The Problem With Those Tree Of Life Brelfies

by Emma McCandless
Originally Published: 
A blue painting of the tree of life
Emma McCandless

This past weekend, my social media newsfeeds were taken over by a lovely phenomenon: the Tree of Life “brelfies” — breastfeeding selfies — that mamas all over the world started posting, thanks to the amazing app PicsArt. (Unrelated, how did I not know about this app before now?) The images were beautiful and breathtaking: mothers feeding their children, with a “tree of life” image incorporated as a symbolic homage to the life-giving power of breast milk.

The images started as part of an effort to normalize breastfeeding. And I think that’s an important and powerful sentiment to share. No, women shouldn’t be shamed for breastfeeding in public. No, they shouldn’t be told to cover up or that they’re being inappropriate. They’re not; they’re feeding a hungry child. But as much as I loved seeing all those beautiful images being shared across the Web, they also made me a little sad.

I was never able to breastfeed. I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. Before my first baby was born, I fully planned on it. I heard the warnings that breastfeeding can be tricky to master, but I figured I’d be fine. Then my son was born, and I set about to breastfeed him. We saw a lactation consultant in the hospital, and again shortly after he came home. When he was about 6 days old, I started to get a sneaking suspicion that something was wrong.

I didn’t feel engorged. I had milk, but I was certain it wasn’t enough. Moms at the La Leche League meeting I went to told me to just relax. “Should I supplement? I asked. “He seems hungry all the time.” The answer I got from everyone, from other moms to our pediatrician, was “No!” Whatever you do, don’t give your baby formula. People said “formula” in hushed tones, as if it was something foul and loathsome

I went back the pediatrician. “He’s slow to gain,” she told me. “But he is gaining. Don’t give up.” I tried pumping. After an hour hooked up to the pump, I didn’t even have an ounce of milk to show for it. I tried another pump. I called the lactation consultant. “Don’t give up!” I kept hearing that message, over and over again. So I didn’t. I drank more water. I made those breastfeeding cookies. I took a ton of fenugreek. And I kept trying.

Then when my baby was a month old, we went in for his well visit. They weighed him. He’d dropped nearly 2 pounds from his birth weight. Finally, we rushed him to the hospital. But even then, the conversation wasn’t “Breastfeeding isn’t working.” It was “There must be something wrong with your baby.” The poor kid got a million and one blood tests. Well-meaning mamas suggested we be sure to get a swallow study, or have him checked (again) for tongue-tie or any other number of issues it could be. Because it simply couldn’t be the fact that I just didn’t have milk. All women can breastfeed, right?

Turns out, wrong. Without consulting anyone other than my wife, I called her and told her to pick up some formula — any formula — and bottles on her way to the hospital. “We’re giving it to him,” I said. “He’s starving.”

And, presto, my baby started gaining weight. We left the hospital two days later, with doctors finally willing to admit what I’d known all along. My child was starving. He’d needed food, and the only way he was going to get it was from formula

With my second baby, I was prepared. I tried breastfeeding again, thinking about all the things I could try to do differently to make it work. But it didn’t. This time, though, the second he wasn’t gaining, at his two-week check-up, I gave him a bottle. No emergency trip to the hospital for us this time.

Not being able to breastfeed was a source of great emotional pain and guilt for me for a long time. Seeing those beautiful images on Facebook this weekend, watching my other mom friends comment back and forth to each about how much they loved them, it hurt my heart. I love my babies just as much as they love theirs. I want what’s best for them too. I don’t want to knock down breastfeeding — which I’ve been accused of doing with my assertion that “fed is best” — but I want other moms like me to understand what I didn’t.

It’s great if you can breastfeed, and if you can (and you want to), you should be fully supported. But not everybody can. I couldn’t, for whatever reason (my OB-GYN is still mystified). And I almost let my baby starve because I listened to those who said “breast is best” instead of trusting my own intuition.

Moms shouldn’t be shamed for breastfeeding. But we also shouldn’t be shamed if we can’t. There’s enough judgement going around in the world as it is, and to judge a mother for feeding her baby — no matter how, when, or where she chooses to — isn’t right

So here’s my own Tree of Life selfie, and my friendly reminder that we all love our babies, and that no matter how we feed them, if they’re happy, healthy, and growing, that’s all that matters.

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