Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.
Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They are also not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
After reading this FFF Friday submission from Amber, I am reminded of how important a topic breastfeeding pressure is for the postpartum depression community. Amber speaks of the dichotomy between feeling like giving up nursing will help your PPD, but also feeling so guilty because of it (which certainly doesn’t help the depression). Anyone using the argument that we shouldn’t stop pushing breastfeeding simply because it might make moms feel guilty should keep one thing in mind: postpartum mood disorders are prevalent in our society. It’s one thing to care less about making a healthy bottle-feeding mom feel guilty, but those with PPD often have no ability to put things in proper perspective, and that same guilt can take on epic proportions. We need to be protecting mothers in the thick of postpartum hell just as much as we need to be protecting breastfeeding. We can’t sacrifice one for the other, in either direction… so maybe it’s time to rethink how we are approaching things, you know?
This was originally posted on Amber’s blog, along with a follow-up post – so check it out for an update on this fearless mama…
Before I was pregnant, when having a child was just a hypothetical notion filed under “one day,” I always assumed I would breastfeed. I never thought of breastfeeding as a “crunchy” thing or something associated with a particular parenting style. It was just what you did. Everyone nowadays breastfeeds, at least for a little while. Beyond that, I didn’t give it much thought. The activist and rabble-rouser in me looked forward to flagrant public nursing, a copy of Ga. Code An. § 31-1-9 tucked into my hypothetical diaper bag. At some point when I was heavily involved in the feminist blogosphere, one of my favorite bloggers at the time wrote a post about how it might not be breastfeeding itself that’s so beneficial to babies, but the things that usually go along with it in the U.S.: social and economic privilege, a well-educated mother who is willing and able to go the extra mile for her baby and has access to preventive medical care, and that studies linking health benefits with breastfeeding have failed to control for these factors. This made sense to me and I filed it under “interesting and thought-provoking” in the back of my mind.
When I was pregnant, my breastfeeding goals were: definitely breastfeed for the first six weeks, and ideally breastfeed without supplementation for the first six months. (Up until my 36th week of pregnancy, I was planning to return to work after 10 weeks maternity leave, and I knew that some women see their supply decrease when they return to work and have to find time to pump during the day.) It was important to Rusty and me to share parenting responsibilities equally, so we planned to introduce a bottle at around three or four weeks. Beyond that, I had no plans or goals, preferring to take a “play it by ear” approach. I never envisioned myself as someone who would nurse past one year, and certainly not into the toddler years. Like many mothers-to-be, I wanted to give my baby the benefits of breastfeeding during the critical early period. I never viewed formula as “poison” or felt the need to refer to it with derogatory euphemisms such as “artificial milk,” and I felt strongly that no mother should be judged for feeding her baby formula, because there are a million complicating factors – physical, emotional, socioeconomic – that can necessitate its use (and of course it did not escape my notice that it was always mothers, not fathers, who were judged). The fact that breast milk was better than formula made sense in an obvious way, since it is created by the mother’s body specifically for her baby, but placing a value judgment on a particular feeding method was not something I was interested in. I simply wanted my baby to gain the benefit of immune system building and other early developmental benefits of breastfeeding.
I was nervous about breastfeeding for a few reasons. I worried that being the only person who could feed the baby in the first few weeks would take a toll on me in various ways and possibly strain my relationship with Rusty or hinder him in building confidence in his parenting ability. I tried not to get too caught up in these worries, reminding myself that it would only be that way for a few weeks and we have the rest of our lives to be egalitarian parents. I knew that women with thyroid conditions sometimes have problems making enough milk due to hormone levels. I reminded myself that I was on medication for my hypothyroidism, therefore putting my hormone levels where they should be. I tried to focus on preparation and education instead of worry. I read articles, blog posts, and book excerpts; Rusty and I attended a couples’ breastfeeding class (where I was disappointed that much of the class was a sermon against formula feeding rather than a practical how-to session, and where one of the instructors compared not breastfeeding to not using a car seat); I attended a La Leche League meeting; I talked with friends who had breastfed about their experiences, including getting a run-down from my friend and coworker Rochelle about the quirks of the “new moms room” (aka the Lactation Cell!) at work.
My dreams during pregnancy included a lot of anxiety-based dreams about “forgetting” the baby and leaving him/her somewhere for hours; but despite my low-level anxiety about breastfeeding during my waking hours, in all my dreams about it (and I did dream about it quite a few times), breastfeeding was going really well and was remarkably easy. As someone who has had prophetic dreams before, I took this as a good sign.
Fast forward to May 1. Fitz was born at home. He had a drug- and intervention-free birth and postpartum period. He was placed skin-to-skin with me immediately after birth and lay draped across my chest as I was getting stitched up. Theoretically, the stage was set for a positive nursing experience. I don’t remember exactly how long it had been after his birth the first time I tried to nurse him, but it wasn’t long. He didn’t seem interested. The midwives said not to worry and to just keep offering. When they left a few hours later, he still hadn’t nursed for more than a few minutes at a time, and something just seemed “off” to me, even though everyone was telling me not to worry.
When the midwife came back the next day for the first postpartum visit, Fitz had nursed a total of six times. We’d had two “good” nursing sessions, about 45 minutes each, where I could tell a difference in his suckling – instead of feeling nothing and being unsure that he was actually latched on at all, I felt an uncomfortable tugging, slightly painful. I told myself that I just needed to get used to the feeling of breastfeeding. People on Facebook told me he’d start eating more in the next few days. Still, my gut was telling me something was wrong.
On day 3, I crashed. I know now it’s a textbook case of the onset of postpartum depression, when the hormone levels plummet by something like 10,000% at 48 hours postpartum. Attempting to breastfeed was becoming increasingly painful. Fitz was popping on and off the breast, arching his back and screaming. I knew PPD had gotten ahold of me and I was downing placenta pills as often as I could but it wasn’t helping. I was following all the latching techniques from the breastfeeding class but still Fitz was a screaming banshee. I thought there must be something wrong with me, or I wasn’t trying hard enough, or somehow I was a failure no matter all my best efforts. Rusty called our postpartum doula. She came over that night and I broke down sobbing and told her I hated breastfeeding and wished I didn’t have to do it, I shouldn’t have had a baby, I wanted to run away and leave Fitz with Rusty. She helped me have our one good nursing session, propped in the glider with a million pillows and rolled towels and the Boppy and Fitz and I both stripped nearly naked. I thought there was no way I could go through this production every time, but I at least felt a little more confident that maybe things could turn around.
The next time Fitz was hungry, I tried everything she had shown me. But it didn’t work this time. I dreaded having to feed him and tried to delay it as long as possible with the pacifier. I began to have panic attacks when bringing him to the breast. I cried constantly. That night, I was done. I couldn’t take it anymore. Fitz wouldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t get him to stay latched on. My mom was still in town and she walked around the house with my screaming baby as I begged Rusty to go to the 24-hour Kroger and get some formula. I went to take a shower and collapsed in the bath tub, heaving with tears.
On the morning of day 4 we took Fitz to the pediatrician and in the waiting room, I met Anna, and I am so grateful for that chance meeting and our now friendship. She started talking to me and asked if I was breastfeeding and I broke down crying and said it wasn’t going well. She said that she and her son had a lot of problems with breastfeeding but were able to do it thanks to working with a wonderful IBCLC, whose name and number she gave me. We were called back into the exam room and while waiting for the doctor, Fitz wanted to eat again. I tried but it was still painful and didn’t feel right. When the doctor came in and saw us, she said, “That looks good!” and I broke down crying again. Like everyone else (except Anna), she said not to worry, it would get better. But we found out Fitz had lost 10% of his birth weight (and since I didn’t have IV fluids in labor, that’s an accurate number) and I did worry.
When we got home I read an email from someone purporting to help, telling me that giving Fitz a bottle was the best way to ruin a breastfeeding relationship and I should feed him with a syringe. That seemed so outside the realm of possibility that I felt completely abandoned. I had Rusty call Ann, the lactation consultant. When she called back, I sobbed on the phone with her and told her I hoped she wouldn’t be disappointed in me for giving Fitz formula. It was such a relief to hear her say that of course she wasn’t disappointed, and that she was glad I had done it, because the most important thing is that the baby has to eat.
She came out the next morning. Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done without her. She was the perfect combination of compassionate and professional. She had no judgment. Maybe after being in her field for over 40 years, she’s past the judgment and just wants to help. She presented information clearly and completely. She examined Fitz’s mouth and told us he had something called type 4 tongue tie. I felt such relief; I wasn’t crazy, something was wrong, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t doing everything right, it was that my baby had an actual physical impediment to breastfeeding! Ann said this kind of thing runs in families. She found that I had it too, but no one had ever caught it with me, because I was never breastfed. (Some babies with this type of tongue-tie have no problems with bottle-feeding, but Fitz had trouble with a bottle, too.) She explained the frenotomy procedure. She explained the possible effects if we decided not to do the frenotomy. She taught me how to hand-express. She showed me how to nurse with nipple shields. She found the correct size flanges for me to use with my pump, showed me the best way to pump to increase my supply, and sat with me while I did it. She taught Rusty and me the best way to bottle-feed Fitz. She presented cup feeding and syringe feeding as options and described each. She left photocopied articles about tongue-tie and frenotomy, and written instructions covering everything we had discussed. She held my hand as I sobbed and asked, “What if I just don’t want to breastfeed?” and answered that whatever I decided, she would support me and help me do it safely.
That morning with Ann was the last time I fed Fitz directly at my breast. The mere thought of breastfeeding had become too much of a trigger for me. I turned my attention to pumping. I pumped every 2-3 hours using the techniques Ann had taught me, and sure enough, just like she had said, my supply increased overnight. For the next three weeks, I pumped enough milk that we didn’t have to give Fitz any formula. I borrowed a huge trash bag full of milk storage bottles from a friend because I was rapidly using up all the ones we had. I started freezing milk. I was really good at pumping and my body responded really well to the pump. Even though these were my absolute darkest days of PPD and most of the time I felt like a worthless mother, pumping was the one concrete thing I was able to do for my baby.
With Rusty’s return to work looming on the horizon, though, I knew something was going to have to give. I knew I couldn’t keep up this pumping schedule while home alone with Fitz. I decided to wean off the pump. With Ann’s help, I came up with a plan for a gradual weaning process. It took me seven weeks to wean off pumping. I also started seeking donor milk through the peer-to-peer milksharing networks Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets. I pumped for the last time on July 17. It was a bittersweet moment. For several weeks afterward, I still leaked milk, especially in the shower. I thought of all that milk going to waste. A few times on “good days” I considered starting pumping again, but reminded myself of all the reasons I had stopped and how it was helping speed my recovery from PPD.
I feel like I should close with some grand statement, but now that I’ve written this all out, I’m emotionally exhausted. In my heart of hearts, I feel with 100% certainty that I made the right decision. The guilt and doubt creeps in when I see the ceaseless posts about breastfeeding being best, from people who probably have good intentions but don’t realize how hurtful and alienating they are being. I still don’t know how to handle those situations. It wears me out to constantly “speak up” when I see thoughtless comments. My therapist says maybe the reason this was so traumatic for me is because I didn’t have a plan B. I had a backup practice and hospital in case the home birth didn’t work out, so that was my plan B for the birth; but we had no formula in the house. I don’t think that’s it, though. We also didn’t have any disposable diapers in the house but I can’t see myself being such an emotional wreck about it if cloth diapering hadn’t worked out.
I fed my son directly at my breast for five days. I gave him my milk for two and a half months. But what I’ve come to realize is none of that matters nearly as much as the fact that on a daily basis I give him my love in the unique way that only I can, because I am his mama. My baby needs a healthy mom more than he needs my milk. I am inching toward recovery, even though I still have days where I feel like a worthless mother. On those days, I try to remember these words from a recent Daily Hope email from Katherine Stone of the blog Postpartum Progress:
“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” ~ Henry Van Dyke
Your baby would have very little without his or her mama. You are SO important, even if you feel like you’re blowing it. You have talents — you are feeding and clothing and speaking or singing or rocking or strolling or reading or bathing or whatever it is that you have done or will do. Keep on doing whatever you can do to the best of your ability. To you the things you are doing may seem like they don’t measure up, or they aren’t enough or you don’t have the right thoughts in your head when you’re doing them. To your baby, they’re like birdsongs in the woods.
Share your story for an upcoming FFF Friday: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.