This week, August 1-7, is World Breastfeeding Week. This is a week set aside, worldwide, to bring awareness to the importance of breastfeeding, education to those who don’t understand or support it, and celebration of the women who do or have done it. I fully support and encourage breastfeeding- it’s natural, it’s beautiful, it’s nutritious. But I want us to be careful of putting too much emphasis on the quality of a mother based on her ability or desire to breastfeed. Because of the pressure often placed on mothers to breastfeed exclusively, many mothers suffer at the hands of well-intentioned friends, co-workers, mothers-in-law, and even strangers who think they know what’s best for each individual mother and child. Because of this pressure and desire to be a “good mom,” I developed metric tons of guilt and shame surrounding my breastfeeding journey, leading me to term what I now have as Breastfeeding PTSD. This is my story.
My first child was born in August 2012, smack dab in the middle of the Mommy Wars. If you weren’t a new mom in an affluent suburb during this time period, let me explain. The Mommy Wars inundated every aspect of motherhood. You’re a working mom? That means you aren’t spending enough time nurturing and raising your kids. You’re a stay-at-home mom? That means you aren’t setting a good example for your children, especially your daughters, of what a self-sufficient, fully-empowered modern woman looks like. You don’t spend hours making, mashing, and packaging your own fully-organic, non-GMO, BPA-free, grass-fed, farm-to-market, ergonomically-correct, grown- and picked-with-your-own-two-hands baby food? That means you’re exposing your babies to cancer and setting them up for a lifetime of obesity, ADHD, and failure.
And the crowning jewel in the Mommy Wars crown- You don’t plan, or are unable, to breastfeed your baby well into toddlerhood? That means you must not be mom enough; you have failed at the most basic, natural, sacred element of not only motherhood, but womanhood itself. To this point, who remembers this polarizing 2012 TIME Magazine cover that fanned the flames of an already contentious situation? The struggle was real.
Thankfully, hallelujah, and amen, we are moving away from this ridiculous model of guilting and shaming moms for not fitting into a single mold. Moms come in all shapes and sizes, with different values, beliefs, and lines drawn in the sand. It’s been a breath a fresh air to hear more and more about women supporting each other as #mombosses, no matter their employment status or other parenting choices. I am especially excited to see traction in the #fedisbest movement, because shouldn’t a HEALTHY CHILD and a HEALTHY MOM be the ultimate goal and marker of success, no matter how that happens?
My breastfeeding journey was a rough one, especially in the climate in which my children were born. My milk supply was never great- in fact, it was downright abysmal. I would spend up to an hour nursing my baby, then the next 30 minutes or so hooked up to a medical-grade breast pump to encourage an increase in supply, only to start the entire process over again almost immediately. I was spending more time with my breast pump than my newborn. I walked around smelling like IHOP for months because I was taking so much fenugreek, eating so many lactation cookies, and drinking so much Mother’s Milk tea, all of which make you smell like syrup. I became isolated in my own home (save for my weekly standing appointment with my lactation consultant), chained to a very strict nursing and pumping schedule, which lead to mild postpartum depression, maximum dissatisfaction with motherhood, and crushing guilt. But I didn’t dare stop. What would the other mothers think? I felt like I would die of shame if another mom caught me mixing a bottle full of evil, harmful formula.
But finally one night when my daughter was 7 months old and I was doing my nightly sob over my last pumping session of the evening, my husband demanded I stop. He had been so supportive up until that point, tried to encourage me the best he could with his useless nipples, but he knew it was a losing battle. And he loved me and our daughter enough to tell me. With the unspoken finally out in the open, I felt relief wash over me. I’d received the permission I didn’t even know I needed to throw in the towel. I had done the absolute best I could, but I was spiraling and it was time to stop. So I did. And you know what? My daughter survived. She adjusted to the formula and after some trial and error, we found a bottle she would happily take.
After the guilt began to subside, I reveled in our newfound freedom. Friends are getting together for a play date? Let’s go! Daughter wakes up for her night feeding? Here’s her bottle, daddy- go feed her! I slowly became more comfortable bottle-feeding my child in public, and even had the courage to mix a few formula bottles in front of other people. Because at the end of the day, fed is best. I was still caring for my daughter, whether her milk came from my body or not. And we were both happier and healthier for it.
Unfortunately, and for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I would repeat the breastfeeding failure shame cycle again when my son was born two years later. I’ll blame it on the hormones. But I would realize and adjust more quickly this time- only four months in the valley with him. Then straight to bottles and formula for him too in order to protect my own mental health, thereby protecting the rest of my family.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love breastfeeding. I am so proud and envious of women who are able to devote so much of themselves- body, mind, and spirit- to the task. I celebrate them and all the women who came before them this World Breastfeeding Week. But for those of us who struggle- physically, emotionally, mentally, or all of the above- I just want us to be kind and gracious to ourselves and to other mothers in the trenches, no matter what those trenches are, because we all have them.
So happy World Breastfeeding Week, breastfeeding mommas! I am so proud of you! And happy Fed Is Best Week (yes, I made that up), formula-feeding mommas! I am so proud of you, too!