Now that she’s older and too busy for cuddling, some of my favorite memories of my daughter as a baby revolve around the time I spent feeding her. I would carefully select the diet that would be easiest on her sensitive tummy; for her, that meant cutting down on the lactose. I would hold her close to my body and gaze down into her eyes, breathing in that sweet new baby smell and cuddling her close while she ate. Her little hands would rub my chest, as if she were telling me that she loved me right back. She would inevitably get distracted, breaking her latch, and my shirt would get soaked. A small price to pay, really, for the bond we were making.
This is because some of the worst, most traumatic memories of my daughter as a baby also revolve around the time I spent feeding her.
When I was pregnant the first time, I assumed that breastfeeding would work just fine. I knew it might be uncomfortable for a few weeks, but then I thought that we would find our groove. After all, it’s natural. Instinctual. Breast is best. How hard could it be?
When my daughter was born, it quickly became evident that I was not going to be able to breastfeed her. Despite the help from doctors, nurses, lactation consultants (oh my!), it was excruciating. I knew it was normal for breastfeeding to be a little painful for a while, but this was beyond anything I imagined. My doctor wrote me a prescription for donor breast milk to buy us some time. We emptied our already meager emergency fund to pay for a two-week supply. The hospital staff suggested that I try exclusively pumping until things got better. I rented a medical grade pump and attached myself to it faithfully, around the clock.
Nothing happened. Nothing got better. Nothing changed.
To make a long story short, I had several issues working against me, and they ranged from difficult to impossible to fix. I felt like my body had failed me. Worse, I felt like I had already failed as a mother. I felt miserable and isolated, and I wasn’t getting much time to spend bonding with my new baby.
Then, I had an epiphany. Breastfeeding may be natural, but do you know what else is natural? Poison ivy. Snake bites. Death.
As many of us are, I had been made so afraid of formula feeding that I was driving myself into the ground trying to avoid it. I finally realized that in our case, breast was not best. It was interfering with my relationship with my baby; it was causing an undue amount of stress in our new family; it was breaking me. It was time to ditch the pump.
Life got much better and happier for everyone after that. I felt like a huge cloud lifted. My husband relaxed since he no longer had to helplessly watch his wife in misery. Our daughter grew, smiled, learned to hold her head up, rolled over, and eventually turned into a happy, healthy, loving, spunky, smart, precocious kid.
For the longest time, I carried a tremendous amount of guilt about “quitting.” But then I learned to let that go and accept that I used formula. It helped that studies began to show that the benefits of breastfeeding are not so black and white. The narrative began to turn. Other people shared stories similar to mine, and people began to advocate for those of us who fed our babies formula.
Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that breastfeeding isn’t wonderful for many people or that breastmilk isn’t loaded with great nutrition for babies. I am especially not saying that women shouldn’t be supported in their breastfeeding endeavors in whatever way they need. What I am saying is that an important piece of the conversation is being left out. In all of our breastfeeding awareness efforts, we forget – and even chastise – those for whom breastfeeding is not the best choice.
Some women would love to breastfeed, but can’t, for various biological reasons. For some women, logistical issues surrounding breastfeeding create too much stress during an already overwhelming time. Some women would like their partners to be equal players in the feeding routine, to provide a much-needed break and to give their partner a chance at strengthening their bond with the baby. Whatever the reason, it’s no one else’s business to judge. Every good parent does what is best for their children. Every family deals with their own unique circumstances that influence what that best choice will be. The best choice for your family will not look exactly the same as the best choice for another family, and vice versa.
So, yes, let’s absolutely support breastfeeding and educate men and women about its benefits. Let’s make sure that company policies don’t force babies to eat on toilets and instead enable women to nurse or pump comfortably. Yes, yes, yes. But let’s check the guilt trips at the door. Let’s not forget to support any parents’ efforts at feeding their child and providing a loving, nurturing relationship. In our quest for awareness, let’s not define too narrowly what is best. We all love our children, and we are all doing everything we can for their well-being.
So, if you feel a sting this week, when articles touting the benefits of breastfeeding are popping up all over your news feeds, please know that you are good enough. That you are not the only one. That you are doing what is best for yourself, your baby, and your family. That your baby is loved, and well cared for, and THAT is what’s most important. That you are a good mom. That sometimes, breast is no longer best – and that’s okay.