Breast is best, I was told. Breast is best, I believed. Oh, sure, fed is best, but isn’t that reserved for extenuating circumstances? Isn’t failure to breastfeed so often from physical inability or lack of support? I had support and supply in spades. Surely this was going to be easy. Women have been doing this for millennia, I thought. It can’t be that difficult.
I registered for nursing tanks and nursing covers. I got my breast pump through insurance and read the instructions cover to cover as the parts air-dried on my counter after careful sanitation. I made lactation cookies, bought lactation tea, mentally planned where all of my healthy snacks would be so I could easily grab them while nursing. I started to mentally prepare myself to be unafraid to just whip a boob out in public if necessary. Breastfeeding is wonderful and natural, I thought. Breast is best.
And apparently breastfeeding was supposed to carry a one-two punch with slimming me down and staving off PPD. I’d done relatively well off meds throughout pregnancy, with a couple of bad days that I chalked up to hormones. What could be better than feeding my baby while helping myself heal? It sounded like a dream.
I remember feeling the sharp pinching when G first latched on. I didn’t expect it to be painless, but I was surprised. I was also surprised that he dozed right off not a minute into feeding. “Squish your breast like this,” the nurse on duty told me. “Think of it as a sandwich.” She showed me a few different positions to hold him in. All of it hurt, was unwieldy, was uncomfortable. I couldn’t even lift my arms above my head from the strain I’d put on them when pushing and here I was trying to get myself and a baby in just the right position for feedings that I was told needed to last at least fifteen to twenty minutes to make sure he was getting all he needed.
It didn’t take long for the constant boob sandwich squishing I was doing with my hands to cause chafing and rashes. Just one more discomfort and sacrifice, I told myself. I had to give up myself for this baby. That’s what motherhood is all about. I told myself this with every sting of yet another failed latch. I told myself this with the realization that I was in for absolutely no sleep with the 2-3 hour cycle of feedings, of which I insisted I be the sole provider.
My husband can tell you that even now I don’t do well with small fragments of sleep. I’ve never been a power napper. I have to complete at least one full REM cycle to not feel like absolute garbage, and I prefer more than that. But that was my old life, right? I couldn’t expect to get normal sleep again.
“I see you have depression on your chart,” said the OB/GYN. “You don’t have to get it filled, but I’m going to write you a prescription for the lowest dose of Prozac. It can cause some irritability in babies that breastfeed when they withdraw, but it’s not bad.”
I shuddered at the thought. I can handle this, I thought. Breastfeeding will help my PPD naturally. The crying is just hormone crash. It’s lack of sleep. It’s anything but mental illness. PPD is what happens to women like the one I was hospitalized with nearly a decade ago, who was on the verge of missing her son’s first birthday because she’d had to be sent away for her own good and his own good. At least, that’s what I told myself, even as I knew better. Even as I’d publicly support any and all women with a PPD story, no matter how mild.
“It’s a tongue tie,” said the lactation consultant. “Demand that your pediatrician clip it. If they won’t do that, find another pediatrician.”
I remember staring at her in disbelief. I had just sobbed in front of her because she informed me that my Evenflo breastpump was practically worthless, and to not even pump until we’d established a latch. I’d just let this woman I’d met the day before manhandle my chest AND my baby at the same time. I listened to her tell me that the reason she herself was fat was that she was fed on formula that was nothing but glorified corn syrup. I put up with all this bullshit because I still believed in my heart of hearts that breast was best. But I’d chosen our pediatric practice. The last thing I needed was to upend yet another part of our lives.
“Some weight loss is normal,” the pediatrician doing rounds told me before our discharge. “I’m sure that when he comes in for his next appointment he’ll have gained it right back.”
I spent forty-eight hours trying and crying and coming just short of pleading with my days-old son to just do this one thing. He didn’t gain the weight back. He’d lost a few more ounces. The doctor wrote out instructions for formula supplementation and told us to come back later in the week. I say that I didn’t recoil from the piece of paper I was handed, but I can’t remember much about that visit. I might have, for all I know. I was horrified by the idea. I felt like I’d failed miserably.
I cried in the pediatrician’s office. I cried at home. I cried just about everywhere there was to cry. We got another pump, a Medela, and I went to work pumping a breastmilk stash. Surely that was better than the alternative, I reasoned. It was still my milk. Even so, I felt even more demoralized. I was a glorified dairy cow. When breastfeeding, you’re kind of stuck where you’re sitting and you’re exhausted but at least you’re holding the baby and feel like you’re bonding. When exclusively pumping, you’re hooked up to a machine and dreading every single feeding session. Wake, feed, pump, sleep. Wake, feed, pump, sleep. Maybe eat once in a while. Spend an hour on the phone with an
ACA representative to add the baby to the health insurance. Feed. Pump. Wash the bottles. Feed. Pump. Try to sleep. Feed. Pump. Try not to cry.
It’s only because the appointments are logged in my calendar app that I even know that G went to the doctor three times in the week following his birth. My own memory of the time is exceptionally hazy, with only a few moments of clarity. One such moment was the second visit, with another doctor at the practice. I struggled to feed G, and she suggested we weigh him again to see if he’d put an ounce into his body. He hadn’t.
The doctor looked at me. “How are YOU feeling?”
That was the moment I knew who would be the only doctor our son would see.
It didn’t matter what I did to feed G. All she cared about was that I was feeding him. “Calorie for calorie, formula is nutritionally identical,” she said. “All the same building blocks of carbs, proteins, and fats.” I remember how kindly she looked at me, at my husband, at our baby. “Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. You have to be healthy and happy for him to be healthy and happy. Here’s the number for the maternal psychiatric clinic at the hospital where you delivered.”
That afternoon, I got my Prozac filled. I gave myself permission to nap, or at least try to. I found Fearless Formula Feeder. I began to realize that I had options.
I’d never felt so light as I did the night I looked at Alex and said “Let’s switch him to formula.” I felt like I was doing something wrong, and yet I felt such immense relief, and the relief outweighed the guilt. It might not have been that night, but soon after we made the switch, Alex was able to take a feeding without me worrying about getting up to pump. I slept for three hours. I didn’t feel like a new woman, but it’s hard to feel like a new woman when you’re only just starting to feel human again.
Day by day the fog lifted. I read Fearless Formula Feeder and joined a group for formula feeders on Facebook. I also made the mistake of poking around in comment sections on the subject of feeding choice.
“Fed is adequate.”
When I read that, it burned itself into my brain almost as much as “breast is best” had. Adequate. I was only doing the adequate thing for my baby. I had supply, I had good milk, I had the resources to make sure I was giving him breastmilk. Hell, we probably could have soldiered through the cracked, bleeding nipple stage and things might’ve worked out okay. Instead, I wasn’t sacrificing enough.
Listen. Mothers make some sacrifices. I’m not denying that. But to say that you have to sacrifice your mental, physical, and emotional health for the sake of your child? That is utterly bonkers. I’m tired of bending over backwards to justify how I chose to feed my child. I’m tired of giving the same laundry list of reasons: I had to get back on medication, he wasn’t latching right, he wasn’t getting the right balance of nutrients from pumped milk, et cetera et cetera. I’m tired of having to give any reasons.
I formula fed my baby. And he’s going to be just fine. Because I’m going to be just fine. And as he wiggles his way across the floor, not content to just passively watch life go by, I dare anyone to tell me how he’s any different from a breastfed baby. I dare anyone to tell me we’re just adequate. Because from where I’m standing, we’ve done our best for him, and I don’t need to provide excuses for how we got here.