Breastfeeding: How Come I Can't Quit You?

Dear Because I Said So,
My daughter is almost 8 months old, and I've been struggling with the conflicting desires to breastfeed her forever and to never have to pump again. I dream about getting a full night's sleep, but each day I worry that I won't make enough milk for the next if I don't wake up to pump. And making the choice to continue breastfeeding means a (literal) drain on me all day at work. I get sad thinking my baby won't need me as much if I quit, and have this weird feeling that I've made it this far without using formula, so why start now? (Can I blame hormones for this?) My question, I guess, is why is everything so hard?
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Dear Why is Everything So Hard,
Why, indeed. Ask any woman about her breastfeeding experience and you won’t hear the same story twice. I never had an issue with supply, but that doesn't mean it was easy.
If I breastfed without a nipple cover, I bled and got mastitis. Lactation consultants told me it was normal, but I was miserable. After three months, I gave up and pumped exclusively. Some nights, during the 30- to 40-minute pumping sessions, I thought the pump was talking to me, squeaking out, “Bob Hooope. Bob Hoooope,” a sort of perverse message that I never understood. I pumped during conference calls and forced myself to wake up in the middle of the night, long after my baby began to sleep 12 hours. Finally, when she was 9 or 10 months old, I got the flu and I gave the fuck up.
I switched to formula, got my nights back, and the freedom from the pump was indescribable. I could sleep. I stopped flashing the mailman. I was way less stressed. And yet: I felt like a failure.
When I got pregnant with my second child, I had nightmares about pumping. I dreamed that the pump sucked out my brain. (My subconscious isn’t subtle at all, apparently.) Juggling pumping with a 2-year-old and an infant seemed like a punishment for stealing in a draconian dystopia, but of course I did it again. And then stopped. And felt like a failure again. What I’m trying to say is I get it. Pumping is the worst, and this is all very fraught.
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I think you are sad because it can be hard to separate our needs from our babies', but drawing a line between the two is really the first essential mindfuck of parenting. Your needs exist and are important. Identify them. And thanks be to the American Society of Pediatrics, but just blandly telling women that it’s best to breastfeed for a year completely ignores the realities of being a working, struggling, and exhausted mother trapped in a culture that venerates mothers but does shit all to help us. It also ignores that formula exists and is a time-tested option feeding many a happy and healthy baby (like both of mine, eventually). So let’s start there.
Stopping breastfeeding — let’s not call it “quitting” anymore — doesn’t mean your baby loses you. In my case, it meant that my kids got more of me, and a more-rested, better version of me. Sure, there is a lot of good medical evidence that breastmilk is best. But there is also a lot of underreported evidence that helping prevent moms from wanting to light their boobs on fire is best. It is up to you. Your baby will be happy, she will be fed. She will love you. And when she grows up and goes to therapy, you will have screwed her up in so many other ways that this one won’t even rank.
This is the part where you realize I’m not going to tell you what to do.
First know that the problem here is not you, and it’s not your darling, demanding baby. The problem isn’t your supply, either. It’s stress, exhaustion, hormones (yes, sure, those too), insufficient maternity leave, and so many other things. Pumping can be awful, but rewarding. Formula can be a brilliantly easy option, or it can mean more bottle-washing and burning through cash. Feeling conflicted doesn't mean you’re about to choose wrong. You just have to choose, and then move on to the next.
So take a step back. What is best for you? And yes, I mean you. Are you done breastfeeding? Do you want to keep it up until some specific milestone is reached? Do you envision cuddling with a toddler who’s able to ask, in full sentences, for a suckle? Do you see yourself putting on a regular bra next week and never looking back at the nursing ones again? Then ask why. Examine your reasons and throw out the ones that sound like, “I feel like I have to.”
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If you want to keep going, you can. There are ways to increase supply. Or, you can phase out pumping and just nurse at bedtime to keep the connection without the pressure to fill those bottles. But talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about these changes; she should be an ally in this minefield, too.
If you decide to wean, as much as a 10-month-old has already perfected the how could you do this to me face, your daughter will not think you are hurting her, nor remember this as a disastrous time in her life. You will get rest and feel like you made a hard call that was right for you, and if it’s like my experience, you will feel like a better mom because you are free.
Either way, blessing of blessings, you will forget these challenges ever happened. Some day you’ll wake up puzzling over what the hell a Pull-Up even is and when they become necessary, and find that this concern has faded. This forgetfulness is an unspoken gift of motherhood. So try hard to remember this one thing and hold onto it: Whatever choice you make will be the right one.
Love to you, your boobs, and your baby.
Because I Said So
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Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.
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