What No One Talks About When They Talk About Figuring Out If You Can Breastfeed
While I can confidently say that the largest influence on my decision to try breastfeeding were the benefits it would bring my son, I also had some very personal reasons that stemmed from my own insecurities as a new mom. I had to fight hard to get the hang of breastfeeding, and the constant repetition of “breast is best,” and the endless talk about the bond I would inevitably establish and the shame I thought I'd feel if I turned to formula, kept me from giving up when, sometimes, I honestly wanted to. I was pretty insecure in my role as a new mom, and I refused to accept the possibility of being unable to do this one thing that I thought I had to do. In other words, it took me far too long to realize that when we talk about mothers figuring out if they want and/or can breastfeed, we've leaving out one very important part of the conversation; a part that left me determined to breastfeed not just because I wanted to, but because, if I didn’t, it would have wrecked my confidence in my ability to mother.
As you can imagine, as a new mother recently endowed with a responsibility as huge as taking care of another life, failure was a fairly dark thought. I have no doubt that the hormones coursing through my body didn’t help with the stress and pressure I was putting on myself, but when a new mom considers breastfeeding, it’s perceived to be one of the few “yes” or “no” decisions you can make. Other decisions are, arguably, viewed as more a matter of preference or convenience (like whether you co-sleep or sleep-train, whether you go all-organic or feed your kid pre-made baby food from a jar), but very few are as cut and dry as, “Are you breastfeeding, yes or no?”
And so, I figured I had to stick with my initial decision of, "yes" and through thick or thin or hell and high water or whatever other clichéd platitude hit me upside the head and left me to question my ability as a parent, stick to breastfeeding. The harder it was for me to breastfeed, the more determined I felt. I needed the win, because I needed to know I could handle the hard parts of motherhood that were sure to come my way. After labor and delivery, breastfeeding was the next major challenge thrown at me. I had to do it, I thought. I couldn’t fail at the very first thing I had trouble with. I just couldn't.
I was trying harder than Gretchen Weiners tried to get fetch to happen, and finally, weeks later, my son and I figured it out. I don’t for a second think that my struggles as a new mom were special or unique, but sometimes I do wonder if that pressure I was putting on myself was, and the importance I was placing on this one thing, was absolutely necessary. Was it really worth it? If I could go back and do it again, would I really put myself through all those endless nights of tears and frustration and exhaustion and self-doubt? To this day, part of me is proud that I met the challenge head-on and got through it (we’re now in extended breastfeeding territory, something I never would have believed would be possible for me back when each ounce of milk he got from me was considered a major, major win), but now that I have some perspective, part of me is wondering why I put myself through so much misery.
If there wasn't a stigma attached to formula and the mothers who choose and/or are forced to use it, I probably wouldn’t have held breastfeeding as such a high marker of whether or not I was being a "good mom." I admire the moms who were confident and comfortable with their decision not to breastfeed, since those were two traits that were not part of my early days as a parent. I was desperate for reassurance, for insight, and for proof that something was going right, and I was the reason why.
Now that my son is approaching his second birthday, and now that I can make it days (sometimes weeks!) at a time without shedding tears, I want to hug the mom I was when he was a newborn. I was so scared; so afraid that I wasn’t cut out for motherhood; so convinced that everyone was better at it than I was, that I added more stress to an already stressful situation (as if having your first child isn’t stressful enough). If I could have had a glimpse, even a tiny flash of an idea, at how awesome it was going to get, how much more fun and complicated and fulfilling and amazing it would quickly become, I would have eased up on myself. Most importantly, if I would have just been kinder to myself and told myself that, had I not been able to eventually and successfully breastfeed, I would still be a good mother, I wouldn't have hung my ability as a mother on my abilities to breastfeed.
Which is why, what we really need to tell soon-to-be mothers (and new mothers and seasoned mothers and all mothers) when they contemplate breastfeeding and whether or not they can and/or want to do it, is that hey, if you can't or don't want to, you're not a bad parent. Your kid will be OK without the benefits of breastmilk or the bonding experience or the nutrients; in fact, your kid will be better than OK, as they will find all of those thing in other places. And, guess what, most of those places will end up being facilitated by you. You'll still be their source of nutrition and comfort and love, whether you can breastfeed or not.