You guys know how much I love honesty and a healthy sense of humor about the ridiculousness that is infant feeding politics. Susan’s story has both those elements, but it also illustrates a major problem facing today’s parents: the unrealistic, romanticized notions of motherhood that we’re force fed by the media and each other.
Pregnancy can be hard. Birth can be awful. Postpartum depression happens. Talking about these things doesn’t have to be “scary” or “negative” – it can be cathartic. It can release women from expectations, and give them permission to find their truths. There can be beauty in a c-section; grace in an epidural. You can be a warrior even if (especially if) you’re bedridden for the last trimester, just as much as you can be while running a marathon in your 36th week. Formula feeding for one woman is just as rewarding and empowering as breastfeeding is for another. It’s your journey, and no one – not your doctor, your neighbor, your mother, your Lamaze instructor, your lactation consultant, or the dude at the grocery store checkout – has the right to tell you what path is right for you.
Enjoy Susan’s story – every last amazing word of it – and then make a pact to be real with your friends about pregnancy, birth and postpartum. And more importantly, make a promise that you’ll be sensitive to the fact that your right is not your friend’s right, and that there are no absolutes. That’s what true support looks like, I think.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
Even before getting pregnant, I never doubted that I would breastfeed one day if I had a child. As a young, over-educated, single know-it-all, I looked down on baby formula.
Although I was fed on formula, I remember a not-so-well-meaning relative making a disparaging comment to my mother about it when I was 15 years old, in 1992. This woman was breastfeeding her son, and could not believe that my mother thought it acceptable to feed her babies formula. The hype around breastfeeding was so strong that as a 15 year-old, before I even knew where I would go to college and what I would “be when I grew up”, I was certain that not only was breastfeeding best, but formula feeding was just not even an option if I wanted to be a great parent someday.
Fast forward 21 years. When my husband and I found out we were expecting a baby, I devoured everything on pregnancy, childbirth, and baby care I could get my hands on. It was during this time that my anti-formula stance developed some holes. I was still committed to breastfeeding, but after reading that Tina Fey tried it, and fed her babies formula, I no longer lumped formula exclusively in the land of the stupid and ignorant. A blogger who I respect reported that before she had her first baby, she purchased some formula for “just in case”, even though she did go on to breastfeed. I read Bringing Up Bebe and found it fascinating to read that in Paris, upon hearing that a woman was “still” breastfeeding at 8 weeks, another woman said, “What does your husband say about that? What does your shrink say?”. I noticed that quite a few Breastfeeding books off-handedly mentioned that some women did experience breastfeeding challenges, but, it was nothing that a serious 6-8 week commitment to nursing couldn’t iron out. I also heard a lot of, shall we say, ”interesting” comments from acquaintances re nursing…. things like, ”It’s a real commitment!” and “Are you planning to breastfeed? If so, make sure it’s the ONLY thing you do. Just breastfeed and sleep. Don’t even unload the dishwasher!” Finally, from that family member who chastised my mother twenty years ago: “It’s really great if you can just stick it out in the beginning….”. I didn’t press her, but I wondered what it was that she had to “stick out”.
Unfortunately, at the same time I was also entrenched in a prenatal world that glorified all things natural. To prepare for birth I was taking a Hynobabies class, which assures you a “painless and beautiful birthing” achievable through deep relaxation and the ancient wisdom of our bodies. I was attending prenatal yoga with instructors who breastfed their babies for years, used cloth diapers, and eschewed epidurals. A close friend of mine said, “I haven’t heard of anyone who had any problems with breastfeeding as long as their baby latched well initially”. This was also a friend who had two unmedicated births, and was known to frequently utter the following: “I just LOVED both of my birth experiences!”.
I wanted to be in this seductive club. Everyone looked beautiful and had shiny hair and glowing babies. They weren’t fat. They never talked about anything negative. I wanted to be in the club where I could have a beautiful, “natural”, unmedicated “birth experience”. I wanted to snuggle with my daughter, while she gently nuzzled my breast and happily sucked the milk out. I wanted to be that new mom who was bounding into downward dogs at 4 weeks, and had lost all of her baby weight by 6 weeks. And everyone would comment on how amazing I looked, how beautiful our baby was, and I would tell them about how much I LOVED giving birth, while easily unbuttoning my shirt and sliding my baby in for a gulp. I would tell pregnant woman about the miracle of life and how easy it all was going to be for them!! I wanted to escape all the difficulty of new motherhood, and a part of me really believed that if I just willed it, it could happen to me.
As my pregnancy drew on, I was so smug. My husband and I attended an infant CPR class and saw a couple there with their baby. Halfway through, the mom began mixing powdered formula with water. “How sad”, I thought. I immediately put myself in a different, “better” camp than this woman. “How sad that she couldn’t breastfeed.” It never once occurred to me that perhaps she had chosen to use formula — that formula feeding as a choice, versus something one was forced into, was even possible! I saw formula as the last resort for women who “couldn’t” breastfeed . . . the unfortunate women who hadn’t done enough visualizing, reading, sun salutes, and deep breathing. The women who were just going to have a hard time with everything.
A week before my due date, as my husband and I sat down to eat pizza and watch our favorite TV show, “it” started. And by “it”, I mean the most painful, jarring, breath-stopping contractions. They brought me to my knees almost from the get go, made my teeth chatter, and made me want to set fire to all of my Hypnobabies practice materials. “Would you like to listen to one of the hypnosis tracks?”, my husband asked, one hour after contractions started. “NO!” I screamed. “I want a #&$*ing epidural!!!!”.
In addition to the physical pain and the shock of this happening a week early (in all of my visualizations, our daughter was at least 10 days late), I felt I was on a runaway train away from the club I most desperately wanted to be in. I hated the contractions, and I wanted medication more than anything. I wanted it all to stop and restart in two weeks, in the way I had visualized!!! Sadly, as I was breathing through contractions, a part of me already felt like I was weak and that I failed because I knew I would request an epidural once we got to the hospital. This is so sad. Because the truth is, I was a star. I was so strong. I labored in our living room with our doula for 12 hours, from 10 PM to 10 AM, through contractions that threw me to the ground. Now, 5 months out, I can see that. But at the time, I felt shame that I couldn’t sit motionless on the birth ball and blissfully ride each wave, possibly while doing a yoga chant.
21 hours after labor started, a beautiful and determined baby girl was writhing on my stomach and clawing her way to my breasts. I looked down at this approaching creature in terror. Labor crushed me. The epidural only worked on one side, and so I had been awake for over 36 hours, 21 of them in indescribable pain. To be completely truthful, the last thing I wanted in that moment was to try and breastfeed. I wanted a glass of champagne and a fuzzy bathrobe. But, onto the breast our daughter went. She placed her lips around my nipple. It was soft and sweet. Then, it was like a fistful of needles on the most sensitive area of my beyond exhausted body. “Owww!” I yelled while whipping around to get help from our doula, who said with a grin, “That’s a latch!”
“Are you kidding?!?!” I thought. “That’s a latch?!?!”. Despite my wish to visualize my way through life, I actually have a very low tolerance for discomfort and after about a minute I pushed my daughter off. “I can’t do this right now”, I said. “That’s OK”, our doula assured me, “there will be plenty of time later”. Our daughter was whisked away for the weighing, eye drops, etc and returned to me in the burrito swaddle. Much better.
Once we were settled in our room, I was told to “not worry too much about nursing” in the first 24 hours because the baby and I were sleepy. “Excellent!!”, I thought, and I took this very literally. I requested that our daughter go to the nursery so I could sleep, and think I breastfed her maybe 2 or 3 times within that first 24 hours. One lactation consultant told us we were “pros” after watching a video my husband took of the process because the LC wasn’t available when we were actually nursing. Things seemed brighter. Even though I had an epidural, we were breastfeeding professionals and so there was still a chance I could be in the Perfect and Natural Mommy Club.
Unfortunately, too much time passed before our daughter produced a wet diaper, and we were told to give her formula. Formula!!!! The nurse brought in a 2-ounce bottle of Similac and I burst into shaky uncontrollable tears!! “This is my fault!!”, I said to my husband, “I shouldn’t have slept!! I should have nursed her! I have #*$$ed this up!! And now she has to have formula and she won’t be interested in the breast!”. Everything fell apart in my mind. And I was to blame. I had selfishly slept, and now, I was back on that runaway train away from the club, and heading directly to Poor Parenting Incorporated.
My levelheaded husband assured me that our daughter would still be interested in the breast, and that a little formula would be OK, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. He fed her the formula. And more formula. And more formula. Because despite more nursing sessions, the wet diaper had yet to appear. The hours dragged on and we had to stay in the hospital an extra day.
By this time, I could feel the anxiety oozing into my core. Little did I know, this was the beginning of an early post-partum depression. I was terrified of our baby. I was afraid to dress her because she was so tiny and thin and I might rip her arm out of its socket, and I was afraid to hold her naked because my hands were so sweaty I thought she’d slip out of them. I felt that I had already really messed up as a mom, and that she did not like me. When we arrived home, my husband had a greeting card waiting for me, “from our daughter”, telling me I was the best mommy ever. I started shaking with tears of shame and felt that not only was I the worst mommy ever, but my daughter would be better off without me. And then I heard my daughter’s wails . . . I tried to nurse her but she was up for most of the night. I trembled in fear while changing her diaper at 3 AM while my husband slept. I remember saying, “okay okay okay okay okay okay” in a shaky voice, taking a breath, and repeating. Every minute seemed to last an hour. She was getting a tiny fraction of the 14-18 hours of sleep a newborn needs. The next morning she was yellow. Our doula was scheduled to come over and help me with breastfeeding. When she rang the doorbell a wave of relief washed over me. “Now everything will be OK! She is going to teach me to nurse!”, I thought. When I realized each nursing session would take over an hour, I wanted to run away. Especially because she was never satisfied after each one, and I felt worse and worse after each one. “What on earth are we doing?” I wondered . . . and wanted to wake up from this terrible dream.
The first week was the worst week of my life. Our daughter had jaundice, so we needed to take her to pediatrician everyday to get her bilirubin levels checked. I was advised to nurse, then pump, then feed her a bottle of formula. I was always freezing and sweating, and between sterilizing everything, setting up the pump, learning how to use it, the sitz baths, and all the feeding steps there was no time to sleep or eat. I would cram a power bar down my throat after stuffing everything into the cab to get to the pediatrician. My friend who “loved both her birth experiences” texted me to “relax because stress wasn’t good for breastfeeding”. I’m sorry, how do you relax when your baby’s jaundice is getting worse everyday, with the constant threat of her being taken away to go under the light in the hospital, and this is all because your body isn’t working? After two sleepless nights because our daughter was never full, we hired a night nurse. This helped tremendously, but I still hated everything about breastfeeding. I would dread the feeding time. Breastfeeding would take an hour minimum, and my daughter would either fall asleep or arch her back uncomfortably. Her latch was weak. I would feel self-hatred for not being able to do this, and frustration with my daughter, and then more self-hatred for feeling frustrated with a 5 day old baby. I felt so much pressure walking into the pediatrician office each day, and learning that still, her bill levels were too high. I was failing, and my daughter was struggling. I was horrible at being a mother. Our pediatrician was beyond kind and encouraging . . . all this pressure was coming from me. Finally, a week after she was born, her bili levels were normal. We got through the first week, but barely.
I continued to feed, pump, and then do the formula supplement. But with my husband heading back to work the next week, the walls felt like they were closing in. How on earth was I going to do this by myself? Not to mention that I continued to HATE breastfeeding. I hated strapping on the Brest Friend pillow. I hated drinking lactation tea instead of coffee. I hated sitting on the couch, for an hour per session, minimum, with an aching back and feet so swollen they couldn’t fit into any shoes. I hated trying to unhook the nursing bra with my debilitating post-partum wrist tendonitis that made it impossible for me to wash my hair or put on my coat. I hated how I was stressed for feeling stressed when damn it, a first baby is stressful. I hated eating fennel and oatmeal instead of whatever I wanted, so I could “get my supply up”. I hated how I never, ever needed nursing pads in my bra, never was engorged, and therefore just was not producing enough milk. I hated waking in middle of night, drenched and shivering in sweat, to pump, and being told by a lactation consultant that if I really wanted to get my supply up, I would have to pump every 3 hours, with no breaks, in a 24 hour time period.
Things came crashing down at the start of the second week. My husband was back at work and we hired a woman to help us during the day. On the first day, she fell asleep holding our baby so I fired her. I called my “loved my birth experiences” friend who told me to “stick it out with breastfeeding because it’s very sweet”, and who told me I “didn’t have postpartum depression”, and who told me that “this was a relatively easy time compared to what was coming up in 3 months”. I hung up, and sat hunched over the breast pump shaking in tears. I reached out to acquaintances with babies, two of whom encouraged me to get help immediately because what I was feeling was not “normal”. However, those same acquaintances told me to “just feed on demand” and then nursing would work itself out. My husband’s mother, Anne, made an emergency trip to be with us. She came into the apartment on a Tuesday. My daughter had been “nursing” at my breast for 3 hours, and we were alone in the apartment. I was stiff, smelly, needed to pee, and dehydrated. But I was feeding “on demand”. I was at the end of my rope. Anne took our daughter and fed her a bottle of formula while I cried tears of relief and despair in the shower, and had an emergency phone call with my therapist.
That evening a different lactation consultant came. A lovely woman named Gretchen to whom I will be forever grateful. Gretchen brought a scale. After our daughter nursed that night for an hour, Gretchen determined that she had taken in a half of an ounce of breast milk. So much for us being “pros”.
Gretchen laid out the facts. If I wanted to keep breastfeeding, I would need to take some radical steps to get my supply up. If I wanted to exclusively pump, here was the method I could follow. And, bless Gretchen, if I wanted to stop producing breast milk, which was OKAY, here was what I needed to do.
Gretchen was the only breastfeeding professional who was able to accurately assess the situation, see my pain, and prioritize our collective health. When she walked in that night, and I described what was going on in hyperventilating tears, she told me I was an amazing mother. She told me that the triple feeding I was doing (nursing, pumping, formula feeding) was so much effort, and that not many woman would do this, and that it was so clear to her how much I loved my baby. This was the first time anyone involved in breastfeeding praised me for my effort, not the result. She told me it was okay to cry, rather than berating me for crying and stressing.
I saw my neighbor — the woman who told me to not empty the dishwasher if I wanted to breastfeed — the next day. She was in her fourth month of nursing every 2 hours. I told her about Gretchen’s visit, and that I was considering exclusively pumping. (I still couldn’t consider fully ‘quitting’ . . . .). I felt a little envious of my neighbor, and just amazed that she was awake, every two hours, for four months. I also wondered how she was still alive. Then, she told me she thought nursing was “overrated”. “Really?!?!” I exclaimed. “Why?!?!”. She sent me a sibling study that aimed to disentangle the practices of breastfeeding parents (singing, reading, nurturing) from the actual breastfeeding.
The day after that, I just started to cry hysterically while sitting on the couch. I hadn’t decided yet what I was going to do, but had already reduced some nursing sessions. I realize I was just so depressed. I told my husband’s mother. She looked at me with so much love, and nodded, and said she knew I was depressed. She implored me to get help. She looked me square in the eye, and said, “Susan, if you need to go on Zoloft, and feed June formula, that is OKAY. June is going to be FINE. I’m not worried about June. I am worried about you.”
And suddenly, I felt a lightness. I needed those words more than anything. I needed someone to tell me to give myself 1/10th of the attention I was giving to my daughter. I needed to know it was OK to have post-partum depression, and to feed my daughter formula. And that it was OK to get help, and that I would get through it.
I scheduled an appointment with my therapist, and began to see her weekly. I started going to physical therapy for my wrist tendonitis. I went on some walks. I went to a coffee shop with my laptop and brainstormed an approach for getting a part-time job. I got my bangs cut. I had a manicure. None of these things were radical, but I needed them to feel better, and truthfully, they would not have been possible had I decided to keep breastfeeding, simply because between the actual nursing and then the pumping I would have had to do, I would not have had time to leave the house, do something for an hour (an hour!), and get home. I stopped talking with my friend who “loved her birth experiences”, and started reaching out to more women I knew as casual acquaintances with children. I made new, compassionate friends who were my text and email lifelines. I started hearing over and over and over, “happy mama = happy baby”, and I started taking those words to heart.
And something dawned on me. It was OK to switch my daughter to formula simply because that would make me happier. It was OK to prioritize my well-being. Amazingly, it felt quite simple to release myself from the shackles of self-sacrifice that I thought were necessary to being a good mother. Could I have established breastfeeding? Maybe. I don’t know. But I didn’t want to keep going. I didn’t want to “stick it out”. Could I have exclusively pumped? Maybe. I don’t know. But I was daunted by what I read about it and wanted to rest instead. I wanted to get myself to a good place, and a big part of that was to pour formula into a bottle, cradle my beautiful baby, watch her blissfully drink, and then pass out either in my arms or pressed against my chest. In those early days, after a bottle of formula, she would drift off with her lower lip stuck out, coated in formula. We would dress her in kimono-style onesies and after eating, dub her the ‘drunken buddha’. This experience was the complete opposite of breastfeeding her, when she would writhe, arch, cry, and pull hard at my breast to get the milk out and I would feel trapped and frustrated. Instead, what I experienced when feeding her formula was exactly what I had visualized for nursing. I have so many beautiful selfies from weeks 3, 4, 5, and 6 . . . of a plump-cheeked newborn passed out, mouth open, against my breast because she liked to lay her head there, but full from a bottle of formula. I did continue to pump, but never made more than six or eight ounces a day. I didn’t like pumping, but a part of me felt like she needed this tiny bit of breast milk just for immunity. I am trying to learn more about this now, and release myself of this obligation when I think about what life will be like with our next baby if we are so blessed.
Anne accompanied me to the one-month pediatrician well visit. While we were in the waiting room, Anne voiced her disgust over the cover of Fit Pregnancy. It showed a picture of a gorgeous woman — very thin, coiffed long blond hair, full makeup, sexy short dress with spike heels, carrying an infant. Anne said she couldn’t believe the pressure women were under today . . . she said, “what woman looks like this when she’s raising an infant?”. I couldn’t admit it to her, but that had been what I wanted!! This woman looked like she was part of the club I had so desperately wanted to join. But when Anne said this, I mentally stepped back and saw the lunacy in everything I had thought I wanted. She was absolutely right! What real woman looked like this and felt no negativity in that first year of having a baby? And really, how important is it to lose all the baby weight as fast as possible? Not long after our appointment, I emailed a photo of June and I to a prenatal fitness instructor I’d seen during my third trimester. She emailed back immediately, saying that I “looked great”, but, “could use a brighter lip color” and that I should “go to Sephora and get some new spring makeup!”. I was stunned and could not email back. I was five weeks post-partum, and the focus is on my makeup selection?!?! I feel angry that the pressures on new moms continue to mount. Update your makeup! Lose the weight! Breastfeed on demand! Buy Proust for Babies! And don’t forget to smile, and ENJOY EVERY SECOND of being a new mom!!!
At doctor visits, June was thriving. Typically we would have a medical student first ask us about feeding, napping, diapers, etc before the doctor came in. At the one month appointment, I told the med student we were mainly feeding June formula but she was getting about 6 – 8 ounces of breast milk per day. The student’s face lit up at the words “breast milk”. I didn’t get angry though, because that could have been me 15 years ago. It is just a reflection of the world we live in. Instead of commenting on June’s amazing weight gain and on-track development, the positive expression was reserve for the words “breast milk”.
By week 6 things were so much better. I was healing physically and emotionally, and June was doing well, though she was quite fussy. But another wave of depression hit me and this time I lashed out at my husband. I was angry at him for letting me sleep in the hospital. “Everything could have been different!” I said. We could be nursing, I could be even closer to June, she might be doing even better. Maybe she wouldn’t be so fussy! When I look back on that now, it’s just so sad. My husband loved me and knew I needed sleep after the ordeal of labor and birth. My husband never de-prioritized me after we had our baby and still doesn’t. When he comes home from work he kisses me first, and then June. He wanted me to be OK. And here I was, lashing out at him for this, because clearly breastfeeding was more important than anything else.
While we had setbacks, with each week things got better. When I brought my breast pump to a job interview at week 7, there was no place to pump, and I realized no gold stars were handed out to women who produce breast milk. When I stopped pumping at 8 weeks, so much of my depression withered away and I began to really feel like “my old self”. Five months out, I see everything we went through as one of the most positive transformative experiences of my life. I realize how incredibly judgmental I used to be about everything regarding pregnancy and childbirth. And through my own struggles I’ve released this. I realize the emptiness of words like “bad”, and “fail”, and “perfect”. What exactly do they mean? I am a better wife, mommy, and friend from this experience. I am also a lot happier. Less “perfect” (I don’t really care when I lose the baby weight and have already bought jars of non-organic baby food), for sure, but a lot happier.
I also realize how lucky we are! We had a healthy baby. We were and are able to feed her. And I feel so lucky I was able to step out of the insanity and find people to connect with who showed true wisdom and compassion, and who offered me unconditional support. And I feel so lucky to have been told to give our daughter formula by people who did not let trendy dogma obscure our baby’s need for nourishment, and her mommy’s need for a different feeding approach.
I am also so humbled. Rather than naively glorifying the natural world, I just have so much respect for it. Nature is formidable. Without modern medicine and amazing doctors, I’m not sure I could have made it through childbirth. And without baby formula, I’m not sure if my little girl would have made it. And as far as breastfeeding being “natural” . . . let us not forget the high infant mortality rates in developing societies, and the constant availability of “alternatives” to nursing in the form of wet nurses and rudimentary formulas since prehistory, if not earlier. The expectation that every woman will be able to feed her baby, all by herself, using only her own body is not rooted in nature; it is a creation of our times.
Our daughter now is so healthy and happy. She is beautiful, delightfully fat, makes the most magnificent sounds, and loves to eat. Despite all of this, a part of me harbors a wish to nurse our next baby if we are so lucky to have one. I shared this with my neighbor recently, whose daughter is now 8 months, and who is still nursing. “Really?!” she said. “I’m considering not nursing at all when I have the next baby!” she exclaimed. I wondered what it is I’m looking for in the quest to nurse. I hope that by the time we have another baby, I figure it out, and have the grace to really know what is right for our baby, for me, and for our family, and to fearlessly follow that path.