“Are you breast-feeding him?” That seems to be the question of the hour. Usually, I don’t mind. It’s a point of conversation for most people, and if you’re a friend, I’ll open up to you about it. But sometimes, it’s a loaded question, and on this occasion, the elderly stranger crinkled up her nose in disgust when I responded almost apologetically, “No…”
I shouldn’t have felt the need to respond with shame, but I felt the judgment coming.
At that moment, her reaction collided with my post pregnancy hormones, and left me with threatening tears. With a simple look, she heaped guilt and dishonor upon me. Her disfigured countenance offered a stern reprimand for a situation she knew nothing about. She had no idea, that I was doing the best I could. That every scoop of formula and shake of a bottle pangs me with disappointment. That every ounce of expressed milk I have dumped down the drain because I have no way to store it is absolutely demoralizing.
I was devastated when I couldn’t breastfeed.
Formula was never in my plans. I gave away the sample cans that came in the mail. I turned down offers from other moms willing to give us their extras. We never even bought bottles when we planned for his arrival. He was going to be an exclusively breastfed baby. Our delivery plan said “No bottles, no pacifiers, baby in room with Mom.”
But… then my son was born 8 weeks early. After the briefest glimpse of him he was whisked off to the NICU where he stayed for 4 weeks. Bottles and formula were unavoidable there. I was hospitalized for 2 weeks out of his 4 because of a blood clot in my brain. I was unable to see him at all most days because I was in the progressive care unit under close watch. When I did get home, I wasn’t always able to make the trip to the hospital with Mark, due to the pain in my head.
Bottles were his only option.
By the time I got to him he was unable to latch, but he could nurse with a shield. After I was released we travelled back and forth to the hospital every day. An hour there, an hour back, and because of circumstances, we could only be there for one feeding. Once he was released, Zane had zero interest in nursing, even with a shield. I tried the “persistence” method at home, hoping he could eventually re-learn it, but I was struggling with postpartum depression and the process was too frustrating for both of us. At that point, stress-free feedings were of utmost importance.
But that wrinkled, contorted face screamed “lazy” back to me.
I wished for a second I could have shown her how hard I tried.
Because I tried.
Convenience was never my concern.
I pumped every 2 hours around the clock for 6 weeks straight. I pumped in the hospital while I was suffering excruciating pain from a blood clot in the brain. When they said I needed rest, I forfeited rest to make sure my son had every drop of that liquid gold I could produce. When my son got out of the NICU and wouldn’t nurse from the breast, I remained committed. I pumped and he ate it from the bottle… even though a feeding takes 40 minutes, and pumping adds an additional 40 minutes…. And this happened every two hours. My life revolved around my son’s food. When we were driving to and from appointments, I pumped in the car. When we had an engagement, I excused myself in the middle of it to go and pump. Nothing interfered with my commitment to my son.
I felt the judgment though. My son was getting inferior food because I was lazy… and selfish.
I wished for a moment I could tell her everything that was going on. That my son had internal bleeding and that they believed it was from my breast milk. That his hospital papers said he had “necrotizing entercolitis” – a horrifying diagnosis for a premature baby. That they ripped him off my milk without any input from his father and I. Then they said he had F-Pies and then a milk protein intolerance and I had to cut out every trace of dairy from my diet to continue breastfeeding, and I did it. I forfeited chocolate and cereal and ice cream, cheese, sour cream… even Doritos. I completely overhauled my diet to continue giving him the best. And then, he continued to bleed and they said I had to also cut out soy. And I did it. I overhauled my diet yet again. Foods I liked and could still eat were becoming scarce. There was very little left to pick from, but I wanted my son to have the best… Then I had the pressure of the mass outcry of concerned individuals who were steadfastly convinced that my blood thinners were making my son bleed. Doctors insisted it was impossible to pass through the milk, but it was another possibility. Then there was the idea that it was the large doses of ibuprofen I had to take that may be causing the problem –something I couldn’t cut out. I would not be able to function with the excruciating pain that nothing else seemed to touch.
In the background, I’ve wrestled back and forth with breastfeeding. He can’t nurse. He’ll never be able to. He can’t drink my milk right now- It could be months and months before he can have anything I store, and even then he might not be able to have it. I’ve gone days without pumping, believing I was ready to let it dry up, and then frantically pumped around the clock to revive it. I’ve given my son tidbits, then panicked at every little grunt and gargle. I’ve withheld it and watched my son shriek with gas pains and constipation on the formula, wishing desperately I could switch back. I’ve mourned the lost opportunity of giving this special gift to my son, as if I was mourning the death of a close friend.
But at any given moment someone can walk up to me and judge me for dumping a little powder in a bottle for my son…
And yet, there are so many reasons why ANY mother may choose formula for her child. Reasons that have nothing to do with the inconveniences of breastfeeding, or selfishness. There are single moms, or families in desperate financial situations who have to work, a host of medical problems with mom or baby that can interfere, medications that are unsafe to pass along through breastmilk, latch difficulties, postpartum depression, mother-baby separation… the list goes on.
The moms who aren’t giving their babies the best.
And these are my thoughts. I’m not sure why we ask each other this question. If you’re not prepared to offer support either way, what true relevance does the answer have for you? There are many who have asked me the breastfeeding question and then been able to follow my response with reassuring support and total understanding –right now, they are my heroes (shout out to my church ladies for being awesome!) But for those that are unable to do that –for those that are ready to applaud the nursing mama and throw tomatoes at the formula mama… (or vice versa) why do you ask?
If you’re not asking with the intention of supporting whatever the mother has chosen, and you’re not asking because maybe you intend to buy her a gift that corresponds with her method –like a nursing cover or boppy for the breastfeeder, or a “Mixie” bottle for the formula feeder (I’d love one by the way!), what is the point of asking?
I feel like the reason so many ask is because looming in the intangible background, there are teams.
The breast-feeding team. The formula team. And the reason why they exist, is because both sides either feel like they have to defend their choices to the other, or they feel superior to the other. People ask because they want to know if you’re on their team. But I’m not interested in being on a team. I have nothing against the formula moms. I have no diehard loyalty to the breastfeeding moms. I’m just a mom who wants what is best for her child –whatever that is. I would love to feed him the way nature intended. But nature doesn’t always work out. Nature would have let my 8-week preemie die, but we are blessed to live in a country with interventions that saved his life. Thank God there was an operating table, an incubator, and a medical field specializing in tiny little humans, and bottles to feed him when Mama couldn’t. Thank GOD that there is a shelf lined with options in every grocery store, for Mamas who have babies that can’t nurse for whatever reason. In another century, Zane and thousands of other babies may not have made it this far.
Right now, the important thing is that with the special formula my son was prescribed, he’s doing just fine. He’s not bleeding. He’s happy. He’s healthy. He’s growing like a weed. He’s being given what is best for him. If that changes, we’ll look over the options again and readjust to another plan. And that really ought to be the only thing any of us cares about. That the sweet little ones in our lives are getting the best we can do for whatever needs they have, and that Mamas are supported while they do their best to carry it out.
So in case you were still wondering.
No. I’m not selfish. I’m not inferior. I’m not lazy. I’m not withholding “the best” from my child…
I’m a Mama, I’m feeding my boy… and I’m giving it my all.
And that’s all that really matters.