This is a very personal and sensitive topic for me, but I share in hopes that it might be a help and comfort to another momma who might be struggling with the same thing.
Two weeks ago I was on a flight to California to visit my family. The woman who sat in the seat across the aisle from me teared up when she saw Iggy. It was the first time she was leaving her 18 month old for an extended period of time. Iggy was sweet and flashed her some smiles. As we prepared to ascend I pulled out a bottle of formula for him drink. She smiled over sweetly and commented on the cute bottle. Our glass baby bottles are uber le fancy. I thanked her. She then proceeded to tell me that she exclusively breastfeeds her son, and that's why this 5 day trip was going to be so hard. I offered a sympathetic comment. Inspired by what I assume was mommy-camaraderie, she started to tell me how full her breasts were feeling. Half way into our flight she pulled out her pump and nursing cover and started to express milk. In 15 minutes she pumped two 5 ounce bottles. That was amazing to me because at my peak I could pump 3 ounces total, and that would happen only once a day. She asked if I formula fed my baby because I didn't want to nurse. I simply said "no, I wanted to nurse but it didn't work out due to low supply". She asked if I had heard of fenugreek. I wanted to laugh... and cry. I did my best to end the conversation with "I've tried every supplement and suggestion you've heard of and probably some you haven't. It just didn't work out for us".
I don't know how to handle it graciously. And I probably came off sounding pretty snarky. It's still a messy thing for me. I'm not over it, but I'm in a better place than I was this past summer. Though I still cringe when I read a comment from a mom on Instagram proudly stating that their baby has never had an ounce of formula, or mom on Facebook bashing the evil formula companies for pushing their poison on innocent uninformed mothers.
In the months leading up to our sons birth, we talked about preparing for labor. Our schedule was ridiculously crazy, and with only one car we really couldn't make it to any classes. I was interested in taking a class on the Bradley Method, but when we looked into the cost there was just no way I could justify it. A friend of mine loaned me her Bradley book, and we borrowed other books from the library. I devoured Ina May's Guide to Childbirth. My doctor really wanted us to take some kind of class, so we registered for an online course offered by our hospital, but I really didn't learn anything new. I wasn't completely against having an epidural, but I really didn't want to have one. I don't think it's wrong for women to get them, I just really wanted to prove to myself that I could face this huge challenge in life and literally push through to the other side. I was fortunate to have amazing support and a short labor. I was on such a high after Iggy was born. So high, in fact, that the idea of not being able to exclusively breastfeed didn't even cross my mind.
Less than two hours old
There are many possibly explanations for why I wasn't able to breastfeed. The first being the fact that Iggy was born at 36 weeks and 1 day gestation. Not premature enough to be in the NICU but early enough to be considered a late-term preemie. He couldn't latch, and he was so sleepy. Every two hours we would undress him down to his diaper, a nurse would prick his foot to check his blood sugar levels, and I would attempt to get a screaming baby to latch. I didn't know what I was doing, and I had nurses squeezing my breasts "sandwiching" them into his tiny mouth. A former NICU nurse finally brought me a nipple shield, which is a silicone nipple that helps a baby latch. He was able to latch with that, but he wasn't staying awake. So we tickled his feet and scratched his head, and when he was finally done at the breast and crying because he couldn't get anything else out, Ian would give him a bottle. I would then pump for 15-30 minutes (depending on the instruction of the nurse I had at the time) and we would save that for next time. I was getting about 30 minutes of sleep between each of these cycles. I don't exactly remember when it was, but a nurse brought in something called an SNS. This "supplementary nursing system" was a bottle that we either clipped to my shirt or Ian held. It had a small tube that ran down from the bottle of pumped milk or formula. I would tape the tube to my breast and attempt to have Iggy latch on. He couldn't, so then Ian would pinch the tube to stop the flow, and I would put the nipple shield on with the tube running inside of it. The idea is that Iggy would be at the breast stimulating my body to produce more milk, and he would be encouraged to stay there because he was getting some milk still. Milk was spilled and tears were shed. I was exhausted, but hopeful.
Our second day home from the hospital Ian took me to see a lactation consultant. She suggested I lose the nipple shield and just use the SNS. She weighed him, had me nurse, and then weighed him again. He was getting close to nothing. I was devastated. Wasn't my milk supposed to kicking in by now? She showed me some different nursing positions and said something that I was too tired to register. She got in my face and said it again "it's going to be okay". My parents were with us for the next two weeks helping us with chores and cooking and were just amazing. My mom made sure I ate, and drank enough water. The high I had from the amazing labor and birth was gone. With every bottle we gave him, I felt my body failing me and my son.
I contacted a La Leche League leader, friends who exclusively pumped, friends who exclusively breastfed, a friend who had preemies, friends who had low supply. I did everything the LLL leader suggested. I pumped after every feeding, even setting alarms throughout the night. I power pumped to boost my supply (this is where you pump for 10 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and repeat the cycle for an hour). I took fenugreek, and goats rue, and brewers yeast. I drank tons of water, but not too much because that can mess up milk supply. I tried a million different nursing positions. I ate more oatmeal than you can imagine, and I consumed expensive lactation cookies. We paid for a lactation consultant to do an in home consult on a Sunday afternoon. She brought me more supplements. I over nighted extra supplements. We did skin to skin time, and co-slept hoping it would make it easier. We bought special bottles that were supposed to help a baby transition from breast to bottle easily. I would wake up early and brew enough mothers-milk tea to last me the day.
Itty bitty baby with an itty bitty bottle
When he was just over two weeks old I decided to do what the LLL leader and other breastfeeding advocates encouraged me to do. I just nursed. We slowly decreased his formula supplements and I spent four days just nursing. It was literally all I did. He would latch, and suck, sleep and then cry. But I was convinced that this would make my supply increase. It had to. Except he stopped pooping. And then he stopped peeing. And one day I watched him cry and scream in pain, and he had the red brick dust stain from concentrated urine and a very hard stool. Then another diaper with the red brick dust. He was dehydrated. He just wasn't getting enough and nothing was changing with my supply. It would take me a whole day to pump enough milk for one little 3 ounce bottle. I would gently gather it in one bottle, warm it up, and proudly feed it to him. Aside from the one instance in which a bottle of breastmilk was accidentally thrown out, my baby got every single ounce of milk my body made. Every. Single. Drop.
We met with a doctor and she said we had to start supplementing with formula again and directed me to a website that might help. When I got home I looked it up, and it was a website for women who had chronic low supply. But that couldn't be me. I was going to breastfeed my baby. My milk would come in.
I wanted my baby to find nursing as a source of comfort, but by four weeks into it he wasn't comforted. He was hungry and miserable, and nursing became a battle. I started to experience extreme anxiety whenever he woke up, knowing that I would have to watch him struggle to latch, and then cry and be disappointed. Then Ian or someone else would give him a bottle while I pumped, and many times I literally had to turn my back towards him because it broke my heart to see that I couldn't take care of my baby with my body.
I know I really hit a low point when I started to convince myself that I was never supposed to have him. I had progesterone supplements while I was pregnant, and I started to wonder if my body was never supposed to sustain his life, and that was why I couldn't breastfeed. Why would my body carry a baby it could not nurture? I told a couple of girlfriends about that thought because it scared me, and I was quickly told to knock it off.
Around the time Iggy was 6 weeks old, a friend of mine asked me to please give Iggy the gift of a happy mother. It was a wake up call. What did Iggy need more? Breastmilk or an attentive, loving mother? Ian and talked about it, and he gave me the freedom to decide that this wasn't working and it was okay to just formula feed Iggy. While it was a heartbreaking decision, it was liberating. Not in the sense that I wouldn't have to be physically attached to him. I was being liberated from the guilt and embarrassment of not being able to do something that I had fully expected my body to do. And Iggy didn't care! All he knew was that he was being fed and loved.
Now that there's some distance, I've tried to sit and think about why not being able to breastfeed hurt so much. Breastfeeding advocates talk about breastmilk in such an elevated way that you would think formula was practically poison, but formula saved my sons life. I think the other part of it is, "lactivists" talk about nursing as if there's this amazing connection that only breastfeeding can foster. And there lies my insecurity. That Iggy and I are not connected. That he would be content with anyones love. And that my failure to breastfeed led to a severing of our relationship. I worry that other people think that I don't care about him as much as I should. It's a stupid lie, but when you're in the midst of dealing with something that is really out of your hands, it can be hard to fight off those lies.
Before I became a mother, I assumed that women who didn't breastfeed were just not trying hard enough. It has been a humbling and rude awakening. And while I could say that other people were pressuring me to nurse, I know that the most judgmental and pushy voice has been my own. I suspect there's still a lot of healing that needs to happen, but I'm on the road to a place where I won't measure my self-worth by the ounces of milk in a bottle.