Before I placed my son for adoption, I was advised to "bond" with him. I was very much on board with this; I was planning on an open adoption, and I also loved him madly before he was even born, so bonding before relinquishing him was a pretty intuitive thing to do. But a lot of people around me seemed to conflate "bonding" with "breastfeeding." “So, you’re gonna want to bond with the baby, breastfeed him, all that?” asked nurses and social workers leading up to and after he'd been delivered. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to breastfeed him, too. But I wasn't able to breastfeed my baby.
It certainly wasn't for lack of trying! My first night in the hospital, my friend Leta sat by my side and watched as I tried to get my son interested in my nipple. He would half-heartedly suck for a few seconds, then stop, and fall asleep on my chest. It was adorable and magical. It was my first time that'd been skin-to-skin with my baby, and even without actually being able to breastfeed, that closeness was breathtakingly special. I assumed I'd be able to breastfeed him later. But that was not to be.
This was my one chance to experience that, and it wasn't happening. But surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly sad about it. I just became incredibly practical about how I was going to spend my time.
The next day, I tried again, and a lactation expert showed me how to squeeze colostrum out of my nipples. But Leo just would not latch on. And then he was hungry, so he kept crying. I very quickly became familiar with the sound of my son's particular cry — I could pick him out of a room of babies by sound alone. I kept trying to insert my nipple with its little drops of colostrum into his crying mouth, and had been advised that "every little bit counts," but it was terrible for both of us. I kept at it, because I’d become very attached to the mental image of breastfeeding my baby, that magnificent mother-child bonding time. But Leo just wasn’t having it.
This mental image, by the way, did not spring up from my mind all on its own. I know that I am a product of my environment, of a society that tells us that breastfeeding is the most magical possible bond between mother and child. This was my one chance to experience that, and it wasn't happening. But surprisingly, I didn't feel particularly sad about it. I just became incredibly practical about how I was going to spend my time.
Mid-afternoon on the second day, I broke down and asked my doula to get us some formula. It didn't feel like a compromise. It was a relief, honestly.
Eventually, it just came down to simple math. I only had two days with my little boy before we would leave the hospital separately. Did I want to spend them with my son crying and shrieking and hungry? Mid-afternoon on the second day, I broke down and asked my doula to get us some formula. It didn't feel like a compromise. It was a relief, honestly. He took to bottle-feeding immediately, and since that was how he was going to keep being fed by the two men adopting him, I figured it was just as well. (Also, once I gave up on the breastfeeding idea, I could take a stronger pain medication, which was nice because my body definitely felt like a truck had hit it.)
I wish I’d been able to breastfeed Leo, but I also feel that the importance of that event had been exaggerated to me. I bonded plenty with my son in the hospital (and continue to do so to this day). I carried him around and showed him the world through the window and rocked him in a rocking chair until his little eyes closed. None of that ceased to be special or magical just because I couldn't breastfeed. In theory, breastfeeding would have been this beautiful, spiritual experience where my son and I would have felt unimaginable connection and union, but maybe not. Maybe it would have been painful or upsetting. I certainly don’t have any regrets about our time together in the hospital, or feel like I wasn’t as close to him as I could have been; I was completely in love with him and remain so. And the fact that I couldn't breastfeed him has absolutely nothing to do with that.
*All photos used with permission of the child's parents.