I’m not sure if there’s a more hotly contested topic out there these days for internet moms than breastfeeding. There are people out there who think it’s disgusting, people trying to normalize and promote it, and women out there doing it until their kids are five years old and having actual conversations with them about it. (I confess I think it’s a little strange to breastfeed a kid through preschool, but fully appreciate and respect that women have the right to feed their children however they want. Unless you’re giving them bottles of Diet Pepsi, in which case, you should really switch to the organic one made with natural cane sugar, JK.)
My take on it is that you should do what you want.
During my pregnancy, I decided that I would try to breastfeed, but if I hated it or it was too hard for me, I would give her formula. I wanted to breastfeed, but not at the expense of myself. I’d read a lot of stories about women having a very difficult time with it (everything from consecutive boob infections to never being able to leave your kid for more than 3 hours in a row). To me, it made total sense that you try, but don’t kill yourself over it.
Believe it or not, this ended up being a really controversial attitude.
After 48 hours of labor and a difficult birth, I spent another 4 nights in the hospital. I chose this particular hospital because they’re more progressive in some of their policies: you can labor in a bathtub, have skin-to-skin contact with your baby right away after birth, and bring in your own doula or labor support.
As it turned out, they also aggressively promote breastfeeding. Very aggressively.
I know there is good reason to promote breastfeeding. I realize that some people look down on it, when actually it’s a natural, nutritionally complete, totally free way to feed your baby. Free! For many, it’s a wonderful option.
I ended up having many, many problems breastfeeding. Whether they’re common or not, it was too much for me. It took me what felt like a really long time to quit it (because of how difficult it was to breastfeed, and because I felt so guilty for not wanting to sacrifice that much of myself and my sanity for the sake of my child).
In those first few days after Lucy was born, I breastfed her. Mind you, babies don’t actually get any milk the first several days, while your milk supply takes it’s sweet time coming in. (They get this other magic stuff, called colostrum, which is great for them and totally made out of unicorns, but comes out in teeny tiny drops, so they’re still hungry.) It might be more accurate to say that I allowed her to chew on my boobs every two hours until she drew blood.
To help support me, the hospital sent in a member of their Army of Lactation Consultants every couple of hours. Some of these women were gentle and kind, but some were really pushy. They’d over-explain to me the importance of breastfeeding (which I was doing; I was already doing it! Why are you explaining to me that I should do it!). They’d grab a boob and twist it; shove it in Lucy’s mouth while she wailed.
My very favorite lactation consultant, Shelly, was tall, maybe mid 60’s, and smelled like a cocktail of clorox bleach and cough drops. She came to my bedside and orated the same speech about why I should try to breastfeed (that I’d already heard six times). Then she leaned over my naked body, grabbed my right boob while Lucy yelled in my lap, and promptly dropped a wet butterscotch hard candy out of her mouth onto my child’s body. She apologized while scooping the candy back into her mouth with a yellow fingernail, and suggested I try using a plastic nipple shield.
After I left the hospital, I was still trying to breastfeed. I was way beyond what I decided prior to birth I would go through before switching to formula. The hospital staff, the midwives I’d seen throughout my whole pregnancy, my close friends who breastfed their babies: I listened to them try and convince me to keep going. I transmogrified their encouragement (sometimes it felt more like bullying) into giant boulders of guilt, which I shouldered while telling myself that I was a weak, bad mother for wanting to quit. What was supposed to be lactation support ended up feeling like constant shaming. I felt ashamed that my body wasn’t working right. I felt ashamed that the physical pain and emotional trauma made me yearn to quit. I couldn’t determine what was best for me, and I didn’t trust my own instincts.
So, I went to another lactation consultant, voluntarily. She gave me a 24 point list of what I’d need to do to improve. Here are some highlights:
– Put a warm compress on your boob before and a cold compress on your boob after every feeding (aka every 2 hours)
– Buy an electric toothbrush and put the vibrating end on your boob in between feedings to soften the lumps
– Put $60 antibacterial/antifungal cream on both nipples after each feeding (because the skin was so broken)
– If I had to pump because the pain was too unbearable, or I wanted to let myself heal, I should not use bottles. I should fill a plastic syringe with breastmilk, attach it to a tiny tube, tape the tube end to my pointer finger, and feed her through that tube. Every two hours.
By her account, I should warm compress, vibrating toothbrush, pump or feed, do the syringe/tube/finger thing, nipple cream, and then cold compress EVERY TWO HOURS. While recovering from surgery. And trying to hold a newborn who’s screaming so hard she’s turning into a bleating, purple goat. While alone with her for 12 hours a day.
It took me 6 long, long weeks of breastfeeding (that’s feeding or pumping every two hours for 42 days) before deciding that I am not a bad mother for wanting to stop being miserable. It is not required that you suffer so your baby can thrive. Breastmilk is wonderful stuff, but formula is not the devil’s dirt: I was raised on formula, and I turned out just fine (except for the late 90’s. and early to mid 2000’s.).
I wish women would stop criminalizing each other for making decisions about how they want to raise their own babies. I wish I hadn’t spent so many weeks criminalizing myself.
Some women love breastfeeding, whether they had an easy time doing it or a very difficult one. Some women overcome the difficulties after weeks or months of trying, and then are so glad they persevered. I have nothing but respect for these women.
I wish that I had felt respected (and had respected myself) earlier for not wanting to continue to be in pain, for wanting the freedom to leave the house for an afternoon without worrying about my boobs exploding, for wanting to quit.
Ultimately, I’m glad I gave it everything I could, but I’m also sure that I’m better and happier now. I’m a better mother for it.
To all of the women out there working hard to destigmatize breastfeeding: my former army of lactation consultants and I salute you. But don’t forget that new moms are total physical and emotional wrecks, and there’s a fine line between supporting someone in their journey to become the best possible mother, and pushing them away from trusting their own, brand new instincts. We all need the support of other women through early motherhood. We need to support each other through the hard-fought decisions, even if we disagree.
Being a new mom is really, really hard. Let’s just all have each other’s backs and be generous with the high fives. Hakuna matata, okay?