I cried when I opened the first can of Similac for our daughter. I think it was mostly the sleep deprivation and the tornado of postpartum hormones, but it was also heartache.
I had planned to nurse exclusively. Over the first few weeks it was decided that I had a low supply. We saw specialists, I took supplements, we improved my daughter’s latch. I was waking up to nurse (or pump) every hour. I drank a ton of water. I had to pee constantly. And I’ll spare you the details about my nipples, but let’s just say they’re still traumatized.
None of our efforts seemed to help. Not enough anyway. At the end of the day my daughter was still hungry. She wanted more and my body didn’t have anything left to give her. Reluctantly, I agreed to supplement with formula. Supplementing led to further supply issues, and we ended up switching her to formula exclusively at three months old.
With our second child I had renewed hope that I’d be able to nurse longer, but I was faced with the same supply issue. By then I also had a toddler who somehow needed my undivided attention every time I sat down to feed the baby. We ended up supplementing after just a few weeks, and our second baby was on formula exclusively after just two months.
I felt like I’d let myself and my children down. Not just once, but twice. I plagued myself with “If only…” scenarios that could’ve/would’ve/should’ve made it easier to nurse successfully. I felt weighed down by guilt.
The guilt of being unable to fill my most primal role as a mother: feeding my child.
The guilt of feeling liberated when I stopped nursing. I no longer had to live my life by the clock because my husband could feed the baby a bottle. I could finally drink a margarita without worrying. I had my body back and loved it, but I still felt guilty. As if my autonomy had only been earned at the expense of my children.
The guilt of knowing “Breast is Best.” I have read the countless studies on the benefits of breastfeeding. I know that it is supposed to make children grow up to be smarter, healthier, more successful, etc. (Side note: Are all these studies really necessary? Is there anyone out there arguing that breast isn’t best? I feel like we might be better off putting those resources toward curing cancer.)
All of these things make me sensitive about breastfeeding. I’m sure that the death glares I’ve received from other moms when pulling formula from the diaper bag are mostly in my mind. Just like the mom telling me about the newest breastmilk study isn’t purposefully implying that my poor formula-fed baby is going to grow up to live in a van parked on our front lawn.
But that’s how it feels sometimes. The insecurity I feel from having fought my own battles with breastfeeding is very real. I feel the constant need to defend the fact that my children are formula-fed.
My son’s pediatrician once mentioned in passing that our baby “didn’t have the benefit of the natural immunities in breastmilk,” and something deep inside of me wanted to scream back, “Not YOU too! I did EVERYTHING I could, OK?”
But the reminders that breastfeeding is most beneficial are inescapable. Support groups, PSAs, countless studies, an entire month dedicated to the cause. Those reminders are important, but to me they are constant reminders of the breastfeeding relationship I never got to have. That sacred bond I’d planned and hoped for, and grieved when it didn’t come to pass.
I would have loved to have discovered a support group for other formula feeding moms who were in the same position as I was. It would have been great to have our own league where we could ask things like:
“What is the trick for getting that last spoonful out of that godforsaken can?”
Or, “I know I’m supposed to throw it away after 60 minutes, but it’s been 70. How bad is that on a scale of one to you-could-potentially-poison-your-baby?”
Or, “Why is something my baby needs to survive so damn expensive?”
I’m not trying to take anything away from breastfeeding moms. I’m really not. I know first hand that it’s tremendously hard work. I applaud you and support your ability to breastfeed wherever you want, whenever you want, for as long as you want. I’m just saying is that people choose not to breastfeed for a multitude of reasons. And of all the moms I know, not a single one of them stopped nursing out of convenience or vanity.
I’m just now starting to appreciate the merits of my own journey. I’m proud of my body for bringing two beautiful children into this world and doing all it could to nurse them for as long as I did. I am proud that I was able to feed my children and keep them healthy and strong, even if it’s not the way I’d planned.
I’ve learned that life is too short and too precious to feel guilty about things we cannot change. All we can do is keep trying, keep learning, and give ourselves credit for all the things we get right along the way.
Related post: To The Mom Who Didn’t Breastfeed