It’s Okay If You Need to Stop Breastfeeding
Lucy is 11, but she spends her evening chatting on Discord with school pals exactly the way I spent my evenings in the late 1980s sprawled on the floor connected to the phone cord chatting endlessly with my own school friends. And now that our kids are all basically teens, I’m fairly grateful on a daily basis.
Being the parent of young children was fun – I loved watching them learn new things and hit all of those milestones – but it was also utterly freaking terrifying and stressful in a way that tested the limits of my anxiety, and I mean that literally. We just sent two of our kids to overnight camp last week, and it was the first time they had been away from us for more than a night since they were little. I was nervous, but there was also something exhilarating about realizing that these little helpless larvae we had carried around and coddled were now getting out into the world and experiencing adventure for the first time without us.
And I’m dually reminded of the gratitude I feel at seeing them grow up healthy and happy in light of the recent formula shortage. For weeks, the sober reality of the struggle parents were facing was heavy in my heart, especially since formula was such a necessary part of our lives when the kids were little. And because crisis seems to bring out both the best and worst in human nature, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the challenges we faced during that difficult time as I scrolled through social media over the past couple of months. It is a strange thing to be slapped with a wave of fresh pain from an emotion you’ve long believed was tucked neatly away.
Regardless of what the All-Knowing Algorithm gives you, most people generally see the same type of content more or less when it comes to a current event like the formula shortage. So I imagine my readers saw the same mix of content that I did: posts about empty shelves, information on this place of that place where x type of formula was currently available, Grandpa’s Totally Fine Silent Generation formula recipe, pleas for help finding Formula Y for a baby with special health needs or just a baby that gets the runs when it has anything other than Formula Y.
And if you weren’t careful, you’d inevitably encounter a slew of self-righteous comments about how people are finally realizing Breast is Best, this is the result of selfish moms who don’t want to breastfeed, or – my personal favorite – “I worked three jobs and managed to breastfeed all six of my children.” I really, really wish that last one was in any way hyperbole, but it’s essentially a near-exact paraphrase of a comment I read just this week.
Breast milk is incredible. It’s a marvel of nature that somehow manages to be medicine, food, and familial bonding all at the same time. Unfortunately, my body did not know how to make it despite my torturing myself for months to try and make it work. But now that I’m older, looking at my incredibly healthy and well-adjusted kids, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it’s okay to let it go.
My first experience with breastfeeding happened years before I had my own babies. When we were in our early 20s, one of my dearest friends had a child, and watching her nurse that baby was one of the most lovely, life-affirming things I had ever seen. Over the first give or take two years of that child’s life, my friend nursed her baby everywhere. She nursed her when we were camping, when we were hanging out watching “Six Feet Under,” when we were at outdoor concerts at the park. And she was so good at being a mom, like this lovely image of Stevie Nicks as Mother Earth, that I knew I wanted to be just like her when I finally decided to have kids.
But things weren’t like that for me at all. After they handed me my baby, I tried to nurse right away. It was clear that he wasn’t getting any milk, but the lactation consultant encouraged me that sometimes, milk can come in later. It doesn’t take long for a baby to get put off of breastfeeding when there is no milk, so pretty quickly he would just scream in agony at being unable to get anything in his little hungry belly. Eventually, the lactation consultant told me I had to feed the baby something, and since I did not have any milk, we needed to use what was known as a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS).
The SNS was helpful but also distressing. It was essentially a necklace containing formula that I would wear around my neck. Tiny tubes coming out of the formula container would be taped to my nipples using medical tape. This way, the baby would continue to nurse but be getting something. In addition to using the SNS to feed him every couple of hours, I also needed to be pumping constantly to try to stimulate lactation. It was a miserable experience, one that detracted from the simple experience of being able to just love on and enjoy my child. Looking back, I wish I could tell myself to just forget about all that stress and be with your baby.
It wasn’t apparent that I was sick until I had been home from the hospital for a couple of days. I’ll save you the details, but I ended up back at the emergency room with an abdominal wall infection that would keep me in and out of the hospital for about five weeks and end with a cadaver tissue transplant.
It seems insane to me that I continued to try to breastfeed through all of that, but I did. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be heroic because, let’s face it, I’m not the hero type. It was because I was literally afraid of what would happen to my child if I did not breastfeed him. I had read and heard so much about the important benefits of nursing that it never occurred to me for a moment that I might not be able to do it myself.
That first night at the emergency room, I was literally shaking with a fever of 103 and managed to eke out a total of about an ounce of milk (if I’m being generous), sending it home to my husband and baby via my father-in-law. While I was in the hospital, I continued to try to pump and express as much milk as I could, an amount that never exceeded about an ounce max. A friend gave Justin a tub of organic formula and encouraged him to use it if he had to, and I continued to insist that he mix in the little bit of milk I could get with it.
After I got out of the hospital, I continued to torment myself for months with the SNS and pumping, heroically giving my child a half ounce at a time if I was lucky. That’s how I learned that the world is populated with breastfeeding experts. Everywhere I went, someone was there with “helpful” advice:
Had I tried fenugreek?
Yes, I told them. I was dutifully using some fancy supplement that was supposed to be the gold standard for milk production.
Had I asked my doctor about pharmaceuticals?
Yes, I was actually taking a medication prescribed off-label for stimulating milk. That medication was later pulled from the market because it was causing people to have tardive dyskinesia, a nerve condition that causes people to have uncontrolled movements. But yeah, I was taking it at the time to try and get just a little more milk.
Had I tried drinking more water? Beer? This one particular kind of beer? Had I tried this diet, that diet? Was I cosleeping? Was I pumping enough? Was I trying hard enough?
You get the point.
I finally quit trying around four months out of pure exhaustion and stricken with severe panic attacks unlike anything I had ever experienced. I worried constantly about what he was missing, but I just simply could not do it anymore.
We always thought that my breastmilk problems were a side effect of my infection. All that time in the hospital, as sick as I was, how could my body work like it was supposed to? When I was pregnant with Lucy three years later, I always imagined this time would be different. Sunshine, rainbows, nursing the baby until she was three years old. This time was going to be magical.
When I hit the late stages of pregnancy and I still didn’t have even the remotest signs of milk, I was worried. But I knew there was a good chance it would just come in after she was born.
Unlike my miserable experience after Arthur’s birth, Lucy’s birth was like something out of a storybook. It was a planned c-section because, despite the many people in my life who insisted I could still have a VBAC, that would have been a patently insane thing to do with Mary Shelley’s abdominal wall. On the morning of Lucy’s birth, I checked into the hospital, clear-headed and happy, and two hours later, I was holding this bright little magical being. I spent the day relaxing with her little glowing face in my presence, basking in the pure joy of basically not nearly dying of an intestine-strangulating infection.
Even though there was an evening-long tornado warning that kept us crowded in the hospital for part of our stay, everything was basically perfect except for one thing: I still didn’t have any milk. After I went home, I quickly ended up in the same mess that I was in with Arthur – SNS, pumping, fenugreek – a bitter half-ounce at a time.
Four months was the imaginary line I set for myself because in my mind that would make it fair. That was what I had given Arthur. So in between my full-time job and caring for my toddler, I tortured myself for a half-ounce at a time for four months. And when I was done, it felt as if I had a boulder lifted from my shoulders.
Maybe the trauma I put myself through gave my kids an added benefit. In a way, I looked at the little milk I gave them as medicine, not food, and back then, I didn’t know anything about milk banks or whether that was even an option. But it’s hard for me to believe, as I look back on those miserable months trudging through the pit of post-partum depression with an SNS strapped to my breasts, that my babies wouldn’t have gained more from having a calm, happy mother who was focused on taking care of them and herself. And what’s really shocking for me is that the medical professionals and other parents in my life continued to encourage me to nurse while seeing what I was going through.
I would later learn that as many as 15% of nursing parents can’t produce enough breast milk at three weeks postpartum. And while I acknowledge the value of wanting to encourage and support someone who is struggling to breastfeed, there comes a point where it’s important to let people know that formula may be the best option for their family. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where birth-giving parents are often expected to sacrifice their own bodies, minds, and spirits even when the cost of doing so is actually harmful to the parent and the family unit as a whole.
If breastfeeding is easy for you, I think that’s amazing and beautiful. But if it isn’t easy for you, or if you’re exhausted from juggling pumping and your job, or if your mental health is flagging, or if you’re struggling for any reason at all and you’re not sure if you want to keep doing it, it’s okay to let it go. Your pediatrician can help you find a good formula, and not breastfeeding doesn’t mean you won’t bond with your baby.
You don’t have a to torture yourself to raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted kids.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you find loads of joy this week in your little nebula.