The stories I receive for FFF Fridays tend to fall into three categories: those who never wanted to breastfeed, those who couldn’t breastfeed for physiological reasons, and those who ended up formula feeding due to situational and/or emotional reasons.
I want to make one thing very clear: in my mind, they why’s shouldn’t make a difference to anyone but you. Choosing formula or having the choice made for you only matters because of how it affects your experience (ie, are you grieving the loss of the breastfeeding relationship, or do you feel relief after a traumatic experience with it). It does not in any way affect how I see you, or how anyone else should see you, or how you should see yourself. It does not make you a bad mother. It makes you a formula feeding mother. That’s it.
Still, I also think it’s important for people to voice their feelings and their personal truths. So if someone needs to explain how they “had” to choose formula, that’s okay. In a perfect world, no one would feel like they have to give an excuse. In a perfect world, like Kate says, no one would ever ask “why”.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, so there’s FFF Friday.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
To everyone who would like to know how I will feed my next baby:
Firstly, it’s good to know you’re interested. I worry about how you’ll respond to my answer, which might be delivered at you with a one-word sentence: “Formula.”
I might not say any more, because this is a hard one for me to discuss.
It’s a difficult decision to talk about because we live in an era where our choices as mothers tend to be driven by particular ideologies. As it happens, I do subscribe to the “Breast is best” ideology in theory. It’s a tired old aphorism which has often been quoted at me by well-meaning individuals oblivious to my own circumstances. Sure, perhaps breast is best in a scientific sense, or in a health and wellbeing sense. Very few would dispute this.
Unfortunately, due to the gap between ideology and reality, breast was not best for me. Breast was not even possible for me. Most importantly, it didn’t work for my baby, and probably won’t be for any future babies.
I started off wanting to breastfeed. Apparently, 97% of Australian women do begin this way. (This is possibly related to the way it is relentlessly promoted by grim Nazi-style midwives, and the cruel manner in which formula feeding is openly belittled. Am I a bad mum for ‘choosing’ formula? No, I’m not – but it wasn’t really a choice, as you’ll discover.)
Here’s what breastfeeding did: purely and simply, it starved my baby. Initially, she wasn’t even going to be allowed home from hospital because she had lost too much weight. My breasts bled each time I tried. Nurses alternately (and incorrectly) attacked me for not ‘latching on’ correctly and then suggested that my baby might have a tongue tie. (They were correct about this, as it happens. I have nerve pain to this day because of a problem that wasn’t diagnosed until it was much, much too late.)
So I saw a lactation consultant. (If breastfeeding is so natural, why are there so many professionals whose job it is to help us with it?) I didn’t get any answers. She was brusque and frustrated. “Just try harder” was her general advice. New mothers are in an incredibly vulnerable situation, and of course you want to take all advice on board. So I tried harder. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was both time-consuming and ultimately disheartening.
My baby couldn’t sleep because she wasn’t being fed. I couldn’t look after my baby because I was too busy hooking myself up to a breast pump. Night after night, every couple of hours, and I still couldn’t produce enough. I sat there, freezing and crying in the dark with shrivelled up, hideously bruised breasts – one on a pump, the other attached to an unhappy infant.
My baby cried constantly. I couldn’t look after her – I didn’t even have the time to take care of her and be the inadequate labouring milk-producing machine I had reduced myself to becoming. I didn’t play with her. I didn’t even have time to eat properly. All was sacrificed to the ultimate goal of the “liquid gold” I had been promised. I was a mental wreck – I felt shivers of pure panic whenever she woke up, because waking meant feeding. There were nights where she would latch on for an hour and sleep for 15 minutes.
Later on, I was to realise that the combined effects of gestational diabetes, a caesarean birth, my baby’s tongue-tie and a condition called insufficient glandular tissue had all conspired against me. The fact that I feel compelled to give a medicalised explanation implies that I still feel defensive about the whole business. Well, you’re the one who asked about it.
I’m not sure why we all feel free to inquire about every mothering decision, especially given that, regardless of how I feed, I’m still Top Dog in my baby’s life. No one has as much of an interest in her as I do. I have the legal and moral right to make decisions about what works for both of us.
The first time I fed my daughter formula was possibly also the first time she slept properly. She didn’t look cross and anxious as she had before. She knew I cared about her enough to make sure she was nourished.
As opposed to putting myself first. Realistically, why was I breastfeeding? I thought it was expected. Most people I know could do it without too much worry. I didn’t want the judgements that came with formula feeding. The worst reason to do anything is to satisfy others. But, at the time, I thought I had to live in this miserable manner. I looked in the mirror and saw a tired, stressed martyr in those days.
Here’s the secret: motherhood and martyrdom aren’t the same thing. I’m Catholic, so I know a few things about martyrs. They all make amazing sacrifices for strong beliefs. They generally go against the grain of their times and are individual and counter-cultural in the way they live and die.
You can’t be a martyr to breastfeeding! Nor can you base your decisions on the expectations of others. The only person whose opinion I care about other than my own is my husband’s, and he supported me because he was the only one who saw and appreciated what breastfeeding was doing to me.
So, whenever I’m blessed with another child, it’s straight to the bottle. I hope my next child will smile and laugh as much as my little girl now does. She’s great. She’s never been sick. No one’s going to look at her in a year’s time and know how she was fed.
I am immeasurably angry that I live in a society which seeks to define my worth as a mother by how I can or can’t use my breasts.
For those who struggle with breastfeeding and don’t give up, I have only admiration. I wish them success, though not at the expense of their own health or their relationship with their baby. For my own sanity, I had to realise when it was time to put the whole experience in the ‘too hard’ basket.
I hope that answers your questions.
Most importantly, I hope it also makes you realise that you were wrong to ask questions in the first place
Feel like sharing your story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org