I received this story in my inbox one hour ago.
I wasn’t even sure I was going to post an FFF Friday tonight, being a holiday weekend and all. But then Nikki’s email came in, and I sat on the couch, reading it with my mouth hanging open (my dog kept barking at me – I think he thought I was making fun of him), and knew I had to publish it NOW.
Somehow, Nikki managed to hit on every point I’ve been trying to make in discussions this week, and made them so much more clearly and effectively. Her honesty is addictive. Her insight and cutting critique of our current system – “It’s been made abundantly clear to me by the current medical establishment and various new mother groups that unless I function as a milk machine to my child, I don’t matter”, she writes – is hard to hear, because it resonates. It’s hard to hear, because it’s true.
Women like Nikki need to be heard. Shout this one from the rooftops, especially next time someone tries to school you on the “reasons moms fail to breastfeed.”
Then tell your story. Don’t stop shouting until they start listening.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
For me, my feminism has always been centrally linked to the identity I have as a mother, and before having my son, as a would-be mother.
I am neither a person who chose from the get go to formula feed, nor a person who fought and grieved over not breastfeeding. I fall somewhere in the middle (as a lot of people do, I suspect) but I strongly see both “sides” and still feel that the issue is, clear as daylight, the lack of support and respect for the choices and circumstances parents face when it comes to feeding their children. I wanted to lend my story because I know how valuable it can be to see these “grey area” experiences, and maybe in my case, what colors them leading up to them.
I spent a lot of time thinking about having kids before actually deciding to go ahead and try. I have a history of mental illness that has caused deep scars in both my family and myself– my mother had particularly hard to treat bipolar that wouldn’t respond to Lithium, the only drug really available at the time, and she ended up taking her own life when I was barely emerging from toddlerhood. I still struggle to deal with the trauma of her death and being a child survivor of parental suicide, and have PTSD and some related anxiety issues as a result. I had lots of talks with therapists, friends, family, and my husband about what it meant to be a parent and raise a human being from “the ground up” before ever deciding I wanted to try doing it. I was plagued by fears of inadequecy, that I would maybe cause my children the pain caused to me, that I would fail at giving them a better life than I had.
It was only through appealing to the rational part of myself, through reading a LOT of studies and a LOT of literature on everything from pregnancy to child development to the growing of teens from onset of puberty to adulthood that I worked through my issues and made what I feel is true peace with parenthood. The bottom line conclusion I came to are two things: The first being that effort counts if I want my children to love me and forgive me when I fail them, the second being that I have very little control over how my child will end up “being” and I’ll probably serve them and myself better if I accept that from the start. That’s not to say that I planned to be a negligent, inattentive parent.. but basically that kids (and the grown people they turn into) are a lot more sturdy and resilient then they get credit for much of the time.
It’s through this lens that I approached my pregnancy. I struggled to get pregnant, and the first time I did after we began officially trying, I miscarried. I miscarried despite trying to do everything perfectly during our attempts at conception– no caffeine, no drinking, no smoking, no exposure to anything that could even remotely be considered toxic, cutting work hours to reduce stress, avoiding everything on the “DO NOT EAT THIS!!” list of foods that many pregnant women are given in the US.. the list goes on. I quickly became miserable and beyond that, bitter. Because I had given up things that brought me pleasure and made my life fun and made me who I am, and still it hadn’t worked, my body and my uterus had still “killed” my baby. After a few rounds of clomid (and me being eternally grateful I didn’t require further intervention) I fell pregnant, and at that time I wasn’t following basically any of the proscribed fertility boosting suggestions or pregnancy guidelines. If my miscarriage had taught me one hard learned lesson, it was to remember that I really didn’t have much control, and keeping that in mind I knew that as long as I didn’t do things outside of moderation, drinking coffee or having a beer or enjoying my hookah in the evening wasn’t going to do a damn bit of difference in making me conceive or not, so I opted to continue to enjoy my life and do those things.
The fear-mongering and guilt tripping for women starts absurdly early when it comes to motherhood, I learned. I stopped my hookah smoking and beer drinking but had I googled it more, it was clear that wasn’t enough.. the fact that I had done that during conception was a huge issue for a person like me who wanted to and went ahead and researched things on their own. I also found that the media spews out tons of poorly reported articles and stories on “studies” wherein they grossly misinterpret and/or represent the data to make it as scary as possible for pregnant women, ultimately assigning us the facade and thus the burden of having a lot more control, than we ever actually and factually do.
If there’s one thing I find incredibly offensive, it’s the twisting of scientific data (or outright lying in spite of) to further an agenda. When that agenda is to control women, under the guise of benevolence or not, it makes me pretty angry. In fact, “For your own good” type of lying and deceit bothers me in large part because of how patronizing it is. I didn’t realize this was something I felt so strongly about until I was sitting in my OBGYN’s office holding a packet of stapled papers listing out all of the things I was not to do, from doing shots of vodka to eating an unmicrowaved ham sandwich. I repeatedly asked what the risk to each thing on the list was given how extensive and yet random it was. I was treated in turn either like I was an idiot or a soon-to-be-crappy mother, and ultimately was therefore annoying.
Pissed off but not deterred I did my own research and made my own list when it became clear that the “data” and “studies” used to devise most of that archaic hand-out list were either incredibly shaky or had been outright disproven, or plain didn’t apply because of a factor of where I live (the guideline to not eat soft cheese, for instance, despite the fact that I live in a country where you cannot buy unpasteurized soft cheese from a regular grocery store, negating the concern for listeria). A good 75% of what had been on that original list were things I either disregarded completely or did a modified version of. Very little of that scary list that basically screamed “DO THIS AND YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR MESSING UP YOUR BABY!!!” ended up actually being backed by science and numbers and hard data to prove the risk or danger. The list itself didn’t disturb me so much as the sheer, overwhelming number of people who acted like I was wrong and beyond that, ethically lesser, to be annoyed by it or have questioned it in the first place. That as a soon-to-be-mother, I should be more than happy to go along with it and by even questioning it, I was being selfish and not doing what was “best” for my child. That if there was even the slightest possibility that something could be less than optimal for my baby, I should be trying to avoid it at all costs without bothering to question the validity of the assertion in the first place. It was a silencing tactic employed by everyone from anti-child chauvinists to fellow feminists and I found it intolerable and still do. It bothers me that mothers and soon to be mothers and women and people in general can’t even question the science behind various edicts without having their intentions and moral integrity as parents called into question.
There’s only one part of my birth experience when I had my son that I found unsatisfactory. It wasn’t the fact that he was two weeks late and needed to be induced (science got me pregnant and not nature, I knew totally natural childbirth and pregnancy killed lots of women prior to modern medicine, and thus was not upset or surprised that my kid needed his eviction notice signed, sealed, and delivered). It wasn’t that my first epidural not only failed but hit a nerve that caused my contractions to intensify to an intolerable (crying for my mommy) degree and speed up. It wasn’t that I was a classic case of “failure to progress” as my labor dragged on. What chapped my ass was when the doctor on call came to see me at my 35th hour after getting a second, and more successful, epidural.. and instead of asking me how I felt or what I wanted, simply told me, “I’m not ready to give up a vaginal birth for you.” Maybe some women needed to hear that if they had wanted a vaginal birth very badly, but I didn’t. I had taken my herbs and done my exercises and all that other stuff for vaginal birth because I knew that was what was ‘aimed’ for, but when it became clear my son wasn’t going to emerge without prompting, I went in for my induction emotionally prepared for a C-Section should it be needed and had been getting more prepared as the hours ticked by as I labored. But with just that, with no consultation to me about my views or desires, his proclamation that he decided my body and my mind and myself as a person could totally handle more without ever bothering to even ask me how I felt about any of it, he left. Even if I had gone on to have a vaginal birth, I wouldn’t be less annoyed over it. It was my body doing the birthing and after 35 hours he didn’t even have the respect or decency to ask me about it.
I ended up having a c-section, because the next doctor on call handled things totally differently when she let me know what my situation was, what my risks were, what my options were, and that I was totally supported by her no matter which option I took, but I needed to make a decision. I told her, “I want a c-section as soon as you can give it and please make this pain stop.” She had me sign papers and a little under two hours later, I wasn’t in any pain at all, and was crying tears of happiness watching my husband handle our newborn son.. our son who was nearly 10 pounds despite the fact I’d only gained 15 my entire pregnancy. I also watched as the team handled my calcified placenta and nearly every member in the room made a quiet comment here and there how my “elective” c-section had been a good choice that had saved us from a hurried, stressful, and potentially far more dangerous c-section later on. The entire hospital team including my lactation consultant had vindicated me. My only directives to the hospital was no eye drops and bring him to me within the first two hours of his life for skin to skin and so we could attempt breastfeeding.
In recovery one hour later I was zonked out on pain medications but my husband brought me my son and it was a completely magical moment that stands out in my mind. I can see my husband with his strong arms around our quiet, staring child, whispering to him that he was going to be held by his mama now for the first time.
I ruined the moment when he was handed to me with the statement of, “I’m going to smother him to death with my tits”, trying not to cry because I was suddenly filled with such anxiety.
I think it says a lot that in the fog of painkillers and birth craziness, I was meeting my son for the first time and the first thought and saying through myself was one of anxiety that I’d fail at breastfeeding. Not “Hello”, not an expression of joy. Just a statement of the anxiety I harbored.
I had decided I would attempt to breastfeed but if it didn’t work, I wasn’t going to martyr myself over it or risk my relationship with my child. I knew that it could stave off PPD, that it could help me lose weight, and it wasn’t as immediately as expensive as formula.. and those three things spurred me on in my quest. The nurse laughed at my statement of worry that I’d smother him to death, and tried to be helpful but she only knew of the cradle hold, and when you have G+ size breasts like my own, that’s not really good enough nor comfortable. He did latch relatively easily after I did a weird perversion of a football and cradle hold, and I had no pain. He swallowed a few times and the nurse encouragingly told me, “I think he’s getting your colustrum.” I had lactated during pregnancy to the degree that I’d gotten mastitis during my second trimester, so I was more than encouraged. I knew a c-section could hinder breastfeeding and was concerned over that, so my early success was great to me.
I handed him back after a bit and that’s when they told me his blood type was opposite of mine (I’m O-, and he’s A+) and he’s got jaundice. I went from content, happy mama to freaked out mama in two seconds flat. Does he need food? I asked, repeatedly. He’s fine with your nursing because he’s big and has lots of brown fat, they assured me. He’ll lose weight, though. I tried to steel myself for this but I felt bad. I still freaked out basically the entire time in the hospital.
A few nurses and LC’s visited me in the hospital and the only hold I was really taught was the football hold, modified with the help of quite a few pillows. My milk came in on the second day and I wasn’t having any problems, but no concern or care was given to the fact that I’m a modest person and nursing made that difficult, or how I was doing emotionally and mentally. I wished there was a way for me to nurse that allowed me to cover my breasts and nursing baby. Instead I was simply told “Breast is best” when I asked for help and left to deal with my uncomfortableness and annoyance on my own. The most help I got was the assurance that it’d be hard the first two months but then my kid would latch on his own and not need hand support and it’d be great.
Two months? I felt like I’d been hit with a bag of bricks.
My kid came two weeks late. I had already spent the last month inside sleeping and lazing about, too sapped of energy from growing and carrying him in utero to do much. Was I really supposed to behave like a prisoner for a quarter of a year because I don’t want to expose my breast to strangers or people I’m not comfortable with? It felt like punishment.
Anything I read online and anywhere I read, I was met with a total lack of help and support.
“YOU CAN BREASTFEED WITH ANY SIZE OF BREASTS!” every website gloated and boasted.
Meanwhile, every photo of a woman discretely and happily breastfeeding in public didn’t feature a woman with porn-star size breasts like my own, struggling to move a boob let alone position a child and then a cover over it while doing something in public. It featured a thin woman or at least a woman with smaller breasts, feeding in the cradle hold, a hold that I would never be able to use, with a child and a size ratio that didn’t emphasize how massive her breast tissue was. Breastfeeding openly probably is discrete for most women but for those of us for whom it’s not, pretending our problems aren’t there is dehumanizing and upsetting. It pissed me off and still pisses me off that this was a huge concern I had even before getting pregnant, and instead of adequetely addressing it, “advocates” just spouted stupid platitudes about how it wasn’t a big deal and I’d be fine and I’d “get over” letting strange men and women and strangers see my breast. Thanks for nothing. I could not find and still can not find almost any information for women like me with huge breasts who want to remain very modest when we breastfeed, just the crappy “information” that we shouldn’t let our issues stop us from breastfeeding. I loved breastfeeding when it was working but I didn’t love the idea of being chained to my child, inside, on demand.
Beyond that, I started to get angry at the constant refrain that “breasts aren’t sexual” in answer to my issues regarding modesty and not wanting to expose myself… as if I should just go ahead and use my breasts to make a political statement I wasn’t comfortable making and try to make the world change instead of fitting myself to the world. If I say a body part is sexual, it’s sexual, dammit. My body belongs solely to me and if at the end of pregnancy I want a part of it to be only mine, that needs to be respected. I was sick to death of being beaten with the mantra that breasts shouldn’t be sexual. My breasts becoming sexual saved my relationship with my body and I will never pretend that isn’t the case. They were a source of shame and teasing and outright bullying for years. It was only after meeting my husband and an intense period of reframing, emotionally, my breasts were reborn as things of pleasure and lust and love, and that I truly felt comfortable with my body.
I’m HAPPY my breasts are sexual organs as a result, and it really annoys me that so-called “advocacy” groups that operate under the false banner of feminism assume if you view your breasts mainly as anything but potential baby food, you’re disordered or wrong or perverted by society in general. My breasts are sexual and trying to deny me my right to see them as such to me is an attempt to deny me my bodily autonomy. Maybe I see my breasts as sexual because I like to see them that way, and that should be respected.
My anxiety and bad feelings about not wanting to expose my breasts in public (no, not even to breastfeed) caused me to breastfeed in awkward and humiliating places. I breastfed in the car multiple times while parked in some random parking lot, and I also breastfed in quite a few different bathrooms in a bid for privacy. As I nursed my baby to the sound of flushing toilets, I wasn’t angry at “society”, blaming it for “forcing” me to use a bathroom to feed my child, so much as I was angry at the whole breastfeeding-pushing-complex that conveniently glossed over issues I had tried to find solutions for well before even giving birth and coming up totally short, so here I was, nursing in a bathroom because they pushed breastfeeding with no solutions for issues like the one I had besides “change who you are as a person”.. telling a woman to just get over letting strangers see her bare breast is saying exactly that and it’s neither kind or empathetic. The issue was not that I wasn’t allowed to breastfeed more publicly- I absolutely was. The issue was not that people would say or do anything to me- they would not, and I knew that because I have many nursing-in-public friends. The issue was that I was NOT comfortable exposing my very large and hard to hide breasts to breastfeed in public, and for whatever reason, no one seemed to care at all, prefering to tell me I’d “get over it” and spout the usual “breasts aren’t sexual” with no regard that yes, mine are sexual and I’m happy with them being that way, rather than offer me useful solutions.
On top of the fact that I couldn’t leave my house while breastfeeding without being completely ridden with horrible anxiety over where and how I would feed my child, I started trying to deal with oversupply. I was never told how to deal with the fact my kid would feed on one side of my bosom and pass out until the next feeding, except being told that not forcing him to switch sides was a terrible idea that would cause mastitis and other issues for me.. it didn’t matter that waking him up caused crying and little fists beating on my breasts and a total refusal to effectively nurse on the other side, everyone insisted I MUST do so. I’d drain a breast then maybe 1/8th drain the other and get to deal with engorgement until three or or four hours later when he was ready to nurse again.
Then when I’d get him into position he’d realize what was going on and cry and scream. I was block feeding as best as I could, and then my son began to choke and cluster feed with a vengeance. I knew he was only getting the foremilk and thus wasn’t really getting “full” or the nutrition he needed as his weight gain totally stalled. My letdown was crazy and I was plagued the entire nursing period by intense feelings of sadness and anxiety. I’d watch my little boy nurse and even when he wasn’t screaming, unlatching, or otherwise indicating how annoying and unsatisfactory my oversupply was, I’d look into his eyes and think morbid thoughts wondering if he’d ever get very sick and worse. When I tried to get help, I was not given any. I was told to keep doing what I was doing despite the fact that it was draining and upsetting. I was told repeatedly how “lucky” I was to have an oversupply and how many women would KILL to have that “issue”. My anatomy was “perfect”. My child’s latch? “Perfect.” How dare I be anything less than thrilled with how things were going? The oxytocin from my overactive letdown invalidated the other negative feelings I was being overwhelmed with, at least to everyone I talked to.
I remembered what I promised myself before having kids about keeping in mind how little control I have. And so, I told my husband I was going to do a very quick wean and switch to formula. I wasn’t getting that lovely oxytocin burst I had in the beginning when I breast fed, and even when I was it was overshadowed by the horrible feeling of sadness and panic. Every time our son woke up I’d feel like hiding in a separate room away from him. Breastfeeding was not working for us. The first time I took my son out into public alone to meet up with a friend, and mixed him a bottle of formula at our little cafe table.. it was heaven and I’ll never look back.
I had never bought into the “breast is best” rhetoric and I still don’t. I think there are advantages to breastfeeding that make it ideal for quite a few women, but I also think there are advantages to using formula. I really don’t think breastfeeding is the “best” option, period, if you have access to nutritious formula and clean water. It really all depends on a number of factors from your baby’s temprament to your own anatomy to your own feelings and issues relating to your body. I’m yet to read a hard, conclusive study that gives me data to start feeling differently. My goal is to raise a child into a healthy, happy adult.. going by the numbers, I’m perfectly justified using formula to get there. And beyond that, I get an oxytocin rush when I watch my child eat from his bottle, more regularly than I did when breastfeeding.. so for even that kind of selfish reason, why would I not?
I find myself annoyed more times than not because of the culture now surrounding feeding our infant children, because it’s patronizing, anti-woman, and dehumanizing just the same as the culture of telling pregnant women what to do with their bodies from what to ingest or be around or saying they aren’t allowed to choose to remain pregnant. Just like I don’t appreciate being told that formula is superior to breastmilk (what women were told in generations prior to mine), I don’t appreciate being told the opposite if it’s not true, and so far, no studies have conclusively proven that breastmilk as a whole is superior. Touting breastmilk as some magical antidote to having an obese kid or getting breast cancer is dishonest and shitty to the core. I also don’t appreciate that formula companies aren’t “allowed to advertise to me” through my doctor’s office because I’m too delicate and precious to stand up to that apparently, and thus I can’t get free cans of formula to experiment with and figure out which my baby likes, even if I do want them… but tons of companies related to breastfeeding are given free reign to shill whatever they wish to me, from nursing bras to nipple creams, and give out samples and coupons and goodie bags at will. The company that sold me my hundred dollar nursing bra is totally not capitalizing on a birthing market and is advertising out of altruism, of course. But because they aren’t pushing formula, I guess that’s ok. I’m also alarmed that hospital nurseries are going away in attempts to become “breastfeeding friendly” hospitals and enforcing rooming in only, despite the fact that that’s not only not neccessary (bring the baby to the mom when she’s hungry, it’s pretty damn simple) but many times a burden to mothers, because apparently denying women even the option to choose to have a full night’s sleep should she want it after going through the enormous ordeal of birth is just not ok if it means a single woman maybe doesn’t breastfeed. It makes me angry that when I asked for information about formula, allergies, supplementing, and weaning, I was instead told I should breastfeed to 1 year, and didn’t I have the good fortune of making of a ton of milk anyway? And that was the end of the conversation and the support from a supposed third-party individual. It makes me angry that I’ve had to piece-meal concoct my own engorgment and pain management system, involving me driving around with an infant purchasing sage and concentrated peppermint products and sudafed, while switching to formula, because my “breast is best!! Breastfeeding friendly!!!” local healthcare system refuses to help me with drying up my milk or doing anything that isn’t breastfeeding, even if it’s what I’ve chosen. It’s been made abundantly clear to me by the current medical establishment and various “new mother” groups that unless I function as a milk machine to my child, I don’t matter. I think that’s pathetic and sad and a clear indication of a society that doesn’t value women as people, and thus doesn’t value their choices or right to choice.
I stopped a pretty decent breastfeeding relationship with my child at 1 month, and I’m not sorry nor am I lazy or selfish or a bad person, or less deserving of support and understanding. My breasts belong to me and your breasts belong to you. Do with them what you will. If that means you let your five year old latch on for a drink, I support you 100 percent. If that means you don’t want to breastfeed, ever, I support you. If that means you’ve fallen in the middle, I support you. I refuse to divorce my feminism from motherhood and I refuse to dictate that another woman must use her body a certain way. I staunchly say that any other position that tries to tell women how they must use their bodies or feel about them are the opposite of feminism and need to not masquerade otherwise.
Be heard. Share your story – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org