"Exclusive breastfeeding" just sounds like something fashionable and chic, right? "Exclusive." Like, I know it really means "feeding a baby breast milk only," but in my mind "exclusive" was a description of the elite few who could manage such a demanding feat. Who doesn't want to be counted among the ranks of the "exclusive"? But the pressure to live up to this mythology ultimately resulted in a lot of unnecessary worry for me, and there were things I was afraid to ask for when I was exclusively breastfeeding that, really, were nothing to worry about at all.
While not all women who exclusively breastfeed have this experience, I found that so much of my motivation to do so was based in this weird, competitive (if only self-competitive), "macho mom" culture that unnecessarily ties your womanhood to your motherhood and what you can and can't do with your body. Can you give birth vaginally? Can you do it without pain relief? Can you breastfeed your baby exclusively? Can you stay up with them all night? And can you also do all the things that society expects of women without children? Look beautiful? Be productive around the house? Crush your career?
In my brain, I knew so much of this was nonsense contrived by a society that wants women to feel inadequate at all times. And I said so, too. I tried my best to fight against it, but more often than not I found myself holding myself to those incredibly difficult standards... if only a little bit.
It was worse in the beginning, but while I largely got over myself and learned to ask for the things I needed, I'll admit that some of that insecurity stuck around in spite of my best efforts and definitely knowing better for a while. So with that in mind, here's what I was too afraid to ask for when I was exclusively breastfeeding:
I knew, cognitively, that formula was a perfectly safe, nutritious, valid food to feed a baby. I knew that innumerable happy, smart, healthy babies received exclusively formula. I did not judge anyone for never trying to breastfeed and deciding on formula from the get-go. Hell, I supplemented my first child with formula, both in the first few weeks and then combination-fed him starting at about 10 months. I didn't dislike formula — I would sing its praises from the rooftops.
But, deep down, I was still hanging on to the toxic idea that motherhood is a contest and exclusively breastfeeding was the ideal. I thought "if my baby gets even a drop of formula, I've failed."
My daughter didn't wind up needing formula, but if she had it would have been totally fine. I wish I could have shaken that last lingering bit of mommy guilt about this nonsense.
Guys, I hated that thing. So much. Like, to the point that I was scared of it. I remember the first time I saw a pump in action: I was at the Buy Buy Baby in Manhattan when I was pregnant and this lady was doing a demonstration. She put a bottle nipple in the flange and turned on the machine. I saw what that thing did to that poor plastic nipple and recoiled in horror.
"Oh, if you think that's bad, wait until you see what a baby does!" she laughed.
I never found anything my baby did to my nipple as distressing as what I saw that breast pump do on that fateful day. And maybe it was the memory of the machine in action but I actively hated using a pump. So, even when I knew I would have to provide milk to be given in a bottle, I was afraid to ask my husband to bring me my pump.
I knew that if I asked my husband to take over a feeding with expressed milk that I would have to pump to replace it, and I believe we're all clear on my feelings about my pump. But I also didn't want to wake up crazy engorged, which was a risk if I didn't nurse every couple hours. I also, admittedly, had the idea that I was failing as a breastfeeding mom if I didn't do everything.
I eventually got over this, but I'm telling you that this macho motherhood model is really awful.
Truthfully, most of the time I didn't really want privacy. But when I did I was afraid to ask for it because I didn't want to seem rude to guests or someone who was ashamed of breastfeeding. I saw (and see) breastfeeding openly not only as something that is easiest and most comfortable for me, but as a political statement to normalize breastfeeding... but sometimes you just want to retreat into your own personal space and not feel as though you're being gawked at, which is completely understandable and also totally acceptable. I was afraid to yield to by inner introvert.
A Shoulder To Cry On
More of the macho bullsh*t, my friends. I felt like admitting it was hard was on par with admitting I wasn't doing well, which was basically giving up. I mean... I can see this is absurd now and could even see at the time that I was being silly but, what can I say? Social pressure is a helluva drug, to say nothing of combining it with postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, and sore nipples.
A physical break. An emotional break. Just... a break. Because, again, that would be admitting that it wasn't perfect or that I was starting to feel run down.
Time Out Of The House
I'm an extremely extroverted person and part of that is just being out around people. I loved walking around New York, going wherever I pleased for hours on end. It centered me, cleared my mind, and just plain made me happy. But in the early days of my kids' lives, I was nervous about being apart because of their constant feedings. I didn't want them to eat through my pumped milk stash (which was never prodigious because I was terrified of that damn pump), and I didn't want them to receive formula. But my fear of either of those options kept me from really and truly recharging and, in retrospect, it would have been worth it.
Snacks (At First)
I wasn't obsessed with "losing the baby weight" but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern. This was diametrically opposed to the fact that I was starving all the time. Like... I'd never known hunger like this. Trapped under a hungry, hungry hippo of a child, I was hesitant to ask my husband to grab me a snack as frequently as I felt the urge to eat one, because I didn't want to gain weight or even hold on to the weight I'd gained. Turns out, for me, it was non-issue because breastfeeding burned a million calories per session (give or take). Eventually I gave in and wolfed down granola bars like they were going out of style.
I knew I wanted to safeguard against another pregnancy after each birth, but I'd read that hormonal birth control could affect your milk production. This isn't untrue, but neither is it a forgone conclusion. I talked to my care providers about the right kind of birth control for me and they encouraged me to be in touch if I noticed a dip in my supply.
Call it leftover a paranoia from all the pregnancy food prohibitions, but I was still wary of coffee and caffeine in general when I first started breastfeeding. After a while, though, I came to discover that, as with all things, moderation is key and that a couple cups a day would be just fine... and extremely necessary.
I feel like it's totally reasonable to be nervous about drinking alcohol when breastfeeding, especially since it's under-researched and there's a lot of misconceptions out there (I swear some people think there's a tube that brings any alcohol directly to your nipples). But research shows that drinking in moderation while breastfeeding (and at strategically planned times) doesn't appear to have any negative effects on the baby.
And thank goodness for that because after all this (mostly needless) worry I could use a drink.