‘It’s okay if you don’t breastfeed.’
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
I’m sure my inbox is about to swell with hate mail. But I’m not writing to them. I’m writing to you, the mama who has been up every two hours for days, your sweet baby screaming with hunger. You with swollen breasts, weeping and desperate and wondering “why didn’t anyone ever tell me it would be THIS hard?!”
Maybe, like me, you’ve tried books, articles, lactation consultants, cookies, teas, yoga, prayers, screaming into your pillow. Maybe you’ve tried taping complicated tube contraptions to your boobs every two hours to supplementally feed your baby. Maybe you’re doing marathon hour-long pumping sessions to increase your supply. Maybe you’re lost. Maybe you’re feeling like a failure.
Well from the other side of a nightmarish breastfeeding journey, let me tell you this: You’re doing enough. You’ve done enough. You are a wonderful mother, and you will still be a wonderful mother if you choose to stop breastfeeding.
I’ll repeat that just in case you need to hear it. You can stop. It’s okay.
I’m saying this to you because it’s something that I desperately needed to hear. Breastfeeding is set up as the first critical test of your worth as a mother. In those early days, where everything feels scary and fragile, you desperately want a sign that you’re getting it right—that this sweet, vulnerable little soul in your care will be okay.
For some women, breastfeeding comes naturally. It’s a beautiful, convenient, intimate way to feed their child. I was not that woman. For me and for far more mamas than you realize, it’s a painful, difficult, frustrating process made worse by immense and often misguided societal pressure.
My low point was when I ended up in the ER in the first week of my baby’s life. I was stuck on a hallway gurney, terrified to be separated from my baby, next to a man on hallucinogens trying to rip out his IVs. My breasts were swollen and leaking because no one could find a breast pump for hours (even though we were three floors down from a well-stocked maternity ward). When they finally did, I had to pump in the hallway for EMTs, firemen, doctors, nurses and all to see.
Or maybe it was when we drove an hour with a screaming newborn to pay a cranial sacral therapist $180 to give our son a 10-minute head massage while lecturing us about how we’d traumatized him with a C-section that we hadn’t chosen. He was supposed to relieve the tension in our baby’s mouth, head and neck to improve his latch. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
Or maybe it was when I broke down into wracking sobs two months, zero sleep and three lactation consultants later, sniveling “I just want to be able to enjoy my son.” I had been on an utterly unsustainable 24/7 regimen of breastfeeding, pumping and supplemental bottles. I felt like I existed only to breastfeed, pump and wash pumping parts. Other people got to play with my son. Other people got to cuddle him. I was just the 24/7 diner.
That lactation consultant gave me the gift I was not willing to give myself: permission to stop. She asked what no one else had thought to ask: “What are your priorities right now?” “I want to nourish my child without losing my mind,” I said.
What did that look like for me? Trading breastfeeding for pumping and bottle feeding with a little formula thrown in. And you know what? He’s fine. He’s great, actually, with chunky thighs and a big round belly and a mischievous grin that lights up a room. And I’m great too.
But it took me a little while to get there. It took me a while to realize that my worth as a mother wasn’t tied to my ability to breastfeed. It took me a while to realize just how much misinformation there was about breastfeeding. It took me a while to quiet the voices in my head (and on Instagram and in the waiting room at the pediatrician and my mom’s group) that I had somehow failed my baby, that I hadn’t tried hard enough.
If you’re on the breastfeeding struggle bus, please know that your struggles likely have nothing to do with you—society does not set you up for success.
If exclusively breastfeeding for six months is so critical to the health and happiness of children, then why don’t we give six months of paid federally mandated maternity leave to all mothers? Why aren’t lactation consultants provided free of charge? Why do so many mothers have to go back to work weeks after giving birth and pump in supply closets to the judgment of coworkers?
My point? Breastfeeding is treated as a matter of personal responsibility when in reality it’s inextricably linked to larger issues around unequal access to maternal leave, family-friendly workplaces and affordable health care.
Your health matters. You matter.
Breastfeeding can take an incredible physical and mental toll. From hospital stays for women who develop mastitis to struggles with mental health. A 2011 study found that women who had negative breastfeeding experiences had an increased incidence of postpartum depression. I know it certainly contributed to mine.
So let’s refocus this debate on what our babies really need. You. Not the milk that comes out of your boobs. You. The more you take care of you, the more you have to give to your baby. If breastfeeding works for you, great! Pumped milk? Awesome! Formula? Pass the powder.
When I stopped breastfeeding, the fog lifted. I was lighter, sharper, more patient, more fun. I was the mama I wanted to be. And that’s what worked for me. What will work for you?