This article was originally published on June 27, 2017, but we are bringing it back for World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7. For more stories about breastfeeding (or not), head to our Mothership page.
Do you remember the summer every girl came back to school with boobs? I remember so vividly watching my friends blossom into those adolescent autumns; even more vividly do I remember hoping, praying, knowing that the next would be my summer. My own summer of boobs never came.
I found myself reminded of these unfulfilled summer dreams — my original mammary failure — as a new mother hunched over a whinging breast pump that for its best efforts could only exert the rare, stingy drop of milk from my sore and feckless tits. (At least they were finally bigger.) I was awash in love and other drugs — the doctors threw a fistful of Vicodin home with me — diminished only by my otherwise perfect baby’s refusal to latch.
It had begun in the hospital, where I held him to me in cross-cradle, football, and side-savasana, yet he wouldn’t latch for more than three or five minutes at a time, and with each feeding, got more frustrated at the lack of milk. Then he would cry, and then I would cry. The nurses told me not to worry, that he’d figure it out.
Then, at his first checkup at home, on day four, the pediatrician noticed his cracked, dry lips and told me to start supplementing with formula immediately. She pointed out that Jed had been born three weeks early and my letdown likely hadn’t yet received its work order. This, plus the fact that I’d lost so much blood in delivery that, even after the doctors transfused me two liters back, my fluids were still desert-low. The pediatrician, too, told me not to worry, that supplementing often lasted only a few days while my confused boobs caught up.
Jed took zealously to the bottle, crushing formula like the hungry boss he now was over my life, but I resolved to press on with pumping. I was obstinately committed to stimulating my dimwitted breasts, to shepherding my maximum antibodies and primordial IQ soup into him. This was the overachiever in me — The Breast Is Best! — and also an accordance with the plan drilled into me by my San Francisco prenatal care. That weekly catechism had exalted breastfeeding’s benefits like so many beatitudes: Breastfeeding is free! Breastfeeding boosts immunity! Breastfeeding helps you lose weight! Breastfeeding bonds you to your baby! Breastfeeding: It’s so organic!
I resent, now, that once it became clear formula would be at least part of my feeding picture, I had scads of information about breast milk banks, breast pump makes and models, and lactation consultants, but not one recommendation for a choice of formula or bottle. Six months of group prenatal checkups had offered me not one indication that I could provide my family more solace, sleep, and nutrition with a single trip to the grocery store than with a whole phone book of breastfeeding brochures. Also suspect: I’d been oft-cautioned not to drink or smoke while nursing, but no one breathed a word about the aforementioned fistful of hospital heroin.
My resolute pumping went from bad to worse every day. I pumped and cried, feeling like a trapped, defective, miserable cow over the slow drips into the bottle, yielding only half an ounce or so in half an hour of the machine’s painful throb. After a few dozen ounces of formula, my baby was clearly thriving, his skin pinker and damper and his dumps gaining in gravitas, but every scoop of Similac I bottled seemed to pile on my failure. On day six, I had my first total nuclear meltdown. My parents, enthralled in their fresh grandparenthood, were drinking and crowing with my husband and our friend Justin. I was sobbing at the pump behind a dressing screen, until the unnatural volume of my weeping hustled out everyone except my husband. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy, automatic, involuntary?! Fie on my ever-defective breasts.
Desperate, I summoned an expensive lactation consultant — so comically buxom it seemed to extol her job qualifications — to help. Her assessment was a triple whammy: As the pediatrician had observed, my baby was early and my fluids were shocked, but on top of that, Knockers also noticed that my baby was tongue-tied, preventing him from latching. I could get him a frenulectomy, she said, but even if I could quash my queasiness at the idea of slashing my baby’s cherubic little tongue, there was still no guarantee my breasts would then agree to milk. With a common sense that I still appreciate, Knockers advised me to keep pumping if I felt like it, but that because of these physical impediments between us and nursing, a bottle and formula were likeliest to prevail. In a confidential, I-wouldn’t-normally-say-this tone, she consoled me, “You know, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that there isn’t much difference in outcomes between breastfeeding and formula-feeding.”
As I write this, I’m inclined to emphasize our physical defects — his stunted tongue, my stuttering buzooms. But the truth is that nourishment is also a matter of choice. I look back at this period now and I see it so clearly as a story of confronting my addiction to overachievement. The priority was to feed my baby, by any means necessary. But like the neurotic I am, I managed to turn the method of feeding into a referendum on my personal value. Sarah Blackwood writes, “What is the charge to feed and nourish an infant but a captivity narrative in which a woman is isolated, and then made to feel that her fate is both privately and ideologically meaningful?” This is the kind of hoax only hormones and the patriarchy can construct.
Here’s what no one told me about breastfeeding: It can be an inconvenient, mechanical, often painful, around-the-clock job. It’s even more laborious if you’re pumping instead of latch-feeding: You have to get up multiple times in the middle of the night to feed the baby and pump, separately, because as soon as you stop pumping every two hours, your milk supply evaporates. If you work outside the home, or — god forbid — ever have to travel for work, your life devolves into a montage of huddling over a pump in closets and bathroom stalls, fighting with TSA employees over acceptable liquids, ending meetings before your boobs explode, and strategically timing your every cocktail. Your nipples may crack and bleed. Your pregnancy weight may not fly off because you’re starving all the time from expelling so many calories. Your cooter may be — I was going to say “bone-dry”, but “bone” will not enter your physical vocabulary for longer than you ever thought possible. Every decision in your life will be compartmentalized into two-hour increments.
For some women, breastfeeding offers an oxytocin-fueled bonding high that offsets these indignities. I can tell you honestly that I never felt it, not once. All breastfeeding made me feel was despair, frustration, and a deep, ancient sensation of feminine failure.
On my first Mother’s Day, about three weeks into my son’s life, I gave myself permission to give up the pump. The relief I felt far outstripped the oxytocin rush that had never come. Maybe it was our first occasion for celebration that made me look up and notice how healthy my son suddenly was as a result of formula-feeding, finally well-fed and gaining weight, already sleeping three or four hours at a time in the first month of his life. As I had been berating myself for not feeding him superlatively enough, he had been blithely slaying all his developmental checkpoints. He couldn’t talk, walk, or write, but that grinning little chunker was still out-achieving me by a mile.
Here’s what I wish someone had told me about formula-feeding: Formula-fed babies often sleep longer, because it’s easier to regulate how much food they’re getting. Formula-feeding mothers also sleep longer, because their babies go longer between feedings, and because night feedings can be shared between caregivers — my sainted husband, bless him, eagerly stepped up to those night feedings, and bonded fast and hard with our baby through them. Formula allows mothers dramatically greater liberty in the first year of a child’s life, because you can be gone for more than two hours without being tethered to baby or pump. I had my first overnight getaway with friends when my son was two months old: a freedom unthinkable to many of my nursing friends for three or four times as long. Formula allowed me to enjoy the occasional buzz without fear of poisoning my baby. It allowed me to return to work, to put my child in daycare, and to share the snuggle-high of a suckling newborn with his father, grandparents, daycare provider, and anyone else within arm’s reach when I needed to poop. As it turned out, none of those were insignificant factors in my mental and physical health.
Though it took me the better part of two years to shed the residual shame I felt about my “failure” to breastfeed, looking back now, I feel no regret, only gladness. I’m so glad that instead of assailing myself for months with an arsenal of nipple guards, fenugreek brownies, pumps, and consultants, crying over every feeding but pressing on, I found the confidence in my maternal intuition to turn my attention to actually caring for myself and my son. Trying to breastfeed was making me crazy, and my son needed me to be sane, well, whole. I had to choose that for us.
No matter what our culture alleges, the measure of a mother is not in how much she sacrifices. For some women, nursing is the very definition of a feminist action: feeding a child from the body, for free, and scoring an all-natural high in the process. I applaud these women, my mother-sisters: supporting all modes of feeding is mutually inclusive with supporting mothers who breastfeed. For me, formula was feminism: detaching feeding from biological gender, liberating myself from its narrative of captivity, and considering my own needs as worthy as I would consider my son’s. This was never a failure. It was the success of nourishing us both.
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