As a new mom who did not successfully breastfeed, I have so often felt like a lesser mother over the past year whenever someone asked me, “Are you still breastfeeding?” Which is usually followed by, “Oh no, what happened!?” I have heard so many references to breastfeeding that at times I have felt as though mothering is breastfeeding, and because I am not doing so I must be less of a mom.
The “breast is best” mantra-turned-guilt-trip started for me before my daughter was even born. In my last group prenatal meeting, one woman said she planned to feed her baby formula, but felt like the healthcare community would only give her information on breastfeeding. After a deafening silence, the lactation consultant said, “That’s because we now know that breast milk is better.”
As if that icy tidbit wasn’t enough, she went on to caution, “I will just warn you that this is a very pro-breastfeeding area.” I swallowed hard, internalizing this information as a non-negotiable item, like so many women must do.
When our daughter Summer came, she came with a force. For the first week of her life, we called her “the tomato.” In nearly all of her waking moments her little newborn face was scrunched up and beet red, her lungs working over-time with what we called “the bird call cry.” One of the nurses on the labor and delivery unit asked us, “what is wrong with her?” Very reassuring to brand new parents.
When we got home from the hospital, disaster struck. Summer just couldn’t seem to get the milk she needed. She would worked up and arch her body into the most extreme contortions. I would arch along with her and try to aim my nipple into her mouth. Even when I got to her when she was still sleeping, the beginning of breastfeeding sent her into a tizzy. I was naked more than I was clothed, soaked in my own milk as my daughter cried, bit my nipple, bent her body, and flailed about.
For the first 72 hours of her life, my husband Nick and I slept for a total of three hours. I was so tired that at one point Nick had to remind me of Summer’s name. I began to get scared by how I felt – that I had no control over anything. The baby blues were also setting in and I couldn’t stop the tears. I would sit and cry as my milk leaked and stained my shirts, the couch, the floor. I studied the breastfeeding diagrams that made it look so easy. All the while Summer would wail uncontrollably in my arms.
We called the hospital lactation consultant who gave us advice over the phone. We called to make an appointment with that joyless lactation consultant from the prenatal group, but she was on vacation. We spoke to the midwife who told us not to worry, that Summer would get it soon. The pediatrician told me to supplement with pumped milk if I felt Summer was not getting enough to eat.
Not once in all these discussions did anyone mention formula.
On Summer’s one week birthday, I was tearfully sitting at the kitchen island, trying to nurse while Nick was at the grocery store. My sister-in-law sent me a text wishing Summer a happy one-week birthday. I read the text as if looking at it from a million miles away.
Happy? That word was not a part of a lexicon to which I could remotely relate. When Nick came home from the store and found me sobbing in the same place he left me, he said we needed to make a change.
We brought out the breastpump – something I had been nervous about, as the lactation consultant had ominously warned about introducing a bottle “too soon.”
Summer drank much better from a bottle. For the first time she showed us that her needs were met. For the first time, we regarded her with something other than pure terror. Pumping and bottle-feeding offered more of a solace, but the schedule was relentless. Pump, feed a bottle, tiny break, pump, feed a bottle – I never felt that I was bonding with my baby because it was too hard to hold her while I was pumping, which was most of the day.
Moreover, that humorless machine with all its wires was a bear on my nipples. Wearing clothes over my chafed breasts was excruciating, no matter how much nipple cream I applied. The pump kept us tethered to home, because, really, who is going to pump in public? I hoped to break the need for it, and so kept trying to teach Summer how to breastfeed. Alas, it always provoked a nearly violent reaction in her, which was hard for her (and me and Nick) to recover from.
When Summer was five weeks old, Nick broke his arm and couldn’t hold Summer. As he sat in the emergency room, I sat in bed with my mind racing. He came home, and we jointly agreed: it was time to switch to formula. Nick and I have strived to create an egalitarian household since the day we met. He advocated for formula from the minute breastfeeding proved a complicated endeavor. I surprised myself by declining that route at first because of the pressure I felt from society, although I knew that it was at the cost of our household’s peace.
After we began to formula feed, we got our groove as parents. We shared equally in caring for Summer, and Summer was well-cared for! By ditching the pump we could hold her as much as she needed. Feeling confident that we could meet her needs, our parental love flowed.
I look back at that time and feel rage, rage at society for pushing that breast is best – that if you don’t breastfeed, your child will die of SIDS, or be sick all the time, or have diabetes later in life, or be obese, or have a lower IQ. These cure-all claims by the breastfeeding-or-bust community are at best flawed and at worst pose a threat to new parents’ mental health. Unsurprisingly, recent studies point to correlation, not causation, with breastfed children, and look at what else is going on in a child’s life to help them advance. One such study found that when socioeconomic considerations are accounted for when measuring childhood IQ’s, “the standalone effect of breastfeeding seemed to disappear.”
Common sense suggests that all this pressure poses a risk for postpartum depression. Unsuccessful breastfeeding is a physical strife that feels emotionally harrowing as you’re unable to fulfill your baby’s needs. You then also have to battle society’s unceasing chorus that you’re creating risks for your child if you don’t breastfeed, challenging your very vulnerable identity as a new mother. One UK study found that women who unsuccessfully attempted to breastfeed were “two-and-a-half times more likely to develop postnatal depression, compared to women who had no intention of breastfeeding.” Not once did this risk for postpartum depression come up with any healthcare provider as Summer and I (and Nick) struggled through this chapter.
Being a mother is more than producing milk. Being a parent is not a job – it’s a state of being. We don’t need to give ourselves peer reviews and grades. The ultimate goal is to be the love of one another’s lives, and do what needs to be done to feel that way. Hanna Rosin says it best in her 2009 article on breastfeeding: “It seems reasonable to put breast-feedings’ health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things…on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision.”
That is exactly what our family did – only I wish we did it on day two instead of day 37. It would have saved a lifetime of tears and allowed us to bond with our baby a month earlier than we did.