As I lay on the hard exam table, with my shirt on the chair behind me and a needle in my breast, I couldn’t help but wonder where the heck I had gone wrong. Here I was, at a surgeon’s office, being treated for a horrific case of mastitis gone wrong. It was painful, cold, and upsetting…and that was just the first visit. Over the course of about a month, I had to submit to that needle at least three more times, and I was on antibiotics for what seemed like forever.
Breastfeeding wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be beautiful! I was supposed to be bonding with my baby! It felt to me as if every mom I knew was a breastfeeding rock star. They could feed their babies while shopping at Target, and then go home and pump a gallon of milk so that they could build a “freezer stash” for when they had to go back to work. These amazing women actually mourned in advance the day they’d last nurse their babies.
Meanwhile, I had a “lazy eater” who took 30 minutes or more to nurse, which we repeated every 2 hours. I felt uncomfortable nursing in public. No matter how much advice our lactation consultant gave me, it seemed like my son could never get a proper latch. It took me days to pump enough milk to make one bottle, and the pump made me feel like a defective dairy cow. But everything I read, everyone I knew, told me that I just needed to try harder.
So I tried. I tried through long nights with very little sleep and a baby who wasn’t gaining weight fast enough. I tried, despite clogged ducts, several bouts of mastitis, and finally a cyst the size of a plum, which landed me in the care of the breast surgeon I mentioned above. And even then, I continued, because that’s what I was supposed to do – it had been drilled into my head since the moment I found out I was pregnant. I was upset, anxious, and fixated on why I couldn’t “fix” my “problem.” But no matter what or how hard I tried…breastfeeding just sucked.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all bad. There were some brief shining moments when I was alone with my child and everything seemed to *finally* be going right. But those moments were few and far between, more often replaced by moments in which one or both of us were crying. I eventually got to the point where I was sad and angry most of the time, because I felt like I just “didn’t work” how I was supposed to.
Eventually, the cyst put me out of commission. I was so afraid that it would happen again that I made the decision to switch to formula feeding, largely for my own mental health. I couldn’t continue the way things were going. And you know what? We survived. My son thrived! I was able to leave the house for more than 20 minutes at a time, and I no longer had to worry about further complications. It was as if a great weight had been lifted off my chest (ha ha), and I could finally breathe easy, knowing that my child was well-fed and I was healthy. But I was also hurt. If we had another child, I didn’t know if I could ever try to breastfeed again. In all the research and reading I’d done before giving birth, no one ever told me that breastfeeding could be quite so…traumatic.
Flash forward two years later, to when I was pregnant with my daughters. My entire pregnancy, I was so focused on the health of my babies, that I barely thought about how I would feed them once they got here. But I swore that I wouldn’t go down that path of anxiety and self-judgment again. This time, I vowed to be more forgiving, kind, and caring toward myself, as well as my precious babes. With the pressure off, things got off to a much better start. When I needed help, I asked. And when I couldn’t keep up with supply and demand, I had no qualms about using formula to supplement my babies’ diet. I switched them completely to formula a lot earlier than I did with my son, and I didn’t for one second doubt my choice.
Before I became a mother, the only things I knew about breastfeeding came from commercials. As is often the case, real life was much messier and a lot more painful. Breastfeeding is hard work, and the pressure we place on ourselves can make things even more difficult. Sometimes the best way we can take care of everyone is to go easy on ourselves.