The End of the Road: Some Thoughts on Breastfeeding and Postpartum Care

It’s been over a week since Charlotte has nursed. When I sat down, I intended for this post to be a reflection on our breastfeeding experience. It turned into something a bit more than that. Some of this has been blogged before, and some of it hasn’t. I found it really cathartic to write it all out. I needed this bit of closure, I think. It is quite lengthy.

The tl;dr of it is this: Fed is best and mama deserves to be happy.

When we left the hospital with our hours-old newborn, I thought I had breastfeeding under control. She latched fine and I thought that’s all I needed to worry about. I thought I was ready.

We got home, got situated, and she nursed. She nursed anytime she fussed. She stayed latched for hours. As we approached the 3-day mark, she became increasingly inconsolable. Nursing was not calming her. She was screaming and screaming. I was crying because I didn’t know what to do. She was obviously hungry, and my boobs were clearly not cutting it.

At the insistence of my mom and my wife, she got her first bottle of formula that evening. She calmed down immediately and slept peacefully, suddenly perfectly content with her full tummy. I cried.

My tears flowed throughout the night as my efforts to satiate her by nursing failed time and time again. We gave her more formula.

Women talk about their milk coming in and the subsequent engorgement. I never experienced that. Not even close.

By the time Charlotte was 5 days old, my nipples were raw and bloody. I had mastitis in both breasts. I was feverish and so sick—still recovering from childbirth with a horrid UTI and the latest flood of hormones on top of it all. I vividly remember the look on the nurse’s face that day after she asked me to take my top off. It was a mix of horror and sadness. They immediately called up to OB to get me seen for the mastitis, gave me a hospital grade pump and quietly suggested that perhaps breastfeeding wasn’t right for me. I crumbled.

The weeks that followed were full of breast pumps, SNS, nipple shields, herbal supplements, lactation cookies, Google, and visits with a lactation consultant. They were also full of an abundance of tears and fraught with intense anxiety.

I was afraid to leave the house. What if she needed to eat? The system we had for every feeding was that she would nurse and then have a bottle to top her off while I pumped. If we were out, I couldn’t pump. What would that do to my supply? Would I destroy all of our (non-existent) progress if I left the house?

My days revolved around the pump. My self-worth was dictated by the amount of breastmilk in those bottles after pumping. I was making myself crazy in the worst possible way.

I would not listen to anyone. Not my wife. Not my mother. Not the internet. No one was going to tell me that I could not breastfeed this child. No one. The doctors said that breast is best and my baby was going to get the best if it killed me.

I was angry at my body. So angry. I had to fight this body to get pregnant. I had to fight this body to stay pregnant. I even had to fight this body to safely deliver my baby. I was determined to keep fighting. My body would feed my baby, and that was that.

Enter domperidone. I felt dirty ordering this banned pharmaceutical from a sketchy overseas pharmacy. It was scary. I had the support of my lactation consultant, and even the support of the kind nurse who secretly slipped me the link to the pharmacy and the starting dose on a post-it note. Even so, I was anxious.

When my pills finally arrived, things started to change. I made more milk. Not a ton, but enough to make it worthwhile. We went from about 25% breastmilk/75% formula to 80% breastmilk/20% formula.

Breastfeeding was still a sore subject for me. I never felt great about it. I never felt relaxed. I couldn’t let go of my own inadequacy despite having absolutely no control over it. I was suffering from undiagnosed postpartum anxiety and depression, and even my best days back then make me cringe when I look back.

My supply took another hit when I returned to work. I did my best, pumping as often as I could for as long as I could. Most days I was lucky if I brought home 4 ounces after pumping 3 times, but I kept going.

When we were together, Charlotte wanted to nurse every hour. Despite my struggle, Charlotte was quite fond of nursing. She loved it. Her love for it only enhanced my desperation/determination to keep going.

I continued taking the Domperidone and every supplement under the sun until Charlotte was a year old. It took me 4 months to wean off of the Domperidone, and I was certain that once I did, that would be the end of my supply and the end of our nursing days. I was wrong.

Charlotte continued to nurse. She wasn’t getting much milk anymore (not that she ever really did)—mostly it was just comfort. Once I got all of the supplements, drugs and pumping out of the way, I found that I was happy to oblige.

It wasn’t until then that I genuinely started to enjoy breastfeeding. When nursing became a comfort thing instead of a “how I keep my baby alive” thing, all of the dark clouds cleared and the sun broke through for the first time in a year.

I have made the most of these months in the sunshine. I have held my sweet nursling in the dark and watched as she gently drifted off to sleep. I have smiled as she unlatched and nuzzled her cheek into my bare skin. I laughed and laughed when she learned to request, “Boobie?” I have taken comfort in the ability of these dysfunctional breasts to comfort my child when she’s hurting.

I fought so long and hard for these last 9 months. Was it worth it? I can’t say. Do I have regrets? Yes and no.

Mostly, when I look back at those early months, I can see (clearly) that I was not myself.  I was not in control of things. Anxiety had taken over my life. I wish more than anything that our postpartum care system was set up to better serve new moms. A doctor sees us 6 weeks after childbirth and tells us that we’re clear for sex—which is just what we want to hear when the stitches have yet to dissolve from our torn bodies. 

Probably the most extreme cases of postpartum depression and anxiety are recognizable by 6 weeks, but what about those of us with more moderate symptoms? Those of us who are still so deep in the fog of newborn life that we don’t even realize our feelings aren’t normal? How many of us have chalked it up to lack of sleep and hormones? 

Too many new moms are left to fall through the cracks and into this undiagnosed, untreated maze of depression/anxiety.

Why not also check in with us after 12 weeks? Talk to us. Give us some tips for pumping as we head back to work. Give us a handout explaining our legal rights to pump in the workplace. Check in on our mental health.

Normal life becomes unrecognizable when you have your first baby. You think you know what to expect, but you don’t. You can’t. Everything is new. When you start to notice that nothing feels quite right, it’s easy to let yourself think that’s just par for the course. Everyone must feel like this. And maybe that’s true. Maybe what you’re dealing with is the norm—but what if it’s not? How would you ever know? Just because your experience is similar to your friend’s or your mom’s doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be–or even how it has to be. But without a doctor there asking the right questions, nothing will change.

I spent all that time blaming my broken body, but you know what was broken? The system. I needed to be seen, and I needed to be heard. I can tell you right now that if I had been of sound mind and body, I never would have put myself through the hell that was those early months of breastfeeding. Never.

As I looked back at my early posts related to breastfeeding, I saw a picture of myself holding a freshly pumped bottle of milk with about a quarter of an ounce of milk in it. I remember that moment. I remember that version of myself. I wish I could wrap my arms around that mama and give her some peace. I wish I could replace that damn pump with a bottle of zoloft and a glass of wine. Oh, how she needed that.

The moral of the story is this: Fed is best. Period. No matter what the posters in your doctor’s office tell you. No matter what they say at your birth or parenting classes. No. Matter. What. Fed is best.

You know what else is best for your baby? A physically AND mentally healthy mama. You don’t have to be scared/unstable/sad all the time. Depression or anxiety that interferes with your ability to enjoy your life is not a package deal that comes with your new baby. Fight for your happiness. If you don’t think your feelings are normal, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your mom is not your doctor. Neither is your spouse.

Given our history, I am beyond grateful that I was able to end my nursing relationship with my daughter on happy terms. As we wean, my head and my heart are clear. I made the choice that was best for both of us—something I was unable to do when she was an infant. That moment of clarity last week when I said, “This is it”? That moment was a gift. A gift I probably should have been given 20 months ago.


17 thoughts on “The End of the Road: Some Thoughts on Breastfeeding and Postpartum Care

  1. I really love this post. Fed is best. The feeling that you have failed as a mother if you don’t breast feed is a terrible thing.

    Breast feeding my first child was horrible. I staggered through 6 months and then expressed milk for 3 more before stopping. I wish I’d stopped earlier. My second child is nearly 5 months and I’m in the process of switching gradually to formula. In the middle of a crippling bout of post natal depression, I’m sure it’s the best option for us both.

    I wonder how many people have PTSD symptoms from breast feeding…

  2. I also love this post – I finished it and immediately asked D to read it, since it parallels her breastfeeding story so much and since she’ll be doing it all again soon and it is a good reminder that it doesn’t have to be how it was. (Though who knows, maybe she won’t have supply issues next time.)

    I’m so happy for you that you were able to end your nursing relationship positively – like, ‘I have tears in my eyes’ happy.

  3. Beautiful post. I have so much to say, but also nothing because you so eloquently described my experience as well. I wish the nurses and lactation consultants in the hospital were more trained to look for breastfeeding issues aside from just latch issues. There was so much missed with my son, and the second time when I explained I couldn’t make enough milk with my first I wasn’t really heard, and no one gave me the support I needed. Luckily I found a great lactation consultant this time around and finally got some answers about my body.

  4. Based on watching bloggers for as long as I have (thanks 3 yrs of infertility – so many people on kid number 2), I really think more attention needs to be paid to the mental health of new parents. Mothers who want to breastfeed in particular seem to suffer under massive pressure (the emphasis on exclusivity amplifies it). I’m pretty much planning on going on an antidepressant immediately after birth, I had depression bad as a teenager, and I don’t want to miss out on the early months because of PPD.

  5. Love this. It’s funny I was just thinking about this the other day. I feel like I’m coming out of a cloud lately and it’s making me look back and realize, “oh. Maybe I did have some PPD after all.” I just blamed it on sleep deprivation! So glad you had some lovely months of breastfeeding.

  6. I’ve been waiting for this post. I thought of you a lot during my own breastfeeding journey, and every time you posted about yours, I wanted to remind you to go back and tell your postpartum self “it gets better.” You did a tremendous thing, and I don’t just mean the breastfeeding itself. Enjoy your happy ending; you deserve it.

  7. Dealing with supply issues is one of the hardest things i have ever been through. I am so thankful we were still able to develop a good nursing relationship after everything, and my heart is going to shatter into a million pieces when he weans.

  8. Just getting all caught up on the last few weeks. The end of breastfeeding is definitely bittersweet. Glad that things ended for you on a much more positive note than where they began. I agree 110% about new parents needing more support.

  9. Just getting all caught up on the last few weeks.

    The end of breastfeeding is definitely bittersweet. Glad that things ended for you on a much more positive note than where they began.

    I agree 110% about new parents needing more support.

  10. What an honest, refreshing view of the struggles and pressures of new parents. I’m happy you were able to form this bond with C but am so sad you had to fight so hard against yourself to achieve it.

    It’s disorienting at best parenting newborns, and we really do need more people checking in on the health of new parents. Babies are checked what, every few weeks? It would be amazing to have that level of support from providers for ourselves, especially around that four, six, and nine month mark when children are regressing or exploding forward and we start to come out of the newborn fog.

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  11. I had a remarkably similar experience to yours. They actually let me leave the hospital on day 5 feeding my baby with a syringe (!!!) because I was so adamant that she not receive a bottle. Since I was released on a Sunday, I had a hard time tracking down a hospital grade pump and felt like a failure at motherhood forever when I gave her half of one of those tiny Similac sample bottles they sent me home with. I am certain my supply issues had something to do with my frantic insistence on doing everything I could (supplements, pumping, skin to skin) without doing the basics of self care (like drinking and eating!!!!). Like you, I was terrified to leave the house because nursing was a huge production involving nipple shields and pillows and ice in a washcloth to keep her awake long enough for a feeding. At the time I was just so certain that anything less than exclusive breastfeeding made me unworthy of motherhood, of her. We persisted and it eventually got easier. And I am so glad that we did because I am proud of it, and I eventually enjoyed it. But holy hell when the me on the other side looks back at what I put myself through, I am so sad for her. There could have been a happy medium where she got breastmilk and I got to be a calmer, happier, more confident mom. I’m glad for both of us that we are there now.

  12. What a great post! I remember my first born and how I struggled to feed her and tried to pump but just felt angry/annoyed/frustrated. I gave up the pump early and accepted formula. I felt judged. I felt like I was less than. I breastfed my second born easily. You know what? We have 4 kids, 2 breastfed, 2 not. They are all incredible. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it.

  13. So much love to you and to that brand new mama feeling so angry at her body. I relate to that so much in so many ways. Someday when I have less feelings brimming right under the surface, I will write my breastfeeding journey too. While I had plenty of milk, we had many challenges of our own that made me hate my body, myself, and wish I could better nourish my daughter. Thanks for writing your story. It helps so much to know that we’re not alone.

  14. This is amazing and you need to submit it to some national parenting sites. I’m serious. It’s that important. I’m glad you got a happy ending. You really made me think about a lot of things, in a good way. Loved it. ❤

  15. Dearest Molly, Let me first say that you are incredible! I write to you as I am pumping. I never expected to be an exclusive pumper. Nor did I think or imagine breastfeeding was going to be such a challenge. Emotional roller coaster. I was more prepared for pregnancy and birth than I was for my current experience. My story is almost exact to yours except I haven’t nursed my baby truly since her first week. She is two-months now. It really is heartbreaking to me still. I have tried here and there to latch her. I have inverted nipples, grade 3 I suppose. I can try with a nipple shield and that was my goal this week. I have tried a handful of times but she gets so upset and frustrated. I just don’t know what direction to go right now. Thus, I am pumping for peanuts. One day I got up to 15oz for me when I am normally in the 4-6oz area. The Fenugreek seemed to help but gave me and my baby gas terribly. The only thing I haven’t done was the dopermidone, (not sure if I spelled it write). Anyway, your piece touched my heart and I cried. I could blame hormones but we know better, right? Thank you!

    • Sending much love and patience your way. Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry it’s so hard right now. Feeding our babies seems so simple on paper, but throw in hormones and bodies and it’s anything but sometimes. You’re taking such good care of your baby–you are truly doing a great job. Just make sure you’re taking care of yourself too. You matter. Your happiness is important too. ❤️

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