FFF Friday: “I mourn the one thing I could not have.”

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.

 

Recently, the term “fearless formula feeder” has begun to creep into modern lexicon. I’ve seen in bandied about in both negative and positive manners, as an insult and a badge of pride. I’m not sure how to feel about this; I like that this movement is gaining awareness, but I worry that “FFF” might start to be seen as yet another label, like “AP” or “crunchy” or “silky” or what have you. 

The thing of it is, FFFs do not fit a mold. Some of us don’t even formula feed. Others do, and are far from fearless about it. We’re at different points in our parenting journeys, come from different socioeconomic groups, have different parenting philosophies. In fact, I think the only thing the FFF label should imply is a flexibility in approach to infant feeding; a commitment to demanding better in terms of how society treats all parents (and their children) in those first months of a baby’s life. 

Reading Sonali’s story, below, highlights just how limiting it can be to label someone’s experience. She’s still very much in the thick of an emotional struggle to accept her choices, but has the ability to make strong, critical assessments of how flawed our infant feeding atmosphere is. She’s someone who wanted – desperately – to nurse her kids, but also knows firsthand how formula can sometimes be the more prudent option to ensure a happy, functioning family. Her story is complex, and painful, and reflective, and wise. She’s more than a “fearless formula feeder”.  She’s a woman, a mother, a multi-dimensional person.

I think we can wear the FFF “label” with pride, as long as we make sure it reflects one thing: a rejection of labels that limit us to a certain, narrow description. The first “F” in FFF could mean Friendly, Forgiving, Flawed, Formidable, Frank, Fair – but they can never stand for Fundamentalist or Fanatical.

And now, I’ll turn things over to Sonali, whose willingness to tell this raw, brutally honest story, absolutely fits my own definition of “Fearless”.

Happy friday, fearless ones…

The FFF

Sonali’s Story

More than five years ago when I gave birth to my first son I, like so many first-time moms, knew I wanted to breast feed and do it for as long as possible. And, like others, I assumed breast feeding would come naturally. But right from the birth of my son I realized that without crucial early support from hospital staff I was immediately crippled. I didn’t realize that it would take several days for my milk to come, I had no idea that pumping early and often was a key factor in helping my milk come, and I had no idea that there was such a thing as flat nipples (which I apparently have – except when I’m cold). So a few nights after my son’s birth, my husband and I faced what we perceived to be a “hunger crisis” – a hungry infant and no milk – in the middle of the night. We broke down and fed our son formula from the free diaper bag given to us by my OB GYN.

Even though we had taken two breast feeding classes, nothing prepared us for the trials of nursing. My son would not latch onto my nipples and so we hired several lactation consultants to the tune of hundreds of dollars. One of them felt around my son’s head and pronounced him incapable of nursing. She later sold us bottles with which to feed him formula. All of them declared his mouth as being “too small” to nurse. How could that be? How could I bear a child whose mouth was incompatible with my breasts? I spent two months and endless interrupted nights of sleep vainly pumping my milk and feeding it to him while supplementing with formula. I hoped against hope that at some point he would latch on, or at the very least, I would produce enough milk to fulfill all his needs. But my milk supply never caught up. And the ridiculous pump schedule coupled with my son’s eat-sleep schedule, coupled with my own physical recuperation from an arduous birth finally moved me to break down and “give up.” I let my milk supply dry up and my son was hence forth a formula-fed baby.

I never lived down what I perceived as a failure of my motherhood. I blamed everyone and everything – my husband for not encouraging me enough, the lactation consultants and the hospital for not supporting me enough, and even sub-consciously my own son for not cooperating. But most of all I blamed myself. As the years wore on, my memory of how hard I tried to breast feed faded and I re-wrote history, imagining that there was so much more I could have done that I probably did not do. I had dreams of my 3, 4, and even 5 year old son finally nursing and filling me with an unbelievable sense of peace and vindication, only to wake up and relive the regret. It didn’t matter that my son was an amazingly healthy, happy spirited boy with absolutely none of the afflictions we are told that formula fed babies face.

Finally, after years of trying to conceive a second child, I became pregnant again last year – once more with a boy. And with that news came a letting-go of all the anxiety I had harbored over “failing” at nursing my older son. But that letting-go was for all the wrong reasons – this time, I surmised, I would get it right. It didn’t matter that I was unable to breast feed my older son. My second child would enable me to “fix” that failing, to right that past wrong. I did all the reading up I could. I even read Suzanne Barston’s book, Bottled Up, which educated me greatly on all the misconceptions about the supposed benefits of breastfeeding and the dangers of formula, and I told myself that If it didn’t work out again, I would happily formula feed. But deep down inside I was convinced that I would succeed the second time around.

My second son was born 5 weeks premature. I hoped against hope that he wouldn’t end up in the NICU, separated from me during those crucial first hours when contact is so essential to start breastfeeding. Luckily he was pronounced very healthy and came home with us within a couple of days. My little guy was a little bundle of joy – but most critically, he was little – only 4 lbs, 7 oz. And so the problem of a mouth that was too small to latch on that I had had with my first son was even more pronounced with my second son. But I was determined – I had heard of plenty of moms in online forums who had managed to successfully nurse their preemie babies 4, 5, and even 6 weeks after birth. This time I pumped early and often, with a hospital grade pump. I was on a rigorous schedule and made sure and put him on the breast as often as possible to ensure enough contact. I did all the skin-to-skin and “kangaroo-care” I was told to. I took all the herbs and ate the oatmeal to increase my milk supply. I spent many dollars buying various size flanges for my breast pump and various types of nursing bras.

But the conundrum was that in order for my son to successfully nurse he needed to grow so his mouth would be big enough to latch. And in order for him to grow he needed to feed. And fast. So I fed him formula. I was not reticent about doing so as my older son thrived on formula. I just told myself that it would be temporary. Initially I fed him with a syringe to avoid “nipple confusion.” But that got tiresome and my pediatrician said it would not be a problem to just use a bottle until he was ready to nurse. I vainly searched for a bottle with a wide enough nipple to mimic the breast. But it came with a nipple that flowed too fast and wasted precious pumped breast milk. Finally I found the slowest-flow nipple around but the base of the nipple was narrow, training my son’s mouth to close around it with pursed lips. Til today I have no idea if I made the right decision about the bottle, and if that decision had any effect on not being able to breast feed.

Despite the fact that this second birth was far easier than the first and I was fully physically recovered almost from day one, I was mentally stressed out. I could tell that I was losing it in those early weeks when I accidentally knocked over a bottle of pumped milk and lost a few drops. I had a meltdown and shed more tears than the spilt milk. Later that week my husband happened to not tighten the neck of the milk bottle enough so that while warming it up some of the pumped breast milk squeezed out of the bottle and dribbled out. I was so enraged that I started screaming and throwing things and abusing my husband. In trying to get him to understand how precious those drops of milk were, I compared pumping milk to draining my own blood to feed my son – at least that’s what it felt like. Each time I poured milk from one container to the other, I carefully tried to transfer every last drop, cringing if a tiny drop missed its mark. My obsession was clearly getting unhealthy.

After two weeks of pumping and trying and failing to get my son to latch, I bought a nipple shield. Miraculously he latched onto the shield but unbeknownst to me, it was still a shallow latch. At first it was a bit painful. But then, over the course of a day it got really painful and my elation turned into disappointment. My nipples were bleeding and each time he enclosed them with his hard gums and pursed lips, it felt like tiny red hot daggers cutting into my nipples. I was determined to grit my teeth and bear it, telling myself that the pain would ease off. But it didn’t. It got worse. And finally on the second night, I screamed and begged my husband to bring a bottle of formula. My nipples were so injured that I experienced shooting pains and bleeding and worried I had contracted thrush. I had to lay off on the nipple shield and go back to pumping (which was also painful now that I was injured) and supplementing with formula until I healed.

In the mean time I attended a local breast feeding support group to try to get help. I had attended the same group 5 years ago when trying to nurse my older son but was discouraged by all the moms who attended who were apparent pros. This time was no different. I showed up along with about a dozen other new and veteran moms. On either side of me were new moms who pulled out their breasts as soon as they sat down, and expertly nursed their babies, first on one side, and then another. I was aghast. Why were they even there? Wasn’t this a support group to help moms with trouble nursing? To me it felt like a “show and tell” group for moms who were experts and wanted to show up those of us who were failures. Granted, there were a couple of moms who were in tears but their problems were apparently of over-production and reflux – meanwhile I was struggling with just getting my son to latch and not having enough milk to fulfill my son’s needs (I only ever was able to give him about half his intake as breast milk). These moms around me had no latch problems and were so efficient at making milk that their only problem was that they were worried about choking their babies with too much milk. If only I had such problems, I thought!!! When I brought up my issues at the group I was told to hire a lactation consultant, which I had already done without any success. In retrospect, it was sad that I felt so anxious about my failings that I harshly judged other mothers’ problems as too trivial.

Determined to succeed, I went back to the drawing board and bought another nipple shield and tried again a week later. This time it worked better. My milk flowed and he latched on with less pain. The best part was that my son actually seemed to enjoy breast feeding and preferred it to the bottle. However, throughout all this, my supply was never quite enough and my let-down was slow. We spent about two days of almost-successful nursing but because he stopped having bowel movements for a day, I supplemented with formula, worried that he wasn’t getting enough milk. That went on for three days during which he became increasingly less interested in breast feeding and more interested in the bottle. Eventually he did have a giant bowel movement but by then it was too late.

Each feeding became a battle of wills between my son and I, as I pleaded with him to open his mouth wide enough and latched him on firmly as best as I could. He would cry, arch his back, scream, flail his arms, and in the process scratch my skin with his sharp nails. He was clearly frustrated that the milk didn’t flow with a single suck. As soon as I’d put a bottle in his mouth he would calm down and drink eagerly. This went on for two more days and his latch became worse and worse. He would purse his lips tightly and grit his gums. Often he bit me, leading me to yelp in pain and yank my nipple out of his mouth violently, which in turn led him to cry even more. My husband watched on helplessly and every time he attempted to give me advice or soothe me I found myself screaming at him to back off. My shoulders were hunched with tension, and my eyes red with tears. My older son came upon me in this state at one point and wondered why I was so sad and angry.

I told myself to keep at it for two more weeks before I gave up – I had heard that the six week mark was a magic mark – many moms had success by six weeks after birth. At the same time, I began reading Fearless Formula Feeder stories of other mothers on this blog. I posted a link to the blog on my Facebook page and, in a moment of daring, told my friends what I was going through. This is what I said:

“reading this blog while nursing makes me feel a whole lot better – it distracts me from the intense pain and battling a constantly distracted baby and his flailing razor-sharp claws and his frustrated cries, and helps me look forward to the six week mark when I’ve told myself I will turn to formula guilt-free if nursing isn’t working out. Less than two weeks to go…”

I thought there would be no responses, or just empty exhortations to “hang in there,” and that it would “get better,” and “be worth it in the end.” There WAS one such response from a male friend who suggested I check out a lactation consultant (really?). But incredibly the rest of the responses, all from my female friends, were wonderfully supportive and helpful. Many of them cited their own difficulties breastfeeding and how they finally turned to formula and found peace.

That was the turning point. As soon as I felt there was a supportive community of people who had experienced similar problems as mine and that I was not alone, I found the courage to do what I had to do: I announced to my husband that I was quitting at that very moment. As the words flowed out of my mouth I was simultaneously relieved and heartbroken. I cried all evening from a combination of happiness and sadness – if it sounds confusing, it was. I was so happy to free myself from the on-going battles and yet so disappointed in myself for once more failing.

That night when my son woke up to feed, instead of feeling dread at the prospect of a battle over the breast and the pain that would have ensued, I felt relaxed. As I sat with him in my lap and put the bottle to his mouth I confronted a contented baby who dutifully sucked at the bottle. No longer were we physically joined at a point of painful contact with my body. We were autonomous.

Just one year ago I was convinced I couldn’t even have a second child. Today my beautiful son is a source of so much joy. And yet, I am crippled by the loss of the bonding I hoped to experience through breast feeding. Even though our feeding sessions are so much more peaceful now, I mourn the one thing I could not have. Certainly a large part of it is my individual personality – I am and always have been an over-achiever. I want it all – I want the perfect marriage, perfect career, perfect house, perfect children, and perfect child-raising experience – the latter includes breast feeding effortlessly. I am also an ambitious person whose thought processes over nursing included: “if so many women who are no better than I, could breast feed, why can’t I?” So I admit that a large part of it is me.

But there is also a part that involves a voice inside the heads of mothers, influenced by the conflicting messages we face everyday: on the one hand “breast is best,” and on the other hand, we’re on our own with little support (or expensively prohibitive support) to nurse and no institutional or governmental weight behind the directives to breastfeed in terms of in-home care, adequate maternity leave, etc. We are also so convinced that motherhood begins with pregnancy but doesn’t end with childbirth. Our bodies are meant to start out incubating our babies, and then, once they are out of us, turn seamlessly into the baby’s sole source of nourishment. The exhortations to not smoke, drink, or eat sushi for the good of the baby during pregnancy, extend to breastfeeding the baby once it’s born. Except that it is far easier and medically more sound to avoid harmful behavior during pregnancy than it is to provide the breast after birth.

And finally, few mothers-to-be are told of how extremely common it is to experience difficulty in breast feeding. The vast majority of mothers I know have had huge challenges in breast feeding and many turned to formula. Anecdotally at least, it seems as though difficulty in nursing is the norm, and that easy-breezy breast feeding is the exception.

In fact, the “baby friendly” certified hospital I birthed at, during our pre-birth tour of the maternity ward, played a video about breastfeeding for my husband and I. The video was simply a propagandistic series of serene scenes of mothers breast feeding their infants with smiles on their faces and a voiceover explaining patronizingly that breast milk was the best thing a mother could do for her child. There was no mention at all of the tremendous challenges presented by breastfeeding, or the potential solutions to such problems. And of course, there was certainly no option presented in the event mothers were unable to breastfeed, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that mothers either breast fed or were bad/failed/inadequate mothers.

I know it will take me a while to get over this second and final (I’m not having any more children) decision to formula feed my child. I know rationally that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that I ought not to be so hard on myself, and that there are far worse problems I or my son could be facing, and that in the grand scheme of things this matters so little, and that my second son – like my first – is likely to be a perfectly healthy boy. But it’s the irrational part of me that is yet to be convinced that my motherhood does not depend on whether I breast or formula feed my baby.  My head has forgiven myself. But my heart still hasn’t. Putting these words down and sharing them with others is my desperate attempt to do just that.

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Share your story – email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

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