“Intuitively and rationally, it makes no sense that this poisonous smelling, lab-created powder has been so much better for my daughter, has made her happier and healthier.”
Sarah’s story will resonate with many of you, but I think those who dealt with food allergies/sensitivities will find it especially powerful. I remember feeling the same way – how could something made in a lab make my baby so much happier than what my body created? It’s a tough question to toss around in a newly postpartum brain, one that is already confused, conflicted, and overloaded. I believe that a large part of the link between depression and early weaning isn’t simply the hormones at play, but rather these very emotions. We are taught that our bodies create the perfect food for our babies, but what happens when this isn’t true? What happens when our babies wretch, cry, writhe and bleed, despite all of our best intentions?
I’ll tell you what happens: it’s devastating.
And then, what happens when you switch to formula? If your baby is happier and healthier, you feel guilt. You feel regret. You feel anger. You feel jealousy. And then you feel like shit, because you should be feeling relief and gratitude that your baby is finally thriving.
It’s a mind-fuck. And that’s before you make the mistake of going online, where a thousand bloodthirsty strangers will tell you that you could have tried harder, done it differently, made a better choice.
And we wonder why there is a high incidence of postpartum depression in women who are formula feeding.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
I want to begin this story with my first child, who was exclusively breastfed – not because I’m hoping for the Nobel Prize in Breastfeeding – but to illustrate how unusually challenging breastfeeding was for me (and my whole family,) how committed to it I was (and am,) and yet how much I know I’ll be judged ‘round these parts for publicly feeding my second with a bottle full of formula.
My first was born at home in the major metropolitan area we lived in at the time. I was the only person I’d ever known who’d chosen a home birth, and I was a crunchy curiosity among our friends and family for this and for things like choosing to use cloth diapers. Breastfeeding was so obvious there was no thought involved. When my daughter was finally delivered – an enormous, incredibly alert baby – and immediately and expertly latched on like pit bull, gulping eagerly, the midwife squealed, “Oooh! One of those tiger babies! What a great latch!” No problems there, except excruciating pain and bloody nipples for a few weeks. I’d never heard that breastfeeding was painful at the beginning, until asking real mothers…. One inane breastfeeding book I had read, “If breastfeeding hurts, something’s wrong.” I was in a panic until everyone, even the midwife, gently told me – it just hurts, at first. Which makes sense, when you think about it. It’s an extremely tender part if your anatomy that is suddenly getting quite a lot of force applied, (if you have a “tiger baby,” anyway,) pretty continually. I think more women would breastfeed if they were given an accurate picture of its challenges, knowing that some of them are temporary, rather than being given a – frankly – propagandizing picture (“It’s bliss! You’ll feel wonderful! Your baby will never become ill or have allergies for all of her long, healthy life! You’ll lose all the baby weight! You and your child will have a close bond forever!”) and then having their actual experience fall quite short of that expectation and think something must be very wrong, and discontinue.
I started noticing something strange, however, after the first rush of postpartum hormones subsided. Just before initial let-down, every time, I’d experience a brief wave of crushing sadness and horror. (Think: you just heard that an atomic bomb is headed toward your vicinity, and there’s no time to escape. That kind of feeling.) It relieved me to make the connection that I only felt that way at this particular time and synapse, and that it must be due to some chemical imbalance I didn’t understand, but no one else knew what I meant or had had the same experience. “A sad wave, huh? That’s interesting,” was all my midwife could offer. A few years later I discovered that what I had dealt with was Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex; a very uncommon disorder that hadn’t even been given a name by the medical community at the time I first experienced it. I was still undeterred and continued breastfeeding.
When my daughter was around three months of age the supply problems started in earnest, and in the end, nothing other than almost total bed rest for a couple of days at a time made a difference. I had chosen to stay home with my daughter, and while this was hardly feasible even for me, I can’t imagine handling such a problem while working outside of the home. I nursed my daughter every hour during the day, and every couple of hours during the night. It wasn’t until she started solids and finally agreed to drink out of a sippy cup (she’s still a remarkably stubborn little girl!) that she (and I) slept for any considerable stretch at night. By the time she was ten months old, my supply had dried up completely, although I continued to nurse – i.e., be a human pacifier, as distinct from breastfeed – if she woke at night and needed soothing for another couple of months.
The next year we moved for my husband’s work to another, and demographically very different, part of the country. Here, EVERYONE has a home birth. EVERYONE nurses into the preschool years, EVERYONE cloth diapers, NO ONE vaccinates or circumcises, etc. (Or so it seems.) You get the picture. I was no longer crunchy, I was disastrously conventional; and I was swiftly and completely cold-shouldered from play groups. (No doubt in part because I was not nursing my toddler multiple times during a half hour library program – I couldn’t – and no doubt also in part because I look so different. I’m a petite little Italian in this bright white land of strapping, squatting birthers; I wear foundation and mascara; I wear shoes….) It’s been interesting to learn that, oftentimes, the folks who preach the loudest against appearances (and specifically, against judging women in particular by appearances) are those who are quickest to do just that. It also saddens and perplexes me that – increasingly – women are judged (in fact, judge each other) once again by their ability to bear and nourish offspring, and the homes they create. (What is your “birth story?” How long did you nurse? What kind of crafting do you do? Are you “unschooling” your children? And so on.) It makes me wonder what the initial women’s rights movement truly did accomplish, when, in certain circles, I have little value and my conversation has little interest other than describing my (horrific) labor, how many cycles I put our pocket diapers through, or what non-GMO seeds I plan to plant in the family garden in the spring.
In another couple of years, I became pregnant again, and this summer chose to deliver in the local hospital. We felt it was safest after my first experience, which included a hemorrhage, but it elicited some raised eyebrows. Then I ended up with a c-section (which didn’t surprise me after my first labor and birth,) and more raised eyebrows and pointed questions. “Do you think you really needed that c-section?” (Well, I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I didn’t have to find that out for certain in its absence….) The D-MER waves began this time in my third trimester, before I even began lactating. This time I had a name for it, though, and a rough understanding of the possible chemical pathways.
My second was born, an astonishingly even bigger and more alert baby girl, who also delighted nurses, midwife, doctors, and staff with her latching performance. This time, every let-down, not just the initial one, brought the horrible feeling, and, this time, also brought physical nausea with it. Still no question whether or not I would breastfeed. I did, however, attempt getting our newest to take a bottle with expressed milk fairly regularly as a precaution – in case I faced supply problems once again. At one month, my daughter developed a severe milk and soy protein intolerance – and abruptly and consistently refused the bottle. I immediately and completely cut both dairy and soy out of my diet, and for a couple of weeks, the problem was solved. Then the symptoms began again: bloody diarrhea, severe eczema, hives, wheezing. Fish, wheat, nuts, corn, chocolate, eggs, berries in the rose family, grapes, tomatoes, citrus, coconut, even quinoa, believe it or not, rapidly went the way of milk and soy. My daughter dropped from the 100th percentile to the 40th in a month’s time. For the next three months I lived on a handful of foods, and she did okay. Not great, but okay. Unsurprisingly, I had another supply problem. Meat – turkey and bison – was my only protein source. (Not wonderful for this former vegetarian.) Over Thanksgiving, the symptoms started again: two more foods (apples and millet) were out. Another week, and nothing was safe.
I should add here that I tried everything to save breastfeeding; in part, just to save my baby, who is particularly attached to Mommy, from the emotional trauma of weaning her from what she was used to. I consulted with multiple pediatricians, a pediatric allergist, a neonatologist, and upwards of twenty lactation consultants. I tried pancreatic enzymes (turned out she has a particularly severe intolerance to pork,) plant-based broad spectrum digestive enzymes (did nothing,) two different types of supposedly hypoallergenic infant probiotics (both caused vomiting,) took mega-doses of hypoallergenic probiotics myself, and obviously lived on the most extreme rotation and elimination diet known to woman. I even, albeit briefly, contemplated the possibility of living on a specialty formula myself, so that there would be no foreign proteins in my milk, and continuing to breastfeed. I asked my husband if he thought it was unreasonable to even entertain the idea. “YES,” he told me firmly.
I made the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, and began to wean her completely to Neocate, an amino acid formula. This stuff smells and tastes unbelievably vile – just so you can understand some of my internal conflict over discontinuing breastfeeding. It’s also incredibly expensive. (Forty-five dollars a can. We’re still fighting her insurance to cover it.) It took us six days to finally get her to take a bottle. In between, I spent all day dribbling the Neocate in her mouth with a syringe or sippy cup with the stopper removed; she wailed, and spit three-quarters of it out. The grief of this sudden, early weaning was and still is overwhelming.
The night that she finally broke down and took a bottle from my husband, she rapidly downed ten ounces; and then went to sleep without any more noise than a yawn, and slept for six hours straight. (She’d been getting up every couple of hours prior to this to nurse, and taking close to an hour to settle down before sleeping.) The next night she slept for nine hours straight, again without a peep. Intuitively and rationally, it makes no sense that this poisonous smelling, lab-created powder has been so much better for my daughter, has made her happier and healthier. (I almost feel unreasonably insulted, especially after trying so hard to accommodate her.) But there it is. I resent the fact, though, that any time I want to feed her in public, now, I have to take a deep breath and begin explaining. I’m pretty darn sure I’ve gone to far greater lengths to breastfeed than almost any other woman out there, and yet I know I’ll provoke contempt. Appearances again. There are so many reasons, even in just this one instance, why someone may be doing something that doesn’t appear to be in their child’s best interest. Infant allergies, maternal medication, adoption; I wish I could lobby to change the slogan to “Breast is usually best, but it’s not really my business anyway.”
I also want to say here that supply problems are a lot more common than many lactation consultants, and the most ravening of lactivists, are willing to admit, if my own experiences and the experiences of friends and family are anything to go by. I don’t know why that should be; I don’t know why millions of years of evolution, or the creative power of God, or both, or whatever you reason or believe, or both, hasn’t straightened that out for so many women and their babies. My default – or rather, my husband, the biologist’s, – default response is, “Nature weeding out the unfit.”
Regardless, I’m glad I have recourse to something other than what’s “natural,” at times. I’m glad we can sidestep evolution. (Or fallen nature, or, again, whatever you’d like to call it.) I’m glad for unnatural human compassion that works so hard in these unnatural laboratories so that unnatural (and wonderful, infinitely precious) children like mine can safely eat, and thrive. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m so glad for formula.
Have a story you’d like to share? Email it to me – email@example.com.