Like most women pregnant with their first baby, I had a lot of ideas about the kind of mom that I would be. I would read to my child everyday from an extensive collection of baby books, there would be no television for the first two years of life, only organic baby food for my healthy child’s plate and, most importantly, I would breastfeed exclusively until my baby’s first birthday. Powdered chemicals would never touch my baby’s lips.
Over and over again I had read that “breast is best” and I was sold. After reading articles, attending classes, and talking to breastfeeding moms, when I went into labor, I knew I was prepared. We walked confidently into the hospital, my arsenal of equipment in tow – Boppy, the best breast pump, beautifully printed nursing covers, breast pads and creams. I was ready to do this!
Despite my obsessive preparation, however, I was not ready for just how difficult breastfeeding would be. Moments after delivering my precious red-headed boy, I brought him to my breast for his first meal. The nurse helped guide the nipple into his tiny mouth, but he didn’t seem to get it. We tried for a bit before deciding to take a break, agreeing that I would try again later, after he had been cleaned up.
Unfortunately, “later” did not go any better. Gavin was sleepy, and would hardly wake up to eat. He would briefly latch on, suck once and, just as quickly, he pulled off. As the days in the hospital passed, he became increasingly turned off to breastfeeding, screaming hysterically every time I tried. Soon, I was crying as loudly as my son. Breastfeeding seemed impossible! Yet, everyone from the lactation consultant to my best friend assured me that once my milk came in, this terrible experience would turn into pure joy.
Except that never happened. I never got the “Dolly Parton” effect that so many nursing moms have. I began an exhausting experience of trying to get Gavin to nurse, finally getting him latched on, pumping after he was done to try and get my milk supply up, and then beginning the never-ending process all over again about forty-five minutes later.
Things came to a head when I took him to the pediatrician for his one-week checkup. He had not gained back his birth weight and the pediatrician was concerned. Although the lactation consultant helped Gavin to latch on, she insisted that we supplement him with formula through a dropper after breastfeeding sessions. Still, it seemed that no matter how long I let Gavin nurse, he was never satisfied. “Put him back on the breast,” I was told, and soon we were having marathon hour-long breastfeeding sessions. Again and again, I tried to feed him. I drank tons of water, made cups of milk-enhancing tea, supplemented his feedings, pumped and tried to sleep in the middle of it all. I felt like a complete failure.
This went on for six weeks. Breastfeeding completely consumed my days. I had developed a nasty yeast infection on my nipples from Gavin being latched on so often, I barely had time for anything else and I was starting to question whether I could really hack it as a mom. Gavin was still significantly underweight so, one day, I decided to pump before I fed him to see how much milk I was actually making. Each time, I barely produced an ounce or two. Why didn’t my body know how to make milk?!
It was my wonderful mother-in-law who finally stepped in. “Becky,” she said, “breastfeeding isn’t supposed to be THIS hard. You are driving yourself crazy and you can’t even enjoy your son. Breastfeeding is such a small piece of being a good mother. Maybe you need to let it go.”
Let it go? And admit to myself and everyone else that I was a total failure?! I continued to struggle on until Gavin’s next appointment when, once again, the doctor declared him to be underweight. That’s when the realization hit me, I was refusing to give up breastfeeding, not because it was best for Gavin, but because I was too embarrassed to say that I had failed. He was hungry and miserable all the time, I was constantly exhausted and cranky and it was all because of my own stubborn pride at refusing to admit there was a problem.
At that moment, I chose to let it go. No doubt there are some women who would have struggled on and many people who judge me for my decision. But the point is that it was my decision. I needed to stop breastfeeding because it was best for me and my baby.
I would love to tell you I did not feel shame when I pulled out the bottle and formula dispenser in public. The truth is I struggled with the decision for many months. Even now when I see a mother deftly slide her newborn under a nursing cover, helping her to latch on without so much as a pause in the conversation, I feel a wave of regret. Yet, I know that I gave my child what he most needed – a happy, calm, and loving mother. And that is what being a parent is really all about.