A Breastfeeding Story

I gather there’s some mommy-war brouhaha boiling around an ad for Similac infant formula now showing on television. It’s always entertaining to get in on the mommy wars so I will share my adventure in breastfeeding. If you don’t want to read about bodily fluids, stop now.

My husband and I were stunned to find ourselves expecting a baby a month after our wedding. We married in early April. I was 40. He was 46. I had never been pregnant. Based on some less-than-fully-responsible activity in my younger years, I thought I never would be pregnant. But in early May, some symptoms I’d read about appeared, so I took one of those pee-on-a-strip tests. It turned the pregnant color. I said to my husband, “I guess I won’t be joining you for martinis for a while.”

Fast-forward to the end of December. I gave birth to a six-pound, three-ounce boy. (Mind you, this relatively small baby was born 270 days after the wedding, more than the average human gestation period of 266 days. I mention this because certain friends and relatives have announced at large gatherings that I was already pregnant at our wedding. It’s sweet if they want to claim the baby was conceived under their roof, or well-intentioned if they think it will make other people who were pregnant before they got married feel better if I too was pregnant before I got married. It also annoys us, not because we care what people think about our pre-marital sex life or lack thereof or want to deprive our loved ones of the happiness they get out of believing I was pregnant before I got married, but because it’s not true.)

In hindsight, maybe I should have skipped the epidural, but I dislike pain, friends with kids said it helped, and my OB-GYN said there was no need to be a natural childbirth pain martyr at my advanced age. Maybe I should have done a home birth instead of going to a germ-infested hospital (it is not a bad hospital; hospitals are by definition full of sick people), but in 2002, I’d never heard of anyone having a home birth. I’d been so bemused by the whole pregnancy thing that I didn’t even make a birth plan.

When I went into labor, off we went to the hospital. After I’d labored and pushed for thirteen hours and the baby was on his way down the birth canal, an experienced nurse notice that his heart rate had suddenly flat-lined. The umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck and he was stuck. No matter how hard I pushed, he would not budge. My husband has a birth injury caused by oxygen deprivation. We were not going to mess around. They quickly did an episiotomy and pulled him out with a vacuum.

We spent five days in the hospital. The baby was fine, but the morning after the birth, I had a horrible infection set in. I’ll never know exactly how I got it, but I had bouts of blasting, uncontrollable diarrhea that came on so suddenly I couldn’t even get off the bed much less make it to the bathroom. I could only get nutrition by IV—even a drink of water set me off again. It took them four days of pumping IV antibiotics into me before the problem was sufficiently under control for me and the baby to go home. I hereby nominate the nurses and aides who cleaned up after me for sainthood.

My husband wanted me to breastfeed. So did my mother-in-law, who breastfed her babies in the 1950s and 1960s when “modern moms” used formula. I wanted to do it because my mother had fed me formula and I’ve always been prone to respiratory problems to which breastfeeding supposedly makes children less susceptible.

My HMO vehemently urges new mothers to breastfeed. Instead of formula samples, they hand out educational materials from La Leche League. They have a lactation center and a lactation consultant hotline number. They loan you a breast pump for a month free of charge to help you get going. The lactation consultant met with me several times while I was in the hospital and tried her tricks to get enough milk to come in, including pumping before the baby nursed to get the milk started and stick-on nipple extenders that gave my husband the giggles. I was severely dehydrated from the infection, though, and the baby was not getting enough milk. We supplemented with formula. The baby loved that bottle. It was so much easier to get milk out of there than my breast.

At home, I tried to nurse him, but when he cried and refused to latch on for half an hour, I would feed him pumped breast milk out of a bottle. I went to more meetings with the lactation consultant and followed her instructions as well as I could.

One afternoon when the baby was about two weeks old, he nursed for almost an hour. It hurt like crazy because he refused to switch off the left breast, but I excitedly called my husband and said, “He’s finally got the hang of it. He’s nursing.”

But, alas, after that one joyful coupling, the baby reverted to pattern: he’d try to nurse because I’d make him, he’d get annoyed with the pace of the flow, and he’d disconnect and scream. I’d try to force the nipple in his mouth and he’d turn away. As the lactation consultant had warned me, pumping without nursing produced less milk over time. By the time the baby was two months old, I could barely squeeze out a tablespoon no matter how long I left the pump on. My baby would be a formula baby.

I was lucky. Most people in my immediate circle helped me find the positive. When he was four weeks old, I had to go back to work and put the baby in day care anyway, and it was going to be a nuisance to haul the pump and bottles back and forth and find room in the communal office refrigerator to store the milk. It would be hard for me to perform at work if I was sleep-deprived with him in our bed for breastfeeding. One friend to whom I’ll always be especially grateful said, “The great thing about a bottle is that the whole family can feed him and bond with him.” I knew my baby would not die of malnutrition.

However pragmatic formula was for us, I still felt judged a failure by the wider mommy culture and by myself. I’d had lots of support but I hadn’t tried hard enough. If I’d had the right kind of birth plan instead of no plan at all, I wouldn’t have got that dehydrating infection and my milk would have gushed in. If I had planned better and saved more money so I didn’t need to rush back to work, breast-feeding would have succeeded. My baby would not get the optimal health benefits that the breast-fed babies of better mothers enjoyed. When he developed asthma and eczema at age one, I blamed it on my failure to breast feed him.

Then a relative, an ace at breast-feeding, had a second child. She had the resources to stay home with her baby. I don’t think that kid ever had a drop of formula. When he was one, he also developed asthma and eczema. Of course I don’t wish health problems on any child, but I have to admit, it made me feel better because it showed me in a visceral, non-abstract way that a child’s health is the result of many factors, like genetics, not just whether he breastfeeds.

At this point, I can’t imagine any responsible health care provider in the U.S. promoting formula over breastfeeding as a matter of policy. Some people are still going to formula-feed, for their own reasons. It’s not your place or mine to judge whether those reasons are “good enough,” as long as they are their own reasons and not foisted upon them by employers or restaurant operators or whatever other nut-bags freak out at the sight of a mother nursing an infant (in which case the appropriate reaction is to look in another direction). Formula manufacturers tell stories to market their product. In a capitalist society, as long as they don’t lie, that’s allowed. There’s no need for lactation activists to get their knickers in a knot over formula marketing—their competing pro-breast-feeding message comes through loud and clear, sometimes painfully so. The mommy wars will continue, but can we please declare an armistice in this stupid baby-feeding battle?

(c) 2015 Susie Allison-Litton. All rights reserved.

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