When I first became a mom, I exclusively breastfed, to the point that my babies never even knew what the inside of a bottle looked like. They drank straight from the tap from the moment they came into the world until well into their toddler days. I say that with pride, but it was actually a real pain in the ass: I would've loved to have passed my husband a bottle and a baby while I ran to my yoga class, but had I not weaned at 2 years old, my kids would've likely stayed latched for life.
Despite mastitis, over-supply issues and tongue ties we didn't catch, my breastfeeding journey had gone fairly well. But I recognize that my ability to successfully breastfeed my kids wasn't because I was some amazingly talented milk goddess; honestly, it was mostly because I was lucky, and because I had access to a wonderful doctor who taught me everything I needed to know about breastfeeding. Occasionally, I'd have feelings of anxiety or sadness after I breast-fed, but I just chalked it up to lack of sleep, hormones and the stress of a new baby.
I had plenty of mom friends who formula-fed or partially formula-fed. I remember hearing them lament the fact that breastfeeding didn't work out for them like they'd planned. I listened to their stories of having a low supply or dealing with lazy latchers, and I remember just wanting to help them. I thought maybe if they had the right information, all their breast feeding dreams would come true. So I decided to look into becoming a lactation consultant.
Essentially, a lactation consultant is a person who educates new moms about breastfeeding, teaching them about such topics as positioning and ensuring that the baby latches. I wanted to become an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), which basically entailed taking classes on lactation and sitting for an entry exam.
Around the same time that I was studying to be a lactation consultant, I became a surrogate for a couple that was unable to conceive on their own. I carried for a mother who was going to induce lactation, and as a soon-to-be lactation consultant I was so proud that she wanted to give her baby this precious gift. I also offered to pump for her, since according to my studies it was not easy for a mother to induce a full supply artificially.
When I woke up to pump, I had the sudden, overwhelming urge to cry.
When the baby was born, her mother immediately latched her on, and I was able to nap and lounge about in the recovery room unencumbered by a needy newborn. It wasn't until the morning after delivery that I even thought about pumping to bring in my supply.
I continued to pump around the clock for the baby after we left the hospital, even once at night just to keep my supply up. The bags of milk that were piling up in the freezer amazed me, as I'd never seen a visual representation of the amount of milk my body could make. I felt proud. But I noticed that I started to feel the first twinges of anxiety creeping in.
One afternoon, as I sat down to pump, I could feel that I was exceptionally edgy. I texted my husband that I thought maybe postpartum depression was creeping in, because I just had this overwhelming feeling of despair. I felt a little better later that night, after we decided to go out for margaritas, but later when I woke up to pump, I had the sudden, overwhelming urge to cry. As I got my pump ready to go, I was watching The Office and cracking up. But as soon as I was hooked up, the tears just started flowing.
The second the milk left my body, I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.
The random bawl fests continued over the next few days, but they only lasted a few seconds. Every time I hooked up to the pump, I felt a mix of extreme anger, sadness and irritation. The second the milk left my body, I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I had felt this before with my own children, but I had mostly attributed it to lack of sleep. This time, however, I was sleeping just fine, and my kids were older and much more self-sufficient.
I was still taking classes toward my lactation certification, and I thought it was cool to pump my milk while learning about how it was made. Then one night, a few weeks after giving birth as a surrogate, I came to the lesson on Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER. I was in the middle of pumping while watching the lesson, and I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. D-MER, the lesson said, is basically a very fast flood of negative emotions just before a milk let-down. It's a treatable condition that is thought to be the result of an inappropriate drop in dopamine (the pleasure or motivation hormone), which can happen when a woman's milk is released. It isn't caused by negative feelings about breast feeding or postpartum depression. It's a reflex, just like hitting your knee with a hammer.
I'd never heard about this condition. My doctor never mentioned it, nor had my lactation consultants. But as I read on about the symptoms, I realized that was exactly what was happening to me. I texted my doula, a fellow surrogate, immediately. When she gave me permission to stop pumping, I got teary-eyed. It felt so wrong for me to have all this milk and not give it to a baby who could use it. I was studying to be a lactation consultant, for crying out loud. I was the Queen of Breast Milk. Lady SugarTits Von Milk Jugs. I was just a few months away from becoming a breastfeeding professional, but I had a condition that made me hate breastfeeding.
It felt so wrong for me to have all this milk and not give it to a baby who could use it. I was studying to be a lactation consultant, for crying out loud. I was the Queen of Breast Milk. Lady SugarTits Von Milk Jugs. I was just a few months away from becoming a breastfeeding professional, but I had a condition that made me hate breastfeeding.
Over the next few days, I stopped pumping, and my milk supply quickly dried up. At first, I felt sad and disappointed, because I'd wanted to pump for the baby for at least six months. I'd envisioned going to visit her and presenting her mama with a freezer full of milk. But she was surviving just fine on formula, and she was still nursing occasionally and getting immunity from her mother.
Just a few days after my pumping journey ended, I felt 100% normal again. I was happy and relaxed, and I had no rushes of anxiety or sadness or anger whatsoever. Just giving myself permission to quit gave me a new sense of freedom. I felt so much calmer than I ever did after having my own babies, and I started to find closure and peace — not only about my current inability to feed the baby I'd just given birth to, but also about my own struggles breastfeeding my newborns.
Breastfeeding, the laurel I'd pinned to my motherhood robe, the great accomplishment that I'd fought so hard to achieve, was actually the dark cloud that hung over my children's baby days.
It took me a long time to bond with my girls, in large part because they'd had so much difficulty sleeping. I loved them, of course, but I just didn't enjoy them until they were about a year old. All this time, I'd felt guilty and thought I was a horrible mother for feeling so wretched during the newborn phase, and for not feeling like breastfeeding was the ultimate bonding experience. But as it turned out, I'd just had a condition that was beyond my control.
My experience trying to breastfeed while I was a surrogate, combined with my studies as a lactation consultant, helped me realize that breastfeeding, the laurel I'd pinned to my motherhood robe, the great accomplishment that I fought so hard to achieve, was actually the dark cloud that hung over my children's baby days. I didn't hate my newborns. My hormones were just whacked out because of breastfeeding. And because all my babies wanted to do was breastfeed, I was in a constant state of grouchiness.
I still think that, in most cases, breast is best, just as eating a diet of whole fruits, vegetables, and proteins is best for your health. But not everyone can or wants to survive on salads and sunflower seeds.
I am only two weeks from completing my lactation certification, and I still have a passion for all things breastfeeding. I still think that, in most cases, breast is best, just as eating a diet of whole fruits, vegetables, and proteins is best for your health. But not everyone can or wants to survive on salads and sunflower seeds. What's good for a body builder might not work for a cop on the night shift. The same goes for breastfeeding: what might be an amazing bonding experience for one mom might be totally awful and debilitating for another.
I'd initially thought my job as a lactation consultant would be to get as many women to breastfeed for as long as possible. But thanks to my experience with D-MER, my focus has shifted to see how breastfeeding actually fits into each woman's individual goals, and determine whether breast is actually best for them. It seems counter-intuitive that I would choose a profession that focuses on something that hurled me into such a dark place, but the knowledge I gained from my pain gave me a unique perspective and a new level of empathy that I hope will set me apart from others in my field. The darkness that lactation brought to my life might just be the thing I need to shine brighter in my career.