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.
I don’t even know what to say about this week’s FFF Friday, because it is so personal, so intimate, so beautifully written, that it’s hard for me to look at it objectively. But I do think that Kathy’s story illustrates an essential aspect of this debate, one which I’ve been arguing over these past few days: yes, “Breastfeeding Guilt” is a condition which typically afflicts those who have attained a certain educational level (I don’t really think it is a socioeconomic issue, because the population of this page runs the gamut from those on welfare to those making seven figures, nor geographical, as the audience represents over 50 countries and all 50 of the United States). But that doesn’t make it any less real, or not worth fighting against. Our experiences are ours, and ours alone. It’s hypocritical that the same folks who fight for a woman’s right to a good birth experience can turn around and tell other women that their feelings surrounding breastfeeding are “privileged” or invalid. I think it’s rather elitist for us to assume that these feelings are only white, or only straight, or only rich. Moms want to do the best for their babies. That’s pretty universal. And as Kathy found, sometimes doing what is best for your baby means doing what is thought of as second (or fourth) best to others. I hope women like Kathy continue to speak up, because that message needs to be heard, loud and clear, across racial/economic/geographical lines.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Today was one of those days. The Boy went from being in a fine mood, cordial and polite (for toddler) to being a world-class scoodge around 2:30 p.m. When we were in the grocery store, of course. The only way we finished our shopping was with me carrying his butt around the store for… oh… three quarters of the trip.
Now, my child is not small. He’s big. And solid. And heavy. He’s not really a chunker, he’s just… big. And strong like bull.
Seriously, he feels like he’s filled with cement. I mean, I know that oatmeal turns into a frighteningly spackle-like material when it’s dry so it could be that feeding him oatmeal every morning is actually like filling him with cement every day, but still.
My son didn’t start out big. In fact, he was actually a really skinny newborn. He was about 7 lbs, when he was born and then dropped deep into the 6’s after the first few days. He was in newborn onesies for a terribly long time, and in newborn-size diapers because he was just narrow, and had these skinny little chicken legs.
One of the reasons he dropped so much in weight is that I simply didn’t produce any breast milk, or well, hardly any as I’ll detail later. Now, to see me, you’d think “she must be like a frickin’ dairy farm!” because, ladies and gents, I’m not small in the breastular area. No one found the fact that I didn’t produce hardly any breast milk more ironic than me. I couldn’t help but think, “Jesus, I’ve lugged these goddamned things around for 34 damned years and they don’t do ANYTHING?!” Dammit.
We knew something was up pretty fast in the breastfeeding area. When I fed him, he would suck and suck and suck and just get… nothing. Barely a drip of colostrum, even. If I were a cartoon, when I took off my bra, moths would have flown out of it, or a comical puff of dust would poof out with a funny sound effect.
Of course, I went to the lactation consultants (three of them) and pumped like my life depended on it. Or like his life depended on it. We tried the nipple shield, different positions, he had a good latch, but nothing at all seemed to be happening. Needless to say, we had to supplement pretty much right away, because he was dropping weight frighteningly fast. Fortunately, our pediatrician was totally no-nonsense about it, she flat-out said to go right to formula because (and doesn’t this make sense?) “Kid’s gotta eat.” I really do love her, she knew that I was totally killing myself over this, she could just tell, and looked me straight in the eye and told me that it was okay, and that the most important thing was that he eats, bottom line. Still, while we supplemented with formula (supplement being a euphamism for feeding him formula exclusively), I tried everything else I could thing of. I tried herbal remedies, I tried to drink tons of water, I tried to eat enough, I shook a rain stick, I did a dance on the front lawn to appease the Boob Gods, I pumped and pumped and pumped with the industrial-grade pump, I tried pretty much everything that I, or the lactation consultants, could think of.
See what I just did there? I just went through the myriad of ways that I tried… because of the fear of being judged for “not trying”. Isn’t that terrible?
I joke now, I can be light about it now, at the time though, it was absolutely, utterly…heartbreaking.
I’ll never forget the last weekend that I was doing all of this routine just to get my milk to come in. Pumping every two hours, feeding him through a feeding tube into the nipple shield (to mimic breast-feeding), and agonizing over the entire process, ripping myself apart inside. Crying almost non-stop. Crying because I felt like the ultimate failure, like this one thing that my body was supposed to provide to my child, besides the whole gestation thing, this one last thing I just couldn’t do.
I felt like less of a woman. I felt like less of a mother. And I felt on some level incomplete.
Sure, I did like that I wasn’t tethered to him via the boob all the time. I liked that I could rely on my husband to help shoulder the responsibility of the frequent feedings. That was nice.
But this breastfeeding thing was my cross to bear and I couldn’t do it. Plus, there is the factor that it’s so beaten into us as new Mommies that this is what you’re SUPPOSED to do. This is what good Mommies do, why else would they coin the phrase breast is best? Well, that means I’m second best.
I have never truly let go of feeling that I failed at breastfeeding. Not fully. It also makes me feel sometimes that there is an aspect of being a mother that I have never really experienced, at least not in the way that most other Moms did. Like I missed out on something precious, and since I have always known that my Boy will probably be my only child, it’s something I will likely never experience.
This might sound like I’m really beating myself up, but this is a big part of my Mom experience, truly. This was a defining, polarizing thing for me.
After a few weeks of this routine, I realized that I was spending more time pumping and crying (sounds like the worst country song ever, “Pumping and Crying”) than I was spending with my child. There was a moment where I realized that I had to pick a time to cut bait, to let it go. It was one of the worst moments I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. I had always known that I wasn’t going to go through getting on prescriptions, and I knew that it was rapidly approaching that point that my next option was just that; trying a prescription to force my milk to come in, or start with doing blood tests to see if everything (thyroid, organs etc.) was actually in working order. I knew that was the threshold for me.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in the Baby’s room, pumping away and I had decided that after I was done pumping I was going to take a shower. I finished, I closed the little Medela milk container, filled with a measly 10 ml (whatever the lowest mark is on the little tube, that’s what I had produced up to)… which was all I had squeezed from my useless breasts over the span of four entire days. The lowest tick line on the container, THAT was what I was able to produce. I brought it downstairs, and gently put it in the fridge, knowing that that was the last time I would pump.
And that I was giving up.
It’s weird to give up something for the sake of your child, something that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE will scream from the rooftops that THIS thing that you’re actually going to actively give up is the best thing for your child. This thing that you’re not going to do (or that you can’t) is the thing that is best.
But that’s what it was. I was stopping so I could be with him. I could be with my boobs for half the day or I could be with him for the WHOLE day. And I figured that I’m going to be gone plenty once I started working again, and I had a really small, precious window of time to be with him all the time, and that window was closing. I only had eight weeks of maternity leave, I’d already sacrificed a significant portion of that time to my breasts.
I put my milk in the fridge and went up to take a shower.
I stood in the shower and cried. Cried like I’ve never cried before, leaning against the wall, sliding down it, just sobbing as I laid my head on the floor in the shower letting the warm water hit me. And wishing that it could hit me even harder because I felt that it should hit me as hard as I wished I could hit myself. I turned it up as hot as I could stand because I wanted to feel that heat against my skin, almost hot enough to burn.
And then I sat up. I took the soap in my hands and washed myself, washed my hair in that terribly hot water. I stood up, and ran my hands over my hair, wringing it out.
And I shut off the water. I got out of the shower, and looked at my puffy, wrecked face, tears still marking my cheeks. I dried myself off. I got dressed.
I went downstairs and picked up my beautiful baby boy, hugging him and then put him down to go get a bottle and fix him two ounces of warm formula. No one knew how hard I had just cried or that I had just let go of that last ditch effort to get more milk from my very useless breasts.
I sat on the couch and held him while I fed him his bottle, he ate it easily and hungrily, just like a baby should. I smiled and cried a little, but more than anything I smiled…
Of course, I cried more about this, I cried the next day when we met with the lactation consultant again. With her, I was also really scared that she was going to berate me for choosing to stop. She didn’t. In fact, she was terribly kind, which was unexpected. She saw what I had produced and gasped at how little it was. Then she simply asked “what would you like to do now?” When I said through a thick, teary voice that I didn’t want to do this anymore, she simply said “I don’t blame you. I’m not the breastfeeding police, I’m here to help you do whatever make whatever decision is best for you and your little Boy.” And with that, we moved on, she counseled me for a long time about how much formula to give, how to properly bottle feed him, advised me on which bottles to by and spoke to me about things to look for that tend to happen more for formula babies than breast-fed ones.
One thing that I’ve never done, even through all the agonizing over it, is that is I’ve never questioned my decision to cut bait and to have my Baby be exclusively formula-fed. I might feel bad, terribly bad, for having to do it, but I never did question my decision. I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do for all of us. And as agonizing as those days were for me, those horrible days leading up to that terrible afternoon laying on the floor in the shower, I actually felt brave in a sense for putting my foot down. I’ve never felt like a chicken for doing this.
It’s such a strange thing, I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about decision, not because I’ve been unsure of my course of action, but because of the deep-seated fear regarding the stigma of formula-feeding, and without realizing it, fears over what was being driven home with every container of formula, that I wasn’t doing the best thing for my child.
But I’ve never felt like a coward for stopping something that just wasn’t working.
My little chicken-legged Boy has never been worse for wear for it. Now he’s not chicken-legged, he’s a strong, happy, healthy kid, and we’ve come and gone out of the time when he was eating formula at all. Now he’s one and a half, has a mouth full o’ teeth and eats anything and everything!
Sometimes a big part of being a parent is looking at things that don’t work and saying “this just doesn’t work for me” and figuring something else out. There is so little about parenting that’s black and white, there are very few hard, fast rules and the game changes constantly. You have to really roll with those punches and be able to see something for what it is, for me, it was clear very quickly that for whatever reason, breastfeeding just didn’t happen for me, I had to be willing to go down a different path. Even if it’s a path that most Mommies that I know weren’t on themselves.
You are the maker of your own destiny, and with your child, you choose their path. But that path is not a single road with guardrails down each side. It’s a path with many different branches and vast meadows on each side, teeming with options and possibilities. Sometimes those options are overwhelming and scary. But just know, that in those moments that you encounter a person who wants to show you, tell you, or snidely throw that roadblock up in front of you: “Breast is best”… it’s okay if that’s just not your path.
Your road to Mommyhood is all your own.