In our culture's effort to promote exclusive breastfeeding, we seem to have forgotten that it's not easy, or even possible, for many people to do it. We tell moms-to-be all about the benefits of breastfeeding, but little to nothing about what to do if it doesn't work out. So, when you hit road blocks you end up blaming yourself and feeling like you've failed. This has to stop. In fact, I think it's time I reveal some confessions of a breastfeeding failure. I want other moms to know they aren't alone, and that not being able to successfully breastfeed doesn't mean you've failed at motherhood. It just means you're normal and breastfeeding is freaking hard.
When I had my first baby and didn't make enough breast milk, I blamed myself. I struggled with depression and self-hatred because of what was and wasn't, coming out of my breasts. I had one job — feed the baby — and I totally sucked at it. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to produce enough breast milk to feed my babies. Literally everything I read about breastfeeding said that undersupply was super rare and not something most new moms have to worry about. It turns out that undersupply is far more common than I was told, and lots of moms aren't able to breastfeed exclusively, even if they want to. Besides, breastfeeding "success" involves a lot more than the physical ability to lactate. As a nursing mom you need a baby who's able to latch, parental leave, a supportive partner, mental and physical health, energy, time, nutrition, hydration, and guidance.
If you set the bar at "exclusive breastfeeding," most moms are going to "fail." But if you let new moms define their own version of success, based on their abilities, goals, and desires (which might totally change once they are actually, you know, breastfeeding), everyone will have their own version of infant-feeding success. And that, according to this breastfeeding "failure," is a beautiful thought.
In our culture we often talk about breastfeeding as something all moms should "at least try." There are so many problems with this message. For one, so many people, like me, feel pressured to try, and then to continue even when it's not working, not good for our mental health, or when our babies aren't thriving. Plus, no one should be forced to use their body to feed their baby.
Handing an exhausted, clueless new mom a hungry newborn and expecting her to breastfeed effectively is like a game of roulette. Breastfeeding did not come naturally to me. At all. I took classes, read articles, and had help from multiple lactation professionals, but it was weird, difficult, and wasn't how I expected it to be. It pretty much made me feel like something was wrong with me.
When my daughter was 5 days old, we discovered that she had lost 20 percent of her birth weight and needed supplemental formula to thrive. I was devastated. I'd read that supplementing with formula would hurt my breast milk supply, and I believed it. So many people — friends, nurses, a lactation consultant, and a La Leche League leader — told me to just keep nursing and my milk would come in. But it didn't, and the pressure to succeed at breastfeeding made me fail her.
I felt so much pressure to not only breastfeed, but breastfeed exclusively. When it didn't work out, it broke me. I became suicidal and thought that failing to breastfeed meant I had failed as a mother. The resulting guilt was intense and is only starting to fade, years later.
Breastfeeding wasn't always magical. Sure, I loved the snuggles, but in so many ways breastfeeding sucked (figuratively and literally). There were times when I was so touched out or tired that even the thought of sitting through one more session was too much to handle. There were times when mastitis and thrush caused pain that was worse than childbirth. It wasn't always pleasant and certainly wasn't the bonding experience I imagined.
People who say that breastfeeding is free are clearly coming from a place of privilege. While breastfeeding might be free for someone who has the privilege to stay home and wants to spend their time breastfeeding, it's not free for everyone. Breastfeeding is only free if you don't value a woman's time and the opportunity cost of spending that time breastfeeding. I personally spent thousands of dollars to breastfeed on lactation consultants, supplements, medications, pumps, nursing bras, clothes, and other supplies.
Honestly, I wish I had just spent that money on formula, baby clothes, or Starbucks.
It's hard to not feel like a failure when people call you one behind your back (and even to your face). We really need to stop this kind of mom-on-mom bullying. Someone's ability as a mother has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to produce and dispense breast milk. Plus, it's ableist. Do we call people who need glasses failures for not being able to see perfectly, or diabetic people failures for not being able to produce insulin? How about people who can't get pregnant? Are they failures? Of course not. We have got to stop referring to moms who can't breastfeed as failures. It's freaking offensive.
When my son was born, I was able to change my perspective of what breastfeeding success looked like. I got help, ditched unrealistic advice, discovered what did work for me and my baby, and redefined my breastfeeding goals. I found that combo-feeding was our version of success, and I totally loved it.
After my daughter was born, my life became centered around breastfeeding. I felt so guilty and wanted to increase my supply, so I pumped 12 times a day and tried to spend each day focused on feeding her. Most days I barely slept or ate, and I constantly cried while I fed her. I honestly didn't start enjoying motherhood and feeling like a person again until I stopped breastfeeding my daughter.
Now, after feeding three babies, and watching them grow and thrive, I realize that infant-feeding success looks different for every mom and every baby. A fed baby and a healthy mom are totally more important than achieving someone else's version of breastfeeding success. #fedisbest
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