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.