Now, this topic is getting way more personal than I ever thought I would get on this blog, but because my last post seemed to help some people, I thought this one might, too. I will suggest that, if you’re a dude and aren’t reading this for educational benefit, you might skip this post and catch me later. Hey, all I can do is ask.
Before motherhood, I changed my mind a lot as to how I would feed my future children. I thought breast feeding was disgusting for a long time, then came around to it and it became my plan when I was expecting. My mom told me how quickly and easily she’d lost her baby weight from nursing my sister and me, so that was what decided it for me. Of course, it being great for the baby and free (besides the cost of a breast pump and nursing bras) were big motivators, too.
During my pregnancy, I feared that breast feeding wouldn’t work for me because I wasn’t experiencing the changes women usually experience during pregnancy. (Let’s just say I was still wearing the bras I could have worn in middle school.) I went to a breast feeding class and asked the lactation consultant about it, and even she expressed concern that I might have problems.
So I Googled. And Googled and Googled and Googled. There’s a condition I’d never heard of before called “insufficient glandular tissue.” It basically means that you may have normal-looking parts, but it turns out they’re made up of more fat than glandular tissue, which is what produces milk. Women who have it don’t tend to realize it until they can’t breast feed. I won’t go into detail, but I did have a couple of the symptoms (lack of changes in pregnancy being one of them). I wondered why I’d never heard of it before, and a lot of the women I’d found online talking about it hadn’t, either. It’s like the breast feeding world’s best kept secret. “Women are BUILT to breast feed; we are SUPPOSED to be able to do it; it is a MYTH that some women can’t.” “Did you know that only 1% of women are unable to breast feed? Well, that’s such a small number, let’s not even address those women or the reasons they have trouble.” I was terrified, but continued to hope against hope that I would be able to do it.
Fast forward to the day MC arrived. As my previous post stated, I went 9 hours without her after she was born. This was after all of the literature, childbirth classes, the Internet, and tons of other sources had been telling me my whole pregnancy how important early skin-to-skin contact is, especially to establish breast feeding. Along with the obvious reasons I wanted my daughter with me, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety about establishing feeding, especially because those fears were already in place. I expressed these concerns to my postpartum nurse, who was very kind but didn’t seem too concerned and told me that “as long as you pump within the first six hours, it should be fine.” At a quarter to six, I still hadn’t had a pump brought to me, so I paged for one. She brought me a pump and taught me how to use it. I saved what little I got (knowing that it was normal to get a very small amount at first) in a syringe to feed to the baby when she came to be with us.
When MC got to join us, she wasn’t the least bit interested in nursing. I fed her the colostrum I’d pumped with the syringe; she spit it out a couple of minutes later. (When I told the nurse this and she fretted, my anxiety crept up even more.) The nurse told me that the baby’s lack of interest in feeding was normal and that I should continue pumping. The next morning, my doctor came by to check on me and was very cavalier about my feeding anxiety. She told me that my baby was “full of nutrition” from the womb still and wouldn’t necessarily be hungry. I’d never heard that before, but was so wildly emotional that I would have let any positive thing encourage me and any negative thing send me into despair. The lactation consultant visited and helped me. She told me to feed the baby every 2 hours. I did my best, but she was just never interested. The LC came back to check on me the next day and just told me to keep it up. I was very vocal about my concerns but she was very dismissive of them. (In my experience, it seems that a lot of the breast feeding gurus appear to believe that not acknowledging a potential for a problem will solve whatever problems there may be. I’m not trying to make a blanket statement; again, this is just my experience and I realize not everyone is this way.)
The first two weeks of Mary Clementine’s life were awful. I hate to say that, but it’s just the truth. I know my body must have produced more tears than breast milk. Ryan had two weeks off to be with me, my mom and in-laws were in town, we had friends dropping by, one of my friends came down the weekend after MC was born, and I still felt largely alone because I spent so much time camped out in MC’s room trying to get her to eat. I cried; I prayed; I begged her; I tried every trick the LCs and the Internet had told me. She would eat now and again, after screaming and tiring herself out, then she would fall asleep. It would take an hour to “feed” her and I had to do it every 2 hours. I was exhausted to the point of lunacy. I had an LC come visit me at home. I rented a hospital-grade pump and pumped every 2 hours, only getting about 1/2 an ounce each time but telling myself that it was because MC had gotten most of what was in there. I rented a scale and weighed her before and after feedings. Her weight went up only by 1/2 an ounce each time. I brought her into her pediatrician’s office for weight checks. I kept an exhaustive report of every feeding, every wet and dirty diaper and obsessed over it with bloodshot eyes. I drank fennel essential oil, Mother’s Milk tea, even once gulped down a beer like a child taking castor oil (I can’t stand the stuff). I ate oatmeal and downed water like I never had before. Nothing was increasing my supply to a sufficient amount.
I’ve always struggled with a poor self concept, but these first two weeks were easily the worst I have ever, ever felt about myself in my life. Of course, I was dealing with hormones and I knew I’d be emotional. Getting personal yet again, I deal with anxiety and depression already so I knew that I was especially at risk for feeling down after giving birth. I sobbed to Ryan, “My daughter needs me and I can’t give her what she needs.” “I’m such a failure.” “If I could feed her on my tears, she’d be the healthiest baby in the world.” (Ridiculously dramatic, but 100% sincere.) I always knew formula was there for me to turn to, but I equated that with personal failure. (I absolutely DO NOT feel this way about moms who formula feed; again, this is coming from my postpartum, hard-on-myself, off-the-wall irrational self.) I told myself that 100 years ago, my baby would have died of starvation. I had no idea how parents had multiple children. Going through this once was more than I thought my heart could bear. So much of those two weeks were spent awake, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, and devastated that the time seemed to expand and encompass a lot more than it actually did. That probably doesn’t make sense, but there it is.
At the baby’s two week visit, she hadn’t gained the weight she was expected to. I knew that I had to face that I simply was not able to feed my baby as much as she needed to survive. Between the nurse weighing the baby and the doctor coming in, I cried the miserable tears of utter defeat. Ryan, God love him, tried to comfort me the same way he had been the whole time. I wasn’t having it. The doctor came in and asked me how I was feeling. He listened to me. He was very kind, patient, and reasonable. He told me that, yes, breast milk is best, but formula isn’t the poisonous substance it’s made out to be. He told me that his own children were fed on breast milk and formula. When we realized we had no choice but to start supplementing, I had built myself up to be in the pits of despair…but I surprised myself by actually feeling free. Yes, I was still hard on myself and disappointed that I hadn’t been able to feed her by myself. But I knew that there was a way my baby could get enough to eat. I would give it to her and she would grow, thrive.
Difficulties continued. MC got used to formula from a bottle and became increasingly impatient with nursing. When she was a little over a month old, I made the decision to pump my milk and give it to her in a bottle so she would drink it. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. She gets about 2 ounces of milk, then 4 ounces of formula at every feeding.
Now, these are MY opinions from MY experience/research/arduous emotional journey and are not at all meant to be a declaration for everyone to live by. So here we go. The mothering world, especially now that the government is paying hospitals so much to promote breast feeding, makes breast milk vs. formula into a “black and white” battle. One is good; the other evil. One is the best thing you can do for your baby; the other is the easy way out. One is natural; the other, toxic. If I can reach ONE mother who may be reading this and finding herself fighting the personal battle that I continue to fight, please know this: it is NOT black and white. Maybe grey and white. Maybe two semi-contrasting shades of grey. It is, however, “right” or “wrong.” Huh? I mean simply this: It is what turns out to be RIGHT for you and your baby versus what is wrong. This is different for every mother and child out there. “Breast milk is best,” yes. It contains the perfect nutrition your baby needs. However, some moms may not be able to give breast milk to their babies, whether for physiological reasons, lifestyle reasons, or both. Thank God, there is this stuff out there called formula that is getting better and better with more research and development, and many, many perfectly healthy, brilliant, amazing people in the world have been formula-fed and/or formula-feed their children. Breast milk boosts your baby’s immune system, it decreases your risk for cancer, etc. There are so many wonderful benefits. However, what we are led to believe is that breast fed babies are healthy; formula-fed babies are sick. Mothers who breast feed won’t get cancer; mothers who formula-feed will. This is just not how it works. YOUR journey is unique to you; please don’t apologize to anyone for it.
A couple of weeks ago, I started to think about feeding Mary Clementine exclusively formula. I had been spending a total of 2.5 hours a day pumping. I either have to do it while she’s sleeping (she rarely naps for longer than half an hour at a time so I can’t do other nap time things like laundry, cleaning, etc) or when she’s awake and staring at me from her rocker or swing because I can’t hold her. For the past few days, I’ve gone down to pumping three times a day. I pump in the morning when she’s been fed and is napping, once in the afternoon, and once right before I go to bed. The freedom I have felt is awesome. I realize my supply will diminish and I am okay with that. For me, it came down to asking myself a question. What is more important for me to give my daughter: my breast milk or myself at my best? Unfortunately, for ME, these choices are mutually exclusive. I decided that myself at my best was more important than my breast milk accompanied by my fatigue/crankiness/anxiety that comes from feeling like I never get anything done, be it chores or just things that I enjoy doing for a morale boost. Maybe it will be a completely different story with my other babies, but I am giving myself the freedom to cross that bridge when I come to it.
Bottom line, here is my take. Let’s stop screaming “Breast milk is best” as if you can only be “the best” if you give your baby breast milk. If only something like, “Breast milk contains the best nutrition, but formula is nutritionally great, too” were quicker and easier to say. I have found out the hard way (understatement of the year) that for me, “the best” I can do for my baby is pray for her without ceasing, cuddle her, hold her, change her diapers, play with her, engage her, feed her – formula, in my case – and strive to set a good example of an emotionally healthy woman for her to follow.