Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When Breastfeeding isn't Best Feeding

I want to start this post by saying that although this is something I have been open about, I'm not sure I've ever been this open about it and it is something that was excruciatingly, stomach turningly hard for me at the time. There's nothing to agree or disagree with but please don't take any kind of defense in what I write. I write this for the mothers that were in my shoes and the mothers that will inevitably be in my shoes and were sad, mad, embarrassed, hurt, unsure, upset, pissed off (list of emotion continues......) about being in those shoes and didn't know how to take off those shoes. This is to help someone feel a little better about their shoes.

"Don't worry. It will come naturally. You'll see."
"It bonds you to your baby."
"You will never give your baby anything better."
"It's the most natural thing there is."
"It is the most a important thing a mother could do for her baby."
"It will give your baby the best possible start."

I heard all of these things from well intending people when I was pregnant with my daughter. And in truth, I wasn't worried. I did think it would happen naturally. I knew I was going to breastfeed and that was all I knew. Even when the pediatrician told me that first night that I had an "inverted nipple" (who knew that was a real thing?) I wasn't worried. He told me a few tricks I could try and that buying a nipple shield would help to breastfeed and I was solid. Good to go.

I had done some light reading about all things baby, delivering baby, breastfeeding baby, but wasn't over the top about it. Husband read more than I did and relayed the messages.
Me: Husband. I have a burning feeling in my chest.
Husband: Oh that's probably just heartburn. They say that could start happening around this month.
Me: I wonder how big she is right now.
Husband: At this many weeks, she's the size of my hand from head to rump (I want to add that "rump" is the word they used in the book, not his own vocabulary. I always thought this was an interesting choice of wordage.) And it also says that she's about the size of a mango (I also found it interesting that all of the comparisons to the baby's size are foodtual.)
The point is, I wasn't stressed or concerned with having a baby or any of the things that came with it, so I wasn't stressed about breastfeeding. It was what Husband and I had decided we were going to do, so it would be fine. After all, "it is the most natural thing a woman could do," right?

When breastfeeding began, I imagine I had the same thoughts that all women had:

Is she getting enough?
Am I doing this right?
Is she still hungry?
Will I know if she's still hungry?

I wasn't thinking these thoughts maniacally. They were normal thoughts.  Like all new things, you wonder how you are doing at it.

After the first week, we took our daughter to her first doctor's appointment. As is normal, he said she would lose a little bit of weight the first week and then start to gain it back. I still wasn't sure that she was getting enough but when we went back the second week, she had gained back a half ounce so we figured we were on our way. I was hopeful.

The next few weeks would prove otherwise.

She seemed to always be hungry. I would feed her for no less than an hour, sometimes an hour and a half. And since she had to eat every two hours starting from the time you had last started, I would get a half hour break before she was hungry again. Thank GOD we bought a comfortable chair that I could fall asleep in because I spent more than half my day - literally - in that chair. But people said this was ok and that that was normal in some cases. Husband would bring her to me after I had enough time to shower and comb my hair and say, "Hey babe. I think she's hungry again." At which time I would rip his head off and try to swallow him whole since I hadn't had enough time to shower and eat.

We talked to friends who were sympathetic and agreed that breastfeeding wasn't that easy. We reached out to women from La Leche League who made house visits and supportive phone calls and who told us that "the most important thing is to keep going. Don't doubt it is working." I was encouraged that I was doing fine, that all women get nervous and think that their baby isn't eating enough but to rest assured, "All is well. Keep going."

I remember taking a nap and for the first time in almost three months that we had been on this undeniably hot island, I covered myself with our down comforter. I thought at that moment, there has to be something wrong. I'm freezing! Sure enough, there was something wrong. I had a fever and had developed my first case of mastitis. I say first, because I would develop mastitis again, a second time, all within the first month of breastfeeding.

To be honest, I was with fever and not feeling at all well, but slightly happy because I thought maybe now, someone will see that breastfeeding is not working for us and tell me to stop but even through my month of mastitis and taking antibiotics and drinking Fenugreek, a natural vitamin to help produce more milk - if that was even the problem - and feeding this poor baby every minute of the day, people kept smiling and hoping and encouraging that this was just a rough patch. Breastfeeding will get easier, you'll see, and you'll be happy you stuck with it. There's no more important thing a mother could do for her baby.

Well, jeez... how do I argue with that? What kind of mother would I be if I gave up and wasn't doing this most important thing for my baby?

My mother, having stayed with us for the first 3 weeks after our daughter's birth, was there through most of it and being the amazing mother that she is was the most helpful shoulder to lean on. She didn't want to be too pushy at that time because she knew the conflict, the war, that I was already having with myself so she would remind me that she didn't breastfeed my sister and I because - at the time - formula was the new rage. She would quietly and only once tell me that breastfeeding or not breastfeeding didn't make you a good or bad mother. She would point out that breastfeeding wasn't easy when I needed her to support our decision to breastfeed and argue that those women from La Leche League are fanatics when I needed an ally against breastfeeding.

The problem through this, as I see it now, was that Husband and I never had a backup plan. Since breastfeeding came so naturally, was what bonded you to your baby, gave your baby the best start, how could we decide anything else? What kind of mother would I be if I already gave up?

Well, I'll tell you that the kind of mother it made me to not give up was an unhappy one. I was tired. I was sick. I was emotional. I was resentful. I was questioning why I ever thought I'd be good at this. I remember hearing her cry and wanting so badly to help but feeling like I couldn't do anything. What good was I? So Husband would take her from me and leave the room with her and then I'd cry into my pillow because I was the worst mother in the world.

I was my own worst bully, kicking my own ass all the time.

Not to mention, the "bonding." I was so confused, so deflated, so utterly over breastfeeding that there was no such bonding because when I was sitting in my comfortable chair for the 19th hour that day, I was mad I was there AGAIN, and when I wasn't in the chair I was sad that I sucked at breastfeeding.

I don't know at what point I knew for sure it wasn't working but I remember feeling it and knowing it in my gut. But as I mentioned, Husband and I never thought we'd do anything else so I wasn't sure what to propose we do. And Husband, bless his optimistic and Go-Team-Go kind of enthusiasm just wanted to be positive. So positive that most of the time I wanted to kill him or not look at him or bite his head off because you haven't been sitting in this chair all day. I didn't have the heart or courage to tell him that I didn't want to do this anymore. So I waited because what I wanted was for him to tell me that I didn't have to do this anymore. But he didn't. And he wouldn't. And I knew that. But I kept waiting...

My mom had recently left back to the states and after talking to my sister's mother-in-law - an experienced nurse - my mother called me. She must have heard the desperation in my voice and finally decided that the time for supportive words and friendly reminders was over.

She said, "You know, you don't have to do this."
"Do what?" I asked, pretending not know what she meant because I needed so badly to actually hear the words.
"Breastfeed. You don't have to do this to yourself. You have to do what's right for that baby and you. And if you don't think that this is working, well then let it go. It's not the end of the world. I didn't breastfeed you or your sister and that didn't make me any less of a mother."

I knew she was right. Because no one could be more mother than my mother.

When Husband got home, I talked to him about my conversation with my mother. He agreed that what was best for me was best for all but still wanted to see if there were "more avenues we could try." I nodded but knew that my days with breastfeeding were at its end.

We went back to our pediatrician for her month appointment. The nurse measured her and weighed her and noted down the information in her little card and then the doctor came in. He's the kind of pediatrician that makes you wish you were a sick kid. I trust him. So when he came in and said, "We've been killing her" I knew it was bad.

She hadn't even gained back her original birth weight. Thank GOD, I thought. Not that we'd been killing her, of course, but that I'd been right. For a month, I had been doubting what I knew to be true, what I knew as a mother. And these words gave me the confidence that I needed to know. It was painful and heartbreaking and the hardest month of my life but I had learned the most basic and simple truth of being a mother - that no one knows better than me what is best for my kid. Opinions and well intentions are great, but my instincts, my gut feeling has to be the last word. PERIOD.

We decided after that visit, with the doctor's advice, that we would continue to try and breastfeed while also pumping and then supplementing with formula wherever we needed. Even still, even after the "we were killing her" words came out of a professional's mouth, we still got well intended advice from people to "stick with it" and that "pumping is never as good for milk production as breastfeeding and once you start pumping..." blah blah blah. I had heard enough. Mute.

Our daughter quickly grew into the eater she is now and starting scarfing down everything we gave her. She was drinking more and more milk and my body was soon only producing a certain amount. It wasn't enough to keep up with her ever growing appetite and it wasn't long before we were supplementing more formula and less boob.

One afternoon, a month later, after pumping in front of the television for 15-20 minutes, I looked down, and there was nothing in the bottle. Not one drop. Where as most women will tell you that weening off of breastfeeding is hard, my body found nothing hard about it. It was the most natural thing there was.

Months later,  a few friends would email me or tell me that they were pregnant and asked me what they could expect. I would give them this advice:

  1. Have a backup plan. Even if you know you want to use disposable diapers, or make your own food, or breastfeed, have a Plan B just in case. Holding yourself down to one decision and one decision only makes it incredibly hard to change your mind later.
  2. Don't feel that you are not "mother enough" because you can't do something or don't want to do something the way another mother does.
  3. Don't get hung up on words. Know that "natural" means many different things. A mother making sure they are doing whatever it takes to feed their child, no matter how they're fed, is just as natural as breastfeeding.