Thursday, February 12, 2015

The End of My Breastfeeding Journey

Note: this post includes babies, curse words, feelings, and boobs.  If that's not your bag, check back next week for more sewing!

Wesley at about six weeks. I felt so proud to be able to nourish my baby in this way.
I will always cherish this photo, but it is a moment in time, and not the definition of my motherhood.
This picture is from the same day as the one above.
Rocking some formula and no less legitimate  
As I come to the end of my breastfeeding journey, I feel the need to add my voice to the online mama-clamor about nursing. Mine has been a difficult and emotional journey with my babies and my body, and I want to share that story here, in the hopes that some other struggling mama will find it, and find some strength in my words.

When Sophie was born, I never considered that I would do anything but breastfeed exclusively, proudly, publicly, smugly, probably until she turned one or graduated college.  Why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't anyone breastfeed their baby? It seemed so obvious, what the loving mother did.

And, as is everyone who has never been a parent, I felt that I was an expert.  I'd read the book, I'd done the class, I even taught women to breastfeed as a labor and delivery nurse. It was natural.  It was easy.  It was what my body was made for.  Nipples out, ladies!

Probably I doomed myself with so much bitchy pride.

Probably I deserved everything that came after.

Soph didn't have a great latch. She would latch on and fall asleep, and so we would sit, latched and sleeping, for hours. An eternity, even.  By the time I realized this was a problem, I was a week or two in, and predictably my milk was not a-flowing.

We spent hundreds of dollars on lactation consultants, herbs, pumps, and a completely ineffective craniosacral therapist. I pumped after I nursed, eight times a day. I didn't leave the house, lest I miss a pumping session. It took an hour every time. I sunk deeper and deeper into a depression I refused to acknowledge. I barely had any milk, even with all the pumping, and Soph mostly ate formula.  She screamed all the time, and at 10 weeks her doctor diagnosed her with a milk and soy intolerance and put her on special formula. If I wanted to continue nursing, I would have to go on an elimination diet.

After these 10 weeks of self-flagellation, I decided to call it quits.

 It was a good decision, and yet I felt so guilty.  I cried that whole day.  I told Jon that night "Now I'm not her mother, I'm just a caregiver.  Now anyone can do for her what I do."

Fucking seriously?  What on earth made me think that?!  What made me think that breastfeeding was the only thing that made me a mother? How did I let it define me? How did a lack of milk become such a betrayal?

Soph was raised on hypoallergenic (and outrageously expensive) formula, and she thrived.  She is smart, funny, and healthy. There is nothing that breastmilk could have done for her that formula did not. When she graduates college, no one will look at her and sigh "if only she'd been breastfed."  She will not look at me like a stranger for our lack of early bonding.  And yet I couldn't see that. I'd been somehow made to believe that breastfeeding and motherhood were the same, that nursing defined my success.

The second time around, I was ready.  If I start pumping right away, I thought, I'll be gushing milk.  "And if it doesn't work, I'll just stop,  I won't be emotionally attached," I promised a skeptical husband.

For the first two weeks, Wesley and I seemed to be doing great.  Then he stopped gaining, got jaundiced, and developed the milk and soy intolerance that his sister had.  I hopped back on the nurse-pump-supplement train, giving up milk and soy in my diet and replacing them with meat, which I hadn't eaten in 15 years, because I didn't know what else to eat. Wes stopped nursing and so I just pumped, managing to eek out 2-3 bottles a day on my low supply. I kept telling myself "I'm choosing to pump.  I can quit any time I want. I'm not letting it define me this time." And to a large degree, that's been true, helped largely by the antidepressants I started midway through my pregnancy.

And two weeks ago I suddenly started to LOATHE pumping.  It takes time, it hurts, it makes me mildly nauseous when I have a letdown, it's generally a pain in the ass. And so I quit.  I weaned down and then gave away my pump. And it feels good. And I don't feel guilty, not even a little tiny bit, and that feels really really good.

For a time, pumping was what was right for my family. It was right for my baby, for me as a mom.  It was somehow easily accepted as normal by my sweet Soph. Rather than feeling neglected by the whole thing, she would play at pumping with some of my spare pump parts, or cuddle up with me on the couch and read a book with me while I pumped.

But now, NOT pumping is right for my family, and for me as a mom. I'm ready to take back control of my diet, my time, and my body. I'm ready to reclaim the sad little tube socks that used to be cute perky boobs.

I now know that there are so many good ways to be a mom. Sure we all say that we know that, but I didn't really. Sometimes it's hard to see the other side until you're there.  But now I know the anguish of feeling like I couldn't do it, the guilt of "failing." I know that the liquid that may or may not come out of my chest does not define me as a mother. It has almost nothing to do with my motherhood.

And I know that, here in hippie-tastic Ann Arbor, I may be judged when I pull out bottles for my baby. Women who don't know my journey may wonder why I "didn't bother" to breastfeed.  Women will think the things about me that I thought before I knew. But now, unlike when Sophie was a baby, I will not feel the urge to explain myself.  I will not self-consciously make excuses for the way I nourish my baby. I will not try to cutely acknowledge that it is sub-par ("yucky formula, poor baby" I used to say to Soph when I pulled out bottles in public).

Wesley will be a rocket scientist.  Or not.  He will be super healthy.  Or not.  He will be attached to me. Or not.  But none of these outcomes will be linked to the number of ounces I managed to pump. I will not look back and wish I'd "made it" to six months instead of five.

Breastfeeding is amazing and beautiful and magical. I continue to celebrate it in my friends, teach it and advocate for it at my work. I revere it and I marvel at it.  But I don't do it. And I'm good with that.

Breast is best.  Except when it's not.

I could never have understood that until I'd walked a mile in my pumping bra. I'm grateful for the shitty, humbling experience I've had.  It's made me a better mother, better nurse, better friend to my fellow Mamas.

Time to move forward.


  1. Thanks for putting it so very eloquently. Viktor and I went through one hell of a journey too. They said "sleep when the baby sleeps". The pumping and cleaning up routine took an hour of the two that he'd sleep for only 0.5 oz/pump. We only made it to 8 weeks. I'm no less a mother and at 7 months, my kid is in the 95th percentile for weight - apparently formula is good for him! Thank you for sharing and putting into words everything I was feeling.
    Niki :)

  2. Niki, thank you so much for reading and sharing your story. You've mentioned the huge huge compounding factor to all of this: sleep deprivation!! My father said to me once, while I was in a particularly crazy moment "remember sleep deprivation is a classic form of torture. You're not supposed to be able to function like this." We spent 8 hours a day pumping that lots of other people spend SLEEPING!
    You gave your baby 8 weeks of breastmilk which is totally amazing! Viktor is beautiful and you are an awesome Mama!

  3. Good for you, Elise. You know we adopted and I was told that if I pumped before the baby came, I could force my body to product breast milk for the baby. Imagine how much I would have had to pump to make that happen if you couldn't do it after actually having a baby! Sorry, but I didn't even try it. When baby boomers (like me) were born, most women used bottles (and, OMG, cow's milk!!) and somehow we (and my adopted, formula-fed children) grew up anyway, and some of us (if not most of us) actually turned out well - healthy, smart, kind, etc.. I think there are lots of ways to bond with a baby that don't involve breast feeding. Mothering is about being there for your kids, through thick and thin, not just about breast feeding. Thanks for sharing your beautiful family and your well-considered opinions.

    1. Such a good point Elise! I've talked a lot about what motherhood ISN'T (i.e., it isn't all about breastfeeding) but let's talk about what motherhood IS: it's being there through good and bad, creating a safe space where our children know they can be themselves always, loving them unconditionally. The one thing we all have in common is that we would do anything for our babies!

  4. First of all, I am a tad bit pissed off that my blog stopped letting me know you had new posts. I'm like 3 months behind over here because I was thinking to myself, "Oh, Elise hasn't been blogging lately." Wrong!

    This post was fantastic. And hilarious. I am well acquainted with both sides here. I got to have those wonderful moments of breastfeeding, but only after one child that couldn't breastfeed. Like you, I was chained to my pump. Like your previous poster Mrs. Leidner said, when you're pumping you get like half an hour to actually sleep! I hated that damn thing. It took Jared physically pulling the pump from my hands to get me to quit. I somehow thought that 5-10mls was worth 30 minutes of my efforts 10 times a day. I'm glad I got the chance to breastfeed successfully in my subsequent pregnancies, but that experience with Bailey brought me down off my breast-is-best high horse.

    It's sad what the hormones can do to a woman! It sucks that they warp our brains at times (ie: "I'm only her caregiver.") You're an awesome mom! I'm glad that you are at peace with your tube socks and their lack of milk. I'm also glad that you can consume cheese again. lol And thank God you don't have to drag that pump along on vacation in a few weeks! ;)

    1. Vanessa, the url changed when the shop took over You probably have to change your blogroll to

      Hormones are CRAZY things! How is it that we evolved to become emotional wrecks convinced that we are ruining our babies?! Terrible design! It doesn't help that there are a thousand forces around us bent on telling us that there's only one right way to do things. (Forces like ME three years ago!) I had a run-in today with a lactation consultant who said the "new outlook" is not to talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, but rather to reframe the conversation around "the risks of formula" as if formula is some risky and unnecessary new drug I'm experimenting with on my baby, instead of a very valid form of sustinance that admittedly doesn't have the antibodies that breastmilk has. I never want this to become a boob-bashing conversation, because we need to support and encourage our breastfeeding mamas...just like we need to support and encourage ALL MAMAS! No. Matter. What.