We all have those thoughts that we never dare say out loud for fear of being cast as a “bad mom.” We hide these feelings deep beneath the mountains of happy Facebook photos and boastful Target receipts, and pretend they don’t exist. But they do, and I’m here to break the silence.
Here’s my deep, dark secret: I hated breastfeeding.
No, I didn’t hate breastfeeding because of the cracked nipples or ugly nursing bra. The always-parched and over-touched sensations didn’t bother me, either. I didn’t grow bitter over not being able to leave the baby for more than 45 minutes at a clip. And despite taking breastfeeding classes at the hospital — and doing copious amounts of research myself — what really caught me off-guard was the feeling I had when feeding. Or lack thereof.
I didn’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling — the one so many mothers claimed was like a drug, making them feel addicted to their baby. Each time I sat in my designated position on the couch to give my son his fifth breakfast or twelfth lunch, I would feel a rush of despair.
Then, I would stare down at my perfect baby boy and feel like I was failing him. I would look around my living room and feel as if I was out of place. I would study the space between my husband and I — the whole three feet between us on our tiny couch — and fear that I would never be close to him again. My eyes would well up with tears, and these emotions would take hold of my mind, body, and soul. Worst of all, I resented my baby boy for making me feel this way.
But then, within a matter of moments, I was back. My living room was, once again, cozy and familiar. My son was a beautiful and innocent baby boy in my arms. My husband was present, and we were connected. My face, however, was still wet with tears. How could I describe the utter depression that had just enveloped me a mere 30 seconds earlier? I couldn’t, so I didn’t. I would simply shrug it off with a smile.
Sometimes, I would even say that my tears were those of happiness — feeling so lucky to have such a wonderful family. And, outside of those 30 seconds of depression, I wasn’t lying. I didn’t want to be the mom who hated feeding her baby. I kept my true feelings a secret far longer than I should have.
I didn’t tell my husband until my son turned about five weeks old, and hit this incredible growth spurt. At that age, growth spurts equate to round-the-clock cluster feedings. So I nursed and nursed, and nursed. I also cried, and cried and cried. One day, I cried the entire day my husband was at work.
I texted and called him constantly, always making up other reasons for my tears. I blamed the isolation of maternity leave, our messy house and exhaustion. To some extent, all of these excuses made sense. I wasn’t intentionally lying, I just wanted something else tangible to point to other than my son.
It wasn’t until my husband came home that evening that we were able to discuss what was really going on. Breastfeeding was making me depressed.
He then gave me the permission that I couldn’t give myself: To stop. He assured me that our baby would still be fed and healthy and, even better, that everyone would be happy. But I wouldn’t let myself give up after just five weeks. My goal had been a year. I couldn’t deprive my son of his “liquid gold,” despite all the negative energy. I agreed to talk to my doctor about it at my six week check-up.
Once there, I didn’t lay it on thick. I showed off my baby, genuinely smiling, and then just casually mentioned that breastfeeding was, ya know, a little bit soul-crushing. But, everything else was going great! The doctor didn’t brush over my comment like I had secretly hoped, but instead educated me about D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex).
D-MER is a condition where dopamine levels drop with breast milk let-down, causing a mother to experience intense feelings of dysphoria anywhere from few seconds to a few minutes. Typically, mothers experience an oxytocin spike, causing a feeling of euphoria and the drug-like intoxication that I heard so much about. I was, essentially, getting the reverse hormonal reaction to breastfeeding.
There was a certain amount of fear that went along with a clinical explanation for my depression, but there was also some comfort in knowing that other mothers shared these feelings, too. And, above all, it wasn’t my fault. It was a relief for me to hear that this was a physiological response to breastfeeding, and not a psychological one. It was encouraging to be know that it can dissipate as time goes on, so I could expect to feel “normal” after about three months.
My doctor offered, but didn’t push, medication. It turned out that my condition was much milder than other cases, some women actually feel suicidal in response to their let-down. I, therefore, opted not to take anything. My doctor, like my husband, also gave me permission to stop breastfeeding. The difficulty with stopping, however, was that 95 percent of the day my milk was not in let-down mode, and I felt fine. I also couldn’t remember just how depressed I was during the other 5 percent of the day. So I continued.
I continued to cry during feedings, but I would squeeze my eyes shut and remind myself that it would be over in less than a minute. It was not so much comforting, as much as a mantra to say to myself. You know, other than my usual “You’re a failure. Life will never be normal again. Your son deserves so much better.”
And the doctor was right — three months into breastfeeding, things got better. Breastfeeding never turned into anything magical for me, but it did become mundane (which was a vast improvement!).
I am currently in my third trimester with my second child, and considering how I can approach breastfeeding differently this time around. Truthfully, aside from being honest right from the start, I’m not sure I will do anything else different. I hope that I am lucky enough to be able to breastfeed my child again. And, if I experience D-MER again (like so many other mothers diagnosed with it their first time around do), I will talk to my husband and my doctor immediately.
This time, at least I know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — and that everything is going to be perfectly fine.