I support breastfeeding. I really do. I thought I'd breastfeed my children until they were a year old.
I was wrong.
Very, very wrong.
And I can't help but get a lump in my throat when I see campaigns to encourage breastfeeding. I know breastfeeding advocates have their hearts in the right place. I know the moms who like pictures of breastfeeding groups on Facebook have the best intentions.
But what does it make me?
I could not have tried harder. I pumped 50 ounces of milk a day for the five months my babies were in the NICU. And I paid dearly for all that pumping with terrible knots that formed scar tissue, pushing me to the brink of mastitis again and again.
When moms complain about breastfeeding, I keep these thoughts to myself, because we all have our crosses to bear. Just because I couldn't nurse doesn't mean I should fail to be sympathetic to a mother who says she can't get any sleep because the baby wakes every two hours to breastfeed. Or because she can't go anywhere without her baby who is very literally attached to her. Or because she can't eat or drink anything without thinking of her little one. I know breastfeeding can be terribly inconvenient. And I do care. I would never want someone to keep those thoughts from me because I might have deep-seated sadness about so many things that were out of my control.
It's just that breastfeeding is an incredibly painful topic because it represents all that wasn't. My babies weren't born big enough to breastfeed…for months. I couldn't hold them and nurse them in the comfort of my home. We didn't bond over nursing. For us, nursing was challenging, precious minutes spent trying to get it all right before the baby got too hungry, or had a spell, or fell asleep. For us, nursing was a public activity done in busy NICU rooms behind a thin curtain with plenty of people to witness our failures.
I lived to breastfeed at home. I told myself that if I just kept at it, one day I would nurse my babies. I pumped, day and night. I cried many, many tears. I was in pain. I met with lactation consultants. I took herbs. I watched everything I ate, not just for its nutrient value but for any chance that it would discourage my production or irritate tiny bowels. I know I did everything in my power to ensure my babies could nurse at home.
With J, the stress of bringing him home after a 3-month NICU stay was just too much. He lost weight his first week at home, and his pediatrician discouraged us from nursing so that we could monitor each milliliter he ingested. Finally, after a month of me pumping around the clock, feeding a baby out of a bottle, and then washing all of the equipment involved, just to do the double set of work all over again two hours later…finally, we were cleared to breastfeed. And what happened? The woman who had been a Bessie cow producing huge volumes of milk…I dried up. My body quit on me. (Again.) I believe it just couldn't handle any more stress.
I try to encourage other NICU moms to forgive themselves when they have trouble pumping. It's so unnatural, and our bodies are already under so much stress. You just do the best you can, and then try to forgive yourself for the rest.
But, I know my advice is a bitter pill to swallow because I'm still choking on it.
Unlike J, M was a great eater, and the nurses said she would be our breastfeeder. She latched on the very first time we tried, when she weighed less than four pounds. She was tiny and amazing, and I will always cherish that moment. It wasn't long after we'd established a routine of me nursing her once a day in the hospital that she started having terrible diarrhea that caused an awful diaper rash. This continued for two weeks before we removed the high-calorie fortifier used to give my breast milk additional calories. After that, all dairy products became irritants. During her first days home, we were still battling the diarrhea, and her resulting weight loss, until I removed all dairy from my diet too. When she remained sick, we learned that soy allergies often accompany dairy allergies, and I was taking soy lecithin to loosen all of my blockages. I simply could not remove it from my diet too. I cried and cried because it seemed so unfair.
Over the course of three weeks, I let my supply drop until I had no more milk. It was a bitter time because I'd already received advice from my doctor to have no more biological children, thus no more chances at breastfeeding.
Both babies did get a substantial amount of breast milk during their first year. J actually got a mix of high-calorie formula and frozen breast milk until his first birthday. I know in my head that I must make peace with the way my children were fed. But, still nearly a year after I breastfed M for the last time, I am terribly sad about it.
I've decided that maybe more time will bring more perspective, but I can't help feeling that it will always be a sore subject. So, when I see people bashing moms who use bottles or rely on formula, I want to remind them not to be so judgmental. Truly, moms are lucky to be the ones to feed their babies. It is another amazing feat of the female body. But, you never know someone else's experiences. There are some of us who can't breastfeed--despite our best efforts. We can't. We cannot feed our own babies, and it is a failure of our bodies that we take very personally. And we don't need anyone to remind us to be disappointed.
Being unable to breastfeed doesn't make me less of a mother. It doesn't make me less of a woman. Really, it doesn't. But, try telling me that. Try telling all of us, all the Preemie Mamas, that. We already feel so much guilt over how we had our babies. We are already so angry with ourselves for failing to carry our babies full term. We see those tiny, skinny, fragile babies when we close our eyes at night. And breastfeeding? It's another reminder of all that we couldn't do for our children.
Breastfeeding Mamas, we just ask that you be kind to us. Please be kind.