How I Learned To Breastfeed

When Ben was five days old, I cradled him in my arms and tried to disappear into the soft fabric of our old recliner.  We had been home from the hospital for 24 hours, and my tiny newborn son was screaming and wiggling as I tried desperately to latch him on to my breast.

It was the same recliner that I had rocked his big brother in, just four years before.  The recliner that was once soaked with tears and stained with vomited formula.  The recliner that had to bear witness to the exhausted arguments of a newly minted mom and dad.  The recliner that helped me soothe my first sweet son, as reflux bit at his tongue.

Four years later, I was terrified that our nursery chair would be home to similar nightmares.

Our doula stared back at me that afternoon, and smiled calmly.  “Take him off of your breast” she said.  “Bring him up to your chest and let him calm down.  Sometimes babies need a re-set.”  Hands trembling, body aching, nipples burning, I did as she said.  Ben’s tiny body began to uncoil.  “Now put him back at your breast” she whispered.  “Hold his head like this and wait for his mouth to open.”  She grabbed my breast in her cold hand, and fit the two of us together like puzzle pieces.  When Ben began to nurse, I looked at her and cried.  “Was he screaming because I don’t have enough milk?!” I asked, anxiety and exhaustion pouring from the medicated, partially numb depths of my stomach. “I have formula in the hall closet, just in case…should I go get it?” I sobbed.   “You have enough milk.” she said gently.  “He doesn’t need that much.  He’s learning.  You’re both learning”.  And I believed her.

Looking back on that day, I’m pretty sure that my milk hadn’t come in yet.  But our doula didn’t say that.  What she said was “It’s going to be ok.  You’re going to figure it out.  Put him back on your breast.”  Had she not been there that day, I wouldn’t be breastfeeding.  She lifted us up with kindness, and told me that I knew how to do this.  She promised me that Ben was healthy, and reminded me that he had started gaining weight again.  She gave me the confidence that I needed to become a breastfeeding mother.  She welcomed me into the club.

How was I finally able to breastfeed?

It was because you accepted me.

I am breastfeeding Ben not because I’m good at it, but because a community of women opened their arms to embrace me.  A community of breastfeeding advocates let a formula mom ask questions.  A tribe of women, mothers and grandmothers alike, came together to assure me that no question was too ridiculous, no fear was inconsequential.  You shared your “week” with me then, so that I could share it with you now.

This week, Suzanne Barston, Jamie Lynne Grumet and I have launched the “I Support You” project.  It’s been a chance for me to revisit the old wounds of failure, regret, and shame.  I was never able to breastfeed my first son.  I am exclusively breastfeeding my second son.  And I have been asked time and again, how I was able to finally succeed at my second chance at breastfeeding.  The answer flies in the face of every breastfeeding activist who has accused us of “stealing” World Breastfeeding Week from them.  You let me join you.  You didn’t shame me.  When I was a formula mom, you invited me into your living rooms and sat next to me as we fed our babies together.  When I was pregnant this time you shared tips about nursing bras and pumping supplies.  After Ben was born you took my phone call at dinner time and told me how to do a “football hold”.  So when you tell us this week that “I Support You” is overshadowing your breastfeeding celebration, you are closing a door that I was counting on you to hold open.

Most women who formula-feed have tried desperately to breastfeed.  I remember wanting so badly to be in your secret club.  I wore the right clothes, I spoke your language, and when my body failed me, there were women who told me that formula was poison.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  If you really want to know how to create more breast-feeders, shouldn’t you ask the formula moms?  It’s basic Kindergarten politics.  You must be a friend to make a friend.  Be kind.  Show me what you want me to understand.  I believed in breast-feeding because breastfeeding women were kind to me.  I believed in the power of what my body could do, because someone taught me what I was capable of.  Shaming women who choose formula doesn’t make them like breastfeeding any more.  It alienates them.  It makes them feel like they don’t matter.  You are leaving people out of an important conversation.  So many parents have told me this week that they feel invisible when they formula-feed.  If you are not reaching out to them with kindness, then you are part of the problem.  Do you embrace all kinds of families?  Do you teach  your children that we are all the same inside?  “I Support You” doesn’t mean that you can’t be proud of your own choices, it means that you shouldn’t judge somebody else for theirs.  Some of the women that you’re shaming might want to try to breastfeed next time.  Who will they turn to if you turn your backs on them to focus on your celebration?  Some of the women that you’re lashing out against may never choose to breastfeed.  Does it really matter to you how they feed their babies?  Is it not hypocritical to believe in the right to nurse in public, but not in the right to choose whatever food you want for your baby?  I’ll defend your rights, if you defend mine.  I Support You.

I have been contacted by so many women this week, asking what they can do to get their own “second chance”.  I struggle with what to tell them.  There are too many variables that lie just out of our reach, and those variables can change everything.  Your baby’s health.  Where you live in relation to where support services are.  How your body recovers from delivering your baby.  But what can you do?  You can find a supportive, loving, brilliant community of women, and you can ask them to teach you.  Show me how to hold my baby.  Tell me what a “let-down” feels like.  Explain what over-supply is.  Tell me I’m not alone.  You can hire a doula, and make sure that she is also there to support you post-partum.  You can read books, and eat lactation cookies, and ask your friends to bring meals for your family.  Most importantly, you can keep your baby on your breast for as long as possible, as often as possible.  I am not an expert.  I am a second-time mom who was so hurt by not being able to nurse her first baby, that I’ve martyred myself to the breastfeeding gods for my second.  My nipples are raw and I am exhausted.  I’m probably the last person you should ask for advice.  I wince every time Ben latches on the left, and I’m crazy enough that I’m refusing to pump, even if it will allow my nipples to  heal.  I want him nursing on me, no matter the cost.  But that is my choice.  And if it’s your choice to feed your baby formula, then sister, I’ve got your back.  I love you for being an amazing mom, and I Support You.

This week is about all of us, and I’m sorry if that makes people angry.  Breastfeeding Week is experienced by those who formula-feed, whether you like it or not.  “Quiet down” you tell them.  “Don’t make waves.”  The invisible parents are still listening, still hoping for an ounce of acknowledgement.  And you tell them “Not this week.  This week is ours.  You need to stay invisible this week.”  Not on my watch.  This week is about being bigger than your feeding choice, and being proud of your mothering.  Celebrate the fact that you can breastfeed, and then turn around and help someone else do the same.  Make me proud to be one of you, now that I’m on the other side.

I was lucky enough to be embraced by a tribe of women.  They surrounded me online.  They came one by one to feed my family.  And they cradled my shoulders in their arms, in that old worn recliner, and believed in my power to make milk.  I am one of you now, and I’m holding the door wide open.

 

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Comments:

  1. Christina Gathright says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I struggled with breastfeeding my first and ended up supplementing with formula. It broke my heart, but our pediatrician and friends and family reminded me that as long as Dylan was healthy and gaining weight then I was doing my job as a mother. I’ve been so lucky to exclusively breastfeed our daughter. Anytime a new mom or friend asks me about breastfeeding versus formula I always tell them there is no versus. If you aren’t able to and need to use formula that’s ok and don’t let anyone tell you any different or try to shame you. As women and mothers we should always support each other.

  2. TheHaligonian says:

    This is one of the most powerful posts I’ve ever read. There’s a point here that I hadn’t considered the enormity of…that even if you don’t breastfeed (and regardless of the reason) you still have a stake in the breastfeeding discussion. It seems so straightforward and obvious after reading this…”shouldn’t you ask the formula moms”. Yes! And the EPing moms, and anyone really who ever considered breastfeeding and took another path due to choice or circumstance. Breastfeeding Week should be a chance to open the discussion, to share ideas, create an inclusive environment, and most importantly to gain something by supporting other women in the way that they need to be supported (not by shaming or with scare tactics)…otherwise it’s simply a private party where women who already breastfeed get to pat themselves on the back.

  3. I’m someone who doesn’t like the timing of this campaign, but it’s not because I think that moms who use formula should stick to the sidelines and shut up. It’s because the message I keep hearing is that I am shaming moms by being a breastfeeding advocate. Yours is one of the few posts I’ve read that talked about how breastfeeding advocates can help moms breastfeed even if they’ve had problems in the past. And, you know, they provided that nonjudgmental support without needing a whole anti-Mommy-War campaign to prompt them.

    I feel that this campaign ignores the fact that so many breastfeeding advocates/lactivists already feel and act this way, lumping us in with the bad guys, who are few and far between. Additionally, it ignores that there are plenty of people who undermine breastfeeding, even in seemingly innocent ways (some examples of that here – http://www.theboobgeek.com/blog/6-seemingly-innocent-things-not-to-say-to-a-breastfeeding-mo.html).

    I’d have similar criticisms if this hadn’t launched during World Breastfeeding Week, but since it did, it seems almost like it’s meant to be rude to breastfeeding advocates, and a way to co-opt our theme and week for another (albeit noble) agenda.

    That said, I really liked your first few paragraphs; it is a lovely illustration of how important timely support can be.

  4. This is amazing. I share a similar story about breast feeding, although I was never even pregnant with my own son. I would absolutely love to connect with you via email! Give me a shout, mama. Hugs!

  5. thank you for writing this! I breast feed my daughter and it is one of the most special things I do. Anytime we have had trouble, I get terribly upset, I cry and think she’s weaning…then I talk to my doula. I calm down, we nurse. Support is KEY.
    I always want to support breast feeding, not make people feel “less than” or bad, I cannot imagine how I would feel if I couldn’t breast feed but you know, my next child- we might have issues and then I would want support and kindness for other moms if I needed/chose to use formula. Great read. 🙂

  6. Although I truly love what you’ve said here (I’m do tired of the mommy wars-about everything), as a breast feeding mom I’m constantly being pushed to use formula. It’s exhausting. The hospital gave me formula, the pediatrician gave me formula, I got sent formula. And the hospital and pediatrician knew I wanted to breast feed. And it seems if there is any bump in the road, the doctors immediately jump to the formula. You’re baby has gas-formula! You’re baby isn’t gaining weight fast enough (despite being completely healthy and developing normally)-formula! Your baby doesn’t sleep through the night yet-formula! You need to feed your baby away from home-formula! Doctors and hospitals need to find ways to be more supportive of those of us who do want to breast feed exclusively.
    I have several friends who have tried to breast feed but were not able to. I understand there are obstacles. And I fully support their choices. I’m just tired of people not supporting mine.
    I’m happy to talk to anyone about breast feeding and to try to help them succeed if that is their choice. In fact one of my dearest friends was just like you. She wasn’t able to breast feed with her first, but really wanted to with her second. We had many conversations after the birth of her second trying to work out any issues she was having. I was happy to take her calls at 3am if that’s when she needed me. I’ve had a great experience breast feeding despite a rough patch at the beginning with my first and I’d love to help anyone else to have a great experience breast feeding as well.

  7. “Celebrate the fact that you can breastfeed, and then turn around and help someone else do the same. “.
    Exactly! As you’ve said, your are new to the breastfeeding thing. So I’ll just say this. Celebrating breastfeeding triumphs and helping others succeed, too, is the entire point of World Breastfeeding Week. All the negative assumptions that you have shared in the article are just vestiges from the time you spent fictionalizing what it means to be a breastfeeding advocate. Now that you are one, embrace it and watch the stereotypes fade away.

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