I've spent a total of five years of my life breastfeeding babies. Looking back, I'm happy I was physically able to breastfeed all four of my kids because I know that's not always something every woman is able to do. And though I reflect on those years fondly, I'm also pretty positive if I had the choice again down the line, say, if I had another baby, I wouldn't breastfeed again. For one, part of me doesn't even really know if I freely ever chose to breastfeed my kids because I really wanted to, or just because it was so engrained in me that it was something I should and had to do. I think I'm done breastfeeding for good, and I'm OK with that.
Even before I started breastfeeding, the choice on whether or not to breastfeed didn't actually feel like a choice at all. I knew I'd breastfeed simply because I was in nursing school when I was pregnant with my first baby and the benefits of breastfeeding your baby were discussed at length. I wanted to be a "good" mom, and we were instructed that good moms breastfed, end of story. I felt lucky when I didn't have any real problems in the first few days of breastfeeding because my daughter latched right away, and my milk came in fairly fast. I thought breastfeeding would always be this simple, and feel this "natural."
I thought wrong.
At first, everything seemed hunky-dory with breastfeeding. But then I was hospitalized with mastitis, and the timing couldn't have been worse. I had actually just gotten out of the hospital after contracting a kidney infection two days postpartum, only to land back in the hospital a week later with another 105 fever that made me so delirious I really can't remember much about what happened, aside from my husband literally milking me in the hospital room. (Motherhood is glamorous!) My mastitis went undetected for a few days as they pumped me full of antibiotics, assuming my kidney infection had just come back, until a doctor finally got around to asking me if my boobs hurt at all. I told him that yes, I did have a huge red spot on my breast that felt like a boulder, and he was so flustered that he blushed bright red, never examined me, changed my diagnosis to "mastitis," and walked out.
That began a long and pretty miserable journey of motherhood and mastitis.
Seeing the aftermath of what breastfeeding has done to me physically has made me think long and hard about my choices going forward.
I escaped unscathed after my second kid, but then with babies three and then four, the mastitis monster came rearing her ugly head again. I ended up contracting mastitis what felt like almost every other day. In total, I believe I had it well over 20 times. In the hospital when I had my fourth, my OB even wrote me a prescription for antibiotics before she discharged me, fully expecting me to come down with mastitis again immediately. She was right.
Was the price of breastfeeding in my particular situation worth it?
Mastitis is caused by a clogged milk duct, according to Mayo Clinic, but then that clog only makes a better breeding ground for bacteria, but also makes it so painful to breastfeed, which is what you need to do to empty the blocked duct. And if you're avoiding feeding because it hurts, the clog only gets worse, and then the infection gets worse, and around and around you go. Mine got so bad my husband would sigh when I'd call him at work again, crying because I was running another fever and could barely function at home with three kids and a hungry newborn.
But I fought tooth and nail through each round of mastitis, even after my body flat-out stopped responding to antibiotics to combat it. I felt like giving up breastfeeding was just not an option and that, above all, breastfeeding was what my baby needed and what I needed to give her. Plus, I was afraid weaning would only make the mastitis worse.
After I finally weaned my youngest daughter sometime after she was 1, I was shocked by the condition of my boobs. Breastfeeding literally ruined my breasts — aside from the somewhat normal stretching, my milk ducts have been permanently damaged. They're riddled with scar tissue that's left them open (weird, I know) and they act like tumors inside my breasts, which is both unpleasant and means I have to have mammograms to make sure they don't actually turn into cancer.
Seeing the aftermath of what breastfeeding has done to me physically has made me think long and hard about my choices going forward. Did I do the right thing in insisting that I breastfeed, no matter what the cost? Did I actually hurt my baby by inadvertently passing so many antibiotics through to her in my milk? Did I waste everyone's time and money because my husband had to call in sick to take care of me? Did I waste precious bonding time with my daughter while I lay feverish and in pain? Was the price of breastfeeding in my particular situation worth it?
And I honestly don't know.
I'm just now beginning to realize what breastfeeding cost me, physically and mentally, and I'm terrified to having to make that decision again if we ever have another baby. It'd tear me apart not to breastfeed, mainly because I've loved building that bond with all of my children and because I'm so proud of myself for being able to nourish them like that. Some of my greatest memories will always be breastfeeding my babies back to sleep.
But I just don't know if I would do it again. And I don't know if I could physically even do it again. So I honestly think, despite being a nurse and a huge breastfeeding advocate, that I'd choose formula next time. Maybe I'd be fine breastfeeding another baby or maybe I'd end up with mastitis constantly again. Right now that's a gamble I thankfully don't have to make. The point is, through all of this — and it only took me 10 years to get to this point — I've realized that breastfeeding is not what made me a "good" mom to begin with. Being a good mom has meant learning that my health matters, too.