I just saw this post about women supporting women no matter how they choose to feed their babies. I love the message and thought it the right time to share my experience.
Recently watching my daughter sleep I couldn’t help think of how as a parent we naturally want the best for our children and involuntarily care for them to the best of our ability. We worry, sometimes for no reason, about everything. Are we good parents? Are we doing enough to help our kids grow into healthy adults? Are they getting enough to eat? Do they have enough mental stimulation? Having had a recent scare with my daughter’s health, I sit here watching to see that she breathes, the most basic function and wonder how important all the little stuff really is.
My daughter, Casey, is 10-years old and generally a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted child. She has met most of her milestones on time and some with great passion. She enjoys music and theater and reads anything she can get her hands on.
Yet, while I think my husband and I have done right by Casey in most areas, there is still one area that continues to plague my mind. The guilt and concern pop up in the oddest times, even with strangers. I know I cannot be the only mother feeling this confusion and pain, but it seem that no one really feels good openly expressing their opinion when I mirrors mine. Mothers all over feel concern about whether or not they were able to give their child the best start. However, it all comes down to this: if you don’t breastfeed are you less of a parent, are you selfish for not sacrificing more for the benefit of your child, and will your child always be behind and less healthy for not having been breastfed?
I admit that I had concerns about breastfeeding long before it was relevant. I’m extremely modest about my body. Seeing others’ naked breast in public has caused me embarrassment at times. I was not breastfed, nor was my sister or cousins. I have always hated milk and will not touch it under any circumstances. Frankly, the thought of milk coming out of my breast was a bit disconcerting and gross.
Depending on where you live, how old you are, and what race and socioeconomic group to which you belong, you are more or less pressured to breastfeed. The Center for Disease Control reports that the older you are, the more educated, and ironically, the higher your income, the higher the likelihood that you will breastfeed. In the United States, Caucasians breastfeed he most while African Americans are in the lowest percentile group. Furthermore, depending on your geographical location, you could have an even higher incidence. For example 71% of babies in New York City are breastfed while cities like Detroit and Baltimore have rates hovering in the 40% range.
All of these statistics mean that I am surrounded by people who breastfeed. This compounded my guilt and shame over not wanting to breastfeed. To be honest, I did have some impediments from the start. As stated, I wasn’t looking forward to breastfeeding. I didn’t feel it was right for me.
Even though I had no desire, the literature all suggested innumerable benefits to baby and mother. Breastfed babies have been shown to have better immune systems, less allergies and asthma, and higher intelligence. Babies are forced to suck harder to receive milk which strengthens their jaw and helps teeth grow better. Breastfeeding enthusiasts point out that the mother will have no bottles to sterilize and no formula to buy (a huge expense, actually). Lactation stimulates the uterus to contract back to its original size faster and to prey on every mother’s weakness, they say mothers who breastfeed lose their pregnancy weight faster since breastfeeding even burns calories. With such clear evidence and probably with some peer pressure, I decided tat I would feed my baby in the healthiest way possible.
When I went to the hospital to deliver Casey, I had a unblemished picture in my head of how it all would proceed. Following some pain and hours of anxious waiting, I would push Casey out. Then the nurse would confirm she was a girl as we had been told, and she would place her on my chest to view and cuddle. After a quick cleanup, she would be returned to my loving arms, and I would be instructed by the nurse on how to breastfeed her. All of my fear and trepidation would be tossed aside as little Casey would attach—starting a beautiful bonding between a mother and a daughter that would begin a long, wonderful friendship. I thought, in my dream world, it would go smoothly. I was wrong.
Casey was born with the cord tightly wrapped around her neck. She was limp and lifeless when she came out and was immediately taken, with barely a glance from me, to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Due to some minor complications I wasn’t able to see Casey again for 10 hours. I repeatedly asked for a breast pump, but due to overcrowding in the maternity ward, I didn’t get any response. By the time I finally got to see my baby again, she had already been fed formula out of a bottle and I hadn’t tried breastfeeding for almost half a day. No one talked to me about when I should try to feed her or how to do it. When my roommate’s baby was wheeled in crying to be fed in the middle of the night, I decided to go up to feed Casey. The staff there helped me safely get Casey onto my lap but didn’t offer very much in the way of advice or instruction on how to nurse.
Casey was discharged on time and as I took her home I still clung to the hope that I would breastfeed. Even though I felt incredibly uncomfortable I continued to try. While I made more than an ample amount of milk, Casey had already become accustomed to getting milk from the bottle. So I did the next best thing and I pumped. Every three hours after feeding Casey, I attached a mechanical device to suck the milk out of my breast. Seeing 8 to 10 streams of milk ooze into the bottle to produce six ounces of milk gave me pride and nausea at the same time. I saved my milk in the freezer in marked bags to be defrosted as needed. My breasts were stretched beyond their capacity and the pain caused by engorgement and irritation due to pumping was unbearable. When a massive blackout hit the Northeast, I was obsessed with keeping my milk supply on ice. The harder it was for me to continue breastfeeding, the more attached I had become to that milk.
Meanwhile, my husband was able to feed Casey whenever he wanted, and especially during the night. I realized that formula seemed a lot easier and less painful than pumping, but does a good mom ignore her own milk for a costly, powdery substitute? As time went on my enthusiasm for doing the right thing waned and my disgust with breastfeeding grew. Strangers and friends alike all felt the need to ask if I was breastfeeding, as if that had become an acceptable line of questioning of a new mother. I said that I was, but it came with mixed emotions. Indeed, I felt pride for feeding Casey the best stuff on earth, but humiliation at not really breastfeeding. I felt as if I was a failure already for only pumping. If I were a real woman and mother I would have had no problems doing it the “right” way.
As my desire to stop lactating grew, my guilt and shame grew with it. How would I face the breastfeeding community, which was essentially everyone I knew, and say that I just didn’t want to do it anymore? The pain was too intense, and I could not longer see the benefits. The less frequently discussed side of breastfeeding is the difficulty. Aside from the pain, your body is thrust head on into the role of parenting without time to recover from the pregnancy and birth. It can be very isolating if you try to be discreet. You never know how much the baby has eaten and if it’s been enough. It is draining to be on call to feed your baby alone every two to four hours, and it is not very compatible with the working mother.
After calling the doctor for the third time to discuss the pain, she finally said the words I was longing to hear: “Maybe it would be better for you to stop breastfeeding.” My doctor was incredibly sensitive to the pain and confliction I was feeling with trying to do the best for the baby while trying to manage my own discomfort. She said that if I couldn’t even hold Casey comfortably due to the pain, it wasn’t worth it. Casey would receive more love and bond faster if I didn’t breastfeed. This was an opinion I never knew existed. I was grateful for the permission to stop the agony and go on learning how to be a mother.
I immediately stopped nursing. Within two weeks I felt like a new person. A depression had been lifted as well. My embarrassment, loneliness, frustration, feelings of inadequacy and my concern about my abilities to be a good mother vanished. Suddenly, I was capable of being there for my child without the constant pressure of whether I was being good enough. I realized I wasn’t less concerned about my child’s welfare than mothers who continue to breastfeed. I just made a different choice. I may wonder if Casey could have been healthier or smarter if I continued to breastfeed. However, I have come to peace with my decision. I know that I did the right thing for us, and that is all I can try to do.
A few years later we were blessed with another child. Again I felt pressured to do what was “best” and I breastfed. This time it went swimmingly. But after four months I quit due to a persistent infection that required me to pump and dump for at least two weeks. Again I felt ashamed and heard loads of opinions about what I should have done. I can’t say for sure what the “best” decision for feeding is. But I believe strongly that women should respect that there are all kinds of ways to love and nourish a baby.
I wish for my children all the love, happiness and health in the world. I believe I can give them that no matter how they were fed at birth.