When Breast Isn’t Best

Tuesday morning I sat nursing my four-month-old son, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone when I saw it: Breastfeeding Awareness Week. My heart fell.

For a nursing mother, I have, perhaps, an unexpectedly low tolerance for the pro-breastfeeding social media blitz that is Breastfeeding Awareness Week. It seems to me a bludgeon, brought down on formula-feeding mothers again and again and again.

Because I’m one of those too: a formula-feeding mother.

When my oldest son was born four years ago, I intended to exclusively breastfeed. I tried to exclusively breastfeed. But my boy was very big and very hungry and my milk didn’t come in soon enough, so my poor baby spent most of his first few days screaming his head off. And losing weight. By the time we brought him to the pediatrician for his three-day appointment, he had lost almost 15 percent of his birth weight.

My milk still hadn’t come in. (It wouldn’t until day five.) And the baby seemed so pathetic and miserable and hungry and 15 percent was too much anyway, so with a very serious look on his face, our pediatrician handed us a bottle of pre-made formula and said that the baby needed to have it right away, right there in the office.

I have never seen anything that broke my heart more than the relief on that poor, hungry baby’s face when he took his first sips of formula. I felt awful. Awful that I couldn’t provide him with what he needed, awful that I might never be able to, awful that he had suffered because I had been unwilling to let go of my pride and just give him a bottle, already.

The anguish continued for months. I still couldn’t satisfy my boy’s hunger once my milk came in, he still wasn’t gaining back his birth weight on the small amounts of formula we were providing him at first, and he still wasn’t gaining weight when (at two months) I stopped feeding him formula altogether because I thought I’d finally built up my milk supply enough to satisfy him.

All the while, I was driving myself insane with the anguish and the guilt and the work of it all. I would nurse for an hour (sometimes two), then I’d make a bottle, feed a bottle, clean the bottles, pump, clean the pumping equipment, and start all over again. I’d sit in the rocker nursing until my tailbone could no longer take it. I’d go for appointments with a lactation consultant. I’d bring in my baby for weight check after weight check. I’d cry and then cry some more. I’d argue with my husband, sometimes blaming him because my own sense of inadequacy made me eager to shift the blame to someone, anyone else.

I was miserable.

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Four years later, I’m still capable of feeling that misery as if it were fresh. A few weeks ago I looked through my son’s newborn pictures to grab a few for a blog post and I was surprised at how hard it was to see them. It was hard for me to look at photos of my own baby. Each seemed its own little trauma; I knew the pain and the sense of failure hidden in each and every one.

When my second child was born, we had a similar experience, only this time the baby didn’t lose as much weight because we started to feed him formula once we recognized those anguished, can’t-be-satisfied-by-mommy cries. Again, my milk didn’t come in until day 5 and again, it was never, ever enough for my boy. At least with him, however, I was able to nurse (probably more for his comfort than nutrition) for 12 months. My first son had rejected nursing after only five. (Do you know how hard it is for me to refrain from typing “rejected me”?)

Then we had a similar situation with my third son. Before he was born I was just sure nursing would work this time. I will never make that mistake again. Because when it didn’t work, oh how very bitter the disappointment tasted. My milk came in at day 3 and it didn’t matter. He was too hungry to latch on. I was right there before him with milk to provide and all he could do was scream. The child had no idea that such things as formula and bottles existed, but when they were presented to him, he accepted them eagerly, a far cry from the frustrated reluctance with which he nursed.

All of this would have been hard enough. All of this pain and work and rejection would have been hard enough for a new mother to handle, but then salt was repeatedly poured in my wounds by “Breast is best” memes and “Every woman can nurse her baby” internet chatter. And worse, by “well-meaning” women insisting on giving me breastfeeding advice.

(I hope you’ll forgive the quotation marks around “well-meaning.” Some women, I’m sure, are genuinely well-meaning when they give you breastfeeding advice. They love you and they sympathize with what you’re going through and they want to help you. Other women, however, seem so attached to the idea of breastfeeding that they give advice out of loyalty to it, not out of love for you.)

“Nurse every hour!” they would say, when I was still nursing at that hour mark. “Pump between feedings!” they would say, when I had virtually no time between feedings as it was. “Drink plenty of water!” they would say, when I’m pretty much already a fish. “Breastfeeding babies just don’t gain weight as quickly as formula-fed babies!” they would say, when they weren’t the one holding the baby screaming from hunger.

But the worst thing a woman ever said to me when I was crawling through the trenches, struggling to do the best for my baby in those first few weeks of his life, was “Breastfeeding is a very unselfish thing to do.” Yes, a fellow mother told me that. She implied that it was selfish of me to supplement with formula. When I was barely hanging on. According to her – and to too many other women, I’m afraid – I revealed my selfishness the moment I first let that scoop of formula drop into a bottle of water.

Doubly selfish: using formula and counting on the four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

Doubly selfish: Not only do I use formula, but I count on my four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

A couple of months ago, once I got through my initial surprise and pain at yet again not being able to exclusively breastfeed, I thought I was done with my sensitivity on the subject. After three babies, I had finally come to accept that nursing and supplementing with formula is what works for us. It’s what our babies need to be well-nourished, it’s what I need to keep myself sane, and it’s what allows us to be a happy, functioning family.

I have three strapping, healthy boys, after all. For all the “breast is best” talk, my boys are thriving. They’re solid and tall, they have no allergies or asthma, they’ve never had an illness more serious than a simple virus, and they’re cuddly and well-attached. They didn’t need my breastmilk. They just needed to be fed.

With my body’s naturally measly level of milk production, I don’t think I’d ever be capable of exclusive nursing without a major, strenuous, time-consuming effort. And I’m simply not up for that. I need my sanity and the other members of my family need me too much for me to ever go through that. So should we ever be blessed with another baby, I am resolved to welcome that child with a bottle of formula sitting at my elbow. If, after a couple of days, my baby seems to need it, I will provide it with no hesitation, and hopefully, no guilt.

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Helping bottle-feed since before he was two years old.

That’s where I was a couple of months ago: being practical, moving forward, determined to not let those mean ol’ lactivists (I jest – kind of) get to me anymore. But then those newborn pictures sucker-punched me. And soon after, I found myself in a ballroom at The Edel Gathering, twisting open a bottle of pre-made formula while other mothers nursed their babies a few feet away and still more sat on the floor pumping milk for their babies back home.

But I, I had to suffer the indignity of pulling a bottle out of my bag, handing my baby to the kind lady behind me, and pouring that fake milk from one plastic vessel to another. “I just nursed up in our hotel room!” I wanted to shout to the room at large. “I only supplement with formula!” “I can’t produce enough milk!” I felt so ashamed and left out and alone and I realized I’m not over this.

How awful that I should think it undignified to feed my baby.

No one says to a woman struggling with infertility, “Every woman can conceive a child.” Yet we hear again and again, “Every woman can nurse her baby.”

This week, I’m not the only one who is feeling the pain and the unwarranted shame of not being able to nurse, or to nurse exclusively. Amy wrote a terrific post on the subject on Monday. The Washington Post ran a beautiful piece on it yesterday. I know I’m far from alone, and I know that I’m blessed to have been able to nurse my babies at all.

It’s just that I wish enthusiastic breastfeeding supporters would cool down a bit. I’m pretty much never a fan of “awareness weeks” to begin with. I think they’re a little silly and I don’t know what they actually achieve. I think they’re too often excuses for niche interest groups to become their own biggest cheerleaders. But all that aside, the breastfeeding debate has become something that hurts mothers. It hurts mothers who are already suffering exhaustion and physical pain and the emotional turmoil of not being able to satisfy their hungry babies.

So the terms of the discussion need to change. Breastfeeding can be a beautiful thing; it is right and good to tout its benefits, to encourage mothers to attempt it, and to provide support to those who are willing and able to commit themselves to it. But breastfeeding can also be horrible. It should never be advertised as the only good way to feed a baby and it should never be advanced by shaming women.

Let’s remember that this issue is not, at its heart, about breasts or breastmilk. It’s about mothers and babies. Not mothers and babies in the abstract, mind you, but individual mothers and babies who have real needs and unique challenges. Let’s make sure that we speak and act out of a loving commitment to them, not to an idea.