Last week, I thought I would be writing about the end of my breastfeeding journey with my daughter – and I was not OK. I am happy to say, things seem to have panned out in my favor, but it did not come without a very long moment (or weekend) of emotional weakness. And being on the other side of that, I realize how we, as mothers, can become so quickly and easily attached to those things that seem to define us. For some, it is the journey of pregnancy and/or birth. For some it may be a particular parenting philosophy, and for others it could convictions about screen time. Whatever it is, when we find that thing that makes us feel complete and “in control,” as we love and nurture and raise these sweet little humans who know nothing different, we become so easily taken captive by it, that the mere thought of changing course is enough to give a mama some fierce chills and night sweats. So, last week I learned that my thing is breastfeeding.
On some level, I already knew this, from the time I committed myself to breastfeed my son for one full year. In fact, during that year, I was so committed that I did everything in my power to never miss a feed or a pump – even if it meant waking up at 3am, even if it meant turning down party invites, even if it meant carefully crafting plans around his eating schedule. I trudged through teething, sleep teaching, illnesses, night weaning, working, and frequent concerns over my output and his intake. I was as much married to my pump as I was to my husband, and on too many occasions, our date nights ended oh-so-romantically with that awful machine plugging away. All this so that I would never risk missing a feed or threatening my supply. And when that year was up, I was as proud that I made it, as I was ready to bring our nursing chapter to an end. Of course, I loved nursing, and for me it was part of my rite of passage into motherhood… so with that chapter ending, I was hopeful that one day I would do it again.
When my daughter was born, I committed myself to another year-long breastfeeding relationship – but with one big caveat: I would not let this journey become stressful or overshadow any other obligations to myself, my husband, or my children. To my happy surprise, my daughter was a quick study, and we were off and running almost instantly. The second time around definitely came more naturally than the first, and I never once had any concerns about my supply or how much she was getting. In fact, I kept my “stresses” at bay by strictly following her lead and not pumping until just before I went back to work in order to build up my reserve. The sheer logistics of feeding an infant with a toddler around is hard enough, and I definitely didn’t need to add the pumping component just yet. But on the flip side, having two creates a need to divide your time between your babies, for their sake as much as for yours. Everyone told me before my daughter was born, “be sure to carve out special time for the older one.” Even my doctor suggested I leave my baby with a sitter while I take my son on special outings to maintain quality time together that’s “just us.” “So, she has a bottle of formula while you’re out – big deal!” I smiled and said “OK,” but deep down, I knew that arrangement wasn’t going to work for me. My son and I still had special time, but it was all carefully planned around the baby’s naps or between feedings because, well… I breastfeed. No discussion to be had.
I know my doctor’s advice was thoughtful – her casualness about the formula was perfectly valid, and I truly appreciated the attitude, as it supported the “fed is best” philosophy in a current climate that feels overwhelmingly against anything but breastmilk straight from the tap. And as much as I have my own struggles with crossing that line, I find it helpful and important to see mothers and women not be so affected by it. You see, from an objective perspective, I truly don’t care how anyone feeds their babies. From formula feeding at birth, to breastfeeding a 3 year old… what works for you, your family and your lifestyle is all that matters in this case, and there are so many variations in between. So, objectively speaking, I shouldn’t have any issues when it comes to feeding my baby any differently, as long as it still means she’ll still be well fed, happy and healthy. But as much as I can talk about baby formula with the same casualness as my doctor, when applying it to my own life, well… it gets complicated.
So after 8 solid months, my daughter started biting. And not just a little. Increased distractions, monthly supply drops, teething… bottom line, nursing her was becoming the most stressful. but like with anything in my motherhood journey, starting from each birth experience, I will always exhaust all possibilities and try to power through before I see nowhere to go other than different. So it took a number of bite-induced tears and curled toes before I finally decided I had to stop. I could no longer nurse on pins and needles, and I couldn’t let my son see me this way, nor did I have the “peace and quiet” nursing my daughter that I did when my son was at this stage. And even though it wasn’t entirely a lack of supply issue, it was a decision I felt I had to make while I had enough breastmilk stored to help the transition before I let it go completely. When I looked at it objectively (which, in my desire to feed my baby pain and stress free, was easy to do in that moment), this is what I saw: she is 8 months, she eats regular food, I will have more freedom in my dress and more freedom in my life, my son will have the opportunity to help feed his sister, (which could only help the constant struggle to cultivate gentle and loving sibling interactions), and, perhaps most importantly, my boobs (and my sanity) will thank me.
So that very afternoon I made a special trip to the store for a canister of formula. Step #1. And as I hid the can under my coat in embarrassment, I felt the shame and the guilt set deep into my heart. All of a sudden, making sure my baby was fed and I was sane was not a good enough option. All of a sudden, I felt inadequate, I felt sad, I felt lost, I felt like a betrayer of my own body and my own intention.
The can sat on my counter for a full day while I tried to work up the courage to open it. And I cried my eyes out the entire way.
The next afternoon, her first bottle of formula looked like this: hubby did it, as it physically hurt to think about doing it myself. He sat in the living room, baby in his arms, bottle in her mouth. She was happy as a clam, and didn’t even flinch, chugging the whole thing down in record time. I, meanwhile, sat on the sofa opposite them sobbing a puddle of horribly depressed tears. And my son (my poor son who had NEVER seen mama so sad) cradled himself in my arms, handing me his cup of milk to feed him like a baby. It was truly the sweetest and saddest sight you ever did see. But I was so deep in it, there was just no snapping out.
I knew in that moment that she would be fine – so I knew at that moment I could get over the hump because I had to. But I was still deeply and painfully sad: the tears flowed easily for the next few days, and I felt things I hadn’t felt since those days of postpartum rawness. It was as if a million unresolved issues and feelings came up and got out, leaving nothing in its wake. It hurt to feel like I was bringing an end to the one thing that ONLY I could do – and something I had been able to do well. Anyone can hold my babies, anyone can play with them, speak with them, look at them, hug them or kiss them. In their lives, they will have a million relationships with people other than me. But only I can feed them with the same body that made them. And the sudden loss of that triggered feelings I never expected. But once I was through the deepest part of the path, I came out on the other side and just kept trucking, because, as a mama, that’s what I’ve got to do.
Since that weekend, my daughter and I have gotten back on track with our nursing. She had only one bottle of formula since, but it is still in my cupboard just in case. What this experience gave me, however, was the peace of mind that in this way, I can have it all. I am quite fortunate to have a successful breastfeeding life – one that seems to be easy and relatively hiccup free. But I also know that if/when she (or I) need some extra assistance, we equally fortunate to have well balanced, well fortified and nutritious formulas to help out.
But I also know now, after talking about my experience, and hearing from other mamas, that I’m not alone in these feelings, wherever they come from. Irrational as they may be, they are just as real and valid as anything. Even though I know my baby is happy, healthy, and well fed all possible ways, as a mother I am allowed to mourn these hiccups in my expected journey. For every conviction and commitment I have as a mother, there will be countless moments for those things to be challenged, unhinged, or flipped completely upside down. Yet I know as I write this, I am actively working to convince myself that this is ok. Just because I may have conquered the breastfeeding challenge (and to be honest, the jury is still out on that), doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. I’m sure I have plenty of other things that I won’t even know about until life happens and plans change. But I guess that’s motherhood, and my story is still being written.