I am a reader. When something significant happens in my life, I buy a book about it. As soon as I got two blue lines on a pee stick, I was trolling the aisles of Chapters for the best pregnancy, baby and parenting books. One of the books I picked up was the terrifically optimistic Guide to Breastfeeding by Dr. Jack Newman, who is one of the world’s preeminent breastfeeding experts. My story is in no way a reflection on the important work that Dr. Newman does, nor of the value of breastfeeding as a good and valid parenting choice.
Now-me would love to punch Then-me in her naïve, judgemental pie hole, but at the time I was thoroughly convinced. Formula was poison, poison, poison. I talked to anyone who would listen about my plans, and about how ‘it is only a percent of a percent of a percent of women who CAN’T breastfeed and the others just give up too soon.’ When I saw pictures of friends’ babies on Facebook with bottles, I felt disappointed for them. I kept my opinions mostly to myself, but I still cringe now at what an asshole I was.
When I came out of the operating room, still feeling like a block of ice, a nurse putting pressure on my bleeding spine, exhausted and unwashed and totally stunned, I immediately asked if I could try to breastfeed. The nurses were helpful and encouraging, and I thought everything would be smooth sailing. Nina seemed to know what to do right away.
But as the days passed, and what should have been happening was not happening, and countless strangers grabbed my baby and my boob and shoved them together, I got increasingly frustrated. My roommate’s milk came in so her baby was nursing like clockwork, and I was unflatteringly jealous. She didn’t get hacked open and now she had milk! (She also had a UTI, and a busy two-year old to go home to, and the nurses were borderline-harassing her to pick a name for her baby so they could complete their paperwork, so I needn’t have been so jealous towards the poor woman.) I had no idea that my story was so much like so many others’ until much later, when I broadened my reading list.
One fateful night in the hospital, Nina was crying and my nipples were battered and bleeding and even looking at them hurt me, the nurse asked me if I wanted to give her a little formula. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting Nina’s barracuda latch anywhere near me, and I thought that if I took a night off I could start fresh in the morning.
I left the hospital with a rental pump, and swore that I would pump every two hours until things started working the way they were supposed to, because I was thoroughly dedicated to the cause. I wasn’t going to give my baby poison when I had the world’s most perfect food gushing forth from my bosom. But there was no gushing. Pumping rarely resulted in more than four or five drops, and on the one occasion when I pumped a full ounce I spilled it before I got it in the fridge. I sat down on the floor beside the wet throw rug and wept. My husband made a joke about crying over spilled milk, but in the face of my complete insanity it went over like a lead balloon.
I took over a dozen pills a day to stimulate lactation and drank “milk tea” and ate curry. Pumping was exhausting. Since my husband was working full time, I spent a lot of my time pumping while listening to my baby fuss because my hands were full and I couldn’t pick her up. There was also the assembling and disassembling and the washing and rinsing and cooling and storing and looking for somewhere to plug it in.
My mother connected me with a wonderful lactation consultant, who met with me a number of times over the next few weeks. She gave me lots of information and support and coaching, and she was very kind. She continued encouraging me for as long as I wanted to try, but in retrospect, I’m not sure what other choice she had when faced with a manic, wild-eyed lunatic who kept blubbering about the smell of formula.
I tried an SNS (Supplemental nursing system) which consists of a plastic bottle, which you fill with formula and hang around your neck, and two tubes which you tape to your breasts so that the baby gets the experience of nursing even if you don’t have milk. Basically it makes you look like something from a low budget sci-fi porn. And if you don’t have four hands, the tiny tubes can bend or spring loose from the tape and go up your baby’s nose while you’re trying to get her to latch, which makes her so, so angry.
After more than eight weeks of crying (both of us) and screaming at the sight of my breasts (also both of us) I gave up. I returned the pump. I didn’t stop feeling guilty though, and that is one of my most profound regrets. I only got six months to spend with my daughter, and I spent most of them feeling guilty and ashamed. It is hard to admit, but this has been one of those wounds that never seems to heal. I do stare a bit when I see public breast feeding ….I’m not offended. I am touched by the intimacy and connectedness. And I’m a little jealous.
After all of this, I am still a reader. I picked up Suzanne Barston’s Bottled Up and I learned about the different reasons (many of which I had never, ever thought of) why women choose formula. I also follow her Facebook page (Fearless Formula Feeder), which is a forum for mothers who feed their babies in all different ways, for all different reasons.
Yesterday I saw a photo of a young mother who flung herself down in front of a formula display to nurse her baby. Her motive, she said, was to “raise awareness” about breastfeeding. There are plenty of things that get in the way of breastfeeding, but I’m willing to bet that in middle/upper class North America, lack of awareness isn’t one of them. This photo, this woman, and her deliberate ignorance, ignited a red hot anger in me. Every can of formula I ever bought had “Breast is best” printed on the side. There was never a time when I wasn’t reminded by a book, a pamphlet, a poster, about the benefits of breastfeeding. I was riddled with guilt, exhausted, my skin was peeling, my hair was falling out in handfuls. And I wasn’t the only woman who had gone through this. I didn’t need to be kicked when I was down. But some people, and some groups, just keep on kicking.
The only advice I ever give friends about infant feeding is: whatever happens and whatever you choose, just feed your baby. If it didn’t happen exactly the way you hoped, forgive yourself. Move on. This is one choice, among hundreds of choices you will make for your baby in their lifetime. Your baby needs a mother who isn’t a raving, weeping lunatic more than they need breast milk. I don’t need anyone to do a study to know that is the absolute truth.
I still believe that breastfeeding is amazing, and I wish my story had a better ending, but I understand in a way I never did before that how a woman feeds their child is none of my, or anyone else’s, business.