Before the birth of my son, as any new mom would, I spent a crazy amount of time fantasizing and planning the first few months of his life. Breastfeeding was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I breastfeed my child? “Breast is best” is an ideology I’d long been indoctrinated into.
I purchased and registered for dozens of breastfeeding accouterments, even though I barely understood the usage of a quarter of them. I picked out a sassy cover and prepared all of my belligerent speeches in response to the naysayers and busybodies that would surely have something to say about my hypothetical public breastfeeding. I couldn’t wait to defiantly hashtag my #normalizebreastfeeding photos.
But most things don’t always go according to plan.
In the maternity ward, after my son’s birth, I met with a slew of lactation specialists who basically drilled into my groggy, overwhelmed noggin the fundamentals of breastfeeding: feed when he’s fussy, demand increases supply, do not pump early on, etc. They all determined his latch was good despite a jaw issue everyone downplayed.
When we left the hospital, his weight had significantly decreased enough for the nurses and doctors to send us home with a warning: “If there is no weight gain, you must supplement with formula." Yeah right, I thought. Breast is best!
That first week was a sleep-deprived blur. My son was feeding every 45 minutes to two hours for an hour. Wearing a top seemed pointless.
As much as he was seemingly being fed, his weight still wasn’t increasing. Not even an ounce. My pediatrician was alarmed enough to establish daily visits to monitor his progress. His polite requests for me to consider supplementing soon became admonishing orders. I still refused the formula. A postnatal lactation consultant I consulted with told me my supply was fantastic, his latch his good despite his crooked jaw and all would be fine. “Breast is best,” after all.
My son then developed jaundice and still wasn’t gaining weight. Much to the dismay of my sore, cracked nipples, he was insatiable—though it wasn’t reflective on the scale. As I sat in my pediatrician’s office listening to the jaundice diagnosis and and how my tiny, defenseless baby was basically starving, tears ran down my face , but I remained staunch. The words from so many lactation consultants and nursing moms went through my head: “your body will provide, your supply will go up." I may have repeated these words out loud in response. I don’t remember. What I do remember, vividly, was the doctor wordlessly put a nipple on a formula bottle and offer it to my infant without my permission. He downed it like a college kid with a beer on spring break. I collapsed into sobs. The truth then washed over me. My baby was hungry, and I was starving him. I was angry at that pediatrician for months—angry enough to leave him and find a new doctor. In retrospect, I should have sent him a thank-you note.
What my doctor, my husband, and any other person that didn’t breastfeed wouldn’t understand—or couldn’t understand—was how much of a colossal failure I felt like. As a mom, as a woman, as a human.
It turned out my supply wasn’t fantastic, his latch wasn’t fine, and everything wasn’t alright. That little jaw issue? It was a big latch issue. Despite being a few weeks old, I started to pump to increase my supply. On my best pump I would get .5 ounces from both boobs. Yet I was still determined to breastfeed. “Breast is best” kept ringing my head.
So I nursed, then gave a bottle, then pumped to boost my supply. Every two hours for 24 hours. For week and weeks.
I ended up not leaving my house, because not only would it interfere with my pumping schedule, I dreaded questions of breastfeeding I would invariably get from friends and family that asked. Women I barely knew would question whether or not I was breastfeeding and silently and not-so-silently judge me for supplementing with formula. Every pro-breastfeeding woman confirmed what a failure I was and insisted that formula was toxic. What kind of a mother would I be if I didn’t breastfeed?
I was beyond exhausted, I hated myself, I didn’t feel like I was bonding with my infant, and I became obsessed with increasing my supply. I power pumped, made lactation cookies, took fenugreek, did skin to skin, and every other tip I could find on the internet.
I can still remember those nights when the rest of the house was asleep, attempting to get my crying infant to latch, while I too, was inconsolable. I wondered why he hated me so much. I wondered if I hated him back. I felt crazy. I honestly weighed leaving a goodbye note to my husband, going to the airport and getting on the first plane to anywhere. What I didn’t realize then was that I was also in the early throes of postpartum depression. Studies have shown that if you are experiencing PPD, sleep deprivation can exacerbate your symptoms.
I returned to my Facebook nursing groups for help. In my exhausted and depressed state, I begged for someone to acknowledge that nursing isn’t for everyone, and that it’s okay to quit. All I received were responses telling me not to give up—that being fatigued and in pain is part and parcel of nursing, and the inference was that if I couldn’t make breastfeeding work, it was on me. My fault. Breast is best. Someone even got my number and called me to convince me not to supplement.
Three months in and I was at my wit’s end. It was then I received a visit from a couple of friends. I was receiving so few visitors because of my pumping schedule, it was a wonder these two made it through. I must have been a sight—my cracked and sore nipples exposed as they were being milked by a pump during their visit. My conversation consisted of the only thing I could talk about: my failure at breastfeeding.
And then they gave me the greatest gift I could have asked for: permission to quit.
After three months of supplementing, pumping, exhaustion and a real postpartum depression diagnosis from my doctor, I gave up breastfeeding. With “breast is best” still ringing in my head, I sobbed for the ending of an act I didn’t enjoy, that I wasn’t successful at, was frankly ruining time off from work, and ironically preventing me from bonding with my child. In the U.S. we get so little time to spend with our infants, I couldn’t waste the last days of maternity leave obsessing and pumping so much that I wasn’t even spending time with my child.
It’s now two years later and my hindsight is 20/20. I will never breastfeed again. Let me say that again—I WILL NEVER BREASTFEED AGAIN. If you have successfully nursed your children, that’s wonderful! But please recognize that not everyone shares that success. I will gladly give my next child formula and if I happen upon any new mom struggling to nurse, I will give her permission to quit—and be just as staunch about it as every breastfeeding advocate that encouraged me to keep at it despite my downward spiral and the obvious malnourishment of my infant. Because you know what? FED is best. Yes, breast is pretty great, we all know the studies, but a nourished child is better. And do you know what’s even healthier than that? A sane, present, mother. And if giving formula affords your infant to sleep so you can, too—HUZZAH! If a mom can’t take care of herself then she can’t adequately care for her child, either. Breastfeeding moms, stop judging the formula fed woman. We are all doing the best we can.
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This piece was originally published by Cara Marino on Mommy Nearest. Cara Marino is a freelance writer and television producer. She lives in NYC with her husband, two stepdaughters, son and wheaten terriers. You can find her at phonkeddigital.com.