“Don’t worry. It will come naturally. You’ll see.”
“It bonds you to your baby.”
“You will never give your baby anything better.”
“It’s the most natural thing there is.”
“It is the most a important thing a mother could do for her baby.”
“It will give your baby the best possible start.”
I heard all of these things about breastfeeding when I was pregnant with my daughter. And in truth, I wasn’t worried. I did think it would happen naturally. No one needed to convince me; I knew I was going to breastfeed. Even when the pediatrician told me that first night that I had an “inverted nipple” (who knew that was a real thing?) I wasn’t worried. He gave me a few tips, told me something about a nipple shield and I was ready.
Me: I have a burning feeling in my chest.
Husband: Oh that’s probably just heartburn. They say that could start happening around this month.
Me: I wonder how big she is right now.
Husband: She’s about the size of a mango from head to rump.
Husband: That’s what the book says.
The point is, I wasn’t stressed about having a baby and I wasn’t stressed about breastfeeding. It was what Husband and I had decided and “it is the most natural thing a woman could do,” right?
When breastfeeding began, I had the same thoughts that I imagine a lot of women had: Is she getting enough? Am I doing this right? Is she still hungry? Will I know if she’s still hungry?
I wasn’t thinking these thoughts maniacally but like all new things, you wonder how you’re doing at it.
At the first week doctor’s appointment, the doctor said it was normal that she would lose a little bit of weight before beginning to gain it back. And though I still wasn’t sure that she was getting enough, by the second week, she had gained back a half ounce so we figured we were on our way. I was hopeful.
The next few weeks would prove otherwise.
She seemed to always be hungry. I would feed her for no less than an hour – sometimes an hour and a half – and since she ate every two hours starting from GO-time, I would get – no – I would take a 20-minute break before it was time to feed her again. Thank God we bought a big, cozy chair because I spent more than half my day in it. People I spoke to said this was ok and normal in some cases so I kept at it. Frustrated, I continued.
We talked to friends who were sympathetic and agreed that breastfeeding wasn’t that easy. We reached out to women from La Leche League who made house visits and supportive phone calls and who told me that “the most important thing is to keep going. Don’t doubt that it is working.” I was encouraged that I was doing fine, that all women get nervous and think that their baby isn’t eating enough but to rest assured, “All is well. Keep going.”
I laid down one day to take a nap and for the first time in the three months that we had lived on this undeniably sweltering, hot Caribbean island, I was freezing. I reached for the down comforter and instantaneously knew there was something wrong. There was. I had a fever and had developed my first case of mastitis. I say first, because I would develop mastitis again, a second time, all within the first month of breastfeeding.
I was thrilled. I had a fever and felt terrible, but assuredly I would have to stop breastfeeding if I was on medication, right? Someone would see that breastfeeding was not working and tell me to stop I hoped. But apparently, you could breastfeed on antibiotics and even through my month of mastitis and antibiotics and drinking Fenugreek, a natural vitamin to help produce more milk – if that was even the problem – and feeding this poor baby every minute of the day, people kept smiling and hoping and encouraging that this was just a rough patch, that the beginning was hard. “Breastfeeding will get easier, you’ll see, and you’ll be happy you stuck with it. There’s no more important thing a mother could do for her baby.”
Well, jeez… how do I argue with that? What kind of mother would I be if I gave up and wasn’t doing this most important thing for my baby?
My mother, having stayed with me for the first 3 weeks after our daughter’s birth, knew the war I was battling with myself so she would remind me that she didn’t breastfeed my sister and I because – at the time – formula was the new rage. She would quietly, and only once, tell me that breastfeeding or not breastfeeding didn’t make you a good or bad mother. She would point out that breastfeeding wasn’t easy when I needed her to support our decision to breastfeed and argue that those women from La Leche League were fanatics when I needed an ally against breastfeeding.
The problem through this, as I see it now, was that Husband and I never had a backup plan. Since breastfeeding came so naturally and was what bonded you to your baby how could we decide anything else? What kind of mother would I be if, at the first hard battle, I quit?
I can’t tell you what kind of mother I would have been if I had given up breastfeeding but I could tell you the kind of mother I was for sticking with it. I was tired. I was sick. I was emotional. I was resentful. This natural thing that should have been a bonding experience was, actually, doing the opposite. I was questioning why I ever thought I’d be a good mother. She would cry and I’d want nothing more than to help but felt like there was nothing I could do. I was the worst mother in the history of mothers. And as Husband would take her from me and leave the room I’d stuff my face into the pillow and cry.
I was my own worst bully, kicking my own ass all the time.
I don’t know at what point I was certain that breastfeeding wasn’t working but Husband – bless his optimistic, Go-Team enthusiasm – just wanted to be positive. Most of the time I wanted to kill him or just not look at him because looking at him reminded me of freedom that I didn’t have. I was sentenced to life in the chair and I didn’t have the courage to tell him that I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I waited because what I wanted was for him to tell me that I didn’t have to do this anymore. But he didn’t. And he wouldn’t. And I knew that. So I kept waiting…
My mom had left back to the States; she must have heard the desperation in my voice and finally decided that the time for supportive words and friendly reminders was over. After a talk with an experienced nurse friend – my mother had the courage to say what I yet didn’t.
“You know, you don’t have to do this.”
“Do what?” I asked, pretending not to know what she meant because I needed so badly to hear the actual words.
“Breastfeed. You have to do what’s right for that baby and you. And if this isn’t it then let it go. It’s not the end of the world. I didn’t breastfeed you or your sister and that didn’t make me any less of a mother.”
There it was. The truth I needed to hear. Breastfeeding didn’t make my mom any less of a mother, in fact, no one was more mother than my mother. And it wouldn’t make me any less of a mother either.
When Husband got home that day, I brought up the conversation. He agreed that what was best for me was best for all but still wanted to see if there were “more avenues we could try.” I nodded my head but I knew. I had finally had the courage to say the words and now that they were out, there would be no putting them away. Breastfeeding was nearing its end.
At our next pediatrician appointment, the nurse measured her and weighed her and noted down the information in her little card and then we waited for the doctor to come in. He’s the kind of pediatrician that keeps a first time parent at ease. He’s calm. No drama. So when he came in and said, “We’ve been killing her” I knew it was bad.
It was She-hadn’t-even-gained-back-her-original-birth-weight bad. And I thought, Thank GOD. I wasn’t thankful because we’d been killing her, of course, but that I’d been right. For a month, I had been doubting what I knew to be true, what I knew as a mother. And those words gave me the confidence that I needed. It was a painful and heartbreaking way to learn the most basic and simple truth of being a mother: no one knows better than me what is best for my child. Opinions and well intentions are great, but not reliable. I had to learn to trust my gut – my instincts – because this was my kid.
We decided after that visit, with the doctor’s advice, that we would continue to try breastfeeding while also pumping and supplementing with formula wherever we needed. Even still, even after the “we were killing her” words came out of a professional’s mouth, we still got well intended advice from people to stick with it. “Pumping is never as good for milk production as breastfeeding and once you start pumping…” blah blah blah. I had heard enough. Mute.
Our daughter quickly adapted. She was drinking more and more milk and we were supplementng more and more formula, and then one afternoon, a month later, after pumping in front of the television for 20 minutes, I looked down, and there was nothing in the bottle. Not one drop. Some women will tell you that weening off of breastfeeding is hard; my body found nothing hard about it. It was the most natural thing there was.
This post was featured HERE on the Huffington post