Thanksgiving is coming up here in the States, and everyone is talking about what they are most thankful for.
I am thankful for formula.
I am thankful it gives us the ability to nourish children who might otherwise not be nourished. I am thankful it can be used as a stop-gap measure to get breastfeeding off to a good start. I am thankful it can feed kids with severe food allergies.
And I am incredibility thankful it gives mothers like Emily an alternative. Because feeding your child should not be an act of contrition, nor should it serve as a means of re-traumatizing someone who has already suffered unspeakable pain. Nothing is worth that, and I am thankful that formula can give those of us whose bodies are bogged down by complex emotional histories a way to alleviate some of the burden. If you’ve never known what it feels like to shudder at someone’s touch – someone you are programmed to love, and to nurture – you have no idea the level of pain that can cause. So I am thankful. I am so thankful.
I’m also thankful for Emily, for having the courage to share her story.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
I have a history of severe, long term, childhood sexual abuse. As a result I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a chronic pain condition called Vulvodynia, and multiple minor physical pain and nerve damage issues. I couldn’t stand the idea of losing anything else to my past, but in the end, I lost breastfeeding to it. After 3 attempts I am finally at peace with that, but not before plenty of judgement, poor care and pain both emotional and physical.
In hindsight, I have no idea why no one even suspected the issues before my first was born. My issues meant that I had a few special requirements related to the birth, and as a result had to give some quick summary of my abuse to anyone I dealt with. Even after hearing about permanent issues I have as a result of my past, no one ever once questioned whether there had been any considerable physical trauma to my breasts, as indeed there had been. I was registered at a birth center, with midwives. I heard the statistics that 98% of women can breastfeed, I knew the ‘booby traps’ and I researched latch, I was ready. My mother had breastfed 4 children without a problem and was part of the Australian Breastfeeding Association (our own version of the LLL) and while she was no longer part of my life I still felt a need to prove I could do just as much as she did. I never anticipated a problem.
I had the right start, skin to skin, immediate feeding, rooming in, everything seemed to be going as it should. But within 48 hours it began to hurt to feed. On top of this, baby was HUNGRY. On our third night after the birth baby screamed for hours while refusing my breast completely. We called the midwives in desperation, asking what to do. She said about the only useful advice I ever received on baby feeding ‘Give baby some formula, and come in first thing in the morning to see the lactation consultant’. Formula? What kind? How much? She had no idea, and at 3 in the morning with a hysterical child neither did we. We don’t get formula samples here in Australia. Thank God my grandmother had more sense than me. She had bought me one box of single-serve formula sachets, and insisted that I keep them in the back of the cupboard just in case of emergency. I had done so to humour her, but I am so grateful she did it. We fed baby some formula from the one bottle which came with my manual pump and she guzzled it down. I remember feeling so terribly, terribly guilty. But, I didn’t feel guilty about giving her formula, I felt guilty about unknowingly starving her for almost 4 days. I suppose I was lucky that way, I always knew feeding my baby was much, much more important than breast vs bottle.
We spoke to the LC who sent me home with instructions to pump every hour and a half during the day and every 3 at night. I haven’t mentioned my husband yet but he was amazingly supportive. However, he had no choice but to go to work due to our situation at the time. My grandma came over and taught me how to sterilize bottles for supplementing after the feed and helped watch baby while I pumped. I discovered later that the LC had told my midwife that she suspected I was one of the few women truly unable to produce enough milk, but no one ever told ME that, I suppose for fear that I would give up ‘too soon’. On top of that, I’d had hyperemesis in my pregnancy and was still on a ‘liquids only before lunch’ diet (and continued to be for 3 months due to other poor medical care, but that’s another story altogether) which obviously impacted things on it’s own. I was far from healthy. And emotionally I was struggling, badly. PTSD coupled with the trigger of experiencing pain in an area where so much pain had been inflicted during my past was almost more than I could handle.
I usually pumped 10-15ml in a sitting, and never more than 30ml. And the pain got worse, and worse. I saw 3 different lactation consultants and all of them insisted my latch was absolutely perfect, and my nipples looked great. They all said a variation of ‘baby is getting what she needs, there’s no problem, so you just have to push through and hopefully the pain will settle down in 2-6 weeks, though for some women it’s always painful, but it’s worth it because breast is best’. One even went so far as to give me coping strategies for the pain! I didn’t realize until much later how very, very damaging this attitude was to me. I told all of these women about my past sexual abuse, and they basically told me that I needed to just suck it up because it was best. At that point in my life I was just beginning to piece together some self worth and feel valuable enough to stand up for myself and value my own desires even a little bit, so being attached to a milking machine, and being given no way out of something which was inflicting pain on me was a big issue. I resented my baby, I didn’t want her near me. My husband doesn’t feature much in this story, not because he wasn’t supportive, but because he was young, scared, confused and struggling himself. He had no idea what to do. But, in the end, he talked me into letting go of breastfeeding because, he argued, better for baby to have a bottle with a happy mummy than breastmilk with a crying one. He has held this stance ever since. Only 2 weeks after birth I couldn’t take the pain anymore, no one would give me a way out of the pain other than ‘wait and see’, and I gave up.
I bonded with my baby almost instantly from that day on. So much for breastfeeding being the be-all-and-end-all in bonding.
The second time I went in better prepared. Because I described the pain I had experienced as a graze or burning feeling, it was eventually decided that baby actually wasn’t feeding right, was running her tongue along my nipple back and forth, and that was the cause of our issues. The lack of milk production was blamed on the fact my baby was (and still is!) very impatient and would not stay on long enough to make things happen. She had no interest in comfort sucking, so once the milk slowed she would give up. I was reassured that this time around, if baby fed well, all would be fine.
My second baby arrived after a wonderful birth, latched immediately, and fed well. My milk came in, it seemed supply was better because baby was cooperating more and I was much healthier after having managed my hyperemesis far better that pregnancy. But it still hurt. So much.
I saw a new LC, and she told me to use nipple shields. I told her that I had been specifically told never to try and use them because my milk supply was already low and inhibited by my psychological issues, and she said that modern shields don’t harm supply and they were better than the pain. What a turn around! I still experienced pain, but instead of being an 11 on the pain scale it was somewhere around a 5, tolerable. Note that babys latch, again, was absolutely perfect. My nipples never looked bad, never once did I bleed or bruise, nothing baby was doing explained the pain. But this baby was a comfort sucker, she wanted to be attached constantly if she could. That made the pain so much worse, so after about a half hour I would give her a pacifier.
4 weeks in and baby got into this awful habit of latching and unlatching, again and again. Since latching was the most painful part, having her do that over and over was absolute hell. But women around me kept telling me story after story of how they, or someone they knew, breastfed despite a lot of pain, so I kept pushing on. Emotionally, I was a wreck again, constantly triggered. I did not enjoy my baby at all. I didn’t want to deal with her unless I had to feed her.
6 weeks in and I spoke to the LC again about her constantly coming off. She had not gained as much weight as she should have. We did a weighed feed and she didn’t gain enough either. (I now know that neither of these were necessarily accurate but at the time I trusted her.) She insisted we begin giving one supplement bottle a day, just to help bring baby’s weight up a little, and to try and tolerate as much ‘comfort sucking’ as possible to bring in some more milk.
I gave baby her bottle the first night and she refused her next feed. I gave it the second night and she refused to feed for the next 12 hours. I gave it the third night and she never latched to my breast again. I knew there were ways to get her back on and fix things, but I was in pain, I was emotionally spent, and I was done. We became formula feeders the second time, and suddenly, I found I liked my baby, and I wanted to be near her again. Yet again, no bond occurred until after I stopped breastfeeding.
Third time around and I knew what I was doing. I set a goal of two weeks, with an ideal goal of 6 weeks, and released myself from guilt if it didn’t work. I had finally realized after messing with the shields that the cause of the pain was nerve damage from past abuse. I thought I had dealt with that fact, but all I had actually done was hide the real issue with the hope that with the shields I could beat this problem and prove to myself that my past could not take the ability to breastfeed away from me. I was ok with letting myself stop when the pain got too bad though, and this time I would end it on my terms, if I couldn’t take control by breastfeeding, I could take control by protecting myself and choosing to stop breastfeeding when it hurt too badly. Health concerns about formula were long since squashed in my mind. I was a fearless (potential) formula feeder! What I wasn’t prepared for was it all going right.
Baby came, latched, fed perfectly and continued to do so. Not only did my milk come in well, but I actually had oversupply issues (we suspect the difference is that my husband had true paternity leave for the first time, which allowed me a lot more relaxation and skin to skin time than the last two times). She was gaining like a champ, she was bright, alert, sleeping well and a perfect poster child for breastfeeding. I began using the shields the day my milk came in, and to my surprise, by about day 12 feeding was almost pain-free! We had done it, I was successfully getting enough food into my babies tummy without severe pain.
But, I hated it. I hate breastfeeding. I hate the feeling. I hated having my PTSD triggered by it. And, I still had no bond with my baby. I resented her. I had always assumed the resentment came from the fact feeding my babies caused pain, but after a long talk with my husband I have come to realize that the reason I feel so much resentment is actually that, while breastfeeding, the baby controls that part of my body. I have to feed baby on her schedule, I get no say over when I feel capable of coping with someone touching my breasts, even if it is for food. I feel out of control of an intimate part of my body, and that’s a feeling I no longer cope well with.
I simply didn’t WANT to breastfeed anymore. And I felt like the worst mother in the world for it. I had finally achieved what I’d struggled with two previous babies to do, and now I discover that, actually, it’s not what I wanted at all. I wanted to be able to breastfeed like everyone else. But the fact is, even after beating all the other issues, I had to accept that I will never be able to breastfeed like everyone else. There’s too much baggage, too many associations. Too many memories. I can never have what I wanted, no matter how hard I try. That was taken from me long ago. What I can have, breastfeeding with all the psychological associations and physical reminders it brings, just isn’t a nice, or good, experience.
I felt trapped. It’s wrong to not breastfeed when I am capable of it right? But that feeling of being trapped only made me want to stop even more, because of my natural instinct to run from anything which might trap or control me. I blamed myself for being too weak to cope emotionally because it was easier than blaming those that hurt me for yet one more long term consequence of their actions. But that only made the feeling of being trapped worse, because if I was just a better mum I wouldn’t find feeding so upsetting.
There’s a big difference between having no choice but to switch to formula, and actually choosing to go to formula for no reason other than ‘I don’t want to breastfeed’. I have heard many, many times ‘I support formula feeders, as long as they have made a real effort to breastfeed’. Actually taking the step to formula feed just because that’s what I wanted meant going against that large group of people who would have previously supported me.
And then there was accepting that this door is closed for me, which hurt. I hate to accept that my past has any permanent effect on my future. I hate to admit anyone could effect me that way other than myself, because it makes me feel vulnerable.
It was easier to accept I couldn’t breastfeed a particular child but I could try again with the next than it is to accept that I can never have the normal, comfortable, enjoyable breastfeeding relationship I have watched, and wanted.
My babies thrive on formula, they are rarely sick, they are very bright, and happy kids. I suspect many of the ‘health risks’ of formula have more to do with the portion of the population that uses/doesn’t use it than with formula itself. A working mum is less likely to breastfeed, and we know that children in daycare tend to catch more bugs than children at home, for example.
My husband convinced me to do what I needed to, and I stopped breastfeeding my third child at 2 weeks old. She is now 5 weeks and thriving. And surprise surprise, I bonded and enjoyed her far, far more within a couple of days of stopping. We are a formula feeding family, and I’m mostly ok with that now. It’s what is right for me, and for my babies.
If you feel like sharing your story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.