*Pun 100% intended.
They told me about the pain of contractions.
They told me about the agony of pushing.
They told me about the possibility of tearing.
About the weeks of bloody diapers.
About the hormonal waves.
About the Baby Blues.
About sitting on ice packs and inflated donuts.
But the chapped nipples,
the biting pain,
the low supply,
the baby asleep at the breast,
the prayers for just two hours of sleep,
the resentment toward the best thing in my life,
the miserable “natural” experience of breastfeeding that everything in me wanted to love,
nobody told me about.
Happy #worldbreastfeedingweek! How cool that a woman’s body can continue to provide sustenance for her child after birth. It is a remarkable thing. Today, as I scroll through my Instagram feed, which primarily consists of other mommy accounts, I have seen so many images that glamorize breastfeeding. And while half of my heart shouts “you go, mama!” the other half aches and rolls its eyes. These pictures, though beautiful, do not capture the entirety of breastfeeding. My journey with nursing was short-lived and far from glorious, and it is so very important that I share this because I do not want another soul to enter this experience with the same naïveté or leave it with the same guilt. Here is my story.
There was no doubt in my mind. Even before we found out we were pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. It was healthy, economical, and a beautiful bonding experience between mom and baby. It was everything I wanted, everything I was looking forward to. Until D was delivered, it never occurred to me that nursing wouldn’t work. It had to work. Everybody did it. Everybody loved it. Nobody and nothing had led me to believe it was anything other than natural, easy, and oh so magical.
The first nursing experience was so sweet. D slurped down the colostrum for two perfect hours. Since it was the first feeding, there wasn’t much fuss. A nurse helped place him on my breast and that was it. He was happy and so was I. From that point on, when we were in the hospital, there was always someone watching, helping, constructively criticizing his feedings. Apparently, he and I weren’t as expert at this as I initially believed. Each feeding seemed to require more than one other person’s hands on my boobs, toe-curling pain, and a latch/unlatch problem. I took all the uncomfortable help in stride, because I was quickly realizing that this breastfeeding business was not as seamless as I had pictured. I left the hospital acknowledging that nursing would be a challenge, but it was one that I was up for tackling with my baby.
When we got home, we were on our own. It seemed the previous issues of pain and latching were only being added to. My boy was a lazy feeder. He would fall asleep after seconds of feeding, so I had to bug him awake constantly. Each feeding was taking over an hour because he couldn’t keep up the stamina to suck. I was told his feedings shouldn’t be this long, and it was okay to cut him off after 30-45 minutes. So I tried that. Then he would be hungry a short hour later – both day and night. I was not sleeping, and he and I were both unhappy. I thought that maybe he was tiring out because there wasn’t enough milk to keep him going. So I pumped. And for a week after he was born, I was coming up with not even half an ounce of milk. My son was not getting enough food. I wasn’t making enough food. He was crying relentlessly. I was crying more relentlessly. Another week later, nothing had improved. My milk that had come in was hardly anything. My son wasn’t getting what he needed. A visit to the doctor confirmed this, and they recommended supplementing with formula. I was not about this. I was adamant that I exclusively breastfeed. The lactation consultants I visited were even more adamant than me. They said absolutely no bottles the first few weeks because it will make it harder for him to nurse. But when push came to shove, I had no other option. My baby was losing weight. Neither of us were healthy. And after thinking more practically, I realized I had to give him formula. His health was most important. So we fed him one bottle of formula a day. He took it great and began gaining weight quickly. I looked forward to this time of bottle-feeding each day. The breastfeeding that happened every other hour on the hour, however, I dreaded. He would wail as I would smoosh my boob like a hamburger and shove his little face against it, flailing over my nipple, his face red. I would cry and cry, angry at him and even more angry at myself for not being able to mother him as I believed I was supposed to. My already fragile mental health was placed in an even more delicate, dangerous state. I went back to the lactation consultants. They watched him feed, corrected his latch over and over, and kept stroking him to keep him sucking. I reluctantly told them that we had been supplementing formula per the suggestion of D’s pediatrician. They cringed. They continually urged that breast was best, and formula was a big no-no. I wasn’t so sure.
During the time we were supplementing, I became increasingly convinced that bottle-feeding might be best for both myself and D, but I couldn’t shake the shame of what felt like giving up. I sought the counsel of other women who advised that fed was best. But nearly every woman I talked to had breastfed exclusively or breastfed primarily. I searched and searched for blog posts about women who had decided to formula-feed after struggling to breastfeed, and I came up with a big fat nothing. I found a few articles that appeared hopeful and affirming to my prospective decision, but after making it through a paragraph or two of admitted difficulty, the writer would share that it turned around for the better OR that she “stuck it out” for MONTHS despite the pain and/or unhealthiness of her baby and self. I was not in any place to do that, and I needed to know that this was okay. Plenty of people had said it was fine, but it seemed no woman today was actually doing it. Or at least not sharing that they were.
I felt so completely alone. It seemed everywhere I looked, there were women successfully breastfeeding, enjoying the experience I wanted to enjoy. All the mommy Instagram accounts highlighted, praised, and showcased breastfeeding. Bottle-feeding was nowhere to be seen. After three weeks of wrangling defeat, I decided to go against the grain and exclusively bottle-feed my son. But because I couldn’t embrace exclusively formula-feeding, for no reason other than shame, I decided to pump and bottle-feed breastmilk along with formula. I kept up pumping for two months, all in the name of breast is best. But in turn, I traded 6-8 pumping sessions of 15 minutes for quality bonding time with my baby each day. I would watch him play or cry while I, home alone with D, would bond with a machine. After 10 weeks of this, I decided to let my milk supply dry up (OUCH), pack away the pump, and *gasp* formula-feed my baby.
Breastfeeding is becoming normalized, to the extent of people believing it is an automatic guarantee for a new mother. I was asked time and time again, sometimes by perfect strangers, “how is nursing going?” rather than “how is feeding going?” This is an innocent question if nursing is going well or going at all, but you can imagine how humiliating it is to say, “Oh, actually I’m not” and brace yourself for impact. Most women were very polite and unquestioning; others wore their judgement on their sleeve. Sometimes I would flat out lie – “it’s going okay,” in order to avoid the embarrassment of the truth. In any and all cases, I felt like I was doing something wrong. When what I was really doing was feeding my baby and caring for myself.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I think breastfeeding is amazing. I wanted it so badly, and maybe I’ll try it again upon having another child. But for me and my first, it was not pleasant, magical, or nourishing. It was the exact opposite. Formula-feeding made the both of us healthy and happy, which made the start of my motherhood journey so much more enjoyable. It was the best decision. Typing that out feels SO good. But admittedly, before, during, and even for a long time after making the decision to formula-feed, there was so much sadness, anger, and shame – sadness in saying goodbye to my beautifully built-up nursing plans, anger in the fact that I couldn’t provide what I thought I was supposed to be able to give to my baby boy, and so much shame wrapped up in “quitting.” Today, I am thankful that Jesus + time heals the heart and offers freedom from these binding emotions.
While I sincerely hope breastfeeding continues to become far more normalized than it ever was before, I also hope we don’t turn bottle-feeding today into what many nursing women experienced long ago. We must acknowledge that not every woman can or chooses to nurse. Consider adoptive mamas, mamas whose babies are born with conditions that require taking formula from a bottle or tube, mamas who have breast cancer, working mamas who aren’t 24-hour-accessible to their baby, mamas who simply don’t want to nurse, or mamas like me – who tried and “failed.” The #breastisbest belief perpetuates shame in women for whom breast is not best. It is in a mother’s nature to do what is best for her family at all costs, and “best” cannot be expected to look the same from mother to mother and baby to baby. Fed is best, and none of us deserve to feel guilty for feeding our babies no matter how it is done. We all carry enough as new mommies already. We need our whole mama village to support one another – to #normalizebreastfeeding AND to remove the negative stigma attached to bottle-feeding.
>>If you are an expectant mother, I’m going to be real and tell you breastfeeding is not easy. And it might not work. BUT THAT IS OKAY.
>>If you are a new mother who is choosing to bottle-feed right from the start, GOOD FOR YOU. Go against the current norm. You do you. Your baby is best when you are at yours.
>>If you are a new mother who is struggling to breastfeed, I GET YOU SO MUCH. Shame is normal. Sadness is normal. But please know, ending your nursing journey for the benefit of self and child is honorable, not shameful. If feeding by breast is not working, switch to the bottle. There may be a part of you that remains disappointed, but I promise you, it is worth it in the long run.