Warning, if you're pregnant - and especially if this is your first baby: this gives a fairly honest portrayal of my postpartum experience - mine, not everyone's. It might be a little intense, so if you're not up for it, please bookmark this post and read it if you ever need some solidarity in the newborn feeding department.
Well, hi! Fancy meeting you here. It's been a long time since I've blogged anything here, and to be honest it's because I really haven't had much to say. When you become a doula, everyone - EVERYONE - tells you to keep a blog on your site. And it's good advice. The problem is when you don't know what to write. And this is what I've been struggling with.
I love writing. I've done it ever since I was a moody teenager, throughout my twenties, and I still keep multiple journals today. I love writing about my experiences, documenting major and minor life events, my thoughts, my feelings. It's therapeutic for me. But that's not what I've been doing here. I'm not exactly a private person, but when it comes to what's available on the internet I like to play my cards close to my chest. So I've been trying to put a new spin on the same old blog posts that almost every birth pro does. But I don't think that's fair to either of us - you probably don't want to read yet another take on the benefits of breastfeeding, which is what I sat down to write about in the first place. And it's not fair to me to spend my time doing something out of a sense of obligation when I'm not getting much out of it. So today I thought I'd try something new and get a little personal and share what my breastfeeding experience was like. I know it's possible that I might catch some heat for this - whatever. My main hope is that someone who feels completely inundated with positive breast/chestfeeding stories, who might not have had a positive experience, will read this and realize they're not alone.
It's World Breastfeeding Week. As I hinted above, we live in an age in which people know about the awesome benefits of breastfeeding. I sure did. When I was pregnant, I read everything I could about pregnancy and birth and ended up registering for my Childbirth Educator certification. However, I didn't do much research on breastfeeding. I'm a hands-on learner and I didn't really see the point in going to a breastfeeding class without a baby to breastfeed. People have been feeding their babies like this for centuries, right? It can't be that hard, and I knew I'd have resources available if it was.
When my daughter (hereafter referred to as Mini) finally decided to make her debut (at 41w6d gestation) it was not the easy, natural experience I naively thought it would be. That first latch was weird. I worried I'd smother her with my breast. The way the nurse shoved her toward me when I asked for help felt too rough to me. It bugged me that I couldn't see how much she was getting, if she was getting anything at all. And it hurt. "It feels a little weird at first," the hospital staff kept reassuring me. "If you want to breastfeed her, you're going to have to tough it out." I asked them to check for a tongue tie. "Those are really rare, she doesn't have one."
So tough it out I did. It was toe-curling pain at every feed. But I pushed through. When Mini was three days old, my husband flew across the country to interview for a job here in Connecticut (we lived in Denver, Colorado at the time). My daughter cried for eight hours straight that day, and I convinced myself I was starving her because all she wanted to do was be latched on to me, which was excruciating. "Surely with this much crying she has got to be hungry." I gave her a bottle of pumped milk and she sucked it down like it was nothing. A quick phone call with my doula/childbirth educator friend reassured me that she was probably just 'waking up' and if I didn't want to be a human pacifier, a regular one was fine. Thank goodness I had one laying around from my baby shower.
At her 7 day check, the APRN/IBCLC we saw at our pediatrician's office confirmed a tongue and a lip tie, which we couldn't afford to get revised due to our insurance coverage (or lack thereof) at the time. Mini was gaining weight beautifully and they had no cause to believe I had issues with supply, or that her ties were causing her to not get enough milk. I was miserable at this point. I cried whenever it was time to feed her, in anticipation of the pain. It felt like I was lactating shards of glass. Every time I had a let down I wanted to crawl out of my skin (I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER) I didn't feel like I was bonding well with her because I dreaded going anywhere near her. I loved her and that awful guilt had already set in - "I have a good supply, so many people would love to have an oversupply, I need to use it and feed my baby." No matter that it had caused me agony. This is what being a parent is, right? Making sacrifices for your baby?
That IBCLC...I will never forget her. Because I was the zombie mother of a newborn, I couldn't tell you her name or pick her out of a lineup today. But I remember her kindness and what she said to me. She looked me dead in the eye and said, "Vanessa. If you don't want to keep breastfeeding, you don't have to. There's no shame in feeding your baby formula. It's there for a reason." I cried. I wasn't ready to "admit defeat" yet. It wouldn't have been a failure, but that's how it felt at the time. I asked her to talk to me about exclusive pumping.
My pump became my closest friend over the next six months, and for good reason - we spent 8-10 hours a day together in the beginning, closer to 5 or 6 hours a day at the end. We moved across the country to Connecticut when Mini was 3.5 weeks old. The movers lost our furniture, so we were living on a futon for the first month. I had postpartum depression and anxiety. My husband's hours were long and varied, and we only had one car so I was home alone with the baby a lot. We didn't know anyone in town and couldn't afford a postpartum doula on one income. Mini was not (and is still not) a sleeper, so therefore I wasn't sleeping, either. There was one week where I got seven hours of sleep in the span of five days. I was proud of my supply. It felt like a lot was going wrong at that point - but the one thing I knew I was doing well was feeding my kid. So I kept doing it. I got two hands-free pumping bras and extra pump parts, special soap and a sterilizer for the microwave. I learned how to do things around the house while I pumped. I even did my hair and makeup sometimes, when I was feeling extra ambitious. I had it down to a science. A rigid, unrelenting science that was driven by a fear that if I slipped up or got "lazy" my kid would starve. At the end of every day, after I put Mini to bed, I'd stand at the sink to wash and sterilize all my pumping parts and bottles. I'd line them up to use the next day, and just about the time I finished and headed to bed, she'd wake up and it would be round eight billion of trying to get her to sleep.
When Mini was a little more than five months old, my husband got the flu. A week later, I caught it. I struggled so hard to keep up with my pumping schedule, but between the 104 degree fevers and having to take care of Mini (because my husband had to go back to work immediately after he got better) I just couldn't. My supply quickly dropped to half what it was and I could not keep up with Mini's demand. I went into my freezer stash, telling myself I'd quickly replace what I used after I got better. But my supply never came back up. I power pumped, I ate all the foods that are supposed to increase your supply, but it just never worked. Finally I was only pumping a few ounces a day. I talked it over with my husband, who had been telling me all along that I was the only one putting so much pressure on myself to pump, and I went to the store.
I made sure to get a few things in the cart before I went down the formula aisle, so I could hide the package. While I didn't (and still don't) care how anyone else chose to feed their kids, I'd seen so many people on the internet get nasty with each other about formula that I completely expected someone to make a mean comment. I rehearsed what my response would be if someone said anything. I know how ridiculous that sounds now, but in the moment it was a real fear. I felt so ashamed. When I got home, I prepared the bottle and made my husband feed it to Mini while I hid in the kitchen and cried. It was over. We were done. I failed, I gave up, I quit on my daughter. The thing that she could only get from me was gone, so what good was I? I felt like someone took away a part of my worth as a mom and a human. I finally admitted to myself how much pride I felt about being able to feed her with my body. I also felt relieved that the pressure was gone.
Over the next couple of months, my brain started to clear. I'm sure part of it was the PPD/A starting to ease up a bit, but I know some of it was due to switching to formula. It was like I gained 6 hours every day because I wasn't hooked up to the pump. I got a formula mixing pitcher and started measuring out a day's worth of formula in individual tupperwares, and when I got up in the morning I'd mix a pitcher and pour her a bottle whenever she needed it. I stopped getting defensive when it came up in mom groups. Nobody ever questioned me or made me feel inadequate. I was a better mom after I switched to formula, because there was no more pain and I was no longer worried about maintaining a supply. My bond with Mini did not suffer. She's smart as a whip and developing typically. Turns out formula isn't baby poison. It's just food. There have been zero negative impacts on her, or me, or our family as a whole since switching to formula - and there have been many positives.
I am not knocking breastfeeding. We live in an age where formula is the closest to breastmilk that it's ever been, but there are still benefits to breastfeeding that formula can't touch. And again, I just want to reiterate that this was only my experience - plenty of people in the world breastfeed with ease, and plenty of people have trouble using formula. Just like birth, infant feeding is not one-size-fits-all. It makes me furious that breastfeeding continues to be treated as something taboo or dirty and is sexualized by our society. And even with all the trouble I had, I don't regret the time I spent breastfeeding - though I do wish we'd been able to get that tie revised. But I also don't regret the formula. I don't feel ashamed, and neither should anyone else. Breastfeeding is awesome but not at the expense of our mental health.