FFF Friday: “Breastfeeding destroyed me psychologically.”

I don’t know quite what to say about Ashleigh’s story (below), except that I’m sorry.

I’m sorry things haven’t changed. I’m sorry that this situation gets more ridiculous by the day. I’m sorry we are arguing over the perceived dangers of formula advertising in resource-rich countries when we could be focusing that attention on the very real dangers of postpartum depression. I’m sorry feminism – or, rather, those who dwell at the intersection of feminism and motherhood – has failed to see the full scope of the infant feeding issue, essentially turning its (their) back on women for whom the Patriarchy is not a formula company, but rather those who insist on reducing women to biological functions. I’m sorry I haven’t made a dent in this fucked up discourse. I’m sorry you are hurting. I’m sorry. I’m just so damn sorry. 

But here’s hope: we grow in numbers by the day. We’re listening, Ashleigh. We’re here to say yes, we’ve been there, it’s okay, we’re sorry. And we will keep saying these things – we’ve been there, it’s okay, we’re sorry – until our voices are loud enough to vanquish this particular, unnecessary nightmare of motherhood back under the bed, with the dust bunnies and dead bugs. Where it belongs. 

Happy Friday, fearless ones,



Ashleigh’s Story 

The line turned pink, finally. After almost a year of trying to conceive I was finally pregnant. After a year of watching friends and family find themselves pregnant, I was finally pregnant. I was finally pregnant. I tested 7 days before my missed period, I was BARELY pregnant. Those next few weeks were, at the time, the hardest few weeks of my life. I was in a constant state of fear of miscarrying.

At about 5 weeks pregnant I had some slight nipple tenderness, I thought, “ahh finally! My first physical sign of pregnancy, breast growth!” Yeah that lasted all of two days; looking back I’m fairly certain my nipples were tender because I opted not to wear a bra with my scratchy “UNLV Alumni” T-shirt. By 6 weeks pregnant I was questioning the health of my baby on mommy boards via pregnancy apps, wondering why my first pregnancy symptom not only wasn’t getting more intense as the days passed, but that it had stopped all together (eventually I found myself in a bout of morning sickness that lost me 15 pounds).

Why. Weren’t. My. Breasts. Growing? Why? Why weren’t my breasts tender? Why? I brought it up at all my early OB appointments, was assured over and over and over that breast size did not dictate milk production nor the ability to breast feed (you’re right, size doesn’t, but other things do) – and that it was still early enough in my pregnancy and by the time I delivered my breasts would be full of milk and ready to feed my baby.

Months pass, still no growth. Still no tenderness. Still no colostrum. Still the same ‘ol “no-boobs”, as I’ve always referred to them as. I start scouring the internet for answers, since none of the doctors at my office had any answers besides the infamous “you will be able to breastfeed without question, ALL women can breastfeed!” I started questioning the incredibly offensive and demeaning saying “every woman can breast feed”. From early on, despite my denial, I knew deep down that every woman, in fact, couldn’t breastfeed, and I knew that I was going to be one of those women.

Words cannot explain how badly I wanted to be able to nurse my child. I was borderline sanctimonious about it- not because I wanted to belittle others or make them feel lesser, but because I believed the lactivist propaganda, I fell for their lies, for their tricks. Some days I think my sanctimonious opinions about “breast is best” is the reason for my failure- it was karma, the universes way of laughing in my face for even thinking for a second women who didn’t want to breastfeed or didn’t succeed at breastfeeding just weren’t trying hard enough- a feeling I am so deeply ashamed to admit that I almost didn’t write it here.

My research let me to a little something galled IGT- insufficient glandular tissue. Yup, that sounds about right. I do copious amounts of research on IGT, information, pictures, markers; I had almost every marker. Then one morning before work, because I’m a smart person, I finally cave to looking at pictures of what IGT breasts may look like- something I was avoiding out of pure fear: the pictures matched my body. Moments later, 32 little kindergarteners pile into my classroom, me with tears in my eyes, coming to the realization I was not going to be able to nourish my child. I was going to fail her. ..But no. I WILL BE ABLE TO BREAST FEED, DAMNIT!! I WILL! I WILL TRY HARD ENOUGH. Again, denial. From then on I started searching phrases like “breastfeeding with IGT” “Does no breast growth during pregnancy mean I won’t be able to breastfeed?” I found a few articles of women who were successful with the markers, or the lack of changes I experienced during pregnancy. I was going to make it. I was going to try hard enough. Here I am 8 months pregnant and can’t even fill up an A cup, yeah okay, keep lying to yourself honey, they’ll grow, you still have time. Friends assured me, even though they were stunned by my lack of growth during pregnancy, that I would absolutely grow immediately after birth (yeah, that didn’t happen either). I turn to my husband for comfort, who was deployed my entire pregnancy, and expressed my fears… he thought I was crazy. Of course he did, he wasn’t here to witness the momentous failure my breasts were. He thought I was exaggerating, I wasn’t. He did make it home 8 days before the birth of our daughter, he told me my breasts had grown, he lied to make me feel better- I did appreciate the sentiment. Every appointment up until moments before I delivered I discussed my concerns about not being able to breastfeed with my doctors, I was ignored, as usual.

Our baby was finally here, a beautiful 6 pound, 4 ounce baby girl. I developed a fever during labor and had a slight postpartum hemorrhage after delivery, and was unable to feed my daughter for almost 2 and a half hours after birth- I do partially attribute that delay in time to my epic failure of nursing. Even hours after she was born I was barely able to squeeze but a few drops of colostrum- I was given a hospital grade pump and nothing came out. My baby was unable to latch, and I was unable to produce. But the nurses, again, assured me my milk would come in fine, and that my baby would be able to eat, “her tummy is small, she only needs a little”.

I was given syringes to collect what few drops of colostrum I could manage to hand express from my breasts, I’d fill up maybe 1/5 of it, over an hour… that’s supposed to feed my baby? According to hospital staff, yes. I didn’t respond to a pump, I didn’t respond to hand expression, I didn’t respond to my baby’s suckle. My body was broken. I was NOT going to be able to nurse my child. It was official, it was certain.

We returned to the hospital 2 days after being discharged for my daughters 5 day old appointment; she was a whopping 5 pounds 5 ounces. My baby had lost 15% of her birth weight. I was devastated, I started crying uncontrollably right there in front of the hospital staff. We were given formula and a syringe with a tube to supplement- no bottles of course, you don’t want baby to get nipple confusion.

8 days after birth, yes 8, my “milk” finally came in. I woke up one morning with slight pain in my breasts- this was great!! I have milk! I pumped a whole 2 ounces- combined of course- and was slightly discouraged- my mom looked on the internet and assured me that was normal. I sent a picture to a friend so proud of all the milk I’d managed to pump, and got a response of “that’s all you got?” I know she wasn’t trying to rain on my parade or make me feel bad, but it did. I wanted this, damn it. I wanted to nurse my child.

We decided to only supplement 1.5 ounces of formula a day, a decision today I regret whole heartily. My baby was struggling to stay on the charts, she was the 0 percentile… is 0 even a percentile? For her, it was. Fast forward a month, after round the clock nursing sessions that lasted up to an hour, pumping every two hours, and many many lactation consultations, we finally started giving her bottles. Up until that point I was nursing every 2 hours and pumping the off hour… it was horrible. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I wanted to give up, not give up, stop, but my husband made me a promise that he wouldn’t let me, a promise I forced him to make- I know he was trying to support my decision and respect my wishes, but I had had enough.

Once the bottles started life got easier. At first it was one a day, we eventually went up- combo feeding worked for us, until it didn’t. When my baby was 6 weeks old my in-laws came for their first visit (they live across the country), the can of formula was on the counter- I overheard my MIL say to my husband “you know, you really shouldn’t be giving her formula, that’s not good” he responded with “well we are, because it’s what works for us”. Shamed for formula feeding in my own home. Shamed for trying to keep my baby alive in my own home. I tried, I tried to EBF, I couldn’t, I was starving my baby- I’m sorry my sweet girl, mommy is sorry.  quotescover-JPG-75

At just before 5 months we weaned her completely from breast feeding. She was over it, mommy was too hard to eat from and she was too hungry to work that hard for it. She rejected my breast. Refused me. She preferred bottled formula over mommy’s breast. Do you know how painful that is for a woman? I couldn’t force her to nurse if I tried, she wanted food, and I couldn’t give it to her.

Fast forward to today, my sweet girl is just 2 weeks away from turning 1 and I have found myself obsessed with the notion of relactation… its unhealthy. I’d never planned on breastfeeding past a year anyway, but here I am convinced that if I try harder this time I’ll be able to do it, I’ll be able to produce. Even when looking back and remembering how many days I felt like dying because I couldn’t nourish my child. I wanted to die. Or to run away and never look back because I felt like my child deserved better than me and that I wasn’t worthy enough to be her mother, all because I couldn’t succeeded at breastfeeding? Yet I’m still partially obsessed with relactation????

Breastfeeding destroyed me psychologically. Destroyed me. It took my happiness, it took my feeling of worthiness, it prevented me from fully bonding with my child, it contributed deeply to my postpartum depression, and it made me want to die. I no longer wanted to live, and that is terrible. Even today, on the days I forget to take my medication, I find myself in fits of tears over the loss of what should have been, but wasn’t, because of my broken body. I shouldn’t feel broken, but I do. I shouldn’t feel unworthy of motherhood, but I do. I shouldn’t feel like I failure, but I do. I shouldn’t fall into spells of depression and self-loathing all from seeing a photo of a friend breastfeeding, but I do. I shouldn’t feel a deep despair simply from noticing another woman’s breasts grew during pregnancy, but I do. Breast will never be best when it makes a mother feel like that… when it makes a person feel the way I did, the way I still do. My identity has become reliant on my lack of ability to breast feed, and it shouldn’t. I am a good mom, even if I did formula feed. Every day for the rest of my life I will struggle with the feelings of guilt and shame, and I hate that. But as long as there are lactivists who shame and humiliate formula feeding mothers, there will always be that feeling of incompetence in my heart- and its truly not fair.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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8 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “Breastfeeding destroyed me psychologically.”

  1. Your story brought me to tears. It has been three years since I had my firstborn and two since I had my second and your words reminded me so much of my own story. The despair, the sadness, the guilt. The self loathing and the shame of feeling broken just because our breasts didn’t work. I too have IGT and I tortured myself trying to make happen what was really impossible to do. I attempted to breastfeed twice and failed. I was heartbroken. I felt like the most horrible mother ever. I hated every single mom I saw breastfeeding because they reminded me of my own inadequacy and failure. The first two years of my boys lives were hell.
    However I want you to know you are an amazing mom. Your kids love you and thrive not because you breastfeed them, but because you love them and provide for their needs! You feed them when they are hungry, you change them when they are wet. You hold them when they cry and ache when they are in pain. You play with them and teach them. You are your child’s world!! You will see it soon, I promise! When they come running to hug you when you pick them up from preschool. When they only want you to put them to bed. When they cuddle and hug you with their little arms. When they want to show you all their little projects and smile proudly when you praise them. When they come running after they fall so you can kiss their boo boos away. They will not even remember how you feed them as babies. They will not care at all!! They will only know that their mama loves them and she is the most awesome person in the whole world (at least until they are teens xD)
    Hang in there! It takes time to heal from a broken heart but you will get there! Receive a big hug!!

  2. I would change your statement, “I am a good mom, even if I did formula feed” to “I am a good mom, especially because I formula fed.” You did a wonderful job listening to your own body (unfortunately your doctors did not) and listening to your daughter. Something my therapist told me that I hang on to is that feeding an infant is a teeny tiny part of mothering. In the scope of things, it’s pretty insignificant. It should not have the power to be a referendum on our fitness to parent! Hang in there, mama. We are so much effing more than our breasts!!

  3. Ashleigh, your story broke my heart. You are more than your breasts and your ability to be a good mother to your daughter has nothing to do with how you feed her. Nothing. You are a good mother because you love your daughter, you nurture her her heart, you nourish her body, you take care of yourself so you can take care of her. You wrap her in warm hugs and give her kisses. You read to her and play with her. These are all the things together that make a good mother. Please find a way to let go of the guilt and focus on the wonderful things you get to do with your daughter every day. Sending healing thoughts your way.

  4. I was moved by your story. I have 3 beautiful boys 31/2, 2 and 2weeks old. With My first son I fed him for 21 days. I expressed, fed and comped as his blood sugar levels dropped and he wasn’t getting enough from me. Every body said you will be able to feed, one lactation consultant said you may just be the kind of woman who needs to feed every hour! 21 days felt like 3years and it was the start of my postnatal depression. Second pregnancy, thought I’ll try again might have a different out come. He ended up on cpap for 72 hours and in special care for 5 days. So I didn’t hold him let alone feed him in that time. He is also tounge tied! I tried again for 3 weeks with no success suffering from more pnd. With number 3 I took formula to hospital fully intending not to torture myself again and just do the colostrum and comp when needed as by now I’m a mother of 3, I should feel confident with my choices and not feel pressured, however he had the most productive suck at birth out of all 3, so I start feeding thinking well I wont pump just feed and then comp. At 2 weeks where I am now, because of the comps he doesn’t suck productively on the breast any more so now I’m pumping and comping! Why do we have so much quilt! I also had 3 c sections which I always feel I need to explain and then didn’t really feed, so I iften feel like a failure all round. My 2 eldest both got sick with rsv and broncilitis early on as well and a part of me blamed the not feeding. But you no what my boys live me, tmy eldest wants mummy to tuck him in, play with him, do cooking etc etc, they are all so affectionate I think I bonded better once I made the decision to stop breat feeding. With my last son I came across a great midwife who I actually had with all 3 at times and she said 70% of women feed no problems, 30% struggle and 1% just absolutely can’t. At the end of the day healthy happy mum healthy happy bub.

  5. I too, failed at breastfeeding…three times. The first two times I attribute to postpartum depression. Everyone told me breastfeeding would make me feel better, but it only made me feel worse. The third time, my milk never even came in. I was so determined to exclusively pump when I went back to work after eight weeks, but was completely and utterly disappointed that my milk never arrived. My daughter breastfed like a champ in the hospital and was a complete angel, but she also lost a significant amount of weight and I ended up giving her some formula to supplement. After seeing my friends and family exclusively pump and constantly have bottles filled to the brim with breastmilk, it made me feel like completely s#*&. I will always have a void from not being able to breastfeed, but I have three healthy formula fed children who are NOT overweight and have gotten through sickness easily.

  6. I had PPD. And I absolutely believe that my inability to breastfeed and all the pressure behind it contributed to making it worse. I spent a week in a mental ward at the hospital when my daughter was 8 months old. That stigma is now permanently etched in my medical records. I recently gave birth to #2. He is formula fed. I didn’t even try breastfeeding. I had too much trauma associated with it. He spent a month in NICU. Alot of moms pumped there for their little ones. Everytime one of those pumps was wheeled down the hall, a little part of me died. I am ashamed of formula feeding, because somehow, my children will be disadvantaged. I thought it would be easier to formula feed #2. It isn’t.

  7. Ashleigh, you did NOT fail at breastfeeding, you did not fail your daughter, and you are not a failure! You were extremely successful! You breastfed your daughter for FIVE MONTHS with IGT – many women don’t even make it to five weeks! The only failure in your story is those who should have supported you.

    Please seek out your local breastfeeding coalition and ask if there are any local counselors who work with women with mental health concerns related to breastfeeding (there is one in Western Washington State that I know of for sure!). You deserve to feel like the wonderful mother you are without having to take pills to feel that way!

    If you choose to breastfeed any future little ones, there are other options that I didn’t see you mention in your heartbreaking story – it’s a little extra work, but it will allow you to breastfeed, even with biologically limited production – a supplemental nursing system or LactAid. It takes a bit to get used to, and ideally, you’ll also do some pumping to maximize your supply, but I’ve seen several of my clients feel so successful with feeding their babies at their breasts – even when the babies are taking approximately the same amount of formula through the supplementer as most babies take via bottle who don’t nurse – and most of them continued to breastfeed for comfort for YEARS after discontinuing the supplementers.

  8. She was given to you, to be her mom, as it should be. As you know struggling to even conceive is the real culprit behind a woman feeling like her body is a failure. The main thing is now she is over a year old and there is so much more to properly nourishing a growing child than what they drank during the first year. Hope you have many years of preparing nutritious meals for her and someday with her when you can cook meals together. 🙂

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