Like most women, I spent lots and lots of time getting ready for the arrival of our baby- birth class, decorating the nursery, showers to collect all of the items needed. One thing I didn’t spend much time on was preparation for breast feeding. Sure, I purchased nursing bras, read a fantastic book that a friend sent me on the subject, made sure I had a good pump through insurance however I didn’t think much about what breastfeeding would mean. I expected it to be a completely natural part of this whole experience and that it would be easy- that my boobs would be there to use when needed, like a gas pump. I was committed to exclusively breastfeeding for at least the first six months of the baby’s life.
Samuel was born and within twenty minutes of returning to our room from the operating room I asked that we start working on getting him latched. There are great immediate postpartum benefits to quickly latching your little one and I wanted to get him going. The nurse helped get me set up and, due to all of the drugs used during my c-section, my nipples stayed flat despite any and all stimulation. The nurse left the room and came back with a nipple shield (which I had never heard of) and showed me how to use it. With the shield, Sam had some extra help and he latched like a pro.
Now Samuel’s weight dropped more than is expected after delivery (the doctor guessed it was because a large part of his birth weight was from amniotic fluid that had saturated his body due to being in labor so long but there is no way to know for sure). About 20 hours after Samuel was born he had dropped nearly a pound. It was at Samuel’s middle of the night vitals check, at around three in the morning, that the weight loss was discovered. Into our room marched two more nurses with a hospital grade breast pump. In order to get his weight up, we were put on a grueling regiment- nurse Sam for 15 minutes, pump for 15 minutes and give him anything that was pumped, and then 1-2 ounces of high calorie formula and we had to do this every three hours (so eight times a day). It was exhausting. My milk hadn’t come in yet so we were just getting very small amounts of colostrum, the substance a woman’s body produces prior to real breast milk, that is so good for a newborn. During these pumping sessions in the first 24 hours I would watch as tiny beads of liquid collected inside the pump tubes and then we would use a small syringe to put the 1-2 ml of liquid into Samuel’s mouth. Within 36 hours of starting this process (we were still in the hospital- see the blog post about our birth story to understand why) I woke up in the middle of the night pretty uncomfortable. I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror to see a bosom I barely recognized- my milk had come in and lordy, my chest was heavy. It was the weekend so the lactation consultant we spoke to on Friday wasn’t working to tell us to change anything. Even though my milk came in we kept up with the every-three-hour nurse-pump-formula schedule sending my milk supply into overdrive. I was still using the nipple shield, not confident I could get Samuel to latch without it.
Then we went home. Outside the bubble and the support of the hospital the three hour schedule felt unbearable. It was one thing to have to wake up every three hours to feed my baby; it was an entirely different ordeal to start a 45 minute process that included washing pump parts, measuring formula, and scavenging in the dark with my hands when the pesky and totally see-through nipple shield was whacked away but a hungry newborn. I also HATED my pump. Hated in a way I had never hated anything. It felt like prison to me. It had a battery option so I wasn’t even tethered to the wall but, in those first few weeks when Avery went back to work and it was just Samuel and I, trying to figure out how to pump eight times a day and care for Samuel was overwhelming. Samuel never wanted to be put down but I also couldn’t hold him while I pumped. Because I was still pumping so much my body thought I was feeding multiple babies and my milk supply was INSANE.
Now, for folks who have not breastfed before let me just say this; my gas-pump mentality of how I thought breastfeeding would work could not have been more wrong. It is less like a gas pump and much more like adding a bodily function, like going pee. If I didn’t express milk every three to four hours my chest became so engorged I couldn’t even touch the skin without wincing. In the middle of the night I would wake up having soaked through my breast pads, bra (that I HAD to wear 24/7), and my pjs.
As time went on, I still could not get Samuel off of the nipple shield which took away the entire no-supplies-needed benefit of breastfeeding. I went to a Breastfeeding Support Group (a WONDERFUL resource) every Monday at the hospital and honestly, the existence of that group is probably the only reason I was able to continue as long as I did. Once Samuel was back up to birth weight I cut back on pumping a little, to 4-6 times a day, cutting out the middle of the night pumping sessions. My milk supply decreased a bit. Another issue arose- I also was not comfortable breastfeeding in public. This irritated me because I am a big proponent of women being able to breastfeed anywhere in whatever condition they want or need. Even with that belief though, I just couldn’t do it. I am an incredibly modest (and slightly prudish) person and even the idea of breastfeeding in public made me so anxious my milk wouldn’t let down.
I still despised my pump on a psychological level I didn’t know was possible; it made me feel like a dairy cow, not a person. Also, more on this in a later post, I was starting a brand new job in a new county once I completed maternity leave and I didn’t know what my office set up, schedule, anything, was going to be like. Trying to transition to a brand new job and juggling pumping in the new setting was overwhelming. It was my husband who finally said one day, when I was agonizing over having to pump and how I was going to do it all when I went back to work, who said, “Sweetie, if it is making you this miserable, why don’t you just stop?” My reaction first was shock. Could I? Could I just stop? I had read so many articles (not all great sources) on the benefits of breastfeeding and posts on internet chat rooms that rated formula only one step above rat poison. While I didn’t agree with many of the things I read I would be lying if I said they hadn’t started to invade my psyche and the “mom guilt” was so, so real. But he was right. I wasn’t enjoying any of this. Now nine weeks postpartum, I felt like I couldn’t leave the house because of the crazy pumping schedule. I couldn’t get Samuel off of the nipple shield despite all of my and the lactation consultant’s best efforts. In the middle of the night when I was pumping I had thoughts creep in, jealous of friends I knew whose milk hadn’t come in or whose kiddo had a milk allergy because I felt like I needed a reason beyond just “this is making me miserable” to stop (which I know is ridiculous, and seems preposterous to all of you who wanted to breast feed but couldn’t for some reason). I had gotten comfortable (and was even enjoying) nursing at home but I still could not get myself to nurse in public which was incredibly limiting. Was it ok to stop breastfeeding just because I would be happier by stopping? Was it selfish to say “I will enjoy motherhood more without this?”
After some consulting and some conversations with other moms- breast feeding, formula feeding, and mixed- I decided to stop. My last week of maternity leave I weaned myself off of the pump and then weaned Sam off of the breast. He was already good at taking a bottle and, with the assistance of the most hated breast pump of all time, I had stored up nearly a month’s supply of milk in our freezer. We actually had to buy a chest freezer for our basement halfway through maternity leave because we ran out of space for all of the frozen milk. Samuel was able to continue almost exclusively on breast milk until he turned four months old, two months shy of my original goal. We found a formula that he loves and does great on.
Upon reflection, there are things I will do differently with the next baby. Now that I know that I am not a person who struggles with supply, I probably won’t introduce pumping nearly as early. I think as my “splurge item” I will likely invest in one of the cordless/tubeless pumping systems that will alleviate a lot of what I hated about pumping. I will try to get out more and not live and die so much by the feed schedule. But I will also try, try very hard, to allow myself the mental space to know when I am done without all of the guilt. I struggled for probably a month and a half after I stopped breastfeeding with some crazy off-the-wall mom guilt. But you know what? I also enjoyed motherhood more (as controversial as that is to say). I know lots of women who love breastfeeding, who have no trepidation about breast feeding in public, who aren’t worried about a schedule and stick to on-demand feeding and to that I say, Get it Sister! The guilt and shaming associated with this topic are ridiculous. All parents are out there just trying the best they can. Using formula is not lazy or selfish- it is wonder of modern science that a product exists that helps parents keep babies happy and fed in such a safe and satisfying way. And breastfeeding isn’t weird or hippie-dippy- it’s natural and an incredible exhibition of what the female body can do.
I am ok with admitting that, at least with this baby, this is what I needed to do. I am proud that I fed Sam with my body for as long as I did. I am proud that I stored up so much milk. But I am proudest that I knew Samuel having a happy mama would give more to him than any form of food because, really, at the end of the day, that is what we are talking about- feeding our babies and being the best mamas we can to them. And there is more than one right way to do that.