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 feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
This week I had the pleasure of participating in an interview on the Lamaze International-associated blog Science and Sensibility. The comments got a bit heated (as one might expect), and I found myself frustrated by the refusal of some folks to separate a criticism of specific types of advocacy from a criticism of breastfeeding. That’s why I was so thrilled when I realized Cathy’s story was next in the FFF Friday queue. She so beautifully articulates why it’s so vital for breastfeeding advocates to understand how it feels to “fail” at breastfeeding. And her ultimate message is so profoundly simple, and so seemingly obvious- yet for some reason, it’s a difficult one to impart. I appreciate how clearly and intimately she illustrates a point that so many of us want to make, and find ourselves too frustrated, fed up, or defeated to defend.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Well, my breastfeeding journey started 12 years ago, before the birth of my beautiful daughter. We lived in Canada at the time she was born and a “Breast Is Best” type of incentive was already in full swing. I had been informed well before conception that it was the ideal. After reading endless parenting books and scouring the information that my doctor had provided me, I had come up a list of priorities for my upcoming birthing experience. At the top of that list was breastfeeding. I had another important incentive. My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before I became pregnant. I knew that in addition to all of the positive benefits for the baby, breastfeeding my baby would also help me reduce my already elevated risk for developing breast cancer. I had read about the difficulties that one may encounter; cracked nipples, bleeding nipples, poor latch, thrush, mastitis, engorgement, avoiding bottles of expressed milk to avoid nipple confusion, etc. Nothing deterred me. In fact, I was so committed to the idea that I hired a doula. I cannot stress enough how important breastfeeding was to me, even before giving birth.
Fast forward, to the vaginal birth of a 9 pound 7 ounce baby. I just have to say, my body went through a lot. I did not have an episiotomy. My body was allowed to do what it needed to allow for Baby B. to enter this world. I am keenly aware that if I had not been fortunate enough to give birth in modern times, I would have likely bled to death. I was in rough shape, but my doula helped me with the first few breastfeeding sessions in the hospital and I was grateful. Even though I felt like I had been run over, apparently I got a gold star for breastfeeding. There were no swag bags. There was no crib-side formula. The nurses also checked to see if Baby B. was latching correctly. She sure was latching and even the expertly packed, medical grade lanolin was not helping my very sore nipples. I didn’t have much milk, but I knew that I shouldn’t until my milk came in. The baby was very intolerant of my lack of milk. They say baby size doesn’t matter, but I felt like my sizeable baby was hungry and angry at my boobs for not providing. She did survive, as I was told she would. And my milk did come in. It was the pain that was unbearable. I had to nurse in private because I cried with every feeding. But, I had read that the pain goes away if you are nursing properly. I was also assured by my doula and my doctor that the pain would subside. I had my gold star for Baby’s latch, so all I needed was to give my breasts time to toughen up.
Once home, I broke out in hives from head to toe. I’ve never had an allergic reaction. Not ever. I was not only miserable from the painful recovery and excruciating pain from nursing, but now I was an itchy mess. An itchy, pink mess because I could not and would not take anything for the hives while nursing. I was told I could apply calamine lotion, hence my pink and messy state. It was a really tough time, but I remained committed to breastfeeding, through tears and gritted teeth. Unfortunately, the pain never went away. As many lactating women know, there’s this little device called a nipple shield. It is supposed to help. I was so hopeful that it would, but I cannot even tell you the pain that I endured with that little devil. Now, if you are in the midst of a struggle yourself, I would still recommend trying the nipple shield, because for many it is a godsend. I have many friends who swear by the shield to help alleviate the pain. I cannot tell you why it didn’t work for me. I have tried it with each subsequent baby and it has remained that way with me with each attempt. On baby number four I even bought two different brands. I would have tried 20 different brands to find one that worked! I tried pumping…both a manual hand pump and an electric pump. I was hesitant knowing about nipple confusion, but I was at a point of desperation. I have been through three different electric pumps and one manual pump over the course of this 12 year BF journey. The manual pump is the only one that ever allowed for alleviated pain, but in a one hour session, I’d be lucky to get half of an ounce.
Apparently I wasn’t suffering from a poor latch, mastitis or thrush. I felt extremely anxious and guilty for not being able to endure the pain. My milk supply started to dwindle. I believe that my stress level was so great at this time that my body started to fail me and I felt like I was failing my baby. My doula kept encouraging me, but eventually I started to supplement with formula. I was crushed. This was in no way my goal. I had some pretty hefty reasons for nursing and it was one of the lowest moments in my life.
Baby number two and number three, wash, rinse, repeat. Baby number two also coincided with the return of my mom’s breast cancer and her eventual death. I was more determined than ever to make it work…and it never did. I was living in the U.S. by this point and I sought a lactation consultant. Surely my doula and my doctor had missed something the first time around. With each pregnancy I would get myself pumped up to breastfeed, somehow hoping that, this time, I would be able to endure the pain and sustain my babies without formula.
I just had baby number four. All of my babies have been big and Baby E. has kept that trend up. No Gestational Diabetes or excessive weight gain, just big babies! Once again, breastfeeding was my goal, but this time I decided not to beat myself up if it didn’t work out. My husband could not have been any more supportive. He fully believed in my ability to decide what was best for Baby E. As he had previously, he left the entirety of the decision up to me. I cannot tell you how wonderful it feels to have that kind of support from someone and I am beyond thankful for him, even if that support cannot completely alleviate my feelings of guilt.
The pivotal moment in this long, hard journey came from a well- intentioned family member. This family member is a lactivist and upon hearing I was in tears after pumping blood, she approached my husband about a L.C. My husband told her to please not approach me about, as he did not want any additional pressure placed on me. He knew my twelve year battle with my boobs and he did his best to deter the offer. Still, the family member did contact me to “gift” me a consultation. This stung me almost as much as the nipple shield had so many times before. It was insulting, not because I was opposed to help, but because I had just had baby number four. It was insulting for her to assume that I had never sought help before, that I just needed to be informed. I could not and did not reply to her offer. As well-intentioned as I believe she was, there is no place for this over-stepping of boundaries. When will it ever be alright for a woman to say that she gave it her all and for others to believe her?
I am now in a place where I am more content. I look at my four beautiful, mostly formula fed children and know that breastfeeding is not so exceedingly better for a child. No one would ever know that I am mostly a formula feeder unless I told them. It doesn’t mean that I still don’t still grieve over it, but I can now state that I formula feed without feeling like I need to explain why. I am fine with sharing that breastfeeding hurt more than giving birth without an epidural. I can say it because I have done it. I don’t want a medal or super-hero status, but I would appreciate people truly accepting that the pain I endured was real.
One of the most hurtful aspects to me personally is, knowing that people think that because I am 100 percent behind a woman’s right to choose how she feeds her infant, that I am anti-breastfeeding, and NOTHING could be further from the truth. I envy any woman who is able to breastfeed. DO YOU HEAR ME??? I ENVY YOU!!! I feel guilt, I feel sadness and I truly grieve over not being able to breastfeed for as long as I wanted to. My guilt has been almost crippling at times. Please don’t put me in a box marked, “Bad Mommy.” I’ve already felt enough guilt and sadness to last me a lifetime. I celebrate breastfeeding successes. But one person’s success doesn’t give anyone the right to berate a woman for her feeding choice.
There was recently a post online stating that breastfeeding requires “effort.” I have known that for my entire adult life and I went far and beyond putting in “effort.” We are not lazy. We are not uninformed. Just as formula shouldn’t be pushed on a woman, neither should breastfeeding. Should it be promoted? Absolutely! But in our promotion of BF, we need to make sure that it is never at the cost of a woman’s feeling of self-worth.
To all of you who can relate to my story, we are sisters. So many of you have shared your struggles and they seem so far beyond anything that I endured. I will cherish these stories forever, because knowing that I am not alone has been the biggest part of my continual healing.
I love what Cathy says about the “sisterhood”. There is power in community- share your story and become an integral part of ours. Send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.