Why “Breast is Best” Makes Me Cry

There is a new tax credit out for breastfeeding moms and my Facebook newsfeed has lit up about it. There are articles linked to articles linked to comments upon comments upon comments. And, of course, I scroll through the comments. Because those are the most interesting part of the article. Because there can be no simple article without a thread of conflict to follow.

The conflict revolves around a teen mom that receives WIC complaining that just because she formula feeds shouldn’t mean that the government shouldn’t help her, too. Of course her statement is full of flaws and nobody hesitates to tell her so. She holds her head high and argues every point like an indignant teenager and I chuckle and shake my head about the fact that this drama is unfolding in the comments section of an article about a new tax credit.

And then I read a comment that punches me in the gut. It throws out some statistic about how 99.9% of women are able to successfully breastfeed and those who cannot simply did not try hard enough. And it takes my breath away and brings me right back to that lonely dark place that I was 27 months ago.

When Rocketman was born, I expected to nurse him. I went to all the parenting classes. I learned that the moment he was born and the days and weeks following, we should spend our time skin to skin. That, naturally, he would find his way to the breast and that would be the beginning of something beautiful.

The delivery was beautiful. Immediately, we were skin to skin. Soon after I guided him to my breast and he seemed to know what to do. And that was beautiful too. And for an hour or two we basked in that beauty.

Rocketman was born in the late afternoon and we had many visitors show up soon after. But I had arrived at the hospital at midnight the night before and had not slept in two nights. The parenting classes said that I needed to have my baby by my side that entire time I was in the hospital, but the kind nurse that was on duty with me gently offered that it may be in mine and the baby’s best interest if I got some much needed sleep after a long hard delivery. After all, I would not be sleeping for months to follow.

I slept and the nurses did some supplementing with formula. I spent the rest of the time that I was in the hospital trying to nurse, but Rocketman would have none of it. He was a calm and content baby, but when I would take him to my breast he would scream and cry like mad and refuse to latch. The nurses tried to help to no avail. The lactation consultant came in and was at a loss. I left the hospital with a pump and a strong will to try. And also with my precious little infant that would turn my world upside down.

Rocketman slept one night by my bedside. And then the doctor called and said his bilirubin levels were too high and I needed to bring him back to the hospital to be under lights. Without me. And I cried like I have never cried before.

I would visit him every two hours throughout the day and attempt to nurse. And he would scream. And it was our bonding time before he had to be put back under lights. So we supplemented. And then he slept the night in the hospital while I cried myself to sleep at home. And they supplemented. And then I got to go get my baby and bring him home. Again.

It was such a wonderful, calm and quiet time. I rocked him in the glider. I read him nursery rhymes from a black and white bound Mother Goose book that was mine as a child. I took a million pictures of his million expressions. I sang and sang and sang. And he cooed and gurgled and was sweet and calm and content. Until it was time to eat. And I would bring him to my chest and he would scream and shout and cry. And I would bring him away from it and he would settle quietly and calmly.

So I tried, failed, pumped, and supplemented. I brought him to the pediatrician who said he was not gaining weight fast enough. I explained the situation I was having with him. She said she had never seen that happen before, but made me an appointment with the lactation consultant on staff. I attempted a feeding session in front of her. She said she had never seen that happen before either. She said to keep trying and gave me a couple of tips, but said that sometimes a baby’s personality prevails and I might just allow him to win this one.

I gave him more formula than breast milk so he could gain the needed weight back. I still went through the feeding, screaming, pumping, supplementing processes multiple times a day. It was getting old and trying and was the one dark spot on an otherwise joyous time.

I brought him back to the pediatrician for another weight check. He was growing well this time. The supplementing was giving him what he needed. He was thriving. I told her what I was going through to extract breast milk. I told her that, though I pumped every two hours every day, by the end of the day there was only enough milk to fill one bottle. She looked at me with compassion and asked me what type of stress was this bringing to the family? To the relationship between me and my new baby son? She asked me to look at him and see that he was thriving. She admitted that breast milk offered up all sorts of wonderful health advantages. But she did not think that those advantages outweighed the advantages of having a mother that was not physically and mentally shaken every two hours when feeding time came around. She repeated, “He is good. He is great. He is thriving. Look at him. It’s ok to let go.” She gave me that permission. And I bawled like a baby in her exam room, went home, and packed away the pump.

Rocketman was five weeks old. I bought “the best” formula and never looked back. When people questioned me, I explained that I had a strong willed child that would not take interest and that was that.

And Rocketman was good. In the beginning, I worried that not nursing him would prevent us from bonding. But did we ever bond. We became perfectly in sync. And he grew. He remained healthy. He was active and funny and so very verbal. He won the hearts of everyone he came into contact with. He developed a grand sense of humor. And a sense of empathy. And a sense of self- for sure. And then, when he was two years old, I got pregnant with his brother. Bubba.

When I was six months pregnant with Bubba, I met a Vietnamese woman. She was the mother of a potential ESL student that I needed to test in order to determine eligibility into the ESL program in my school district. I had never met her before. She grabbed my hand and rubbed it and expressed great pleasure at the fact that I exhibited a tremendous midsection ever growing beneath my elastic waisted black pants. She began rubbing my stomach furiously (something that made me both uncomfortable and intrigued), and shouting out facts that I had only learned quite recently myself…from my OBGYN: It’s a boy! His head is here, bottom there. Oh! You only have three more months to go! Now I was really intrigued.

As I walked her to a nearby table to discuss the testing procedure for her son, she continued holding on to my hands. As she rubbed and caressed them, a deeply satisfied look crossed her face. She looked me in the eye and said, “Oh. This boy. This boy is good boy. He very good boy. You have other boy too, yeah? He good boy too. Smart. Funny. Good boy too. But this boy. You never need to have girl to take care you. This boy here, he take care you always. He your Momma’s Boy. He your good Momma’s Boy and he take care you always. And you have a good life with these boys. So you testing my son now?”

Each time I share this, I get a different reaction. Some people respond that I should have run far from that crazy woman and not looked back. Some are as intrigued as I was. As for me, I chose to believe that she knew something that I didn’t beyond our place in time, and I was thankful that she chose to share that with me. I put my hand on my expanding midsection and smiled quietly to myself thinking, “Hi my Momma’s Boy.”

Three months later I was in the delivery room lying in some awkward position with an oxygen mask on my face after 14 hours of labor because my nurse was using “every trick in the book” to persuade the baby to move down since he had not budged in the 14 hours despite me being dilated and otherwise ready. And if he didn’t come down, he would have to be removed via c-section. And I just didn’t want that. My Momma’s Boy was four days late and perfectly content hanging exclusively with Momma.

My Momma’s Boy was going to nurse. Rocketman hadn’t. It had been a fluke. And I was never ok with it. But what made it ok was that this one would be different. He was my Momma’s Boy. And we would bond in the most primitive of ways as he suckled at my teat for many magnificent months, heck, years. Because that is the way that it was meant to be between mother and child and that is why I was made the way I was. I was woman. I used my body to house and deliver this child for 10 months. And I would continue to use it to nourish him.

He stayed in my room and I nursed. It seemed ok at first. He latched. He suckled. But as the nights in the hospital passed, his diapers were not wet often enough. And he was always hungry. And he was losing too much weight. And we needed to supplement.

Lactation consultants were called. I was not producing enough milk to fill his needs. I was instructed to rent a hospital grade pump. And nurse and then pump every two hours. Around the clock. And I did. I would pump 1/8 ounce of milk every two hours. Not enough to feed my growing and always- hungry- almost- 9- pound baby.

Rocketman was three. Such a demanding age. And I was always, always, attached to a breast pump. Rocketman’s sensory issues had yet to truly be revealed and he was having a hell of a time potty training. He would go on the floor. Or the deck. Or in my bed. And he always wanted me to get him juice. Or milk. Or read him a story. Or put Wonderpets on for him. And I was literally tethered to the god forsaken breast pump.

One day (in between pumping sessions), Rocketman grabbed the two bottles with the suction thingies on top, put them up against his little nipples and said, “Look! I’m Mommy!”

I didn’t care. I was going to produce more. This was a means to an end. Bubba would suckle from me. I would share these moments with him. We would bond.

I called the Warm Line at the hospital where Bubba was born dozens of times a day. I wrote pages of notes on their suggestions on increasing my supply. I followed everything they said. My supply remained low. I consulted Le Leche League in my area. They had just disbanded. I visited the lactation consultant through my pediatrician. She was at a loss. Lactation websites. Lactation cookies. Fenugreek tea. I. Tried. It. All. All while trying to take care of a super-demanding-used-to-be-only-child-with-potty-issues.

At one pediatrician appointment, I was almost in tears sharing my story of failure with the on duty pediatrician. I looked at her searchingly for answers and asked, “Does this happen to a lot of women???” And she looked at me perplexed and alarmed and stated crisply, “No. None.”

So then, what was wrong with me? That I could not provide adequate nourishment for my sweet little chub a lub? What kind of a woman was I? What if he had been born a hundred years ago, before formula? Would he just starve to death then? Because the one person who was supposed to be trusted to care for and nourish him was inadequate?

My anxiety was higher that it had ever been. (And that is something.) I cried all the time. Every two hours I would: try to feed and be faced with a screaming, crying baby. Feed a little formula until he was satiated and then try to feed again (more crying.) And then give up and pump. And pump and pump and pump. And at the end of the day I had one three ounce bottle semifilled to give my son.

I was sent to a real lactation specialist through the hospital. She costed $200 and hour that I didn’t have. Her name was Deb and she was in her 50s and had long grey wavy hair down to her waist. She was slim and lined and kind and warm. She felt my anxiety from across the waiting room.

The goal of our first session was to determine exactly how much breast milk Bubba was receiving from me. She weighed him upon our arrival to the very last gram. She then counseled me through a feeding, getting up close and personal and critiquing both mine and his technique and complimenting both. We were doing everything right! He was latching! After the feeding, she weighed him again. He had practically lost weight. Whatever he was getting from me was infinitesimal. And now he was crying from hunger. And I was feeding him formula.

Deb put me on a plan. Continue to pump every two hours. More fenugreek. More supplements, teas, cookies. And a prescription that you can only get in Canada, if you are going that way. Or from a compounding pharmacy an hour away. For hundreds of dollars out of pocket because insurance won’t cover it. (The whole lack of FDA approval thing.) And she had me order an SNS: a Supplemental Nursing System. $50 on Amazon.

The SNS was a bottle that could be filled with formula or breast milk and hung around the mother’s neck. Two very thin tubes led out of the bottle and were to be fastened with tape along a woman’s breast and to her nipples. The idea is that the baby would suckle at the mother’s barren breasts and receive his or her supplement from the bottle around her neck, simulating the act of breast feeding despite the lack of milk being produced by the mother.

I thought this was a fantastic invention and could not wait to use it. Epic failure. I can’t remember the details because I think I blocked them out. I just remember that every time we tried ( and yes I kept on going back for more) there was a flood of tears shed by both me and Bubba and I was covered in formula. Stinky sticky formula. And he was screaming in hunger.

This went on and on and on and on. For five months. I would not give up. The Canadian medication did increase my milk supply. Now instead of 1/8 an ounce a session, I wold get closer to a quarter. But Bubba was eating more and more. And I was still only filling a bottle a day. My anxiety was at a constant high. I still cried all of the time. And, in addition to all of that, I sweat profusely all the time…a side effect of the medication I presume.

My typical morning went something like this: wake up at the crack of dawn after being up every two hours to pump. (Hubs would feed the waking baby formula while I did so.) Attempt to feed. Fail. Feed a bottle. Pump. Explain to first child why I could not attend to his every need while I was pumping. Again. Store precious drops of milk. Clean entire pump system. Pack bottles of formula and water for going out. (Yes, we went out every day because the three year old with sensory issues would lose his mind in the house and that would be too ugly to take so we were off to a music class, the library, the playground, a playgroup, the fire station…you name it every single day.) Pack snacks. Pack diapers. Pull-ups. Wipes. Underwear. Toys. Coloring books. Crayons. Attempt to get the three year old changed and dressed. Often times he was overstimulated. Often times he had a dirty diaper. Often times he would opt to run and dance around the room with his poopy bum waving in my face as I tried to tackle and change him before the baby started to cry because it was time to attempt to feed, fail, and pump again.

And we would go out. And my peers would talk about breast feeding and how it was going as if it were no big deal. And as time marched on, it became clearer and clearer that that would never be my reality.

I couldn’t stop, though I knew it was over. Once I stopped that would be it. Quite probably forever. I would officially dry up. The hope would be gone. But my anxiety was so high that I was sent to be evaluated for an in-house postpartum depression facility at the hospital. (They didn’t admit me, but probably would had had I visited two weeks prior.) And I was sweating all of the time. And, honestly, I had more of a relationship with the mother fucking pump than with either of my children. And I HATED that thing.

On our first family excursion, Hubs, Rocketman, Bubba and I ventured off to an aquarium a state away. I researched ahead of time to confirm they had a place to nurse, er, pump. When the time came, we were escorted into an empty nurse’s office where I sat on one bed and pumped drops of milk out of my breasts while Hubs sat on the other bed and fed our baby. And I thought. How screwed up is this situation? All I want is to feed my baby. And this whole breast feeding thing is clearly not working out. But, I COULD be feeding my baby right now. Not tucked away in the nurses office with this hideous pump attached to my body, but perhaps on a bench next to some amazing exhibit that my boys could enjoy. Instead we are all cramped up in a nurse’s office/ storage room while Rocketman attempts to tool around the room in a forgotten wheelchair. And while I fail to bond with my new baby.

Deb called frequently to check up on me, always full of empathy and understanding. She had dedicated her career to helping woman nourish their babies in a beautiful way. She knew the research, the benefits of breast feeding versus formula. The long-term health advantages for both mother and child. And the last time she called she said to me, “When you first came to me, I asked you what you hoped to get out of our sessions together. You told me that you wanted to try everything there was to try to increase your production so that you could feed your baby. That if, in the end, you were unable to produce, you would know that you had tried it all. Well, you’ve tried it all. And have just kept going. I have been doing this for thirty years and I have never had a patient who has tried as hard as you without giving up. And I am so so sorry that this has not worked out for you. But I want you to know that, despite not being able to do what you have tried so hard to do, you are a wonderful mother to have worked this hard for the benefit of your child. And I have no doubt that he will continue to grow and thrive even without breast milk.”

And five months after Bubba protested leaving the warmth and comfort of my womb, I quit the meds, the fenugreek, the tea, the pump, the hours upon hours upon hours of my already full days spent researching and reading and wishing and let myself dry up.

And life got easier.

But now, even two years later, it still smarts. It smarts when I scroll through Facebook and see the articles linked to articles linked to research linked to comments about how breast is best and if you are too lazy or ignorant and chose to bottle feed your child, you deserve to be the mother of the sickly moron he most certainly will turn into. The moms who boast about going on two years of being able to nourish their precious child because of the choice and sacrifice they made for their child’s health. And the mom that throws that percentage out: 99.9 percent of women are able to breastfeed. Those that don’t didn’t try hard enough.

So maybe that’s me. That .1% that tried so hard that my entire family suffered for it, me that most. But, I don’t believe it. As I continue to scroll through comments, I often run into those from other women who apologetically offer that they tried, really they did! It was just not happening. They wanted it to, but it didn’t. They failed. They are so sorry. Because breast is best, we know. But it didn’t happen.

If breast feeding was easy for you, you rock. So glad. Congrats. If it was hard, and you tried all sorts of things and then it got easier, good for you! It was all worth it. But please, please, please. Understand that all is not so simple. There is no black and white. If someone is sitting at the mall bottle feeding their child formula, don’t snarl and assume they are lazy. That they didn’t try hard enough. That they were not educated. Everyone has their own story to tell and chances are, you don’t know it. So, like hippie Debra, the lactation consultant that showed me more understanding and empathy than anyone ever has, have some compassion.

I’m ok now. My boys are healthy. And smart. And life is so much easier. Really than it’s ever been since I had Rocketman. And, though it seems to not be in the cards, if by some miracle I had another child, I would face breastfeeding with the same amount of determination as I did with Bubba. But I wouldn’t let it consume me. I wouldn’t worry about other mothers’ judgements of me. I wouldn’t let it get in the way of my time spent with my children. Because, of the many things I have learned on this short journey, for me this much is true: Quality outweighs quantity. And I don’t mean the grade of the fluid that my child is ingesting. I mean that I may not get (or even want) to spend every waking moment of my life consumed with my children. But the moments that I do spend are precious and should be seized and appreciated. And if that means cuddling up in a rocker with a bottle of Enfamil and singing lullabies to my infant because my breasts are barren, so be it. My boys do not have a doubt in their minds that I love them with all I have to give. And that I will do whatever it takes to give them the best of myself so that they can be the best that they can be.

Besides, I was born in 1977 and bottle fed with pride. And I think I may have turned out pretty ok.

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