To Breastfeed or Not to Breastfeed: That is the Question
I Hated Breastfeeding.
There I said it. Go ahead and judge me, critique me, criticize me. It won’t be anything I haven’t already berated myself about—over and over again for almost eight years.
Before my son was born just over eight years ago I had no question about whether or not I would breastfeed. I wasn’t Earth Mother Extraordinaire nor some would-be Granola Chick du Jour. It just seemed like the world’s most obvious no-brainer. With all of the questions looming with new motherhood, this just wasn’t one of them for me. It was the most natural option; it was the cheapest option; it was (“in theory”) the easiest option with no bottles to clean and no formula to mix. It was supposed to always be available; ready to feed my baby on-demand. How dare I deny my baby what they were calling liquid gold.
On top of that, womenshealth.gov, our Federal Government’s source for women’s health information, recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of your baby’s life. They say that breast milk has disease-fighting cells that help protect infants from germs, illness, and SIDS. They say that infant formula cannot match the exact chemical makeup of human milk—especially the antibodies that fight disease.
They say that breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of: ear infections, stomach viruses, diarrhea, respiratory infections, atopic dermatitis, asthma, obesity, diabetes, childhood leukemia, SIDS, and necrotizing enterocolitis.
Then for the moms, they say it’s supposed to lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression.
How was I, a healthy, educated woman going to read all that and decide not to do it?
How was I to deny my newborn all that? What kind of parent would I be where the first decision I was making on behalf of my child’s life—would be to NOT give them the lowest risk of being an obese diabetic who has infections in his ears, lungs and skin? And that’s if I can keep my newborn from SIDS and childhood leukemia. I worked so hard to grow him healthily in my womb and then bring him into the world. How could I deny him this elixir of my soul?
No, before my son was born eight years ago, I had no doubt about whether or not I would be breastfeeding.
These claims from the “Theys” implanted themselves deep into the back of my subconscious, where they lurked and popped up at a moment’s notice whenever a morsel of doubt entered my cranium. These claims successfully tormented into the guiltiest zone on earth reserved specifically for new mothers.
My body handled the pregnancy on autopilot. Then the birth, (with doctor’s help) followed the set program. But the breastfeeding—oh no—something that was supposed to come completely naturally wasn’t natural at all. My body had a glitch in the breastfeeding program. Fail on Boob Feeding 101.
But it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. It was an unrelenting battlefield featuring Me versus Boob. I started with the extreme feeding: exclusively and on-demand, just like They said. My baby wanted to nurse all the time. At least every hour, for an hour. If I took him off the boob, he cried. I put him back on—he stopped. And so the cycle continued for the first week. I didn’t sleep or eat much. I just carried my butt pillow around, and cried instead of my newborn, as he sucked inefficiently, from my aching boobs.
But there wasn’t enough milk. Ever. He kept sucking but there was never enough; he was never satiated. When my mother-in-law came over on the first few days and said “Maybe you don’t have enough milk,” I started sobbing and locked myself in the bathroom for over an hour.
On day five I took my newborn to a La Leche meeting. There I watched moms with children of all ages nurse with delight, engaged in a in a boob-milking orgy. One mom whose face I’ll never remember, but whose boob I will never forget, was sitting and eating Indian food out of a styrofoam container when her three-year-old came walking over and asked for a bite. She fed him off a plastic fork for a few bites and then he asked for a drink. So she lifted up her loose shirt to reveal a droopy, bra-less boob and he helped himself to a mouthful of milk.
The La Leche mantra was to nurse the baby for as long as they want, as often as they want—and no pumping or supplementing with formula. It was baby on boob on demand—or bust! End of story; stick your fingers in your ears and chant La, La, La.
After the meeting, I went home crying and continuing my sleepless cycle of baby on round-the-clock boob. At our first pediatrician’s visit, I told her my woes. Her suggestion: pump after feeding to “drain the breast” AND then supplement with formula until he was full.
So this became the new pattern.
My son would cry for food and I would feed him on each breast for about twenty minutes, then I would hook myself up to the electric milker and would pump out whatever 1/2 ounce would drip out of my deflated and sore boobs. Finally, I would have to give him a bottle of formula to supplement. It was the Triumvirate feeding system: nursing, pumping, bottle-feeding.
As soon as I was done with one feeding, it felt like I was starting the cycle all over again.
The milk supply department of my boobs also didn’t seem to respond to the memo that my growing baby’s milk demand would increase. Like failed economics, slowly I had to supplement more and more with formula because my milk production just didn’t increase no matter what I did, how much I pumped or what weird potions I drank.
I kept this up for six months before I decided that I just couldn’t go on. My marathon reached its ending.
The whole experience left a very sour taste in my life. I was miserable for those first six months of my son’s life. I remember very few happy moments for me personally; it was always so difficult and exhausting. I adored my baby and cherished every moment with him, but I was constantly in pain, doubting everything and feeling completely isolated from the rest of the world. Everything revolved around these crazy feedings. I was prisoner to my under-performing boobs and at a certain point, I needed to regain my life and my sanity.
But I felt guilty about it from the first bottle I gave him. I remember feeling like I was pouring poison into his mouth. He looked up at me, so thankful for the food and I was thinking that I somehow wasn’t good enough to give him the liquid gold. And eventually I gave up trying.
But my baby was healthy as can be. He didn’t get his first cold until he was eight months old. He never got an ear infection. He slept through the night at less than three months. He was the best sleeper I knew and the smartest baby I ever met. All this and he lived mostly on formula for his first year.
But it was hard on my morale and my conscious. I wondered how important the mother’s mental health was in those first few months of baby’s life. What value was I bestowing upon my sanity?
Fast forward to present day—five weeks before I give birth to my second baby. From the day I saw the positive on the peed-on stick, I thought, how am I going to do the breastfeeding thing again?
Although I’m older, educated, and more experienced, I still find myself dreading the moment when I have to feed this newborn baby for the first time. Formula feeding seems so easy on paper. You can share the task with your partner. You aren’t exclusively tied to your baby for the first few months of life. You know that when they’re crying, they’re not hungry because you know exactly how much they’ve consumed. You can actually go three hours in between feedings. You can have your boobs back sooner. (I know—how selfish of me to think of such things after I’ve donated my body to incubation for the last forty weeks that I would want some part of it back to myself.)
So I continue to sit with the Theys chanting at the back of my subconscious dreading the day I have to decide: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed?