A few days ago, I was desperately nursing Everett in the front seat of my car. I was late to pick up Grace from my dad's office, where I had stashed her so I could tackle my six
week OB-GYN follow up semi solo. I was sweating and flustered and I must have been emanating "hot mess express" because a sweet older lady peered into my window and gave me a smile and a thumbs up.
I appreciated the gesture, the implied solidarity of all mothers who have chosen to nourish their children in this way-- the #breastisbest army. But it made me pause. Because what this well meaning woman didn't know is that following this less than blissful feed, I would be mixing up an ounce or two of formula to "top off" my little guy. And I had a sneaking suspicion that if I had been spotted bottle feeding my infant in the library parking lot, I wouldn't have gotten any encouragement. At best, I would have been ignored. At worst? A judgmental side eye or unsolicited opinion about my feeding choice.
Everett's birth was far more serene than I had expected for a c-section (which is another post for another day). He was placed on my chest immediately and wasn't removed for hours. He breastfed successfully within the first hour. Every nurse and lactation consultant who watched us feed (and trust me, there were a lot) complimented me on his "beautiful latch" and voracious eating. At only 6 pounds, he surprised me with his energy and enthusiasm for food.
I was so relieved. My daughter did not take easily to breast feeding. She was jaundiced and sleepy, often needing to be stripped bare and her tiny little feet flicked to elicit a few measly sucks. There was nipple trauma and so many tears. I left the hospital with a nipple shield and zero clue what I was doing. I was able to breastfeed her for about six months, but she was always a tiny baby who was slow to gain weight. It was not an experience that I look back on fondly, and I gave it up entirely when I started grad school and couldn't get it together to pump enough milk for her to have when we were apart.
This time, I was so committed to making breastfeeding work. I was older and unafraid to access resources or ask for help. Everett lost far less than the accepted 10% of his birth weight before our hospital discharge. When our visiting nurse came a few days later, he had even gained an ounce or two. I was so proud. I felt like a warrior mama, a champion breastfeeder who was continuing to sustain life. It somehow eased the transition from pregnant to not and helped replicate the closeness and bond of the rolls, kicks and flutters that had kept me company all those months.
A few days after that, we went to his first pediatrician appointment. He was down an ounce from when the visiting nurse had been there. And in subsequent weight checks, he continued to lose until he hovered dangerously close to 5 pounds. To say I was devastated wouldn't even begin to describe the despair I felt.
Cue frantic calls to lactation consultants, home visits that spanned several hours and palpable heartbreak every time a well meaning friend or relative peeked at Everett and said "Oh! He's so tiny" or a nosy stranger asked me if he was premature.
I started a strict regime of nursing, supplementing with a combination of breastmilk and formula via 10cc syringe (to avoid the dreaded nipple confusion) and then pumping. This entire process took at least an hour. Newborns eat every 2- 2 1/2 hours. Typically by the time I finished pumping, Everett was so irate about being put down for more than seventeen seconds that it took me some time to settle him back down. You can understand how this routine was less than conducive to any type of reasonable sleep. It was a daily ordeal that left me feeling so raw and vulnerable that even responding to well meaning text messages just took too much energy.
I took all the supplements and bought overpriced "lactation" cookies and brownies. I choked down multiple cups of Mothers Milk tea even though I absolutely HATE the taste of licorice.
From July to August, Everett gained a pound and a half. It was a decent gain but not reflective of all the hard work I'd been doing. My life had become completely consumed with feeding him. If he fell asleep after eating, nestled beautifully against my chest (one of the best parts of the newborn days) I only could allow myself a few minutes to enjoy it before moving him so I could pump, or wash pump parts or stuff food into my own face while I had two hands to spare. I couldn't leave the house without feeling stressed and overwhelmed. If I fell asleep during a nighttime feeding (or slept through it entirely), I berated myself for hours. Grace got to spend no meaningful time alone with me and my husband ended up on the receiving end of countless snide comments brought on by lack of sleep (and lack of autonomy). I did the math and I was spending almost eight hours a day with a baby or breast pump attached to me. The internal pressure was so great that during a trip to the ER following a terrifying stint of vertigo, I found myself pumping and nursing from a hospital bed, attached to an IV. All this work, and I still felt like I was somehow failing my son.
At Everett's six week appointment, we were told that I had to continue supplementing for the foreseeable future. My husband gently suggested to me that something had to change. I knew he didn't like seeing me like this, measuring my worth in ounces gained and ounces pumped, chained to our couch. But I had never stopped to consider how this crazy crusade of mine might be impacting our marriage, my relationship with my daughter and even my ability to bond with my perfect baby boy. I was singularly focused to the point of madness.
I met with a second lactation consultant to try and figure out if there was a way to keep breastfeeding but not lose my mind. We figured out that Everett was transferring a decent amount of milk, but that it was only enough to maintain his weight, not gain. He has a mild tongue tie and my supply (based on my pumping output) isn't exactly robust. We had a host of factors working against us. The lovely LC gave me permission to ease up on the frantic pumping schedule, to enjoy my baby and to do whatever iteration of combination feeding actually worked for my family.
I left that appointment and knew I needed to give myself some space to mourn the breastfeeding relationship I desperately wanted but was never going to have. I suddenly understood why days before, in the midst of "World Breastfeeding Week", I dissolved into tears during a 2am feeding session while pouring over beautiful curated images of mothers feeding their children (who had gorgeous fat rolls and robust double chins) on Instagram with hashtags like #liquidgold. I saw nothing that reflected my reality, of exhaustion and tiny full term babies in preemie clothes, of pumps and syringes.
Every time I worked up the courage to be honest with someone about my struggle, they always responded with "me too" or "I had a friend who went through the same" or "I quit after two weeks". Nobody was surprised to hear how hard breastfeeding was. Every exchange like this was a salve to my battered ego and broken heart. And yet- nobody ever really talks about it. Which creates this vacuum where breastfeeding feels tremendously isolating and allows mothers to continue with the false narrative that if breastfeeding is not working out quite right, you're a failure.
While I can certainly get behind initiatives like World Breastfeeding Week, I feel pretty confident in saying that the majority of my parenting peers know that breastfeeding is the gold standard. But what about when breastfeeding takes an unhealthy precedent over helping an older sibling acclimate to a brand new family dynamic or over the mother's health and sanity? What about when the success of breastfeeding feels so wholly important that every stumbling block feels like abject failure?
As mothers (and as humans) we need to be better about supporting each other and being kind to ourselves. We need to talk about how HARD the first few months postpartum are and how feeding is a huge part of this. When a passionate breastfeeding advocate posts yet another article about the benefits of extended breastfeeding, perhaps she could pause and examine whether the article contains a subtle subtext that shames the mother who formula feeds, by choice or by circumstance. It is difficult enough to quiet the internal pressure and judgement without fighting it from the outside in. I'm all for having intelligent and passionate opinions, but also figuring out how to express them in a way that is respectful and kind.
I still don't know where our breastfeeding journey will end up. For now, I'm trying to be gentle with myself and cut myself some slack. I'm less chained to a rigid pumping schedule, but still feel committed to continuing to nurse in some capacity as well as providing Everett with as much expressed milk as I reasonably can. But I feel equally committed to actively enjoying this newborn stage, to refusing to shamefully mix up formula in secret and to reinvigorating my relationships with my family, my husband and my daughter (and giving them the opportunity to fall in love with Everett too).
Can we all just agree to support each other and share our hard experiences? You'd be amazed at how hearing a "me too" often feels like a lifeline. Having a new baby is truly one of the only experiences in life that is equal parts awful and miraculous, both exhausting and invigorating- and we owe it to each other (and ourselves) to be honest about that.