Breastfeeding: The (Almost) Final Chapter

It’s time for one last (okay, second last) breastfeeding post. I last wrote about my experience with breastfeeding  here and (because I had so much to say), here.

When I first set out to write about breastfeeding six months ago, it was to write a post that I (due to time constraints and competing priorities) never got a chance to write.  I wanted to start out by sharing my experiences, but the desired introductory paragraph morphed into two giant posts. The post that I set out to write remains in draft form and was going to focus on the pressures that women today feel to breastfeed at all costs, and how damaging that can be to a woman’s self esteem, her identity as a mother, and even her relationship to her baby.

My remaining breastfeeding days (at least with this baby) are numbered; Baby Boy is losing interest and my supply is drying up. It’s time to finish the post that I never got to write, however, over the last six months my experience with breastfeeding, and my thoughts on the topic have evolved. So bear with me as I dust off my draft, and once again write way more than I’d planned to.

Until I became pregnant, I had no idea that breastfeeding was such a hot button issue, and I also never gave it a second thought. I assumed I would do it, but I did not feel passionately about it, and the decision to breastfeed was not an ideological one. Rather, my decision (if you could even call it a conscious decision) was driven by the pragmatic view that I had breasts which would produce milk for my baby when the time was right, and therefore I would feed that milk to my baby. End of story.

Shortly after becoming pregnant, everywhere I turned, I started hearing about breastfeeding. My prenatal yoga class had a lactation consultant give a talk, and both she and the yoga instructor shared their own struggles with breastfeeding. At my labour preparation classes, almost one full class was devoted to breastfeeding, complete with videos and diagrams of the proper way to do it, and a discussion of the common issues that women face when trying to breastfeed. Apparently, there was more to breastfeeding than picking up your baby and putting them next to your breast.

All this discussion about breastfeeding could be boiled down into two overriding themes:

Theme #1: Breastmilk is a miraculous substance with immeasurable benefits, many of which cannot be replicated with formula.

Taken at face value, the logical extension is that as a mother who wants the best for her child, there is no question that breastfeeding is the way to go.

Theme #2: Breastfeeding is HARD, and has driven many a new mother to the edge.

Therefore, having difficulty breastfeeding should not come as a surprise, nor should the decision/need to use formula as a result.

And therein lies the problem. When considered separately, these two “facts” about breastfeeding can be easily reconciled with a new mother’s experience and expectations; however taken in combination, each is a force that results in pulling a mother in opposite directions, leading to unnecessary frustration, guilt, and shame.

Once Baby Boy was born and we experienced our own breastfeeding struggles, I was amazed at the stories I heard from other mothers. There were the friends who in hushed tones admitted to supplementing, or relying completely on formula, due to low supply. Then there were the stories of two separate acquaintances whose babies never latched. Despite this difficulty, both women went to extreme lengths to give their babies the breastfeeding experience, using elaborate tubing feeding mechanisms for six months. One of these women pumped eight times a day for 45 minutes at a time, for six months. Stop for a second and think about that. Do the math. Is it any wonder that looking back she regrets going to the lengths she did and regrets how much quality time she lost with her baby when he was young because her super human efforts to provide the best for him made her miserable?

Despite going into motherhood with a clear head on the topic of breastfeeding, once Baby Boy and the resulting breastfeeding struggles arrived, my pragmatic mindset and cool detachment went right out the window. At our prenatal classes, the instructors had warned us to expect breastfeeding to be difficult for up to six weeks. They stressed that most women will struggle for that long before things click into place. This was a very important message for me, because within a few days of Gus being born, I was counting down the days until six weeks would come to pass. It gave me huge comfort that whatever struggles we were having would have to sort themselves out within six weeks.

With every day that passed, bringing us that much closer to the magical six week finish line, my overriding mantra was that easier times were just around the corner. However, each passing day that breastfeeding continued to be a struggle also brought on sheer terror when I considered the possibility that maybe breastfeeding was not going to be possible for us.  Since latching was our immediate concern, hearing of women whose babies never latched, even after months and months of trying absolutely terrified me. In the moment, it felt like the absolutely worst thing in the world. I was incredibly jealous of women who were able to pop a baby up to their breast and have them suckle like it was nothing. To someone who has never tried to breastfeed, it is impossible to try to explain the depth of emotion I felt (panic, terror, insert your own extreme noun) when I considered that the six week finish line may mean an end to breastfeeding rather than an end to struggles.

The panic did not stop once Baby Boy was able to latch and we started to settle into a routine. At around the four week mark, the lactation consultant that we’d worked with most closely gave me a follow up call to see how things were going. I thought we were doing well, however when I reported that Baby Boy was typically feeding on the breast twice a day, and getting pumped bottles three times a day (for a total of five feeds), there was a pause on the other end of the line. ” You really should be further along by now.” Cue deep sinking feeling in stomach, sheer terror, panic, what have you. We were failing after all.

I shared some of my struggles around this time with a friend of mine  who has served as my primary sounding board for all of my motherhood concerns. She has three amazing kids and a wonderfully pragmatic approach to motherhood. I explained to her how I was trying to wean myself off the pump, to the point where all of Baby Boy’s feeds would be at the breast (by this point latching was not a problem anymore, but as I explained in my first breasteeding post, I found the logistics of going without pumping to be difficult). I stressed to my friend that  I HAD to learn how to breastfeed properly, to reach that magical place of breastfeeding Nirvana. “Or not” she said. “If what you’re doing is working for you,  why change?”.

And as always, she was right. To be continued…..

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