Breastfeeding Sucks: A Pediatrician's Take On Motherhood's Darkest Secret
Breastfeeding sucks. Pumping sucks. The pressure to provide breast milk to my children has been by far my least favorite part of motherhood. I will say, I do enjoy the act of nursing. Seeing my daughter look up at me with her big doe eyes, her little hand playing with my hair, or resting on my enormous engorged breast. These are tender moments, ones only I can share. The rest is shit. Turns out that nursing a baby is only about 10% of breastfeeding. That’s something I never learned in the media. Or in college. Or in medical school. Or in my PEDIATRICS residency. Yep. Here I am, a board certified pediatrician talking about how much I hate breastfeeding and everything surrounding it.
I had envisioned being one of those cool hippie moms that would nurse my infants until 2 years old. I pictured a nightly bedtime routine with my breast front and center. With my first daughter, it was a shit storm of failures. The baby wouldn’t latch. The lactation consultants came to my home to help. They suggested syringe feeding the baby. But I couldn’t just squirt the milk into the baby’s mouth. I had to have her latch onto my pinky while the syringe sat alongside my finger and we dribbled breast milk into her mouth. Each feed took 90 minutes. We were advised to feed every 2 hours. I had enough time to cry, pee, pump, and do it again. They also say not to give the baby a pacifier until a “healthy breastfeeding relationship has been established.” Clearly that is a recommendation given by people who hate mothers. Because if you’ve ever seen a postpartum woman, still tending to her vaginal bleeding, trying to get a baby to latch, or pumping at 2 a.m. and tell her that she cannot give that crying baby a pacifier, you must truly enjoy bearing witness to human suffering.
The first baby finally latched. At around 3 weeks of age. Which meant 8-10 pumping sessions per day until then. But she didn’t grow. I watched her weight fall on her growth curves. From 30th, to 14th, to 9th, to 1st percentile. I brought in 3 dirty diapers, and each tested positive for blood. Time to do the next suggestion — cut out all dairy and soy. I’ve never been so miserable and isolated. Turns out everything in the universe has some amount of soy in it. I went to PF Chang’s with my mom once and asked for a dairy free/soy free menu. I was allowed brown rice and broccoli. That was it. If you have ever seen a lactating woman, who requires an additional 500 calories per day to support the effort to create milk — and tell that lactating woman she can only have broccoli and brown rice, you must truly enjoy bearing witness to human suffering.
She still didn’t grow. Not one single ounce. Until our pediatrician said, I’m sorry it’s time to call it. You will not be the mom nursing a two-year-old. In fact, we just barely made it to two months. I cried roughly four times a day those first two months. And then an additional four times a day thereafter as I dumped my hard earned breast milk down the sink and gave my kid a bottle of formula. The shame and guilt was astounding. Every 2 a.m, pumping session, the $500 I spent on lactation consultants, all seemed in vain. My kid was a formula baby regardless.
The trauma surrounding nutrition for my first child was so awful that the thought of getting pregnant and doing it a second time created literal panic attacks that led me to hiring a therapist. The second time around, I promised I would be kinder to myself. She arrived and what do you know? Latch problems. This one required a procedure where a physician literally cut her tongue and lip (technically, her lingual and labial frenulum) so she could latch to my breast without tears welling up in my eyes. It worked. We had a great breastfeeding relationship. And then I started work again, in a busy primary care practice (I see adults and children as both internal medicine and pediatrics), during a pandemic. I watched my breast milk supply dwindle. I know I could have pumped more. I would go 5 or 6 hours between pumping sessions. The mental gymnastics of when to pump is enough to make you dizzy. Pump before I see this patient, after I see this patient? Pump DURING a telemedicine appointment? Anyway, turns out most of my pumping decisions probably weren’t the correct decision. As my supply has dwindled to next to nothing. I nurse my second baby and she is still hungry after. The pump manages to eke out enough for 1-2 bottles all day, and the rest is formula.
I keep trying to tell myself over and over again: you are still a good mom. Even though you napped instead of pumping. Even though you never drink enough water. Even though her dad gives a bottle of formula, instead of you nursing her. Even though you didn’t take the fenugreek. You are still a good mom. Even though you made all of these decisions that ultimately yielded less breast milk for your baby. You are still a good mom.
Providing breast milk to my children has been the worst part of motherhood. Let’s give moms a goddamn break about the breastmilk. And moms, let’s try to make a collective promise to ourselves and each other that when our baby breathes that first breath of air — that we will not immediately instill a lifetime’s worth of pressure on your newborn and on ourselves. You are still a good mom.