I EVER made in a day was almost 6 ounces. And it was the most painful time of my life…and 6 months later I STILL have some chest pain.
So I tried one more time before quitting. Still no success, and all the while she was being supplemented with donor milk, because I would NOT stand for my daughter starving! Because she was in NICU she qualified as “at risk” and so we got free donor milk through our insurance until she was considered full term. And I kept pumping, developing BLISTERS on my nipples, and an unhealthy fantasy about smashing the hospital’s booby-torture device into a million little pieces. I could not sleep well from being in so much pain. I was mad, and uncomfortable, and righteously pissed off at everyone else’s belief that I should keep doing this. I am still sure to this day that many of the LC’s thought I was exaggerating how much it hurt. I was not…I was understating it…there are not words to describe how painful it was…I fainted more than once while hooked up to the pump, and I have an unusually high pain tolerance. I hated my boobs with an intense fiery passion. Hated the way they felt, they way they were hurting me. The way everyone told me I was doing what was best for my baby, and to keep it up!
Eventually I began to doubt the whole “breast is best” mantra I was hearing. I knew that in my particular case it was not. Not only for me, but for HER. My body is a notorious traitor…it tries to fail on me constantly, and I have consistently low blood levels of many vitamins, protein levels, and other necessary things. I doubted that any breast milk coming from MY body was truly liquid gold.
Another complication I faced was that less than a week post partum I was diagnosed with gallbladder disease, I had “too many gallstones to count” the ultrasound technician told me. Besides the awful pain this caused it had the side effect of making me extremely nauseous, and killing my appetite. I felt no hunger at all, and when I could manage to force-feed myself it made me sick. I could not get the surgery scheduled for two and a half months, so I just had to grin and bear this.
I was only ably to eat perhaps 1,000 calories a day without throwing it up. Not exactly great for milk supply. I was weak, exhausted, and in agony 24/7, even on my high-grade prescription painkillers. I had lost over 60 pounds in the last month and a half. More than one doctor changed their tune from “breast is best” to “you need to stop this before you kill yourself.”
So my body made the right decision for me. Always I have been a survivor, and this one time my body did not fail me, to make the decision I would not make for my own good. I developed a fever for about a week and a half, got out of bed only to drink water and pee it back out. Two days in my milk dried up completely. I couldn’t see my daughter until my fever was completely gone, as she was in NICU there was too much risk to her and other babies of infection. I didn’t even try…if I got her sick, or one of those other tiny babies with their frightened parents at their sides…I could never forgive myself. So I stayed away…the first time I had not spent the entire day with her since we first met. I recovered, and scooped her up like the holy grail. She was so happy to see me! I had been gone so long and she still remembered me She was being exclusively formula fed for a week by now, and she looked just as happy and healthy as she always had. And she was bigger!
Finally I could accept it. Cupcake would be formula fed. I looked forward to my breasts healing from the relentless abuse I had put them through. I had almost killed myself over breastfeeding because of the pressure to do what is “best.” Looking back on it I feel so foolish. I had been so unhappy hurting myself like that…I had never willingly put myself through pain before and it had felt like outright self-mutilation. It made me feel horrible. My husband was so happy to see me happy when it finally stopped.
Cupcake is thriving on formula, and to all the strangers who look at me with their snarky opinionated eyes…I would gladly sit down with you and tell you all of this. How breastfeeding almost killed me. How hard I tried. How badly I really wanted to do this for my daughter. The literal scars on my nipples. The pain I am still in today.
But I don’t think they are interested. They only want to judge me for not being “crunchy” or “mom enough” to handle it. I don’t care. My daughter is happy. My husband is happy. I am happy. And I would never judge them about their infant feeding choices. I feel sad for them that they feel the need to judge me in order to make themselves feel better about their own choices. I hope they are happy with themselves one day, like I am with myself today.
Share your story with the FFF community: email me at email@example.com.