FFF Friday: What I Learned From Robert Burns About Parenting

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted an FFF Friday feature, but I wanted to share this great piece from Fearless Admin Erin, who has recently spearheaded the resurgence of the #ISupportYou Movement along with a few other amazing women, who I’ll be introducing you to in the next few weeks.

In Fearlessness,

Suzanne (The FFF)

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Erin’s Story

When I think back to the first few months after the birth of my son and try to sum it up, the well-known words of Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’ seem very apt:

 

‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!’

 

I could not have felt more prepared or for my baby’s birth if I was Eileithyia herself. I study reproduction and lactation biology for a living, and my two best pals are Senior Midwives. Even before I was ever even thinking of becoming pregnant, I was having conversations about childbirth and lactation on a daily basis. In a sense, I had been preparing for pregnancy and birth for years.  Then, when the two lines came up on the pregnancy test my quest for knowledge intensified. I read multiple books on pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. I attended a baby fair. I even shelled out a ridiculous sum of money on an even more ridiculous hypnobirthing course, but that’s a different story (I’m still bitter). I knew a helluva lot about pregnancy, labour and lactation; from the physiology I had studied as a scientist, to potential obstetric emergencies and how a medical team would respond should they occur.

Source: Wikipedia

Robert Burns – famous poet, unknown parenting expert. Image Source: Wikipedia

 

Perhaps, in hindsight, this was part of the problem.

 

As The Bard prophesised, the best laid plans don’t guarantee success. My wee Mouse decided he was ready to meet the world a full 4 weeks before his due date, on day 1 of my maternity leave. As we left calmly for the hospital, having been advised to come in following my membranes rupturing, I waved goodbye to the next four weeks of doing nothing but relaxing in the July sunshine with a couple of bonkbusters.  That was particularly disappointing because at 8 months pregnant and resembling a pufferfish, that was the closest to bonking I was going to get.

 

In the five hours that followed I had a textbook birth, and mercifully quickly. I enjoyed the sweet, sweet relief of the gas and air after being admitted to the labour ward at 10cm dilated (or ‘fully’ as the midwives called it to my amusement) and my son was delivered by my friends, who were both on duty that day. It was bloody perfect.

 

Just after he was born, one of my friends told me she was going to ask my husband to cut the cord as my son was ‘a bit flat’. I knew that this meant he needed some stimulation to breathe, but didn’t panic. The room was an oasis of calm and as he was premature, the Neonatal Team were already in the room so they got to work right away. After some suction, he let out a lovely big yell and all was well. We enjoyed some skin-to-skin while the duty midwife helped him latch and he appeared to enjoy his first breastfeed.

 

After a glorious shower and the best tea and toast I have ever eaten, we were moved through to the postnatal ward. My friends went back to work and after a while my husband went home to shower, change and get me some supplies. I spent a lovely afternoon snuggling and staring in wonder at this wrinkled wee blue burrito I had been given and tried a few times to feed him. It looked like he was doing what he was supposed to but, having never done this before I wasn’t sure.  He was very sleepy and content so I wasn’t worried.

 

That evening, everything changed. During the routine tests, the Doc identified that our wee one’s blood glucose level was dangerously low and he was admitted to NICU. While there, he vomited up old blood and it was quickly established that he had no suck reflex. He was given a feeding tube and I was encouraged to hand express to stimulate my milk.

 

The first time I hand expressed with help from the midwife, I got 0.1ml colostrum. Yes, you read that right, 0.1ml. I sucked the droplets up into a 1ml syringe and it was brought to the NICU even though it was mostly empty. I continued to hand express through the night and got nothing. Not a drop.

 

In the NICU, I was given a hospital grade pump and started the routine of putting baby to the breast to try and stimulate both his suck reflex and my milk, feeding him with formula, and then pumping to try and get some breast milk for him.  This routine was to continue for the next three months.

 

After a week, he was discharged from hospital and we went home.  When the Public Health Nurse visited two days later he had lost weight, even though I had been feeding him the milk I had pumped, as well as formula. We were teetering very close to being readmitted which was a horrible thought and very scary.  Each feed was a struggle; try to nurse, cry (both of us usually), bottle feed, pump, repeat. It was relentless. The three of us were miserable.  It was clear I was producing very little milk. I kept records (hello, scientist remember!) and my maximum daily production, even when taking off-label drugs to boost supply – don’t try this at home, it’s extremely dangerous – was 150ml of milk. Five measly ounces. I was waking up in the middle of the night, even when I didn’t have to because my husband was doing the night feeds, to pump as little as 2ml of breast milk from each boob.  I attended a weekly breastfeeding group, staffed by a public Health Nurse and Lactation Consultant, where I was the only Mum to bring a bottle. I used to save the breast milk I had pumped for that bottle as the other ladies there were very scornful of formula. I look back now and can laugh at the ridiculousness of it all! What in the ever loving you-know-what was I thinking?

 

Through all of this, we were also dealing with an undiagnosed Cow Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA) which was horrendous. Our GP and hospital Paediatricians and Nurses palmed us off as paranoid parents. I was given the explanation that ‘babies cry’ and scoffed at. I felt like a failure. Like nobody was listening to me and I was going out of my mind with frustration. Frustration that my boobs weren’t doing what they were supposed to, even though I was doing everything the books told me to, and that they promised me would work. Frustration that my baby cried all day and nobody believed me that something was wrong. Frustration that I couldn’t get advice on formula feeding from my medical providers. Frustration that neither me, nor my husband had any idea what we should do. I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and not far from depression. That’s when a bit of internet searching led me to the Fearless Formula Feeder.

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that finding FFF changed my life. Immediately I felt listened to and validated. It felt like a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders. I cried. A lot. The amazing women in that group helped me and my family more than they will ever know; from practical advice on formula feeding that seemed so scarce elsewhere, to allowing me to process my initial feelings of failure and later my anger at having succumbed to the relentless societal pressure to exclusively breastfeed.

 

When and why had I become so fixated on this goal of exclusive breast feeding? I honestly have no idea. I think it’s so ingrained in our societal psyche that it just chips away at you without you really knowing. I also feel that a lot of it was fuelled by the information I was reading in books and websites from well-known (although sometimes self-appointed) breastfeeding experts. I was learning that if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong, my body was built to breastfeed and to just keep putting baby to the breast. I now see these statements as the gaslighting, naturalistic fallacy and useless advice that they are, respectively.  One surprising fountain of misinformation was the NHS. I mean, who questions the NHS? They’re a public health service, the NHS must be completely evidence based, right? Well, aye. If you don’t count the homeopathy and acupuncture…..

 

Oh.

 

In the end, I came to my senses. With a little nudge in the right direction from my midwife pal who told me very unceremoniously to “f*ck up”! It sounds harsh, but it’s sound advice here in Scotland and I thanked her profusely!  Because she’s a midwife, it felt like I had official permission to stop torturing myself. I ditched that damned pump and never looked back. Had it not been a rented hospital pump I would’ve smashed the bastard to smithereens with a mallet! Around the same time, my wonderful cousin pulled some professional strings resulting in a diagnosis of CMPA and finally getting the right formula for our son. Our red faced screamin’ demon turned into a angel overnight.

 

Now, almost three years later, I am honoured to be part of the Admin Team at FFF and to have been trusted with the I Support You baton, which I have reignited with my fellow Admins and new BFF Stephy! I hope sharing my experiences with other women who are just starting out on the rocky road of motherhood will do for them what the kind words of other Fearless Formula Feeders did for me.

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I have also used my sciencey skills to do some actual literature research about infant feeding, as opposed to internet googly research, and have been amazed, angered and incredulous at the sheer volume and audacity of misinformation out there. Let’s not even get started on the public moralisation of how a woman uses her breasts. As a scientist, I am still ashamed that I trusted what I read about breast and formula feeding without reviewing the original source of the claims. It’s the first bloody rule of science club; always read the original study! But, even scientists are busy and sometimes skip that bit. So, hopefully, by breaking down and summarising the data I can help people access accurate information in more palatable and bitesize chunks.  Go science!

 

I also wonder if perhaps my knowledge of the physiology of lactation gave me a false sense of security. Ultimately, no amount of reading or preparation can influence biology and thinking you can do will leave you, as Robert Burns said, with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy.

 

Burns was a passionate laddie, who wrote about his loves and influences so in that spirit, this story is my Ode to FFF; to the wonderful women who supported me and to the wonderful friends I have made along the way. Thank f*ck my boobs didn’t work!

Tamara Ecclestone, breastfeeding, and how it feels to see representations of love that you’re unable to give

Last week I was interested to see a picture of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone pop up on my newsfeed.

 

Source: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Source: BBC.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Tamara was shocked. Shocked and saddened that her valiant attempt to normalise breastfeeding through a stunning photoshoot had not been received with the blanket adulation that she had expected. More than that though, for Tamara there is nothing but love in the images and it’s such a shame that it brings out anger in some of you it’s sad for you that that’s how you choose to live.  Personally, I think that love may well have been the order of the day, but there were also probably more scatter cushions than there were in the John Lewis Christmas sale this year.

I don’t know why she would expect blanket adulation because my experience of being a woman and having access to the internet has shown me that I could post an image of a packet of crisps with a vagina and somebody would try to concern troll over what birth control it was using.  Post a picture of breastfeeding and you are guaranteed to uncover that very special type of person who is mortally offended by a nipple.  This is annoying and these people deserve to be treated as the newts that they are and I delight in doing so. However, the four of five newts come with legions of likes, shares and messages of support, as I’m sure Tamara’s PR team know well.

The thing is, we’ve seen these images before, Gisele did it, [here]. Body confidence advocate Tess Holliday used the women’s marches two weeks ago to do it [here] and this week, it’s Tamara’s turn [here].  All of these images have striking similarities.  We see beautiful, wealthy, white and glamorous women gazing off into the distance while effortlessly nurturing wide-eyed babies (scatter cushions optional).  These women are professionals at re-packaging our bodies as an ideal and selling them back to us, they have a team of PR execs and agents to help them in their quest for self-promotion and this is exactly what’s happening here. Usually we are allowed to be angry about the lack of realism and unattainability of things like the thigh gap, but here the product is breastmilk and it’s different rules.

In the UK, 81% or women initiate breastfeeding whilst they are in hospital.  Given that figure, it’s hard to keep a straight face when someone tells you that seeing someone breastfeed is some sort of revelation, but they do.  By the time the baby is six weeks old that figure falls to 55% and by six months, it’s at 1%.  Of those women who stop breastfeeding, 80% of them desperately wanted to but could not. These women have internalised the mantra breast is best and they’ve given it everything they’ve got but come away feeling like abject failures when their breastfeeding dreams didn’t come true.

For them, when they see an image like that with the words powerful demonstration of love and nurturing it feels like a kick in the teeth. As I imagine it does for those among the 20% who don’t attempt to breastfeed because they’re transgender or survivors of sexual violence, on certain medications or adoptive parents, or because it simply isn’t the best choice for their family.  For those parents all they can hear is:

A powerful demonstration of love and nurturing THAT YOU CAN’T GIVE.

That you can’t give, written as if by sparkler; bright, hot, fleeting and gas lit. Or worse, that you are too selfish to give. Of course there is anger.

The late John Berger wrote a lot about advertising and how it works.  To skim it, a good advertising campaign creates a tableau that we all recognise subconsciously to some extent, like the Madonna and Child. You foreground a product of lifestyle that is difficult but perhaps not impossible to imagine yourself attaining, this creates envy.  Then you distribute it far and wide. If it’s something that everybody can have it simply won’t sell as either an image or product.  I mean I love my Henry the Hoover, it never lets me down. I’m never going to make it look like Tamara makes breastmilk look because it is so very mundane and attainable.

If you haven’t yet read Berger’s book Ways of Seeing then you should, because he also makes the point that:

“[P]ublicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats […] takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” [Berger: Ways of Seeing, p. 149]

 

Tamara and her photographer’s image, and those that came before are the epitome of the genre. Glamorous and unattainable, always just slightly beyond reach.  Why? Because for all of the hashtags and so called ‘normalising’, they do nothing to address the structural inequalities that mean that none of us really gets to choose to live the way we would really like. They are publicity as a mask.

The NHS is struggling and with maternity services, according to the National Health Executive report of January 2017, disturbingly high numbers of women are experiencing so-called ‘red-flag’ events.  What are ‘red-flag events’? They’re events that happen because we simply do not have enough care for women, even to the point that of women not receiving one-to-one care during established labour. If we can’t even ensure that women have that level of care when they’re giving birth can we hope for better during the post natal period and with breastfeeding support? No prizes here for guessing that no, we can’t:

During the post natal period, women were most likely to express disappointment with their experience in the postnatal wards and breastfeeding support. (Source:  National Health Executive report of January 2017)

On occasions where we have actually spoken to women who found themselves unable to breastfeed over dismissing them as bitter and hateful trolls, we find that something like 80% cite pain as a key reason that they were unable to continue. If a mother simply cannot get the help that she needs from a dedicated professional then she cannot continue.

Since 2010 the UK has faced austerity and whether or not you agree with the necessity, in March 2016 the Women’s Budget Group found that women are hit harder than men and households headed by women such as lone parents […] are hit harder. What does this mean for mothers? It means cash in hand, manual labour jobs where you can’t have your children with you. It means no maternity leave because you’re restricted to short-term, temporary contracts. It means not being able to afford the bus fare to get to the doctors when you have mastitis or to pay for the prescription for medicines you might need to treat it. It means choosing between heating and eating. It means that having the time, energy or will to go through the pain of establishing breastfeeding may well not be at the very top of your agenda.

If you do have a job that you are able to go back to, there is unsurprisingly yet more bad news. The House of Commons committee on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination, tells us that not only is there more discrimination reported now than a decade ago, but also there is no legal duty to provide a place to breastfeed or store milk. So even women who are able to afford the highest levels of childcare may not be able to continue to breastfeed their babies until two years of age.

These images are beautiful and modern reinterpretations of the Madonna and child tableau, chic and classic, but they do nothing to address any of the challenges faced by women today. baby-jesusEven if women in their droves started saying that had they just seen one more photo they could have breastfed on, I don’t know if this one would really help. We already know that wealthy, well-educated and thirty something are more likely to breastfeed, it’s already normal. Most of us could only dream of owning that many scatter cushions in a lifetime and one of her shoes could probably cover at least a month’s rent. As a twenty-two year old, pregnant dropout who just couldn’t get her breasts to co-operate, the only thing that image would have done for me is amplify my failure on every single count.  With the benefit of hindsight, and good research, I now know that I’m not alone.

 

Breastfeeding a new baby is already normal, breastfeeding a two year old has yet to become the norm. When every parent has the luxury of choice over how and for how long they feed their babies, it most likely will. Papering over the cracks with a few Instagram snaps and calling your critics angry and bitter isn’t going to cut it.  We need to meet every obstacle head on. We need to treat our fellow parents with empathy.  Above all, we need to support each other.

#ISupportYou.

Stephanie Maia is a UK-based writer for FearlessFormulaFeeder.com and the #ISupportYou movement.

It’s Not About the Brelfie

For obvious reasons, I get excited whenever the media takes notice of how formula feeding parents are feeling.

That’s what happened yesterday, when the media (and my email, Twitter and Facebook feed) exploded with the news of a new campaign meant to fight back against breastfeeding pressure, using the hashtag “#bressure”. When I first read the articles about the movement, I noticed the positive (attention to the experience of “failing” to meet breastfeeding recommendations) and ignored the references to the “brelfies”, breastfeeding photos which apparently spurred the campaign in the first place. I even sent a letter to the creators, praising them and asking if the FFF community could contribute in some way.

But as the day wore on, red flags started popping up. First, a fellow blogger alerted me to the fact that the survey conducted by the Bressure movement alluded to breastfeeding selfies as “sexualized”. Then, every single article I read focused on how these (apparently sexualized) “brelfies” were directly causing pain and suffering to bottle feeders. Instead of talking about the systemic issues that create a cycle of guilt, fear, and competition, we were once again dragging the conversation down into the mommy-war gutter, pitting woman against woman, and continuing the seemingly endless divide between breastfeeding and formula feeding moms.

This is not progress.

I’ve run a modestly large international community of formula feeding parents for the past six years, and I know several truths:

1. Formula feeders are a diverse group, just as breastfeeders are a diverse group. There are militant, intolerant formula feeding parents who truly do believe that women shouldn’t breastfeed in public, just as there are militant, intolerant breastfeeding mothers who believe formula feeders are selfish, ignorant, and useless. I wish we could vote them all off the island, but alas, such is life. The problem is that we’re letting these factions monopolize the conversation. This is EXACTLY why we started #ISupportYou, to which there was a rather vocal backlash from the intolerant/militant faction, on both sides.

2. The media loves drama. It is so much more fun to blame “brelfies” for the pain we formula feeders endure, because then the extremists come out of the woodwork and create mile-long comment sections, boosting your traffic for the next few days. It is also easier to get inflammatory quotes when nuance is ignored. Nuance doesn’t get web traffic or media attention. Trust me on that one; I speak from experience.

3. Seeing breastfeeding photos is undeniably difficult for those of us who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t, or feel conflicted about our choices. When we’re feeling vulnerable and judged, it can definitely feel like that model/celeb/Facebook friend’s breastfeeding selfie is intentionally meant to twist the knife a little deeper. But that shouldn’t stop a mom from posting a breastfeeding photo, any more than you should refrain from posting a shot of your newborn when your second cousin is struggling with fertility issues. Both of you have the right to your feelings – your pride, her grief. (That said, there’s the social media-era problem with all of us comparing ourselves to others, posting things we’d never say to someone’s face, and basically acting like insensitive jerks every time we hit “post”.)

4. The breastfeeding selfies themselves are not the problem, but the  “#breastisbest #breastfeedingmomsrule #whatsyoursuperpower hashtags can be construed as an attack on formula feeding moms. That’s not me telling you to stop doing them, just explaining why the photos might hurt your best friend who switched to formula three weeks ago. That is not me telling you that the cause of normalizing breastfeeding isn’t important, just explaining why there might be better ways to achieve the same goals without adding to the conflict. Just like this latest “bressure” video series could have had a hugely positive impact, if the impetus behind it didn’t sound like bitterness and jealousy and a who-has-it-worse competition.

5. There’s enough anger, misunderstanding, and generalization on both sides of this debate to fill several football stadiums. When the media chooses to focus on something trivial (“brelfies” – for the love of god, who though of that term) instead of the real issues, we all lose. Personally, it makes me feel like I might as well jump in my DeLorean and head back to 2008, because what the hell have I wasted the past 6 years of my life on?

6. The top reasons that formula feeders are angry, based on my totally unscientific, not-peer-reviewed but at least peer-collected research, are the following:

We are made to feel like inferior mothers by medical professionals, websites, fellow moms, lactation consultants, mommy-and-me group leaders, and the media.

 

We get no guidance or education on bottle feeding from professionals, and when we seek it out, we get conflicting info peppered with constant reminders of why we really should be breastfeeding, so why even bother attempting to find the best type of formula, since they’re all crap, anyway?

 

The reasons that breastfeeding advocates and the media give for us “failing” to meet their recommendations are so far from our lived realities, it’s hard to believe we exist in the same dimension.

 

Everything having to do with babies these days – from conferences to books to radio shows – focuses on breastfeeding. If bottle feeding is mentioned, it’s typically in the context of Things To Avoid At All Costs Unless You Really Have to Go Back to Work In Which Case You Should Just Pump or At Absolute Worst Use Donor Milk.

 

Yes, there are many breastfeeding advocates who come to troll on our pages and provoke our anger. And yes, there are formula feeders who will do the same on breastfeeding pages. Ignore these people. They do not matter. There are more of us middle-ground, moderate folks than there are of them.

 

While mom-to-mom cruelty is certainly a part of the problem, we know that there’s a much larger battle to fight – the battle of scientific illiteracy and paternalistic advocate-physician/researchers who are blinded by a religious belief in breastfeeding. If the bullies didn’t have certain unnamed, infamous physicians leading their charge – people who encourage the shaming and ridiculing of formula feeding parents – they wouldn’t have so much power. If society had a better understanding of the reality of infant feeding research, and could acknowledge that correlation and causation are two different animals, it would take away the fear and guilt, on ALL sides.

We just want to be equal with you. Not better. We’re not even asking you to think that formula and breastmilk are equal – that’s a question of science, of risk/benefit analysis, and individual circumstance. All we are asking is that we do not equate the type of liquid going into our children’s bellies with how much we love them, or how bonded we are with them, or how strong/capable/dedicated we are as parents.

 

This is not about photos. This is not about who has it worse. This is not even about breastfeeding and formula feeding, anymore. It’s about how we view motherhood as a competition, how the powers that be monopolize on this competition, and how the media loves to encourage it. Instead of focusing on brelfies or bressure, let’s get the hell off Instagram and start making an impact in our own communities, with our own friends and fellow parents. Ignore the hype, and focus on the help.

A picture tells a thousand words. But they don’t have to be negative ones.

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FFF Friday: “It’s okay to stop. You are a good mom.”

I took FC to the park this morning. While he ran off to collect sticks with a few of his friends, I chatted with another mom, who’d just had her second child 8 weeks ago. 

I certainly didn’t bring up feeding (I never do). But it came up anyway (as it always does). She mentioned that breastfeeding had been a bit challenging, and I listened for awhile before casually mentioning that this was “sort of what I do.” That opened the floodgates, and she began telling me a story which would make a perfect contribution to FFF Fridays. 

After we talked about it for awhile, she said that it was really nice to hear that what she was doing was okay (supplementing) and that she was right to prioritize her mental health. Apparently, the nurses and lactation support staff she’d encountered thus far had made her feel the opposite. “Even when I tell other moms, they just tell me to ‘keep going’,” she said with a sigh. She knew they meant well, but at the moment, that wasn’t the type of support she needed. 

It was only a brief encounter, but it was the perfect end to #ISYWeek, for me. It felt really good to know that I truly supported another mom today – a stranger – in a way that made a difference. It wasn’t a big deal, and it certainly wasn’t newsworthy. It’s not even something worth blogging about, really. But that, I think, is what we’re lacking right now – these face-to-face, tiny moments of true support, of building each other up and making sure each of us is being heard, is being seen. True, individual, basic support, free of parenting politics, free of drama. That’s what Kim and I wanted to achieve with #ISupportYou. And today, I felt like I did achieve that, if only for 5 minutes, if only with one person.

I chose Elizabeth’s FFF Friday story to close out I Support You Week, because even in her attempt to exorcise her own feeding demons, she’s thinking about other moms. She’s thinking about the women who may need what she needed. That means so much, especially in the bottle feeding community, because we haven’t really had a community – but I’d like to think that’s finally changing. I am so grateful that Elizabeth got the support she needed, and even more grateful to her for paying it forward. I hope we can all do the same, so that our voices are heard by those desperate to hear them. 

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Elizabeth’s Story

When I was pregnant with my first son, and people asked me if I planned on breastfeeding (which, in hind sight, was such a personal and nosy question, but I got asked it a lot!), I genuinely answered “I’m going to try, and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t that’s okay.” My dad is an obstetrician, and I had heard him caution several times that he felt that expectant moms who set too stringent of plans for themselves were more likely to fall prey to post-partum depression and anxiety when things didn’t go according to plan — such as having the birth proceed in a particular fashion, or being absolute about breastfeeding (as an aside, he was not at all saying that these were the only reasons that a new mom might suffer from post-partum depression, just that he saw an increased incidence when rigid expectations were set, and then reality fell short of meeting these expectations).  So I really believed that I would give breastfeeding a shot, and if it worked, great! And if it didn’t, we would use formula, which would also be great!

For the first several weeks, breastfeeding went well.  Sure, there were some early hiccups with figuring out the latch and a little discomfort.  And, I never was very comfortable with feeding my baby in public (a self-imposed self-consciousness).  But my baby was thriving, and that’s all that mattered.

After about a month, though, I noticed that in the evenings my baby was wanting to nurse constantly. I understood this to be normal cluster feeding.  Except that my baby was getting angry, and I realized that he just wasn’t getting as much milk as he wanted or needed.  I spoke to a lactation consultant, who told me that my supply would catch up in a few days.  Except that it didn’t — the evenings just got worse.  I continued to speak to lactation consultants, and constantly ended the conversations feeling like I was doing something wrong — if nursing wasn’t working, then it was clearly due to some error or omission on my part, because nursing was “natural” and it’s “not that common for a mom to not produce enough milk.” There were a number of things going on that, in hindsight, probably affected my supply — I got a horrible cold around this time, my husband was recuperating from knee surgery and wasn’t mobile which added to an already busy, stressful, and sleepless time, and my gallbladder started to act up — so I was in a fair amount of pain (and ultimately had to have surgery myself).

Despite the chastising from the lactation consultants that I should just try harder (not the exact words, but that’s how it sounded to me), we decided that my husband would feed our son a bottle of formula at bedtime while I pumped.  We were all happy with the situation — my son had a full belly and stopped fussing as much, and my husband really came to enjoy the bonding time he had with our son every night.  And while I didn’t love pumping, I was happy that my son seemed to be happier.

Then I went back to work. My plan was that I would breastfeed first thing in the morning, pump at work, breastfeed when we first got home in the evening, and my husband would give my son a bottle before bed (while I pumped again).  My son, however, had other plans — once he started having bottles all day while I was at work, he had absolutely no interest in nursing.  So rather quickly, he became exclusively bottle fed.  I figured I would still pump, and supplement with formula when needed.  Great plan, right?

Except that it wasn’t.  My body did not respond well to pumping at all, and my supply immediately started to dwindle.  I started talking to lactation consultants again and researching online how to increase my supply.  Despite my early “laid back” approach to breastfeeding that I would try, but not stress about it, I became obsessed with my supply.  I ate the oatmeal, I took the fenugreek, I drank the herbal tea, I had a Guinness at night…I tried everything.  All the while, I was pumping more and more every day, and producing less and less.  I was getting jealous of my husband’s bedtime routine with my son, because I felt like I was just chained to the pump while he got to spend quality time with our baby.  My work began to suffer because of all the time I was devoting to pumping during the workday (I will note, my job never hassled me about the time I spent pumping, but I knew it was affecting my ability to be efficient and meet deadlines). On the weekends, time with family and friends was interrupted by my fixation on scheduling pumping breaks. My life revolved around the pump — and constant thoughts that I clearly just wasn’t trying hard enough.

I blame my obsession largely to the messages I was receiving while trying to increase my supply.  A lactation consultant told me that I should consider pumping as a gift to my child and should keep trying; a message board commenter noted that my resentment of pumping was “selfish” because it was what was best for my son.  Websites devoted to breastfeeding made it seem like formula was poison, and that if I was a good mom, I would figure out how to continue to provide breastmilk.  Even the back of the formula canister stated that breastmilk was best. Everywhere I turned, I was made to feel like I was failing my son, and failing as a woman and a mom — after all, wasn’t producing milk perfectly natural? And so my obsession continued. I think this had nothing to do with what I personally thought about formula, and more about societal pressure to breastfeed.

By the time my son was nearly five months old, I was pumping for at least three hours a day, and sometimes not even producing enough for one bottle — TOTAL.  Around this time, I had the opportunity to take my baby with me for a long weekend to visit my brother and sister-in-law.  I had unloaded everything from the car but my pump (I really resented that thing, so I don’t think that was accidental!).  It was nearing time to pump, and as I got ready to return to the car to get the pump, I shared my frustrating experience with my lovely sister-in-law, who also happens to be a pediatrician. I hadn’t said anything to her before, because I just assumed she would tell me “breast is best” and tell me to keep trying. But instead, she looked me in the eyes and said very simply “It’s okay to stop. You are a good mom.” And I just started to cry — I so badly needed someone to give me permission to stop pumping (and obsessing), and to tell me that I wasn’t a failure.  I never got the pump out of the car that weekend, and it was so liberating and freeing to actually spend quality time with my son, and to feed him his bottles (instead of handing him off to someone so I could pump), and to just be.

I just welcomed a second son to the world about four months ago, and I was very nervous about how I would feel about feeding him this time.  I decided to give breastfeeding a shot again, but am trying to be very aware of not letting myself cycle down into obsession and depression if it doesn’t work out.  So far, it’s been just fine.  I am back at work, but my son still choses to nurse when I’m around (in fact, he has the opposite problem of his older brother — he refuses a bottle if he senses that I am in a ten mile radius of him!). Pumping is going okay, but I also supplement some with formula.  When I pump, and feel those anxious feelings return if I don’t have a great session, I gently remind myself that it’s okay. And I have promised myself that if I am not producing a good amount of milk through pumping, I am going to stop – I will not make myself jump through all those hurdles like I did before, because it negatively impacts my sanity, and in turn, negatively impacts my relationship with my children.  The best thing I did for my relationship with my first son was to turn exclusively to formula, and I will not hesitate to do it again with my second. 

This is long, but it is cathartic to write it all out (I have tears running down my face as I type).  I’ve carried around the guilt and anxiety of my experience with breast feeding my first son for too long. Even as a currently-breastfeeding mom, I still bristle when I read or hear “breast is best.”  Because while breast is best for some moms, it’s not best for others, and feeling shame, anxiety, and frustration over how to feed a baby is not stress that a new mom needs.  What I also hope is that if anyone reading this is a new mom, and my story resonates sounds at all familiar, you will listen when I tell you that it’s okay to stop.  It’s okay to switch to formula.  As silly as it sounds now, I needed someone to give me permission.  My angel of a sister-in-law did that for me, and it was such needed relief.  She freed me from a vicious emotional downward spiral that impacted just not me, but also my son and my husband.   And so, if you need that permission like I did, please let me give it to you:

It’s okay to stop. You are a good mom.

***

Want to share your story or thoughts? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com and join the FFF Friday community. 

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