We talk a lot about support. Support for formula feeding moms, support for breastfeeding moms, and how we all can support each other.
But support isn’t the whole story. Sometimes, you can have all the support in the world -emotional, physical, situational, etc. – and still struggle. Support can only do so much when you are experiencing disappointment or grief.
This is why, when it comes to your own emotions and experience, it doesn’t always matter if you live in a “breastfeeding-friendly” or “formula-friendly” area. It doesn’t matter if everyone is nice and comforting and you see tons of moms around you using bottles. Because if your dream was to breastfeed, and that dream turns into a nightmare, you’re the one waking up at 2am in a cold sweat. People can hug you and tell you it’s okay, but you’re still haunted by the Could’ve-Beens and the What-Ifs.
This is why we need to be allowed to talk about these things, without being told we’re making political statements, or “scaring women off breastfeeding”, or “making excuses”. This is why we need to be able to openly discuss the intimate, ugly, conflicted feelings around nursing, because it’s not always about public health missions or statistics. Sometimes, it’s just about a mom like Erin, alone in her room, writing and writing and writing because it’s the only way she can have a voice.
Happy Fridays, fearless ones,
Erin’s Story: “What I Wrote”
I’m a writer. Writing is what I do. It helps me sort out my emotions, my problems, my heartache. I write because sometimes it feels like it’s the only thing I can do. When I failed to breastfeed a second time I turned to my writing. I wanted to convey all my hurt, rage, and heartbreak into one single piece; except that’s impossible. The essays I wrote went on for pages and most of them still don’t have endings. Some I never wrote down because whenever I sat at my computer the tears would flow so hard that I couldn’t see the screen in front of me. It was just too painful.
My name is Erin and I’m a formula feeder.
I have two daughters ages 3 years and 7 months. One was breastfed for two weeks, the other for eleven days. I wish I could say the second time around I had an easier time letting go, of giving up, but that wasn’t the case. You see there are still times I cry about not breastfeeding my baby even though I have proof in front of my eyes that a formula fed baby can turn into a fantastic toddler. I wasn’t breastfed either and I turned into a pretty kick-ass adult so I guess I have further proof.
I started writing about my first daughter who, at two weeks, I bottle fed because my milk didn’t come in. I remember feeling incredibly conflicted. I was angry that my body didn’t work yet I was so happy that the stress of breastfeeding was over. Only once did I cry over my decision, over letting go. When I was all done I felt a small glimmer of hope echo inside me; maybe the next time I could do it, maybe the next time it would be different, maybe the next time my body would work. After a while I started to feel okay. It wasn’t a big deal that I wasn’t breastfeeding. How could it be? So many people, adults even, were brought up on formula and they were fine. It shouldn’t be a big deal.
I wrote about going to a mother’s group for new moms. Everything was fine until I looked around and realized every single mother was breastfeeding except me. Thats when the embarrassment and shame started. I couldn’t ‘hack it’ or ‘stick with it’ and so I wondered if I wouldn’t be able to ‘hack’ the rest of motherhood. What type of mother would I become? Lazy? Selfish? Uncaring? I almost left that group because I couldn’t handle judgmental stares, real or imagined. What must they think of me? The only mother who couldn’t handle breastfeeding? In the end I decided to stay because I felt like I was drowning with a newborn and being stuck home alone was worse than being the only formula feeder. Staying was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I wrote how grateful I was that no one in my group asked why I wasn’t breastfeeding. After bringing out and shaking that first bottle I expected stares, glares, and condemnations. That first bottle was the scarlet letter of my motherhood. Then I realized no one seemed to care. No one stopped mid conversation to point and stare and ask why I wasn’t breastfeeding or how could I put my child at risk? They all continued on as if it was the most natural thing in the world. For that I am so thankful.
The next parts were so much harder to write. I became pregnant with my second daughter and suddenly I had the obsession that this time it would work, this time I was going to breastfeed. I wasn’t going to be that mother who shook bottles among the breastfeeding crowd. If I could breastfed then magically my formula feeding days would be erased. Like the fat kid in a skinny woman’s body forever ashamed and hoping no one would see what I was.
I wrote about designing my whole birth plan around breastfeeding. I researched and researched and researched until I figured out why my body didn’t work the first time. It was like having the first child all over again but this time I focused everything on breastfeeding. It became my obsession.
I wrote about my amazing pregnancy and birth experience. It was everything I wanted and I have no regrets. I’m one of those crazy women who would give birth again and again because, for me, it was awesome.
I wrote about my daughter being diagnosed with a tongue and lip-tie just hours after she was born. I was so lucky; this one little problem was diagnosed early. It was just one small procedure and then I would be on my way to breastfeeding nirvana. I had done so much research and nothing (and I did mean nothing) was going to stand in my way.
Except it wasn’t nirvana. It wasn’t nirvana at all.
I wrote how the procedure, which had less than 1% chance of serious complications, didn’t go as planned. In the end my daughter ended up with four stitches under her tongue and a very sore, hurt mouth.
The next four days were pure hell. I tried to get my precious baby to latch on again. She fought, screamed, and cried until she exhausted the fight out of her. She would latch on, suck, whimper, suck some more and then fall asleep. We did this every few hours for four days.
I wrote about the fourth day when I desperately tried to latch her on. My sweet baby screamed the minute she woke up and flailed her little fist at me as I brought her close. With all her might she’d arch her back and scream and scream and scream. Finally I looked down at her and decided that this. was. not. happening. I was not going to do this to my child any longer. I picked up a full bottle of formula and let her eat and eat. The relief in her eyes as the struggle went away will forever be burned in my memory. All the while I cried and cried. I kept saying “I love her,” over and over again. I needed to tell the world that I still loved my daughter. I still loved her even though I was feeding her formula. I still cared for her even though she couldn’t get sustenance from me. “I love her. I love her. I love her so much.” I couldn’t stop saying it.
I wrote about my wonderful friend and lactation consultant who called and texted me to see how I was doing. I finally told her I was bottle feeding and I’m sure she could see the heartbreak on my face. She reminded me that I had another beautiful, sweet, smart, and healthy daughter who was also formula feed! She told me it was okay and after talking about relatching and pumping she told me that she would support me with whatever decision I made. I could still bottle feed and it would be okay. She has no idea how much her support meant to me during that time. She was full of compassion and love. I never once felt judged by her for not breastfeeding. She wanted what was best for me and best for my family, period.
I wrote about my attempts to relatch my daughter. After three weeks my husband came home and found me in tears. It wasn’t working. My daughter’s tongue-tie had reattached and I was in pain every time she breastfed, which was usually once a day. My husband put his arm around me and told me to stop. I needed to stop. My family needed me back.
I wrote about going to another mother’s group which was very similar to the first one. However, this time I knew I was the only one bottle feeding. The same fears echoed through me. I feared having to explain over and over again why we weren’t breastfeeding. I feared them looking down at me, that somehow I didn’t love my baby enough because I didn’t continue to struggle to make it work. Then, like before, nobody asked. Nobody stared. Nobody condemned. They all doted on my baby.
I wrote about the friends who told me how perfect she was and I knew they were right because it didn’t matter what was filling up her belly. She’s perfect because she’s my baby.
I wrote about the months that followed and how I smiled, clapped and cheered for my friends with newborns who “didn’t give in” to formula. They were all breastfeeding and I smiled with them. I smiled even though deep cracks were running inside me. At night I would wake up mad at God for taking this gift away from me and cry.
I wrote about all the mothers I met in groups and mother’s rooms. Each mother had had her own trial with supplementing, bottle feeding or breastfeeding. I never judged them for their choices and they never judged me for mine. It was a perfect circle of support.
I wrote about how I got to know more about my own mother’s breastfeeding trials. Someone had made her feel bad for her choices and used breastfeeding as a litmus test of her mothering. It wasn’t right then and isn’t right now. It made me so mad that something that has so little to do with actual parenting was used against her. She supported me through everything. She cried with me. She knew and understood my pain better than almost anyone and she didn’t need to breastfeed me in order to do that.
I wrote everything. Every minute detail, every feeling, every struggle. It is my way of processing everything I’ve gone through. I’ve struggle for months to understand why this happened, why I had to go through it all, why this is part of my life story.
I still don’t have all the answers.
What I do know is that I’m stronger than I think. I’ve discovered a quiet, resounding strength within myself as I struggled with this in private. This strength is something I hope to pass on to my daughters. I want them to know that they are made of pretty tough stuff.
I also discovered how lucky I was to have such good support. Between my husband, mother, lactation consultant, and friends I barely heard any discouraging words or saw judgmental stares. If there was judgement then I never noticed.
I know now what type of mother I am. I’m a good one, a gentle one, a compassionate one, and a loving one. Bottle or breastfeeding doesn’t determine how gentle, compassionate or loving I am to my daughters. I would be the same mother whether or not I breastfed. I am not ashamed anymore when I take out the bottle.
I am a mother. I am a good mother. In the end, that’s all anyone needs to know.
Have a story you’d like to share for an upcoming FFF Friday? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.