I’m not exactly sure why breastfeeding matters so much to me. My knee jerk reaction is that my mom breastfed me, and because when it comes to motherhood I aspire to be as much like her as I can – naturally I wanted to breastfeed, too.
But then I found out she only breastfed me for 8 months – so maybe that’s not it.
Then I thought it was because “science.” Breast is best, right? To be fair, I still believe this, but science (and my own experiences with close friends and relatives whose babies thrived on formula) tells me that breast may be “best” but the alternative is far from the opposite.
After further introspection I’ve decided that the real reason breastfeeding is so important to me is because somewhere in between getting pregnant with Mia and reading 7456 natural parenting blogs I decided that I would – at any cost – exclusively feed my children breastmilk. To be clear, I did not exclusively breastfeed my children due to a little thing called work, and the money and health insurance that comes with it. Also, beer. But that’s what breast pumps are for.
Anyone who knows me knows that once I set my mind to something, it’s game over. Nobody knows this better than Dan, who has all but stopped commenting on things like paint colors or bed sheets or dinner selections that are “up for discussion.”
Once I decided to breastfeed, it became a mission. It felt like life or death. One drop of formula = failure, and failure is never an option.
The funny thing is that this do or die mentality was reserved only for myself. I never once questioned another mother who chose formula for her babies. In fact, I consider myself a strong advocate for the “fed is best” campaign, and while struggling mightly to breastfeed Mia (and get a few minutes of sleep), I got some very clear insight into why formula is the best choice for many women – even those for whom breastfeeding comes naturally.
But it was never a choice for me.
With Mia the struggles started early (you can read more about them here and here). As soon as I went back to work I found I could not pump enough milk to feed her at daycare. I had only a few ounces stored in the freezer and so resorted to waking up every two hours at night and pumping milk to make up the difference. I also rented a hospital grade breast pump ($70/month – not covered by insurance), visited 3 different lactation consultants, and eventually started taking a medication called domperidone (also $70 a month and not covered by insurance), which is used for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders but increases lactation as a side effect – as well as weight gain, stomach upset, headaches, diziness, dry mouth, nervousness, flushing, irritability, trouble sleeping, hot flashes and leg cramps – to name a few.
I did not sleep through the night until well after a year, when Mia finally switched over to cow’s milk and I was able to share midnight feedings with Dan. I was exhausted, in so many ways.
I was also extremely proud – and still am – of my perseverance and commitment to giving my daughter the best.
When Lucy was born I said right off the bat that I would not go to such extreme measures to breastfeed. I knew how trying it could be, and the impact it had on my mental and physical health, and so I told anyone who would listen that I planned to breastfeed as long as I could – but that if things went south I was not going to be pumping through the night or taking supplements or drugs or forking over fistfuls of cash for more sophisticated torture devices (read: breast pumps) than the one provided to me by my insurance company.
Everyone smiled and nodded, and probably wondered why I thought anyone besides Lucy or I even cared.
Surprisingly, breastfeeding this time around was much easier. Lucy latched effortlessly just minutes after being born, and ate voraciously throughout the following weeks. In the early days, she was gaining somewhere in the realm of about a pound a week.
I sat through dozens of mothering circles and breastfeeding support groups, listening empathetically as fellow mothers described their cracked and bleeding nipples, diminishing milk supplies, bouts of mastitis and low weight gain stories that I was all too familiar with. I felt so grateful to be on the other side. I snuggled my little milk monster and enjoyed (almost) every second of her needing me. I stopped timing feedings. I gave up counting wet diapers. I nursed Lucy whenever and wherever she cried – whether she was hungry or just needed comfort. For the first time, breastfeeding felt carefree, natural, and purely enjoyable.
I went back to work with 330 ounces of frozen breastmilk in my freezer. I pumped 15-20 ounces a day (far more than Lucy needed at daycare), and even delayed the re-insertion of my IUD in order to protect my milk supply. I felt like a total badass breastfeeding baller.
At 5 months postpartum I got my period back. My milk supply dipped slightly, but I was still producing enough to supply daycare. At 6 months, my milk supply tanked. I went from pumping 15 ounces a day to 6. I started pulling from my freezer supply to keep up with Lucy’s appetite at daycare, and her patience for nursing quickly waned.
By 7 months she was hardly nursing at all.
I tried hard. I really did.
I sat with her for hours, latching and re-latching her. Doing breast massage, drinking Mother’s Milk tea, eating oatmeal. Pumping every 3 hours around the clock.
When Lucy’s weight began to dip I knew I had a choice to make.
I began supplementing her short breastfeeding sessions with bottles of milk from the freezer and baby food from a jar. Of course, this only made her less interested in breastfeeding and more interested in eating. Less breastfeeding meant less milk and my milk supply dipped even lower, to less than 4 ounces a day.
Last weekend Lucy turned 8 months old. She has still never tasted formula. But the bags of breastmilk in my freezer are dwindling, and I know in my heart that I don’t have it in me turn to domperidone (which you can no longer buy in the United States anyway), or power pumping, or expensive breast pumps and lactation visits.
I am tired.
I still nurse Lucy at night before bed (as well as feeding her a bottle), and first thing when she wakes up. Usually one or two times in the middle of the night, too. And as tired as I am I cherish those moments – even if she’s only getting a tiny bit of milk.
Last week I bought my first package of formula. I got to the store and realized I had no idea what I was doing. There were 20+ options and I was completely overwhelmed. I felt sad, and angry that my body wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Needed it to. I called my close friend who has breastfed and formula fed each of her children and asked her for advice, which she graciously provided. I came home with a package of 2oz ready-to-feed pre-mixed Similac bottles. I told Dan I was ready to start supplementing. And then I put them in pantry and said, maybe next week.
And now, here we are. It’s next week. There are only 8 bags of breastmilk left in the freezer, and it’s time to start transitioning my baby to the good(?) stuff. Maybe not the best stuff. But she’ll be fine.
She’ll probably love it.
And I’m still over here feeling like I dropped her on her head, trying to explain to the doctor how I tried to catch her, I swear!
The ironic thing is I legitimately did drop her on her head (well, not really – she fell off our bed – but still) and I felt significantly less guilt than I do right now.
We had new neighbors move in last weekend and I gave Lucy a bottle in her stroller while Mia trick-or-treated at their house. When the mom opened the door I all of a sudden felt embarrassed – as if I needed to explain why my baby was drinking a bottle.
“It’s breastmilk – I just pumped it – because she doesn’t like nursing as much anymore – but she still breastfeeds at night – both my kids are breastfed…” I can feel the excuses and explanations busting at the seams.
As if she even cared. Or noticed.
As I sit here, preparing to give my 8-month-old her first sip of formula, I can’t figure out exactly why I feel so sad. The truth is I will be relieved to stop pumping at work. And it will be quite the amazing night the first time I let somebody else get up to feed Lucy while I sleep a full 8 hours. But I just can’t shake this feeling that my identity as a breastfeeding mom is tarnished. That I failed her. Or myself. Probably the latter.
She’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Similac will be just a little bit wealthier. And 6 months from now we’ll all be sitting at the dinner table together, Mia and Lucy splashing milk all over their plates, and I’ll remember this moment as just another bump on the road to
hell *ahem* toddlerhood.
Another day. Another mess. Another pang of guilt.
So basically, motherhood.