What a horrible mom.
Or some variation on that theme.
I’m sure that’s what you’re thinking.
But hear me out. Hear me out from the place of a mother who adores her offspring unconditionally. Hear me out from a place of someone who has been on a journey, and learned something, and is using that knowledge to progress. To move forward. To improve things. To be a better mom.
I couldn’t breastfeed my child.
I know, weird segue, right? Just bear with me, I swear this will all culminate in something that makes sense.
I did everything I was supposed to. I pumped. Endlessly. I ate oats, and drank the milk tea, and took fenugreek, smelling vaguely of maple syrup for about two weeks. I stressed, and I agonized, because I know breast is best, I knew it then, and I wanted so badly to feed my son from my body. But my milk never came in, and he became an exclusive formula baby essentially from Day One.
I mourned breastfeeding. I grieved it, literally went through the stages of bereavement. I would see the nursing shirts I’d purchased while still pregnant, and find myself irrationally angry. I saw the parts of the beast pump, still in the drying rack for lack of anywhere else for them to go, and sobbed. I would stare at my sleeping baby, tears coursing down my face, convinced that since I had failed this first — but very important — test, I was doomed to be an inferior mother. That I couldn’t do this. That I was a failure.
I’m also bipolar.
Wow, again with the weird segue, right? Just hang in, we’re getting there.
Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness. It is something that has to be managed. I take medicine daily to regulate the chemicals in my brain, because my brain is like a diabetic pancreas that can’t produce insulin. I practice mindfulness, I go to therapy, and I do my best to function in the day to day like anyone else with any other chronic illness. It’s just that mine is invisible.
One thing that is surprisingly important, and has a disproportionately serious effect despite how innocuous it sounds, is regular sleep. Now, for someone with insomnia and a penchant for intrusive thoughts, that is no simple feat, so I’ve spent years trying to adopt a healthy sleep schedule through meditation, repetition, environment, and discipline. (It’s saying no to that afternoon latte because you know you can’t handle caffeine after a certain time; it’s going to sleep when you really want to watch the end of Super Bowl 52 because your team is playing. Hashtag fly eagles fly.) I have seen my depression worsen, my anxiety skyrocket, my self-destructive habits increase, all because I have gone to bed late one too many nights in a row. It’s just not worth it. So I sleep.
I knew going into motherhood that I wouldn’t be sleeping. I mean, I knew it as much as anyone who has never had a baby could know it. I understood in theory, and worried the effect it would have on my mental health. But there he was, and there was no turning back, so we forged ahead into parenting and midnight feedings and early mornings. And you know what?
I was absolutely fine.
And you know why?
Because I couldn’t breastfeed.
See how it’s coming around now?
I couldn’t breastfeed so my son ate from a bottle, and my partner could help. I wasn’t solely responsible for nourishing our baby; he could help, too. And he did. Early on, we adopted a 50/50 policy, taking turns, getting up in shifts, sharing the load. It enabled us both to get some sleep, and me to get twice as much as I would have if I was breastfeeding every two hours. And I believe that, more than anything else, is what led to my successful postpartum recovery, to my son successfully gaining weight, to me successfully maintaining my mental health in the face of the sleeplessness which could have derailed it.
I was a prime candidate for postpartum depression or psychosis; but I had no issues. My mood remained steady. My anxiety stayed in the background, save for that one night in the beginning when he cried for a solid three hours and we were convinced he was bleeding internally or something.
What’s more, I could enjoy what was happening. I could enjoy caring for my son. I could enjoy the moments with my family. I could enjoy being a mom. I am not exaggerating, as someone who has been suicidal in the distant past, to say bottle-feeding my son may have saved my life. It kept me from the pits of despair into which I sunk in the worst of my insomnia; it enabled me to focus on my child, and his care, and, by extension, my own, without the mood swings and hopelessness which typically accompany sleep deprivation in the bipolar brain.
So, now, it’s two years later, and there’s a positive pregnancy test.
I’m overjoyed, of course. We wanted a sibling, but thought we might have to go through the barrage of tests and pills and worry that accompanied our first journey into conception. It was far easier than that, albeit not-yet-planned, but the maternal love I’ve had growing for the past twenty seven months already has me over-the-moon-excited about this little brother or sister.
And my intentions?
I’m not planning on breastfeeding this one, either.
You can call that selfish, if that’s your point of view. You can tell me I’m sacrificing my baby’s health for my own convenience, placing my own needs before theirs. You could say I’m depriving my child of the best start in life, and that you simply cannot fathom such self-interest.
But I will reply the same way I did when that old lady at work told me I would have been able to breastfeed if I’d just tried harder…this as the memory of my hungry baby in the hospital wailing for sustenance filled my frontal lobe…and I shouldn’t be using a bottle. I will say that a healthy mom makes a healthy baby. I will say that this works for my family, even if it wouldn’t for yours. And I will say that my children…present and forthcoming…are, hands down, enjoying a better existence than if they were being cared for by a mentally ill mother who was jeopardizing her health and contentment by struggling to conform to society’s expectation that she breastfeed.
So, yes. Full circle, just like I promised. And if there’s only one thing I hope you take away from this essay, it’s that mom and baby are conjoined. What negatively affects one negatively affects the other. And to have the happiest possible child, you need a mom who is functioning as the best mom she can be, even if that involves making tough decisions like not breastfeeding.
At least, that’s what I’ll be telling my husband in seven months when I’m shaking him awake because it’s his turn to feed the new baby.
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