Breastfeeding didn’t work out for us + I grieved it for a long time. It was one of my dreams. I didn’t get the birth that I wanted, to boot… so I had a lot of changes to grieve and a lot of rerouting that felt like simultaneous losses. I want to start out by saying – there is nothing wrong with formula. You don’t have to breastfeed. Whether you’re able to or not, whether you want to or not, nursing is not for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. You have to do what works for your family dynamic, what helps you walk in your shoes best. They say, “fed is best.” But I think, “a happy mama and a fed baby is best.” It’s not just about the baby. It’s equally about you, too.
My milk took 5 days to come in. It already can take a first time mom a little longer than normal but add a c-section birth and that can double or sometimes completely hijack your milk production. Holland’s latch was great day 1 and day 2 and he seemed really content after our feedings. Day 3 and he was still losing weight. We weren’t sure if it was still normal fluid loss or from malnutrition so I hooked myself up to a machine with a lactation consultant and tried to pump regularly but nothing came out. At the advice of the nurses, we kept trying and there was no supplementation. The logic being, “his stomach is very small, your colostrum is enough.” Day 4 and he had lost 15% of his birth weight so a very serious (an asshole) nurse came over and asked us a series of questions. Why weren’t we supplementing? Did we know our baby was losing so much weight? Why haven’t we switched over to formula? We were being interrogated and Adam and I’s heads were spinning. We were only following the advice of nurses, and of course, we are always accountable for our own parenting decisions regardless of influence, BUT the way the nurse handled us, I turned to Adam after she left and in tears I said, “I think she’s going to call a social worker.” And we felt nerves every time our door opened.
Crying as I’m typing this, but I think these veteran nurses lose sight of the care and bedside manner that a delicate, first time mom desperately needs. I haven’t even stood up for the first time post-op, pumping and feeding and not even sleeping the little bit I should be able to sleep. I am truly doing the best that I can, listening to the lactation consultants and other nurses. Now mix in a healthy bag of postpartum hormones in the IV that I’m still hooked up to and you get instant paranoia and a floodgate of tears. All I’ve ever wanted was to be an amazing mother. I’m protective, I’m thorough, I’m aware. But a woman with authority coming into our room to let us know how badly we’ve been taking care of our son… completely triggered all of the deep seeded fears of inadequacy and anxiety I had. And if that’s not all, she proceeded to monitor while I breastfed my son. Making sure that I breastfed him exactly as long as she wanted to and then making sure I gave him as much formula as she thought he needed. Never once leaving us alone with him… until her shift was over.
I’ll never forget that experience. I still get choked up when I think about it. I used to walk into a hospital and feel so much peace. That was the safest place to me. You have everything you need in a hospital and it’s always buzzing with motion and there’s always someone around and there’s most likely something interesting happening somewhere. But after the birth of my son, that stay and that experience with that nurse, I flinch every time I pass by a hospital. I get in and out. I used to feel so secure by the power of doctors and nurses.
It took so much courage for me to open up to our pediatrician a few days later. I tried to fight back my sobs. “Why did she treat us that way? Did we really do something wrong?” I’ve since had a lot of conversations with lactation consultants and other mothers and I fully understand that we did nothing wrong and that it’s so common for children to lose that much weight in the hospital. And that even if we should’ve put him on formula sooner, it should not have gone the way that that nurse handled the situation. In a way, these conversations have redeemed that night but, in many more ways, the hurt is still there.
Fast-forward to 9 days post birth and we have now seen 3 lactation consultants and are in an outpatient, occupational program for nursing that my pediatrician suggested. I make about 75% of Holland’s milk and we’re supplementing the rest. My breasts are ginormous (which I loved, let’s be real) but my nipples, bleeding and cracked and have blood blisters. It is so painful to nurse and we have to do it often. We nurse 20 min each breast (he prefers my right, it makes more milk) and then I pump for 30 minutes after nursing. By the time it’s all done, I am sleeping 45min to an hour in between feedings. Not to mention, I just had a c-section and while I’m very active and feel honestly sooo good, I’m mindful that my body needs extra from me FOR me, too. But I don’t have anything extra to give.
We made sure to get out every day. For a walk, to the store, out for dessert. The baby blues have now been in full swing. Triggered at the hospital by that nurse, and inevitably by the postpartum hormones as well. Every night, I cry for an hour. It starts somewhere around 4-6PM and it lasts for an hour and it’s scary as hell. I become a different person. Very scared, anxious, and weeping constantly. It doesn’t feel like I’m ever going to get out of it and I very much feel tethered to the sadness. It’s engulfing. I hold my baby and cry. I go over to Adam and cry in his arms. I don’t know where or why or what these tears are but they only come once a day, at the same block of evening, in the same fashion, and once they’re gone, they’re completely gone and I’m back to my normal self. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, weird-ass postpartum version.
Some days, I hadn’t even stared at a clock that evening and the blues had arrived and I knew it had to be 4-6PM. We could’ve been at home or in traffic, I could be watching Netflix or showering. Damn, I could’ve been eating cheesecake doing all my favorite things and that weird “happy hour” would arrive. It would make me scared for the night. Something about struggling with breastfeeding and pumping while it’s dark outside…. I don’t miss those days. Thankfully, by day 10 or 11 it was completely gone. Whatever the hell that was. And I was back to my robotic, only cry like 3 times a year self. Just how I like it.
If you’re a new mom reading this, know how normal these “baby blues” are. They will pass. And if you’re past that 4 week PP phase and still dealing with postpartum depression or anxiety, know it is not in your power to control “this.” It’s a behemoth. For some women, it’s hormonally induced, for others it’s triggered by circumstances, old baggage, current life struggles. Just know how normal it is and that there are ways out. There absolutely are day to day things that you can do to help you. Seeing a therapist and talking about it with your gynecologist is THE ONLY way to start. So please do that. And just know, the sun will come out again. I know it feels like thunder, lighting, overcast skies are your new reality, but the sun will come out again. It’s shining pretty bright for me now. And my sun used to feel eclipsed.
Week 2 of nursing. I was tired and achy beyond belief. I hated my pumping machine. Hated attaching myself to it. I was now making 90% of Holland’s milk and we were barely supplementing, but it still didn’t feel right. The occupational therapist we were working with said she noticed a posterior tongue tie that went all the way across his tongue. Left to right. We took him to his pediatrician who was able to agree on the same. I asked if we should get it lasered, we knew a great place who is an expert in tongue tie revisions, but my pediatrician and the occupational therapist both said no. My gut said I should get a third opinion, because tongue ties and their subsequent revisions are a field not many doctors know anything about. It’s uncharted territory still… not to be snarky but “there’s always formula,” so trying to make nursing work is not something many doctors are passionate about. Hence why tongue and lip ties go undiagnosed for many of us out there. Regardless of Holland’s diagnosis, the thought of putting a laser across my 2 week old baby’s tongue was overwhelming. And Adam was very against it. Day by day, Holland was becoming more and more uncomfortable with feeding and less and less willing to completely latch. I was running out of positions and boob transfigurations. I decided to exclusively pump and that was the end of it for us.
I could give you one thousand other details about our breastfeeding journey but that’s not why you’re here. You’re here because 1, you’re curious or 2, you’re also grieving a breastfeeding journey. You want to know how I did it. How I freed myself from the guilt and loss you are feeling right now. You look back on your journey and you scrutinize every little part of your baby’s latch and the conversations you had or “should’ve had” with your doctor and/or lactation consultant. Did I eat enough bars and milk producing foods? Did I try HARD enough? Did I give up too soon? Too easily? Would my bond with my baby be different had I kept going? And a million other anxious demands in the form of desperate questions you ask yourself often. Questions I asked myself often.
Holland has been formula fed since week 3.5. It was hard, it was freeing, I felt guilty, I felt relieved, I felt like I had my body again, I was soaring and I felt like I was depriving him of something and my role as a mother was to stick it out, painfully if needed, for my kid. I honestly don’t know where the idea comes from. Self-sacrificing ourselves to the point of no return for our kids. Are we better mothers the more we bleed for our children? I’m not saying it doesn’t take so much sacrifice and self-shifting to be a good mother, it absolutely does. But why do we sometimes feel like we have to hurt in order to feel like we’re doing it right.
I get so many questions from you guys. Silent and private DM’s. “Don’t tell anyone but I’m not breastfeeding anymore because I was just so tired. I needed the sleep. Do you think that’s okay?” “I actually didn’t breastfeed because I didn’t like it but I’ve never told anyone that. It’s my secret.” etc. Some of you do not want to breastfeed and that. is. fine. You are not a half-good mother because you didn’t want to breastfeed. Or because you decided you wanted to sleep instead and let your husband take over night feeds. And for those of us that desperately wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t, and now feel so deeply guilty because you didn’t do the impossible. You gave up on one more cracked sore nipple. You gave up on the idea of another blood blister, one more fussy nursing session, and you decided not to listen yet again to that pumping machine do that rhythm of that noise that you still have embedded in your eardrum even now. YOU… WE are not less of a mother because we couldn’t or didn’t want to and decided that we were done crying and struggling and putting ourselves in a mental state where we are inadequate and where our bodies aren’t doing the thing we are hoping them to do and you’re having to face that every time, 10-12 times a day. Formula felt freeing. So we took it. And our babies are thriving. Chunky, happy, saliva drenched…. thriving.
There are so many definitions of a bad mother. You don’t fit it. This breastfeeding journey doesn’t fit it. Whatever it was. Whether you tried really hard for weeks, whether you tried with half-a heart for a few days. Whatever it was, you fed that baby. Whether it’s store brand formula or brand name formula, donated breastmilk, you’re. feeding. your. baby.
Breastfeeding is so intimate and the loss feels intimate, too. Someone else raving about how much milk they overproduce feels intimate, too. But someone else’s incredible breastfeeding journey is not ours to grieve. I had a different journey that belonged to me. I own it. And I use it to inspire others. There are so many women grieving silently. Many women need to hear that their “couldn’t” is nothing wrong. That it wasn’t failure… it was just a different journey. A journey just as prized.
I heard a 50 year old woman at a LaLeche League meeting say, “I would not have the bond I have with my son had I not breastfed him.” And I thought. WOW. Show me the clinical research, beech. I remember how much pressure that put on me. I was struggling and I came to this La Leche League meeting to hopefully get some help, but instead everyone went around talking about how breastfeeding is such a beautiful, life-giving IRREPLACEABLE thing. I remember telling myself, “I have to make this work. I want the best for my son.” And I killed myself after. More power pumping, longer time at the breast, less sleep, more lactation consultant meetings, and on and on and on. I was exhausted and honestly? getting depressed. Not this hormonal “baby blues” anymore but my days were turning into a feeling of doom and cloudiness. Until I released myself from that unrealistic expectation. I thought it through, “how would 12 months of breastfeeding cement our bond for life?” and I unravelled it little by little. Until I realized that no, breastfeeding is so powerful, but it is not the only way to build a healthy, strong boy and build a dream bond with my son.
I couldn’t bond with my baby via breastfeeding but I bonded with him just as well. I mean, you guys all see us. I know that our bond is evident. You can edit a photo, slap a few filters on it and make something look prettier, but eventually, videos, moments… you can eventually still see a person for who they are. At least I often can. Holland and I didn’t breastfeed but we still did skin-to skin (we still do it, honestly, haha. I sleep naked so every morning he climbs into bed after getting his diaper changed and snuggles with me skin to skin), we read books, take baths together, we laugh 100 million times a day, we sing songs, we talk, we experience new things together. Whoever told you breastfeeding BONDED them to their child like nothing else could DOESN’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE. Maybe I’m just saying that to make myself feel better. Butttt I still doubt I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t know the difference either. So let’s agree to disagree. Better yet, let’s all agree not to make comments like that until the peer-reviewed, clinical research rolls out. K?
When our bodies fail us, we take it very personal. Our bodies are latched on to our identity. When you fail to conceive naturally, it scars your self-image. When you fail to vaginally give birth the way a body is intended to, made for, it can feel marring and can often shift the confidence we have in our body and it’s strength, reliability. So I can only image that breastfeeding, something intimate and left for our bodies to help us achieve, can feel just as scarring, just as jolting when it doesn’t work. We are left to piece together a version of events that we didn’t plan for, didn’t originally want. We are left to paint a picture of ourselves and sometimes that picture can feel blurry to us. But we did our best. Of course we did. And sometimes our bodies can be unable to perform in a certain way and we can still be strong just the same. We can still be just as capable in our incapacities. It’s not an either or, it’s an AND. I couldn’t breastfeed AND I’m still capable. I couldn’t give birth vaginally AND my body is still so strong. I couldn’t fulfill a motherly dream of mine that a lot of good moms fulfill AND I’m still a good mom.
We don’t have to piece together false joys and a false sense of happiness and shrug our shoulders and say, “oh well, better luck next time.” We couldn’t and that’s okay. Sometimes if I say it out loud, I feel no grief. “I couldn’t. But I did my best.” “I didn’t want to try harder, I had tried as much as I wanted to try.” I say those words out loud and I feel healing. It’s my truth and it’s valid. It’s honorable. It’s good. There is so much more to look forward to as mothers. I won’t let the events of our first year rob me of that hope and excitement. This is all just the beginning and we are finding our way there. Who gets what body is beyond my pay grade. So we trust God or life or fate… whatever it is you cling to. I, myself, trust the Lord. He has a greater plan for my life. I am just so grateful to have my little, perfect-to-me boy. He is fed and he is happy and he is chunky and he is saliva drenched and he is… thriving.
And if he is thriving, so am I.