In 2001 when I had my first baby, breastfeeding was just becoming more focused on. Breast is Best was everywhere and I was looking forward to nourishing my baby from my body.
When my baby arrived, I kept waiting for my milk to come in. Nurses told me since I had a traumatic delivery, it was probably delayed a few days. I was encouraged to sleep, give her a bottle and send her to the nursery. Thirteen years ago, a baby rooming in was not common. When I insisted she stay with me so I could cuddle her and nurse her as often as possible, I was met with resistance. I’d fall asleep, only to wake and find she’d been taken to the nursery and given a bottle.
I was sent home with a stack of pre-mixed two ounce baby bottles that I was determined not to use. I latched her as often as she wanted and smiled down at her beautiful little face nestled against me. I was filled with maternal love and cherished the moments. The hours ticked by, she grew hungrier and I could not figure out why she was so upset. She’d pull off me and scream, her arms and legs would kick in frustration. I’d sit there and cry, not understanding where my milk was.
I went and got a breast pump. Then I called lactation consultants and visited them. It was declared that my milk had not come in yet. That could be the only answer. I was to use a pump as often as I could to stimulate milk production, offer the breast first always, and then give her a bottle. She gave me a tracking sheet to keep track of how much she ate and when. Those tracking sheets became my new obsession. Everything was detailed immediately and precisely.
And so began the agony of sitting at a pump as often as I could, feeling like a dairy cow… minus the milk. Dribbles came out and I collected them as carefully as I could. It would take me days to collect an ounce and when I had that ounce I fed it to her as if it were liquid gold. Weeks went by and my milk still continued to only dribble. She’d only nurse for a few seconds and then would eat her bottle, although even those were not well. I went back to see a lactation consultant. It was decided that she was a lazy eater, her mouth was too small and she was not able to provide the suck that was needed to stimulate milk production.
I went back to my routine of nursing, bottle feeding, pumping, crying each time I had to give her a bottle of formula and then dismally stare at the empty collection bottles that were at my breast as the pump tried to do its job. I became more and more depressed, sometimes not getting dressed for days. Why bother? I felt defunct as a mother already. If I was a horrible and unworthy mother, there was no point to getting dressed and going out. I felt terrible about my postpartum body, additionally, having put on seventy pounds during pregnancy. I didn’t even want to try to squeeze any clothing over my sausage like appendages. Attempting to get dressed was another foray into depression and self hatred. My body looked nothing like it did pre-pregnancy. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this? How come my other two friends seemed to already be wearing their pre-pregnancy clothes but I was not? The answer in my head was that they were clearly better mothers than I was. They had plenty of milk, pumping and nursing. I sank like a stone into depression.
But still I continued on, trying to pump milk for my baby, taking supplements, tracking everything that went in her and came out. Then came the day that it happened, when she was about 6 weeks old; she refused to latch. She cried when I tried and stopped when I offered her a bottle. I began to hate my broken body even more. I sat there, rocking my baby who was happily sucking lazily away on a bottle and silently cried, wish I had known the last time I had nursed her would have been my last. I would have cherished it more. I would have taken in every moment.
I got a bit better when I stopped trying to nurse and pump. I didn’t plaster my thoughts with negative remarks about my broken body as often. My baby was happier, quickly getting the bottle and sustenance she wanted when she was hungry. Visual cues were packed away, nursing bras, the pump, supplies, etc.
My daughter was still a horrible eater. I told myself that was most of the reason I failed at breast feeding. She really was a lazy eater as the lactation consultant told me. Most babies her age were eating 4-5 oz and she was still only eating 2 oz. It would go better next time, I told myself. The next baby will have a better suck, and that will fix my breast feeding woes.
Grandparents were happy they were able to feed her now and my breastfeeding mom friends never said one word to shame me about not being able to breastfeed. When I’d get undressed I’d hate my breasts for a moment, but not nearly to the extent I had before. When my libido returned I became able to appreciate them a bit more and slowly began to accept that, in my case, breast is not always best.
A sweet friend asked me one day… if you took a Harvard graduating class, would you be able to pick out which were breastfeed and which were bottle fed? No, I replied. The same friend asked me how I bottle fed my daughter. I demonstrated. Hold her closer, she suggested. Don’t be afraid to look at her and smile at her and cherish this feeding time, even without nursing her.
Admittedly, cherishing bottle feeding seemed a foreign concept to me. It was reiterated to me that my job as a mom was to feed my baby. My daughter had no idea the difference between formula and breast milk. I pulled her in a little closer and she smiled up at me, a trail of formula running out of her mouth. I wiped it away and slowly began to forgive my body for betraying me, or at least, that was how I had perceived it. Forgiving myself was exactly what I needed to do in order to move passed my grief.