Why I’m Glad I Couldn’t Breastfeed

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
My son recently turned one. He now drinks organic whole milk in a Lollacup, which makes me feel like he’s so grown-up he’s basically heading to college next week. Until we got the green light from our pediatrician to move on to milk, he drank formula since the day he was born. Feeding him formula, however, was never my plan. As a health and fitness writer and someone who’s generally obsessed with all things good for you, I had every intention of breastfeeding our son. Except I never made a drop of milk.

I probably shouldn’t have had such high expectations in the first place. In 2006, when I was 22, I had breast reduction surgery. At the time, becoming a wife and mother were the furthest things from my mind. Even so, the plastic surgeon informed me that he’d perform the procedure in such a way that would give me the greatest chance of breastfeeding some day. “Okay, sure,” I thought. “Just make these oversized knockers disappear.” Fast-forward eight years and I’m married, pregnant, and obsessed with being able to breastfeed. And then I give birth and my boobs are utterly useless.

For most of our son’s first year I was devastated about it. Then, last week, after feeding him his last bottle ever, I transferred the remaining container of formula deep into our pantry. Instead of feeling relieved it was over, I felt something I never expected: grateful. I was grateful for the formula that nourished our son, of course, but even more I was grateful that despite my deepest desire to nurse, I was incapable of doing so.

Because honestly? I needed to chill the eff out.

I’m what one might call a type A personality (if one were to make a ginormous understatement). I’m stubborn, headstrong, determined, focused, and if something doesn’t go my way, I will literally bend it until it does. I’m an early-rising, list-making, meal-planning, never-sitting-still, every-second-scheduling kind of person. And while these might not be my sexiest qualities, they’ve served me well over the years. Without them, I wouldn’t have the successful freelancing career that I launched the day I graduated college. Without them, I wouldn’t have joined two dating websites and packed my weekends with meet-ups until I eventually met my husband, the most wonderful human being I know (and if it isn’t already clear, a goddamn saint for putting up with me). Without them, we wouldn’t have a fully stocked fridge every Saturday, home-cooked dinners every night, and healthy, prepped produce and snacks to eat throughout the week.

But when it comes to raising a baby, trying to force things to work out a certain way just because I want them to isn’t exactly an option. I learned this lesson early and powerfully when I discovered that my own body was incapable of doing what it was supposed to do. No matter how badly I wanted to breastfeed — not only for the nutritional and health benefits for him, but also for the beautiful bonding experience it would create between us — or how many times the lactation consultant visited our home, or how many hours I spent hooked up to a hospital-grade breast pump trying to milk myself in the middle of the night, I had nothing to give him.
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
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While I couldn’t see beyond my own sense of disappointment and failure at the time, I’m now a year into this whole motherhood thing and am just starting to understand how much the experience softened me. There’s a word I often encounter on mom blogs that usually has a similar effect on me as nails screeching on a chalkboard. But I’m about to drop it here.

Grace.

Before I discovered that I had dry-heaving boobs, I didn’t have an ounce of grace for myself, or anyone else. I held us all up to an impossible standard, which meant I survived in a constant state of dissatisfaction. It’s not a particularly warm and fuzzy place to exist. I never imagined that a breast milk crisis would be the catalyst for understanding that loosening my grip on life just a little bit — and at times a whole lot — would make me a heck of a lot happier and more pleasant to be around. But the fact is, I’d finally come up against something that was impossible for me to control, so I had to deal with it. When I saw that the world didn’t fall apart (a.k.a. our son was healthy, growing, and thriving, and we were as connected as I could ever imagine we would be), I understood the value of giving myself and everyone around me a little more grace.

I went months without cooking a decent meal for my husband and me. Instead of feeling guilty about it, like my pre-baby self would’ve, I cradled our newborn and boiled some packaged dumplings. Instead of rushing to ditch the pregnancy pounds I’d packed on, I lived in leggings, took our baby for long, slow walks, and never stepped on a scale. When it came time to start feeding our baby solids, I made him some purees but stocked up on store-bought pouches the moment I started obsessing about trying to get him to like lentils and kale (newsflash: babies don’t like kale).

This whole grace thing has made me an infinitely better mom. During the early days, I watched for every coo, smile, and roll at the earliest second the milestone could occur and felt anxious when I had to wait. Was our baby developing normally? Was I not doing enough to help him achieve these skills? Finally, I put away the parenting books, deleted the apps, and gave us all a little grace. The result? I discovered that like all babies, he’d hit the milestones whenever he was ready, and it was tremendously more enjoyable to witness them in that way.

So boobs, thank you for sucking. I may always feel like moms who are able to breastfeed have a superpower that I don’t, or feel a pang of envy when a woman’s baby curls up to her chest to feed. But I’m glad, because it means I’m a happier, more flexible, more resilient person and kinder to the people who’ve always deserved it — and who somehow have loved me all along anyway.
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