Within the first hour of my first son’s birth, he latched on to my breast…
The first few days and weeks after my daughter’s birth are a blur. But I do remember exactly where I was standing in my bedroom when I finally reached out to a lactation consultant about the feeding issues we were having. I really wanted to breastfeed my daughter, and it wasn’t the “natural,” “magical,” “meant to be” experience I’d been sold before she was born.
After the consultant explained the pumping schedule she recommended (every two hours around the clock for several weeks), I expressed concern about my own well-being. She said bluntly, “It’s not about you anymore.”
I knew in my bones she wasn’t right, but accepted it was what I was supposed to do. I was a new mom struggling to breastfeed, sleep deprived, and now felt like a failure as a mother for bringing up my own state of mind and well being.
I had no idea how to advocate for myself or if I even should.
I continued to try to nurse my daughter, pump every two hours, and supplement with formula. The triple feed. It was relentless and consuming. I still remember the heartbreak I felt when I handed my daughter over after nursing so I could go pump when all I wanted was to let her fall asleep on my chest and smell the top of her newborn head. Ugh. That smell is intoxicating.
A few weeks later, I had a tearful conversation with my husband about why I had to stop. I felt defeated, and like a failure to myself, my daughter, and my husband. I was making it about me and the lactation consultant had made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t about me anymore. I felt selfish. As if this reflected how much I love my daughter and my value as a mother.
The truth was, all along, I felt apprehensive about being able to nurse. Because when I was 24, I had a breast reduction. My breasts had been a physical and emotional challenge for me since my early teens, so I decided to take my happiness into my own hands after a friend had a successful experience with the procedure.
It’s a serious surgery with significant recovery time. I have visible scars as a result. I didn’t make the decision lightly and I have never once regretted it. After the surgery was the first time I felt at home in my body. My physical and emotional well being had suffered for so long. It felt liberating to feel at peace with myself.
And as a result of this surgery, I knew there was a chance I would have some issues exclusively breastfeeding. I was able to nurse my daughter a little and we supplemented with formula from day one, when a nurse came in and warned me that if we didn’t do that they would have to catheterize her to make sure she wasn’t dehydrating. This was my first experience feeling the weight of my mom guilt and how I made a choice for myself that would now negatively impact my child.
Giving birth, learning how to best feed your baby, not sleeping, recovering, it’s all overwhelming. And what I will never forget is that no doctor or nurse came to speak to me or ask me about my experience because “it wasn’t about me anymore.”
No one considered the effects of all of this on me. My physical, emotional, or mental state. Which ALL have an impact on lactation! And while this was upsetting, infuriating, and disappointing, this also taught me to advocate for myself and my child. I demanded to speak with a doctor about my options.
Choosing to exclusively formula feed my daughter felt so complicated at the time and now seems achingly simple.
When I got pregnant with my son several years later, I did a little more research about breastfeeding after a breast reduction. I wanted to try breastfeeding again, but I now knew my worth as a mother didn’t depend on it. I learned that for some women who had breast reductions, with each subsequent child they were able to have more success with nursing. Women’s bodies are amazing.
I had a much easier delivery with my son and he was able to latch right away. Sometime shortly after his birth, a breast pump was wheeled into my room. I politely but firmly told them no thank you and to please remove it. After the torment of my previous experience I wanted nothing to do with a breast pump ever again.
I nursed my son exclusively for two months, and it felt wonderful but also somehow not like the most defining aspect of my relationship with my newborn. The first few weeks we relaxed, recovered, nursed, and took naps. I was, and still am, grateful I had this experience with him.
At his two month checkup, our pediatrician told me that although he was healthy and gaining weight, he wasn’t completely where they thought he would be so if I wanted to supplement with formula that would be fine. I felt immediate relief. Because although being able to nurse him was a gift, and “what I’d wanted,” it was also exhausting.
Coincidentally, right around this time I was sent a breast pump from my insurance company. I thought, well, maybe I could pump milk before fully weaning to send to daycare with him. While my brain was fine with the idea, my body had a different plan. I stopped producing completely.
I spoke to a different lactation consultant (obviously) who gently told me my body wasn’t a machine and it was understandable that my body was responding differently to the pump than to my son. She said that given my previous experience, it made complete sense. I know I shouldn’t have needed a stranger to tell me this, but I did and it made a world of difference.
Years later, I’m still angry and I tend to cry when I share this story. I had an added obstacle with my breast reduction, but my experience isn’t all that unique. The pressure to breastfeed at the expense of everything else is universal. And it needs to stop. We need to ask about and support the human being who just gave birth and how this affects them. Wholly. Fully.
Despite my struggles, I know that I was always the mother my kids needed, and I can’t tell a bit of difference in my kids (now 3 and 6) between the one I nursed and the one I couldn’t.