About Suzanne Barston

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.

FFF Friday: “It was okay to prioritize my well-being.”

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,

The FFF

***

 

Susan’s Story

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. quotescover-JPG-83

 

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.

 

A Poem by Jennifer Bagot-Woods

The following poem is by Jennifer Bagot-Woods. I’m so honored she is allowing me to share it with the FFF audience… hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

- The FFF

***

 

“Breast is best”, everyone knows…

it’s all a little one needs to grow.

It’s how I was fed when I was a baby…

so I’ll breastfeed, no ifs, buts or maybes!

 

“Breast is best” the midwife said…

so that’s what I’ll do, it’s clear in my head.

No bottles required, except to express.

Formula is only for mums who care less.

 

“Breast is best” the researchers say.

There really is no other way…

to give your baby the best start in life.

I’ve already heard this from the midwife!

 

 “Breast is best” the mums groups agree.

With the added bonus it comes cost free!

Your baby will develop just as she should.

That formula stuff is really no good.

 

“Breast is best”, it’s really quite simple…

your baby will latch, then guzzle and guzzle…

till her tummy is full with such wholesome food…

the milk from the breast, it really is good!

 

“Breast is best” – it’s how you bond…

skin-on-skin is all she’ll want.

You’ll be so close, it’s rather nice.

This seems to be the best advice!

 

“Breast is best” – my baby is here,

I offer her mine, it’s met with tears.

I try all positions, the tricks I’ve been taught…

but the ability to suck – she has not!

 

“Breast is best” – the Health Visitors Advice.

But expressing is taking over my life.

As my baby can’t suck, we syringe every feed.

“Just keep on trying, you’re fulfilling her needs”.

 

“Breast is best” the literature reads:

“Offer her breast at every feed”.

Soon she will learn to take from you…

and the bond you forge will be so true.

 

“Breast is best” but my baby is starving.

Demanding more milk but still not latching.

My supply can’t keep up with my little ones growth.

But formula is bad, everyone knows!

 

“Breast is best” of course unless…

You try and try with no success!

That bond they promised can’t be had…

when every mealtime starts so bad.

 

When the time on the breast only frustrates…

I begin to wonder if this advice is so great?

 As my baby’s suck is already weak…

and she’s tired from simply trying to eat.

 

Each feed takes two hours – sometimes more.

Then I rush to express from breasts so sore.

I must get enough to meet her next feed.

I’m so worn out by “fulfilling her needs”.

 

I sit and reflect at the end of a day…

Feed – wind – express – no time for play…

or to cuddle and cherish my precious new baby…

this expressing regime is making me crazy!

 

I start to wonder if my milks even good…

when it’s days since I managed to consume proper food.

So I’m met with a choice difficult to make…

about what is best for everyone’s sake?

 

Do I sacrifice meals and take time to express?

I’m already exhausted and my milk supply’s less!

For weeks we have tried but the breast doesn’t work…

with a baby who plainly and simply can’t suck!

 

Then the decision is taken out of my hands…

when the amount I express can’t meet her demands.

So with feelings of guilt, and possibly grief…

we resort to formula and in disbelief…

 

“Breast is Best” is the first thing we read!

Endorsed on the packaging – advice for free!

And now the guilt is made much worse.

This whole situation feels like a curse!

 

“Breast is best” but not everyone is able.

So I make up a bottle and cry at the table.

Then my baby is hungry and it’s all that I’ve got.

And even with bottle her sucking’s not hot.

 

But she manages to chomp and take a good feed.

I watch her guzzle, for the first time with greed…

a meal that didn’t start with the option of breast.

A mealtime not spoiled with fussing and stress.

 

My feelings of guilt don’t last very long…

when I see that my baby is healthy and strong.

Then in between feeds we make time to play…

as expressing doesn’t occupy all of my day!

 

And that bond that they said breastfeeding would bring…

only starts forming when we stop the damn thing!

For the frustration and stress at the start of each meal…

is replaced by some cuddles and a peace she can feel.

 

So “Breast is best” of course unless…

all it brings is exhaustion and stress.

And looking back now with a head that is level…

formula was our godsend, disguised as the devil!

- Jennifer Bagot-Woods

 

FFF Friday: “I felt like I was already failing as a mother.”

Before I became the FFF, I was an exclusive pumper. It worked well for me, at first. It was a lifesaver, in every sense of the word- allowing my child could eat and grow, and allowing me to feel like I was doing the “right” thing when everything I was doing felt hopelessly wrong. I even enjoyed my pumping sessions; they were a quiet, private respite from the onslaught of post-first-baby visitors; a time when I could drop the act of being a happy, “normal” postpartum mom, and let the ugly tears flow. 

But as weeks went on, pumping become a prison. I couldn’t comfort my baby, because I was always hooked up to the pump. My mood rose and fell with the amount of milk I produced. The pump spoke to me, taunted me.

In Noel’s story, she speaks of how difficult it is to exclusively pump for a newborn (in her case, a preemie). She also mentions the difficulty of going out when you’re feeding a child in this manner. I clearly remember using the portable, battery-operated pump in the back seat of our car while my baby cried, waiting for his next meal. I was scared someone would see me – I would have proudly nursed in public, but having a stranger see my nipple contort as I tried to squeeze out a few drops of breastmilk felt mortifying. 

There are so many ways to feed a baby. Exclusive pumping works wonderfully for some, breastfeeding is ideal for some, formula is the way to go for some. I want us to be able to talk about all these methods honestly and openly, and ensure that there’s adequate support for ALL parents trying to fill their child’s belly. It doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be volatile or controversial or a freaking competition. We all struggle. Can’t we focus on making things easier, for everyone?

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Noel’s Story

 

I gave birth at 34 weeks gestation due to PPROM (water breaking prematurely). There were no indications beforehand that I was at risk for PPROM, I followed all the pregnancy rules and had good prenatal care. My daughter spent 12 days in the NICU, 8 of those in an incubator and 10 days with a feeding tube because she was not strong enough to eat. We attempted to breastfeed every day, and she would latch and attempt to suck but wasn’t able to get much. While she was in the NICU, I pumped every 3 hours during the day and once overnight. Every day the NICU nurses would make me feel guilty for not pumping every 3 hours overnight, so I began lying and saying I was. Somehow they expected me to do all the crazy amount of work getting ready for a surprise baby 6 weeks early, visit the NICU twice a day, recover from birth, and be awake for 1 hour out of every 3 to pump round the clock. I felt like I was already failing as a mother.

When she came home she was able to take a bottle but not breastfeed. Pumping, including setup and cleanup, took about 1 hour out of every 3. We also had to fortify the milk, make bottles, and actually feed the baby. And we were supposed to attempt breastfeeding twice a day, but I was usually too tired. Most of the actual time with the baby, including feeding her, went to my husband (who quit his job because of no paternity leave!). I felt like my life was reduced to being nothing more than a milk machine, when just 2 weeks earlier I was working as a respected postdoctoral scientist. I also couldn’t really leave the house. Funny how there’s a big push for women to be able to breastfeed in public (which I completely support) but I think if I hooked up to my pump in a coffee shop it wouldn’t go very well.quotescover-JPG-12

2 weeks after our baby came home I was ready to breakdown. I was horribly sleep deprived and I hated pumping and I hated breastfeeding. My husband wanted us to switch to formula so that I could become sane again. I realized that by the time my daughter could breastfeed, if she ever could, I would be returning to work and thus still tied to my pump. I have a shared office and would be forced to walk 7 minutes up a steep hill to a designated pumping room. My expectation of a happily breastfeeding baby just wasn’t going to happen for us. I did my research and found that while the long-term benefits of breastfeeding were questionable, the immune cells found in breastmilk give a significant short-term benefit. With a preemie I felt awful about not giving her the best immune system possible, but agreed that my sanity was more important and with our pediatrician’s blessing we made the switch. Our daughter is now 6 months old and has never been sick.

I live in a “progressive” area of California and on multiple occasions strangers or acquaintances have asked if she is breastfed. A coworker even told my husband that he really needed to “make” his wife breastfeed on his first day at a new job. Instead of feeling like I have to justify our decision, I tell people that it’s none of their business. A good friend of mine is a PhD student in my field of science with a breastfed 1 year old. She was completely supportive of our decision and said we should do whatever worked best for our family. Her department did not have a pumping room for mothers, so she kicked male faculty out of their own offices to pump in them until they relented and gave her a room. I think it’s so awesome that she stood up for her right to do that, just as I will stand up for my right not to be guilted about my decision to switch to formula, because we should all be able to choose what works best for our babies without judgement or guilt.

***

Feel like sharing your story? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com

 

Special Feature: Excerpt from the new book, “Becoming Mother”

I am so thrilled to bring you a free preview of Sharon Tjaden-Glass’s new book, Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity, which came out just today. Becoming Mother is “a reflective memoir that spans from pregnancy through the end of the first year postpartum. It follows the author as she resists, denies, copes with, and ultimately embraces her identity as a mother.” I love how Tjaden-Glass blends introspection with reflection on larger social issues, and I especially enjoyed her chapter on feeding her daughter, which you’ll find below. If you’d like to read more, the book is available on Amazon (Print and Kindle), or you can visit her website. 

- The FFF

***

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

Why did my inability to breastfeed cause me so much devastation? Was it perhaps because I still felt so connected to Felicity? Certainly, this presented a paradox: How could our needs be in such conflict while we were still so attached? She needed food, and I couldn’t provide it. It seemed impossible.

But there was another, deeper layer to my devastation—the devastation of a wounded identity, one that was still a newborn itself. That fresh identity as a competent mother—hero of my own story, defender of my newborn baby—was now at risk. I was becoming some breed of mother who didn’t neatly fall into one category or another. How could I have had an unmedicated childbirth and now be formula feeding my baby? What kind of mother was that?

Mothers like me didn’t seem to exist in mommy blogs or on-line forums. Mothers who gave birth without medication always breastfed their babies! They endured the pain so their babies would be alert after birth and latch with no problems. If they could stand the pain of childbirth, the pain of nursing cramps and chomped nipples and mastitis would be child’s play.

This is what I thought.

But again, these thoughts emerge from living in a society that emphasizes choice. When our concerns are not simply feeding our children, we can refocus our concerns on how we are feeding them. And when those feeding choices are presented on a continuum of “good, better, and best”, it’s fairly easy to jump to the conclusion of “good, better, and best mother.”

Even after I reassured myself that I was a competent mother, I knew the stereotypes that follow mothers who formula feed today. Our identities are not solely composed of what we think about ourselves. They also include—whether we like it or not—what others think about us. We may not care what some people think about our parenting, but we want those whom we respect to see us at least as good parents, if not great parents. And so this was a major psychological blow at a time when I was already bottoming out because of the fluctuations in my postpartum hormones.

So when I was unable to breastfeed, I had to reconcile many truths. I had to surrender my commitment to breastfeed. I had to accept that my baby wouldn’t be eating what everyone was calling “the best.” I had to reconcile what this decision said about my new identity as a mother. And I had to accept a very definite separation from my baby at a time when I wasn’t ready to let go.

Until I decided to wean Felicity, I had relied on evidence-based research to make decisions about labor, birth, and feeding. And while all of this knowledge helped me to avoid an unnecessary labor induction, it was not the definitive authority that I had imagined it to be during pregnancy. Because I lacked confidence in my own instincts as a woman and a mother, I placed all of my trust in this research, believing that it would provide me the best counsel about how to solve any problem that I could encounter as a new mother.

In fact, Davis-Floyd (2003) explored this tendency of American mothers to grant more authority to scientific knowledge than their own intuitive and bodily knowledge. She asserts that this tendency arises from American cultural beliefs that possessing, “scientific knowledge about medical birth” gives mothers power and control in a culture where, “knowledge… is respected… (and) enables one to be a competent player of our cultural game” (p. 31). Not only does her cultural observation explain my intense desire to read and research during pregnancy, but it helps me understand my own distrust in my body’s signals.

But if I had been able to listen to my body and trust my instincts more, I would have probably stopped breastfeeding around eight days postpartum. It was at this time that I knew my milk supply was not going to increase. My daughter was already eating mostly formula despite my constant pumping and nursing. I had done all of the interventions that I could try and the outcome was the same—one to two ounces of breast milk per day. At this point, I had to start denying what was happening to me in order to keep going. Every time I nursed her, I reminded myself that breastfeeding was best and that I was doing the right thing. I refused to let myself focus on the fact that she could only draw half an ounce of breast milk during a feeding. Instead, I allowed statistics and the results of scientific studies to overshadow my own personal experience.

 

But it wasn’t just research that fueled my self-denial.

It was also my own pride.

 

I shared in today’s breastfeeding enthusiasm to the point of sacrificing my own health. I had read about the dangers of infant formula. I didn’t want processed food going into my baby’s body. Unlike women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, I live in a time when breastfeeding is now heralded as the best decision that mothers can make for the health of their babies. It supports their immune systems. Breast milk is more easily digested, so babies have fewer cases of constipation and diarrhea. It makes them smarter? It decreases their chances of developing obesity? Okay, those findings seemed like a stretch, but I was willing to believe them—since I was going to breastfeed.

 

But ultimately, it was my own pride that kept me nursing and pumping until I literally had nothing left to give.

 

I didn’t want to be criticized. But I also didn’t want to be wrong.

 

I realize now that in those early months of her life, whenever nursing came up as a topic, I found myself trying to convince people that I didn’t choose to formula feed. Instead, I was forced to formula feed. I thought about all the assumptions that someone might have about me if they thought that I had chosen to formula feed. Assumptions that I had gathered from the hospital’s breastfeeding class, from popular breastfeeding books, and from on-line forums about breastfeeding. Through the postpartum fog, I could almost hear their thoughts.

 

Maybe you should have pumped more. Nipple shields slow the stream of milk. You should have taken more herbal supplements or tried this medication that I took. If you slept more, your milk would have come in. Are you sure her latch was good?

 

For the first few months of Felicity’s life, nearly every conversation with another mother started with the presumptive “So how’s the nursing going?” or the kinder “Are you nursing?” I never started these feeding conversations, but they came up in every conversation with a visitor who came to our home in those early months.

 

“I’m not breastfeeding anymore,” I would say.

 

The long pause. The nod. The silence, as if waiting for more.

 

Every time, I tried to figure out how to get out of the conversation without breaking into tears. I found myself answering questions that they hadn’t even asked. I launched into explanations of how hard I tried, how often I nursed her, and the types of interventions we used. The two weeks of devastating insomnia, the miniscule yield from pumping sessions, her weight loss, my descent into hell.

 

And then I would end with, “But really, medically there’s a problem with me. My milk never really came in. Really, I didn’t have any engorgement. I have thyroid issues, so that’s probably what caused it.”

 

But no matter how convincing I thought I was, I was embarrassed to even talk about the issue because of an oft-repeated statistic about how nearly every healthy woman can produce enough milk for her baby. Only one to five percent of women are not able to produce enough milk for their babies, I had read over and over again in breastfeeding literature.

 

And that was how I was asking others to view me—as a person as uncommon as someone who grows scales instead of skin.

 

Me. The person who believed in the power of her own body. Who had just given birth without medication. Who believed that if she just listened to her body, that it would do what it needed to do.

 

Me. The person who was convinced that all problems with breastfeeding could be solved with knowledgeable interventions and perseverance.

 

Me. The person who was disciplined and persistent enough to kickbox and portion-control her way to a size six.

 

Me. That person.

 

Suddenly, it seemed that all of those qualities that I had spent a lifetime practicing were not true anymore. That freshly crafted identity as a strong, capable mother was now unraveling fast.

 

So underneath my explanations for why I wasn’t breastfeeding, my tone was desperate. It screamed: Please, please, everyone! Please just believe that I’m a medical anomaly, defective on the inside. I’m not stupid, or uninformed, or lazy, or selfish. I’m just broken, everyone. That’s why I’m formula feeding, not because I chose it!

 

When we made the switch, I prepared myself for the worst. A sick baby. A colicky baby. Diarrhea. Constipation. Blood in the stool. But none of that happened.

 

What did happen was much more positive. Formula feeding helped me expand my understanding of what it means to be a mother. Before I stopped nursing Felicity, almost all of my interactions with her revolved around marathon feedings and pumping sessions. My sole role was nourishment. There was no room in my mind to be anything else to her. When I wasn’t nursing, I just wanted to be alone. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted to feel better. But I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t feel better. Near the end of my time breastfeeding her, I would tear up at the sound of her hungry cry and think, Not again. I can’t. But then, I would get up and do it.

 

But once the pumping sessions and the marathon feedings were gone, once the sleep returned in increments of two hours, I started to look at her. Just look and look at her. Listen to her. Talk to her. Play with her. Here was this person whom I felt that I already knew, and yet I still had everything to learn about—what her voice would sound like some day, what activities she would like to do, and how it would feel for her to hug me. For the first time, I started to look into the future a bit and get excited about helping her pack her bag for her first day of kindergarten or helping her learn to tie her shoes. I was finally able to imagine what kind of mother I wanted to be.

 

And then I started to wonder, Why does it matter how I feed her? And why is this topic open for public discussion?

 

And finally: So what if I did choose to feed her formula? Does that make me a bad mother? Don’t we value choice in our culture anymore?

 

All those breastfeeding books had presented formula as a choice for mothers who weren’t dedicated to the sacrifices and challenges of breastfeeding. Was I dedicated? Did I care about the health of my child?

 

Why, yes, I did. So that meant that I would breastfeed.

 

The decision to breastfeed wasn’t framed around the starting point of what was healthiest for me. Instead, the decision was framed around what was healthiest for my baby. And breastfeeding can be incredibly healthy for many mothers. But breastfeeding literature never mentions that it can be unhealthy—either physically or emotionally—for others. So the message is clear. I should be more concerned about what is healthiest for my baby because I’m a mother now. And mothers sacrifice. Everything, if need be.

 

And I did.

 

But when the herculean attempts to eat enough, pump enough, and nurse enough had worn me down into a sliver of a human being—no longer able to make rational decisions, no longer able to feed myself, no longer able to walk to the bathroom without assistance, no longer able to recognize my own face in the mirror—I started to wonder, How much more do I really have to give before I’m dead?

Still, it was tiring and it hurt to feel the need to defend how I fed Felicity. Feeding is part of the public sphere, a topic suitable for conversation with others. Everyone could figure out how I fed her and, with that knowledge, a host of assumptions were already in place about why I fed her this way. Maybe I thought breastfeeding was repulsive. Maybe I lacked confidence that I could do it. Maybe I had fallen victim to the hospital procedures that often interfere with the breastfeeding relationship. Maybe I didn’t know all the medical studies about the benefits of breastfeeding. Or maybe I was misinformed and thought that breastfeeding would ruin my boobs. Or maybe I was just selfish and wanted someone else to feed her while I got some decent sleep.

How did I know about these assumptions? They belonged to me. They were my thoughts before I gave birth.

In fact, I can attest to the fact that as a first-time mother, I greatly appreciated the cultural divide over breastfeeding because it made my choice much easier. I read books about breastfeeding. Then, I looked within my own educated, upper-middle class, white community and I saw that breastfeeding was valued and widely practiced, and that—as far as I could tell—everyone had been successful at it. I wasn’t looking for a reason to be different from everyone else.

 

But perhaps the most convincing evidence for my decision to breastfeed was the testimony of the nurse who taught the hospital’s breastfeeding class. As I reflect on that class, I can now see how the nurse’s own personal experiences regarding breastfeeding shaped her response to that question about the possibility of not producing enough milk. From her position as a medical professional, she advised, “Feed your baby.” From her position as a lactation consultant, she stated that, “Ninety-five percent of women can breastfeed their babies.” From her position as an experienced breastfeeding mother, she claimed, “If you stick with it, it will get easier.”

quotescover-JPG-28

She had given me exactly what I wanted to hear—a positive view of breastfeeding, approved by both a medical professional (to meet my husband’s criteria for credibility) and a mother of four (to meet my criteria).

 

As a new mother, advice based on personal experience was often compelling to me, even if it varied so much from person to person. I simply listened to the voices whose advice matched what I wanted to hear and ignored or discounted the voices that I didn’t. I didn’t want to hear about women who had epidurals, or C-sections, or formula fed their babies. That wasn’t going to be me. They had made bad decisions that had put them in those positions, so I didn’t want to listen to their stories.

This way of viewing the world didn’t pose a problem until I found myself on the other side of the line that I had drawn. Instead of a breastfeeding mother, I was a formula feeding mother. And all those silent judgments that I had once pronounced in my thoughts—never once out loud—were now heaped upon me. I hadn’t even realized how harshly I had judged formula feeding mothers until I had become one. The pressure was more than I could bear. I was forced to mentally confront each stereotype that I had about formula feeding. I was not lazy. I was not selfish. I was not a quitter. I was not stupid or uninformed. I was not pro-corporate America.

It helped to talk with friends about how difficult breastfeeding had been for me and to read stories of women who had traveled this road before me. It took months of reflection to create a mental space where I could be confident in how I fed Felicity.

 

I remember the day that I realized that I had this confidence. Felicity was six months old and one of Doug’s cousins was visiting. She was a single woman in her mid-twenties. She had never met Felicity before. When I started mixing a bottle of formula, she asked if I had ever breastfed Felicity. It didn’t sound like an accusation. I doubt she realized how emotional that question could be for a new mother.

 

I said, “I did. For twelve days. And then we had to switch to formula. I wasn’t making enough milk, so that’s what we had to do.” She didn’t push the issue, and finally I didn’t feel compelled to explain myself further.

***

- Excerpted from Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity by Sharon Tjaden-Glass (Lucky Frog Press, August 1, 2015). Reprinted with permission from the author. 

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