I guess breastfeeding, for me, is over? I’m still pumping for now, but the actual part that involves baby and boob in proximity to one another, I think the lights have gone up and the credits are rolling over that scene.
If it makes me feel any better (it doesn’t make me feel any better!), in hindsight I can see it was kinda doomed from the start. I’d written some scraps about our breastfeeding woes as they occurred in realtime but life’s current kept bobbing me swiftly downriver and I never had a chance to fashion any of the scraps into a real post. So here I am, really writing about it for the first time, and it’s dusted. Done. Buried. Gone. Put to bed.
Up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T.
Since it’s over I could just maybe not say anything about it? That’s an option, to let sleeping boobs lie. But I feel like another option is to not do that. I feel like another option is to dig a hole and bury the thing in words.
So I guess I might as well start digging.
Everything I read about breastfeeding during pregnancy was like: it is the tits, literally and figuratively. They were like: it’s free, and it’s amazing, and it’s free, and it’s natural, and it’s nature, and it’s bonding. And I was like: okay, I mean, that sounds pretty good. Sign me up.
The way it worked always did sound foreign to me! Initially you produce colostrum, which could also double as the name of a nu metal band. After that your milk will come in, ostensibly without knocking first; that involves experiencing “let down,” which sounds like a real bummer of a time. Physiologically it made sense but I had a difficult time applying these concepts to my own body. Any time I tried to imagine myself breastfeeding I just pictured the photos from our hospital education booklets; the lady with a wispy halo of permed hair and a lacy white nightgown sitting in a rocking chair and smiling serenely at the lump of a baby in her lap.
And when the baby finally came, I still couldn’t really insert myself into the picture.
Straight off there was the issue of latching, for which there is a proper technique, and it turns out the baby doesn’t necessarily instinctively know it and neither do you. I tried to learn how just as nature intended, via older, heavyset women marching into the recovery room and yanking my baby and boobs around. Next they wheeled in a pump and told me to use it for at least 15 minutes after every breastfeeding attempt. The cumulative effect felt a little bit like dipping my nipples into a tiny garbage disposal every other hour!
I’d heard breastfeeding could be difficult and demanding at first, yet I was wholly unprepared for how difficult and demanding it could be. I’d just had major surgery and all I wanted to do was succumb to a black velvet wave of sleep but the baby needed to feed every couple of hours or more, and then I needed to pump afterwards. So I’d finally get all that done and close my eyes and fall face-first into the void and BANG the nurses would come bustling in the door to monitor one or both of us. And every time they weighed the baby it seemed the number on the scale decreased, which was the complete wrong direction they wanted the number to go, so the pressure to feed and pump grew and grew.
And I sure as hell wasn’t sleeping.
There we sat for three days, in various states of undress as various professionals came to watch me and Vera flail at one another. I was given a silicone shield to wear to help baby find and latch onto the nipple, and to also sort of dampen the garbage disposal effect. By the third day I was given an award for not causing her to lose too much more weight in the form of being allowed to leave the hospital and take my baby home, so we could flail at one another in more comfortable circumstances. Believe me, after looking out the window at a parking garage for half of a week, I was thrilled to be able to sit on my very own sofa and gaze onto the dumpsters in the alley.
Surprisingly, the baby and I did not quite get the hang of breastfeeding even in these upgraded environs. At our first and second pediatrician visits we found the baby hadn’t gained any more weight, which was a bad thing. The pediatrician’s lactation consultant laid forth a plan for feeding, pumping, and supplementing with a bottle of expressed milk which ultimately conflicted considerably with what our doula told us during a postnatal (namely, that I shouldn’t pump and also bottles are the devil!). We drove several miles south to see a different lactation consultant, where the baby took almost an hour and a half to drink an ounce and a half, even with me prodding, poking, and switching sides. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” the consultant said, “and it’ll work itself out.”
Eventually it worked itself out, or seemed like it did. At our one-month checkup the baby had gained a bit of weight and while she was still hovering in the first and second percentiles the pediatrician was pleased with her progress. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said!
What we were doing, unfortunately, was a lot of sitting around while the baby endlessly grazed and dozed. At first I’d tried so hard not to let her fall asleep, but she was so insistent that I eventually let nature take its course. After a time she stopped taking naps anywhere else, so it started to make even more sense to just let her sleep. And soon enough it became our normal routine. The baby would eat, and then she would sleep. A Boob SnackTM followed by a Boob NapTM. She would briefly wake, and then she would do it again. And again.
Every time I think back on those first few weeks I’m overcome by the singular sensation of being trapped on my sofa under a stack of feeding pillows, my ass aching, with all of my electronics resting just outside fingertips’ reach. To a degree this was normal, and then again to a degree it wasn’t — but I couldn’t know that then, because I had no other experience with which to compare. Around the end of January I finally figured out that I could set up my laptop on a small table on our bed and that became our go-to nursing spot. We spent all of February like this, tucked away in my bedroom as winter dragged on outside the window. The baby ate and slept on my lap, and I knocked out a few hours of work every week and browsed Facebook. I felt more person-shaped, but then again not quite. We were surviving, but we weren’t thriving — neither of us were.
And my ass still ached like a motherfucker.
The thing about endless winters is that they always do come to an end, and I distinctly remember the day I realized ours was on the way out. I’d gone out for my usual long walk with the baby strapped to me in the carrier, but that day I had to stop in the middle to tie my jacket around my waist. The sunlight felt golden warm instead of wan, and all around me giddy nine-to-fivers tumbled out of their vacuum-sealed offices to soak it in. Together we were like foals on new legs, tottering dumbstruck over crusted piles of old snow that looked just like the pebbled ice you’d find in your red plastic cup at the pizza parlor.
Later that same week my supply dropped, or at least I had to assume it did, based on the fact that the baby had begun shaking her head back and forth like a dog with a chew toy and wailing in frustration. For a few days our dark winter came back with a fury, and at its nadir Vera was on me for nearly 14 hours out of 24. I started scrambling, doing everything I could to boost my milk while burning through my freezer supply. She just couldn’t get enough to eat and the whole thing left me shaking, reeling; feeling like we were stuck in that hospital room again.
In the middle of the metaphorical storm, on Saturday, March 14, I went out for a run for the very first time since I’d quit two thirds of the way through pregnancy. It felt starkly strange to be out in public without wearing the baby, and as I ran I thought about how weird that was, to have gotten used to being physically, literally attached to another person. I thought about how draining that had been, and I thought about how resentful it made me feel.
By the time I got back home I’d decided I was going to start supplementing with formula.
Here’s a quick tip for you: never consult the internet about formula. It is poison pushed by greedy corporations, in case you didn’t know. Google it and ye shall receive 100 pages of concern trolling in the guise of “information.” Thinking about formula-feeding, dear mother? That’s fine, it’s your choice, if your choice is to make your baby sick and ruin their guts and limit their intelligence and destroy any chance of bonding, because people who feed their babies formula probably don’t even bother to hold them while doing so!
If I sound like I’m taking it personally, that’s because I was. I had absorbed so much rah-rah about how beneficial breastfeeding was that introducing formula genuinely felt like something that could maybe break my baby. Nevermind that the actual science around breastfeeding benefits is hazy at best. Nevermind that the anecdata I’d collected on myself and pretty much the rest of my generation supports formula-fed babies turning out fine. Listen: the sad truth is that I am easily swayed by the loudest voices in the room, and at the time the loudest ones were yelling about boobs. Breasts were supposed to be best because they were natural, so if I gave my baby something unnatural bad things were sure to follow, right?
What actually happened was that I gave my baby the formula, and everything got better. Maybe it was sheer coincidence; maybe it was a desperate narrative I constructed about the changing of the seasons to make myself feel better. But after I started supplementing with formula, Vera took off, growth and development-wise. After I started supplementing with formula, we established naps that didn’t involve my boobs for even one second. After I started supplementing with formula, I started feeling the closest to myself I had felt in a long while. None of this happened immediately, of course, but I can trace the line of progress back to this one single turning point in March. It was so good that I never wanted to go back.
So supplementing with formula turned out for me to be one of the best choices I made, and for that I was glad. But then I started to get mad.
Because breastfeeding was supposed to be free, except for all the time I had spent. And breastfeeding was supposed to be amazing, except I had floundered. And breastfeeding was supposed to be natural, except I’d never even figured out how to get the baby to eat without using the damn nipple shield. There’s nothing more “natural” than sucking on a piece of molded silicone!
I felt guilty, and I was mad about that too. In hindsight I could see I’d probably had supply issues from the start; I never did have much in the way of let-down. She’d probably never quite gotten enough to eat even before my supply dropped and forced my hand. I’d spent three and a half months trying to exclusively breastfeed when I probably should have started formula much sooner.
People told me: at least you tried! But tell me: why are the women who tried the only ones deserving of the choice? And how much trying, exactly, is enough trying? Because I could have tried much harder. I could have pumped a hundred times a day. I could have gone to see every lactation consultant in a 100-mile radius. I could have found a milk donor instead of falling back on formula. I could have tried everything, everything in my power, and that still wouldn’t have been enough.
I was mad at our culture for idolizing breastfeeding, and I was mad at myself for being so shitty at it.
So when spring came I happily settled into a routine of feeding the baby half-and-half bottles of formula and pumped breast milk. And I was still breastfeeding twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, mainly so she wouldn’t forget. The breastfeeding remained pretty much just a light snack and then a nap, because my boobs always worked their best magic as a stimulus for the baby’s Pavlovian sleep response. But Vera seemed to dig it. Sometimes when I was pulling her onto the feeding pillow she’d look up at me and smile, and that made me feel good. It made me feel like we were on the right track.
After maybe a month or two I dropped the night feed because she was consistently too distracted to last even five minutes. But I still kept up the morning feed, despite it being kind of a pain in the ass to set up. I’d have to arrange the pillows on the bed just so, and move my laptop to the little table, and make sure my coffee and lip gloss and tissue and breakfast bar were all within reach before we settled in. It was annoying, but it was our little routine; our last link to what we did all the damn time for the first few months of her life.
By the start of summer, some days I couldn’t get her to latch.
And by Independence Day, she straight-out refused every time.
And I had been running so mad about breastfeeding for so long that I was wholly unprepared to suddenly find myself smacking flat into a blunt wall of grief.
It was like… it was like someone had called and told me Breastfeeding had finally died after a long, difficult illness. Everyone had seen it coming but the reality was still a shock. I spent the better part of an afternoon crying, snot dripping from my nose as I bottle-fed my daughter. Then I’d see the dumb nipple shield sitting on the counter and start again. I cried for so long about breastfeeding’s demise that I gave myself a headache.
Why? It was so dumb. It was honestly one of the dumbest series of emotions I’d experienced since maybe 2006, when I became so hysterical over the beau bowling a higher score than me that I locked myself in his car, crying, and wound up using all the fast food napkins I could find in his glove compartment to mop my face. I had no idea why I reacted that way. If I was my own friend coaching me through this Difficult Time I’d have rolled my eyes and said, “But don’t you remember how you hated breastfeeding? Seriously, you really hated it!”
I did! But I came to realize that it wasn’t the end of breastfeeding that I was so upset about, it was the loss of a connection to a completely different season. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that tiny baby on the other end of this thread that had once been so tightly entwined in our lives. I didn’t want to let go of what we’d had together, even though what we had felt like all sharp edges at the time I was handling it.
Such is my curious lot, to feel all ways at once about everything, even as none of those ways make any sense!
Other parents say it goes so fast but I don’t believe that time has actually sped up. It’s just that now I have this wriggling yardstick of rapid change to measure the rest of my relatively stationary life against. Seven months ago she didn’t know her own hands even existed and now she’s trying to use them to crawl! No wonder it feels like you never have the chance to enjoy what happens in the moment, there are just too many moments careening by you all at once. You find yourself chasing them down, even the bad ones, grasping desperately as they disappear, all Eternal Sunshine-style.
I’d wanted one more time, one last Boob SnackTM and Boob NapTM hurrah, but I never got it. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye in person, so I’ll say it here. This is my final tribute. This is my rotating slideshow of memories projected on a screen at the wake. Breastfeeding is dead and I’ve dug the hole and buried it, except for the 1,895 times a day I’m visited by its ghost.
I’m going to have to keep digging, huh?