Sometimes it takes falling apart to finally see what you’ve been missing.
I’ve always considered myself to be firmly in the “fed is best” category. In my mind, I didn’t understand how anyone could judge another mother for how she would choose to feed her baby.
Especially considering that in many cases, the “choice” was a non-choice, such as for moms who simply didn’t produce enough milk, or had an illness that prevented nursing, or a life with circumstances that didn’t allow them or make it easy to breastfeed.
The point is, I always thought it was a little silly that any woman would ever feel bad for not breastfeeding, whether that was their own feelings of “failure” because they felt like they had to nurse, or because someone else judged them for it. It’s your baby, you get to decide, right? I thought I was so enlightened with my attitude towards feeding choices.
But here’s the truth: I had no idea what I was talking about.
I thought that way as a woman who had breastfed all four of my children successfully. And as I would find out, it’s easy to say those types of things when you’ve never actually experienced what it’s like to not be able to breastfeed.
I went into my fifth pregnancy fully intending on breastfeeding, but I told myself that if it didn’t work out, it would be no big deal. Due to some past issues I had with milk duct damage and repeated bouts of mastitis, I knew that I might have some difficulty breastfeeding this time around. Knowing this, I prepared myself for the possibility of formula and felt just fine with it.
And then I gave birth to a premature baby.
Suddenly, just like that, my entire outlook changed. Overnight, I was facing the fact that my baby was in the hospital and I was not. That complete strangers were caring for her. And that she would be fed another mother’s milk through her feeding tube if I didn’t provide my own breast milk for her.
I was hearing, over and over again, that breast milk was “liquid gold” and that I needed to pump every 2 hours for at least 15 minutes to ensure I would have enough milk for her during her NICU stay.
Not only was my breast milk considered “actual medicine,” as the nurse practitioner described, but the faster my daughter got the hang of nursing on the breast, the faster we could leave the hospital. And there was nothing I wanted more than for her to get better and for us to go home as a family.
Unfortunately, she just couldn’t nurse. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she likely was just not able to nurse developmentally yet. So I sat crying behind our privacy screen outside of her isolette, willing her to latch so they wouldn’t tube feed her again, and I felt completely and utterly hopeless.
When she wouldn’t nurse, I felt like the only thing I could do was at least provide her my own breast milk, so I pumped. And pumped and pumped and pumped. I pumped so much that I filled up the hospital’s fridge and the back-up fridge and then the freezer and the nurses started exchanging glances when I brought more in.
And as the days went on and my baby still couldn’t nurse, I came to believe that providing her that breast milk was the only thing I could do that would actually help her.
Breast milk, in my mind, became my connection to her.
Once we came home from the hospital with our daughter on a bottle, I continued to try to breastfeed her. But I also had to continue to pump and bottle feed her to ensure she would gain the weight she needed. Every feeding was an exhausting process of putting her to the breast, then pumping, then bottle feeding — from start to finish, it took about an hour, and then before I knew it, it was time to start all over again.
I cried and prayed and begged her to breastfeed, but time and time again, she just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do it. As I struggled through round after round of mastitis from not emptying my breasts completely and oversupply from pumping, my husband tried to talk me into switching to formula. It was the feeling that overcame me that finally opened to my eyes to how difficult it can be to fail at nursing.
Because that’s exactly what it felt like: complete and total failure.
I felt like a failure as a mom at what “should” be easy. A failure to my daughter, who needed to nurse even more than a “normal” baby. A failure to manage even the most basic biological function to keep my baby alive.
I felt like switching to formula would be like giving up on her, and I just couldn’t handle feeling like that. I realized, for the first time, what all of the moms who had talked about how hard it was to not be able to breastfeed had felt like. It might sound crazy, but to me, it almost felt like a death of sorts — and I had to mourn the loss of the kind of mom I thought I would be.
The strange thing about the pressure to breastfeed is that the pressure doesn’t necessarily have to come from any outside force. No one was telling me I had to breastfeed. No one was shaking their head at my pitiful attempts to nurse my baby, berating me to do better. No one was shooting disgusted looks my way at the bottle my baby was happily drinking from.
In fact, it was the exact opposite for me. My husband, my family members, even complete strangers on the internet were telling me that there was no shame in formula feeding and that if I needed to do it to ensure that both my baby and I were healthy, then that’s all that mattered.
But it was like I couldn’t bring myself to believe any of them. For some reason I really can’t explain, I was heaping all of this enormous pressure, guilt, shame, and judgment entirely on myself.
Because the truth is, I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted to give that gift to my baby. I wanted to provide her with that liquid gold that everyone praises. I wanted to have those serene moments in the rocking chair — a connection between just me and her while the rest of the world spun on.
I wanted to breastfeed my baby at what I can only describe as a primal level — and when I couldn’t, it felt like every cell in my body fought against it. In a way, I feel grateful for having had the experience of being “on the other side” of not being able to breastfeed, because it has opened my eyes.
So to all of the moms I dismissed before, let me just say: I get it now. It is hard. But we are not failures — we are fighters, and ultimately, we are fighting for what is best for our babies.
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of 5. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her here.