One night when my son was a baby, my husband and I went to dinner. “I’ll take a margarita on the rocks with salt,” I told the waitress. She looked at my baby boy in his carrier and then back at me, “Oh, you’re not breastfeeding?”
Sigh. “Whether or not I’m breastfeeding is none of your business,” I thought to myself.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Now how about that margarita?”
My story is very similar to my fellow writer, Janie’s. From the beginning, I was unsuccessful breastfeeding. Ben was born with a recessed chin and couldn’t latch. Since he couldn’t latch, the lactation nurse advised me to pump at least 20 cc of colostrum to feed to Ben in the hospital with a syringe. I was able to pump 1 cc. ONE. On the advice of my lactation consultant, I bought nipple shields that helped with his latch, but I wasn’t producing much and he would cry out in hunger. We began an exhausting feeding cycle of me offering my breasts, then supplementing with formula, then pumping to try to build my supply. I washed and sanitized more bottles and pump parts than I can count. I met with lactation consultants. I drank the gross tea. I ate oatmeal. I took Fenugreek. I chugged water. I rented the hospital grade pump. My supply never increased. After three months of telling myself “one more day,” I finally completely stopped breastfeeding about 12 weeks into motherhood when I was hospitalized with a health issue and put on an aggressive treatment of intravenous steroids followed by oral steroids.
My Fear of Judgment
From the moment I was noticeably pregnant, too many people to count would ask me if I was going to breastfeed, as though it were a public health issue. My plan from the beginning was to breastfeed because of the health benefits for my baby. And if I am being completely honest, another reason I didn’t even consider bottle-feeding was because I was afraid of being judged. If you’ve been on any pregnancy/parenting board or read the comments on any article that has anything remotely negative to say about breastfeeding – let’s be real – the claws come out and the judgment tigers pounce. Yes, people who choose to breastfeed are also subject to judgment, but it is generally about where they feed or how/if they cover themselves while feeding or how long they breastfeed. They are not being told that they shouldn’t have had children or had their abilities as a mother questioned.
I have the BEST mom in the world, and I was formula fed. Some of the smartest, most loving moms I know have fed their babies formula. My son was mainly formula fed. I know that breast is best, but I never saw and never will see anything wrong with bottle-feeding, whether by choice or circumstance. But I worry too much about what people think of me. And I was afraid of the judgment I would receive when I had to stop breastfeeding.
Throughout my struggle, I kept beating myself up. I was ashamed that I couldn’t do something that I set out to do. I was ashamed that I had failed. I asked myself the same questions over and over again. As I pumped, when I showered, driving in the car, when I rocked Ben to sleep, I constantly thought, “What am I doing wrong? Why am I not producing enough milk? Before there was formula, how would I have fed my baby?”
The Answers to My Questions
When visiting my obstetrician for a checkup, I told her about my trouble breastfeeding. I asked her the same questions I had been asking myself for three months. That’s when my doctor said (I’m paraphrasing):
“Marie, you weren’t doing anything wrong. Back in the day, if you couldn’t supply enough milk for your baby, you would hand him to another woman in the village to feed him. Some people don’t produce enough milk. The same with cows. That’s why there are dairy cows and there are beef cows.”
“There are dairy cows and there are beef cows,” I thought slowly to myself, the light bulb turning on above my head. Dairy cows turn food into milk. Beef cows turn food into flesh. I suddenly felt the weight of my shame lifted from my shoulders. I am not a failure. I am a beef cow. Of course, I am a beef cow. And I am a frickin’ outstanding beef cow! I have never had a problem turning food into flesh.
I know comparing women to cows isn’t the most flattering metaphor. Some people might even be offended by it. But it made me feel so much better about my situation, so I’m hoping that by sharing it, someone reading this might feel better about themselves, too. And knowing that in the pre-formula days, mothers would hand their babies to another mom to feed them also made me feel better.
The next time I have a baby, I will breastfeed again, even if it’s as hard as it was with Ben. I will give it the same effort I gave it the first time. But the next time, I won’t beat myself up if I under-produce. The next time I won’t feel ashamed.