One of my most vivid memories from FC’s first months is of standing in front of our refrigerator, staring at the bottles of hard-earned, dairy/soy/wheat/green leafy veggie-free breastmilk. After 24 hours on hypoallergenic formula, I knew it was about as healthy as toilet bowl cleaner for my son. Still… the voices in my head, the ones that had yelled at me every time I thought about quitting (come to think of it, those voices weren’t just in my head; they were also at the doctor’s office, in my circle of friends, and in my house, coming from my brainwashed husband), protected those tiny vials of liquid (fool’s) gold.
So yes, Nicole- I hear you. I hear you, and I am sorry.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
I have over 400 ounces of breastmilk in my basement freezer. My daughter is nearly 7 months old and she will never be able to drink any of it. Much of it is dairy and soy free, and she will still likely become ill if I feed it to her. I cannot bear to get rid of it, or donate it to some mother who believes that formula will hurt her child when it is the thing my daughter has lived on for the last 4 months. I also cannot bear to throw it away because I wanted nothing more than to breastfeed my children. And I cannot move on from feeling like I am less than other mothers because I failed, twice.
After 6 weeks of unbearable, head splitting pain, I stopped breastfeeding my son. We struggled through latch issues, jaundice, over supply and a frenectomy. I could only nurse my son flat on my back for that 6 weeks, and even then, it took him nearly an hour to nurse, every two hours. He lost 12% of his body weight and required us to finger feed him with a tube every two hours until his weight gain improved. Even once he started gaining, he was never able to nurse without constant unlatching and relatching. I saw a lactation consultant too many times to count and spent far more money on those services than I would have on a year’s worth of formula. My insurance did not pay for any of it. I had such an abundance of milk supply that I would never be able to nurse my son outside of our home. I struggled with constant plugged ducts. I nursed him flat on my back with burp cloths tucked into my bra, and still I was drenched. After 6 weeks of pain and countless tears, I stopped. I formula fed my son until he was a year old. I struggled with endless guilt. I struggled with a comment made in my house to my sister-in-law, by her sister-in-law, “You’re going to breastfeed your kids, right?” It was said while I was out of the room, but it epitomized the judgment cast upon me for not breastfeeding. I was “less than” because I did not continue, I did not try hard enough.
Two years later I was blessed with my daughter. I wanted to breastfeed her. I did not want her to be the “redemption baby” but I prepared nonetheless. I took a breastfeeding class and met with the lactation consultant before she was born. I prayed for it to work. I said I was going to know my limits this time. My daughter was born remarkably quickly, after just 10 minutes of pushing. She was born screaming. It was a beautiful, wonderful scream, except it didn’t stop. She screamed for most of her waking hours for months on end. She nursed non-stop from the moment she was born, for hours on end. She would not settle unless the nurses took her out of the room. As soon as she came back, she wanted to nurse again. Unlike my son, who slept through his first weeks of life, she did not sleep AT ALL! After labor and delivery, and then being up all night nursing, I cried. I cried because I was sure it was already falling apart. I cried because the nurses questioned me about whether I had smoked, used some medications or drugs while pregnant that would cause my daughter to be so restless. It’s always the mother’s fault, isn’t it? Except it wasn’t my fault. I did none of those things.
Despite the pain and discomfort, I continued. I saw the lactation consultant again. We got past the blisters and I healed enough to continue. I was assured that she wasn’t tongue tied like my son. But she screamed and cried and never latched well. After 6 weeks, the lactation consultant diagnosed her with a tongue tie and reflux. She went on medication and we braved rush hour NYC traffic to have her tongue and lip tie corrected. She still screamed and would only sleep if I held her. She broke out in a rash all over her face. Eventually, I cut out dairy, then all things soy. Because I had to hold my daughter 24/7, I could not cook and could rarely grocery shop. I started losing weight so quickly, I had to try to consume high calorie foods to keep weight on. I was losing about a pound a day. Meanwhile, my daughter was not improving. In fact, she was screaming more and nursing less. She nursed for just 3 minutes at a time. She would go hours without eating, just screaming and crying. I brought her to the pediatrician and the lactation consultant, who both felt she was just an “efficient nurser”. But I knew something was wrong, so I waited for the scale to show what I knew was happening – she was not eating enough. And soon, the scale showed that her weight gain was less than it should be. She developed an intense aversion to eating and was referred to a pediatric gastroenterologist. He identified mucous and traces of blood in her stool. The lactation consultants encouraged me to continue. At one point, I was encouraged to bed share because I was “missing feeding cues” that might be contributing to her weight gain issues. I knew I was not missing feeding cues and that my daughter simply didn’t want to eat because she was in constant discomfort, and likely, pain. Yet, I cried because I allowed this woman to blame me for my daughter’s feeding issues. At this point, I was no longer eating dairy, soy, nuts, or peanuts. I weighed less than I did before I got pregnant at about 9 weeks postpartum, despite gaining nearly 30 pounds during my pregnancy. When people complimented my weight loss, all I could think of was the constant distress we were experiencing. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I was trying to get my daughter to gain weight.
I was feeding my daughter every 3 hours in her sleep overnight because she would nurse in her sleep, but would refuse when awake. The lactation consultants told me formula would make her reflux worse and that maybe I should give up eggs or wheat too. Meanwhile, the pediatric GI told me to stop nursing and put her on hypoallergenic formula because we might never figure out what food proteins she was reacting to. Initially, my daughter refused to drink Elecare. She was refusing to eat much at all at that point and the foul tasting formula was not appealing. I cried endlessly and worried she would be on a feeding tube if she did not start improving. I truly did not know how we would survive another day of screaming and not sleeping. We were finally able to get her to drink Alimentum mixed with breastmilk if we fed her in the bouncy seat and distracted her with toys. Slowly, we weaned her to all Alimentum. Then, even more slowly, she began to eat. At 12 weeks, my mom convinced me to leave her home with her and go out with my son and husband. When I came home, she told me that my daughter had cried for a bottle. My daughter had not cried out of hunger for weeks. I was so relieved.
I know that I had to stop nursing my daughter for her health. I know that I did what was best for both of my children and that they are healthy and happy. Finally, at 4 months, my daughter stopped crying. She still has some issues with feeding but she is such a happy girl. I don’t think she is in pain anymore. And yet, I still hear the voice of that woman in my head, “You’re going to nurse your children, right?” And I still feel “less than” other mothers. I allow the judgment of others to force me to question my decisions. I still have over 400 ounces of breastmilk in my freezer and it haunts me everyday.
I am writing this because I hope to have closure one day. I want to be able to shrug off the judgment of others as I am so much more easily able to do in other areas of my life. I want other mothers to stop believing they know it all and to accept that most of us are just doing the best we can. I want to forgive myself and let go of the pain, the guilt, the jealousy of other mothers who succeeded where I failed. I want the breastmilk in my freezer to disappear along with the pain I have been carrying for so long.
I don’t think any woman should feel bad for not going to the lengths I went to. I hope nobody reads my story and things, “I didn’t try that hard so i didn’t try hard enough.” I feel the need to justify my actions and I won’t let myself “off the hook” for not going to greater and greater lengths to succeed. I know this is incredibly irrational and unhealthy; I would not want anybody to read this account and feel bad. As mothers need to know when to make a change for the greater good and stop feeling the need to live as martyrs to prove ourselves to one another.
Feel like sharing your story? Email it to me at email@example.com. Please note, it can take up to a year for stories to appear on the blog!