I want to contribute to World Breastfeeding Week with my own breastfeeding story. I celebrate everything that is beautiful about breastfeeding and the benefits that breastfeeding can bring to both mom and baby; however, in hindsight, I realize that my experience with breastfeeding was not entirely healthy.
Nearly 11 years ago my first son was born. It was a difficult day (and night) that resulted in a perfect 7 lbs 15 oz baby boy. And I felt like a failure.
Let me backup a bit. After months of planning for a natural childbirth, I ended up puking non-stop for the entire labor at the hospital, having an epidural at nearly 7 centimeters dilated, and finally agreeing to a vacuum assisted delivery to avoid a C-section. I still remember Patrick’s little cone-shaped head that they quickly washed and covered with a cap. The cone shape was gone within a few hours, but something was left hurting inside of me. I felt like I had failed. I had failed to deliver naturally. I had failed to push the baby out on my own. I had failed my baby.
This, of course, is ridiculous. I shared this with no one. And, being the intelligent person that I am, I decided to make it up to my baby by breastfeeding like my life depended on it. Granted, it was not a conscious decision at first. I had planned to breastfeed, taken a class, read the books.
The problem was, I didn’t just breastfeed. I became a breastfeeding martyr.
I became obsessed with ounces and feedings and lost myself in a sea of guilt that I was not doing enough for my baby. I would sit in our green chair-and-a-half with an ottoman armed with the Boppy pillow around my waist and the remote. Patrick would nurse and fall asleep, and I would watch TV. Then I would feel guilty because I wasn’t playing him classical music or teaching him baby sign language.
I came to unfairly resent my husband, not because he wasn’t helping out, but because when he walked out of the door to go to work, I felt like he had a life outside of the world of ounces of milk and diaper changes.
Most of the time I would feel positive about breastfeeding. I felt bonded to my child. I knew there were health benefits for both the baby and me. I also loved that it was like the world’s biggest coupon, and that I could eat two doughnuts while nursing and still burn more calories.
Patrick was a voracious eater, and I could barely stay 1-2 bottles ahead of him, but I refused to dip into the free canisters of formula that I kept hidden away in the basement. I set one-year as a goal with no formula, and I was determined to make it to the year mark. Regardless of the fact that I was returning to work when he was 6 months old.
I’m not sure where the idiom “Don’t cry over spilled milk” came from, but I am pretty sure I did cry over at least one bottle that was knocked over during an attempt to transfer my milk to the bottles my kids preferred. I had no pumped stockpile in the freezer; it was liquid gold to me.
Then I began to lose weight. Rapidly. And then I began to lose my hair. A lot of it. And I don’t have a lot to spare. I knew, deep down, that my body was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t want to listen. I needed to breastfeed exclusively, so I did not feel like a failure. We made it to 11 months of exclusive breastfeeding with no formula, but at what cost?
I would like to say that I did a better job with Baby #2 four years later. In some ways I did, I read more, and tried to stay connected to the world outside of our feeding cycle. Liam was colickly those first few weeks, and I still felt an internal pressure to press-on with breastfeeding. During a bout with a cold, Liam self-weaned early at about four months. However, that wasn’t the end. Once he weaned, I then became a pumping martyr.
With the second child I allowed myself to feel extra guilt that I had to provide milk for the same amount of time for each baby. I pumped at my classroom computer, in bathroom stalls anywhere and everywhere, in the backseat of my car at a wedding, a funeral, and at a family reunion picnic. I even pumped once while driving. Yes, while driving. Honestly, my favorite part of pumping was that it was my “get out of jail free card” for professional development workshops. No one can really question why you were in the bathroom so long when you carry the magic black bag full of hoses and batteries. Ladies, after a while, that pump will start to talk to you. I swear when it switched to the second setting, the pump would squeak “Tina Fey, Tina Fey, Tina Fey.” At this point, I really think someone close to me should have recommended a mental health evaluation, but I was sneaky. I let everyone think this was what I wanted to be doing.
Maybe my kids are healthier because of this sacrifice, but they still get ear infections and an annual stomach virus. And now my boobs are faintly reminiscent of a Maxine cartoon. I’m sorry you can’t unsee that.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful experience that is unique to the bond between a child and his mother, but I let how long I breastfed determine my goodness–my worth–as a mother. It is not a competition, either with other mothers or with yourself. In my humble non-medically trained opinion, doing what is best for yourself is also what is best for your baby.
The pressures of motherhood are enough on their own. The best recipe for a happy baby is to have a happy mama. Breastfeeding or not.
So, to those of you who can breastfeed exclusively in a healthy way, kudos to you. To those of you who were not able to breastfeed at all or for very long, please understand (you know this, but someone else needs to say it) that being a mother is so, so much more than milk.
Thank you to Sarah Soper for being a reader, editor, and encourager on this piece.