I feed my baby formula. Exclusively. Here in Brooklyn that’s one of the biggest parenting offenses you can commit. It’s right up there with circumcision and “crying it out” in terms of emotionally scarring your child for life. I didn’t plan to feed my baby formula. Or, I should say that wasn’t my preference. But ever since I had breast reduction surgery when I was 19, I knew that it was unlikely I’d be able to exclusively breastfeed any babies I had. My surgeon told me it was a “wait and see” thing and that I wouldn’t know whether I’d be able to breastfeed until I had a baby and tried to.
When Jackson was born, I didn’t try to breastfeed him right away. The first 12 hours were just so crazy that I can’t remember why I didn’t try. Did I not know I should? Did no one suggest it to me? Was I too tired? Was I scared that I couldn’t do it? I can’t remember. But I do remember about 12 hours or so after he was born visiting him in the NICU, where he was being treated for jaundice and low blood sugar, and attempting to breastfeed for the first time then. Jackson, Drew and I sat in this small private room just off the NICU and with a pillow on my lap to prop up the baby, I tried to feed him. He was so little, though — only 5 pounds — and his mouth so tiny, that we weren’t able to get a good latch. Consequently, that was the first time I failed at breastfeeding.
The nurses encouraged me to pump to increase milk production and to make some bottles we could feed Jackson. But I didn’t pump. Not really. I tried half-heartedly a couple of times after a nurse showed me how to use the electric pump and stood there waiting for me to give it a go, but I gave up after a few minutes. I’m not sure why I didn’t give it more effort. In retrospect I suspect I was afraid to discover my breasts were empty.
It was only when I left the hospital and in the privacy of my own home, I finally pumped for the first time for real (we rented an electric pump from the hospital). And just as I feared, nothing came out. Well, I shouldn’t say nothing — a very little amount of milk came out. We hired a postpartum doula who came to our apartment and gave us some baby care support and instruction. She asked me if I’d tried to breastfeed yet and I told her I had and that it wasn’t going well. She asked me to show her how I was doing it. She told me I had flat nipples (news to me) and that with that, on top of my low supply and the size of Jackson’s mouth, it was unlikely that I’d find breastfeeding easy.
I was able to breastfeed a little bit over the next couple of months, difficult as it was. There were maybe a couple dozen times that Jackson latched on and I was able to feed him the way that nature intended. Those few times never satiated him for long, but we did it. I could say it was profound, the feeling of nourishing my child with my own body, but I was too tired and too frustrated and too anxious to feel relieved. Besides, it wasn’t like my body alone was enough to feed my child. If anything, I was a tease. Here’s a little milk for you, baby, but ha ha, not enough to fill you up! Eventually, Jackson got just as frustrated as I was and began refusing my breasts. I didn’t blame him. It’d be like someone offering me an opened Heineken bottle with only a few warm gulps of beer left. Cruel, almost.
I continued pumping about six times a day — getting only the tiniest amount of breast milk. I’d zip this sports bra looking contraption around my torso and then insert two plastic breast shields into the openings in front and hook myself up to the electric pump and wait 20 or 30 minutes while I was milked. I dreaded the end of a pumping session as much as I counted the seconds until its arrival because it was at the end that my inadequacy was always reaffirmed: I usually got only half an ounce … sometimes a full ounce (and on rarer occasions, maybe two whole ounces if I was really lucky). A newborn baby drinks an average of 24 ounces of milk each day and here I was producing only a small fraction of that, despite guzzling water and “Mother’s Milk” tea by the gallon. I was inadequate. An inadequate mother.
It’s an unbelievably lonely feeling to not be able to breastfeed your baby if you wish you could. Especially here in Brooklyn where you are not only seen as an inadequate woman, you’re seen as a bad mother if you succumb to feeding your baby formula. There’s another woman in my neighborhood whose blog I just started reading who also has trouble breastfeeding her new baby. She writes: “Imagine my surprise when feeding my son a bottle (as I must) in public is for me an act shot through with the sort of shame we are told women in the 1950s were made to feel when they attempted to breastfeed in public.” I wish she and I would have met sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so lonely. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such a failure.
I know I could have tried harder. There were things I didn’t do that I could have. Like, I could have hired a lactation consultant or nursed with a special tube taped to my breast that fed the baby formula while simultaneously stimulating my own milk production. But I didn’t want to do all that. I knew that because of damaged milk ducts I was physically unable to produce much milk and I didn’t want to pay someone to make me feel bad about that. I was doing a good enough job on my own already. There was a limit to what I could withstand emotionally and physically and after a complicated pregnancy and a dramatic labor, the only way I could temper my feelings of inadequacy around feeding Jackson was to stick to a routine. And so I pumped six times a day and fed Jack mostly formula with a bottle of my (hard-earned) breast milk occasionally thrown into the mix.
Just before Christmas, I’d decided I’d had enough with pumping. I was exhausted. And as Jackson’s appetite increased, the amount of breast milk I was able to feed him became a smaller and smaller percentage of his daily diet. The benefit stopped feeling worth the sacrifice and so I quit. It’s been about a month since then and motherhood has gotten so much easier. I don’t hate myself six times a day anymore, for one thing. And slowly, the shame of being inadequate has made way for a much kinder emotion: relief.
I’m relieved that I have the time and emotional reserve to enjoy my baby in a way I couldn’t before. I’m relieved that I can leave my baby’s side for more than an hour. I’m relieved that I never have to worry about suffering the consequences of engorged breasts. I’m relieved that after nearly a year of growing and feeding a baby, my body is mine again. Mine, mine, mine. I can eat whatever I want. I can drink a Gin and Tonic without fretting. I can guzzle a gallon of coffee! I’m relieved that because my baby is exclusively formula-fed, my husband and I can share the duty of feeding him. That means that while my breastfeeding friends are up three times a night feeding their babies, I sleep and let Drew give Jackson a bottle.
But what I’m most relieved about is that the love between my baby and me has not been compromised by the way I feed him. The bond we share is, I imagine, just as strong as the bonds breastfeeding women share with their babies. He still eats in my arms, close to my chest. He still feels the warmth of my body against his, hears the beating of my heart. We still look into each other’s eyes and grin like lovesick goofballs.
This morning, I peeked into his bedroom to see if he was awake yet. Just as I stepped inside, he turned his head toward me, opened his eyes and, focusing his gaze on me, lit up and smiled his big gummy smile. I scooped him up, kissed his head, changed his diaper, and warmed a bottle. Then we settled onto the couch, he cradled in the crook of my arm. “You are my sunshine,” I sang, pulling him closer.
And I fed my baby. Like a mother does.