I breastfed my newborn son in the Target dressing room today. My tiny boy, the one who lost ounce after ounce in the hospital, is now over 12 pounds. Why? Because I have nursed him in restaurants, in the front seat of my car, in the recliner, in bed, on the floor, curled up on my friend's couch, and in the Mommy Room at Babies 'R' Us. I have nursed him in the preschool library and at the picnic table next to the garden. I'm like the "Got Milk?" version of a Dr. Seuss book. I can nurse you here and there, I can nurse you everywhere!
I used to be a formula mom. When my first son was born, I tried desperately to nurse him. But after an unexpected C-section, my body started to fail me. I couldn't stop shaking. I couldn't stand, or walk, or reach over to pick my sweet son up out of the hospital bassinet. I was on so much pain medication that I felt as if I was sleeping with my eyes open. In those first four days at the hospital, I wanted desperately to be present. I wanted to remember my time there with Max. Instead, I could barely hold my head above water, more or less nurse him. I cried, I shook, I slipped into a dark fog that erased my memory of my first few days with my son. I was robbed of the skin-to-skin time that signals to a woman's breasts they should make milk. My stomach had been stapled back together though my heart was still split open. I figured that I'd nurse Max when I felt better.
The darkness subsided eventually, but I had missed the window for welcoming my milk supply. I was devastated, embarrassed, and without an ally. I was angry at myself, and felt betrayed by my body.
I pumped, I used supplements, I sobbed in the shower and cursed the breasts that were filled with shame and regret, but not a drop of milk. As the weeks went on, we also learned that Max's belly suffered from GI issues that made him vomit and choke. He was diagnosed with Reflux, Delayed Gastric Emptying, and food allergies. It was formula (a prescription, hypoallergenic one) that ended up saving him, and I learned to stuff my sadness into my back pocket and take pride in feeding him with love. Max was my first baby, and my first lesson in how mommy guilt could strip your confidence and make you doubt everything that you thought was true. I fed Max with formula, because it was my body, my mental health and my choice, but the pain never went away. I couldn't let go of the hope that I might be able to nurse my next baby.
And then, three years later, Ben was in my arms, and sucking like a tiny piranha at my breast. I was armed with knowledge I didn't have before. I knew I would have to fight to stay lucid in the hospital and need an advocate to help me explain to the anesthesiologist that I was sensitive to pain medication. No matter what, I would need to have this baby on my body, at my breast, every blessed second that I could. I would try everything possible to nurse him, unless he ended up having the same GI issues that Max did. If Ben was sick, then I would choose health. There is no place for pride when your child is suffering. If formula was what he needed to survive, then I would welcome formula with open arms. And with that, my second chance was left to chance.
Our doulas spent the first 48 hours of Ben's life sitting next to me on the hospital bed. Their shadow hands helped me to hold him tightly when the fog crept in. They cupped my suddenly ginormous double D's, squished them into "sandwiches," pulled his tiny rosebud mouth on to my breasts and held him there as he figured it out. They gently nudged my shoulders back, put pillows under my arms, and made sure that I was eating and drinking. My mom and my husband encouraged me to keep going, and took care of everything else so that I could simply sit and nurse. But even with all of the help, even with all of the determination, even though I fought like hell to see straight through the fog of my pain meds, Ben still lost weight. We knew that he wasn't sick like Max was. His blood sugars were fine. He was latching, he was eager, and I had him at my breast 24/7. But he had a slow start. Suddenly, I was failing again at the most natural thing in the world, before we had a chance to even begin.
When the lactation specialist arrived on the third day of our hospital stay, the pediatrician had already told her that I would need to supplement with formula. I started crying before she opened her mouth. F*ck you, I thought. F*ck you and your pump and your weight charts and your fake concern. Just leave me and my baby alone. The feeling of failure was too familiar. Failure and I were old friends. My tears were hot and fell fast down my cheeks and onto my chest, dropping like rain on Ben's soft little head as it burrowed into my empty breasts. But this time, I knew enough to not be afraid. I knew that his weight was still in a safe zone. I knew that nursing him first and then giving him formula would keep him nourished, while still protecting my budding supply.
Even though I could barely speak, I told the lactation specialist my plan. My voice wavered as I said that I would nurse Ben. Just nurse him. And then I would give him any colostrum that I had pumped, but I would only do it through a supplemental nursing system, so that he would still be at my breast. And then, only then, we would give him formula. Only through the supplemental nursing system. And only until my own milk came in.
The lactation specialist looked down at my tiny boy, and back up at me. She agreed that it was a safe choice. "It's going to be fine" she said. "Formula isn't the end of the world." The formula mom in me wanted to jump up and hug her for realizing that feeding with love was the most important thing. But I wasn't a formula mom anymore. I was a breastfeeding mom. I was a mother who was still hoping and praying that milk would fill my breasts, so I squeaked out "No, you see... you don't understand. I couldn't breastfeed my first son." This is a big deal lady! Didn't you read my article on the Huffington Post?I wanted to scream at her, to will my body to jump from the bed and throw the adorable little formula bottles in the trash. What if all of the rumors were true? What if hospitals really did push a formula agenda, and I was being pressured out of breastfeeding? But I simply cried. And thanked her. And watched her walk away.
The difference this time was my confidence. The difference was that I had a child who wasn't trembling from low blood sugar, and vomiting up whatever he ate. The difference was that I had armed myself with information, support, and an unexpected resilience. And just as my voice became strong and proud, I could feel my milk begin to come in.
I don't hate formula, I'm grateful for it. It saved Max's life. He is brilliant and strong, and beautiful and healthy. Formula was the right choice for us then. But moms have the right to choose. I wanted to try.
And so it began. Our nursing dance. I put Ben to my breast around the clock. His latch was terrible, we worked on it. My technique was terrible, we worked on it. We kept going. Each drop that went into Ben's mouth was more than I had ever made before, and suddenly I understood the magic of watching your body produce something that allows your baby to live and grow and thrive. There was magic in my boobs, people. I had a superpower. I could sustain life and nourish my child, with just my body. I was all that he needed. Just me, my leaky boobs, and maybe a few nursing pillows.
Somewhere in between a 3:00 a.m. nursing session and surfing the Internet for "nursing camisole size large" I realized that I had misunderstood all of you breastfeeding moms. When you chanted "What's your superpower? I make milk!" I used to secretly scream at you to go f*ck yourself. "Oh look! My little angel is milk drunk!" you'd coo. And I'd want to puke. There was nothing cute about posting a picture of your baby drooling milk out of their mouth while fast asleep. It all just seemed so self-congratulatory and boastful to me. Until I realized how damn hard it is to actually succeed at breastfeeding. It's not easy to nourish your child with every last calorie that you make. It's upsetting to feel the weight of being responsible for a tiny human being 24/7. To not share that burden with anyone else. To be afraid to leave the room, more or less actually go out of the house alone, because your precious child could starve to death when you are the only one who has the parts to feed him.
Three billion things can go wrong when you breastfeed. But even with a bad latch, tongue tie, thrush, a clogged duct, and a crazy oversupply, I still think that nursing this little boy is the most amazing magic that I've ever felt in my life. I am the only thing that is keeping my child alive right now. You're damn right that's a superpower. When my breasts are engorged and I'm in pain, or when I swoop in to a room and soothe my screaming baby with my body, I want to shout it from the rafters, just like all of you did. This time, my breasts make milk. That is my superpower. And yet I have seen that breastfeeding moms get tested too: the nasty stares, the mean comments, the endless questioning that makes you doubt yourself: "Are you sure he's getting enough? He'd sleep longer if he took a bottle. He'll never be independent if he's attached to you all the time." The Mommy Wars have fueled the embers of fear and failure on both ends of the feeding spectrum. The simple act of feeding your child now comes with having to defend your choices.
One afternoon at playgroup, I looked across the room at another mom. She was standing up, frantically bouncing her tiny son as he refluxed and puked over her shoulder. "I'm sorry" she whispered. "He's a fussy baby" she said, to the ground. When the group leader asked everyone to share their nursing story, she wept quietly. "I pump all the time, but I don't get anything" she cried. "I'm doing the best that I can". And suddenly my tears fell fast and furious. I don't belong with the successful breastfeeders I thought. My pride at having milk, my celebratory touchdown dances on Twitter and Facebook, were exactly what I had hated when I was a formula mom. There had to be a way to celebrate my breastfeeding success, without making other moms feel like I had felt. In my heart I am still a formula warrior. I watched the mom across the room as she shuffled through her diaper bag to grab a bottle. Her pain was fresh, and suddenly I was right back in the living room of our old townhouse, wearing a path down the hallway as I bounced/shushed/cuddled a screaming newborn.
I am a formula mom. I am a breastfeeding mom. I know what it feels like when your breasts "let-down," and I know what it feels like when your heart "lets-down." The beauty of our stories is that we are all feeding with love. I've been to the jagged edge of each feeding choice. I have nourished both of my children in the best way that I could, pleading each week with the scale in the doctor's office, praying for just a few more ounces. My superpower isn't my milk, it's my steadfast love for both of my boys. It's my determination to heal them, to grow them, to go to the ends of the earth for them. That is my superpower. That is my strength.
As playgroup ended, I walked over to the new mom, who was finally cradling her quiet boy as he finished the last drops of his bottle of formula. "I've been there" I whispered. "You're doing an amazing job. I can tell how much you love him". My own baby began to fuss. I tucked him gently under my nursing cover and looked her in the eye. "I know this is hard" I said. "But you're doing it right". As Ben latched and the pain shot through my breast I took a deep breath. This is hard, but I'm doing it right, I told myself. Our bodies, our babies, our choices. We leaned back against the wall of the playroom, the new mom and I, and cradled the best pieces of ourselves. We sat together, our eyes locked on the soft faces staring back at us, each waiting for the quiet peace that being "milk drunk" brings.
Photo credit: Richelle Wetzel