Waving the White Flag–In Which I Have to Give Up Breastfeeding

Dear Lily June,

Of everything that happened with the pregnancy and your birth, what still haunts me even to this minute is what happened with breastfeeding. Some days, it sends a stinging wave through my memory so fresh, I feel as if I am drowning all over again, and I lay awake, as I did last night, and weep with the feelings of shame and failure and heartache to have lost such a precious physical bond with you (though I swear, I’ll let nothing break the emotional connection we’ll create over the course of your lifetime, if you’ll let me get, as I want to, Gilmore Girl close).

It starts, like most things in my life do, with a whole lot of reading and studying. I read online and in print religiously about how good breastfeeding was for me and you. From hormone regulation in my body and saved expenses in my wallet to the physical immunities for, and emotional bond with, you, I was sold: The plan was to breastfeed until you were at least one. When I went back to work, I would pump.

But I got overwhelmed quickly by diagrams of techniques and the constant threat that if you weren’t latched correctly, it would tear my nipples to hamburger meat and starve you to death. That didn’t end up being an issue. You took to nursing like a fish to water immediately, Lily. I remember reading, once upon a time, that lovers’ bodies produce a chemical that allows their lips to find each other in the dark. It was like that; some part of you just knew what to do so that even in the midst of my clumsy football and cradle and cross-over holds, you were able to latch almost instantly and get the milk while the getting was good.

And while we were still in the hospital, lactation consultants and nurses would constantly check me, and they approved. All, at least, but the last nurse we saw before we left, who told me I was doing it wrong, and I was starving you, and who was so pushy, she fed you formula to calm you and hooked a supplemental nursing system to my boob (for additional feeding through a tube) almost before I could get my wits about me to refuse. She was the first hitch in my confidence that you and I just naturally knew what to do.

After all, I couldn’t see the colostrum–the earliest milk produced, supposedly thick as a golden stew but only excreted by the teaspoon–so I didn’t trust that I knew my body better than a neonatal nurse did. That was the first thing I did wrong.

***

On the night we came home from the hospital, I turned calmly to your dad and said, “You know this is going to be the hardest night of our lives, right?” For some reason, I thought acknowledging it would give us a leg up on the situation and would lessen the feeling of fear when you first started wailing, and we weren’t surrounded by a team of experts ready to correct our swaddle and encourage our cuddle and such. It did not make that first night–caught as we were by the grip of pure, unadulterated panic–easier in the slightest.

So terrified was I that you were starving, we even took some of the supplementary formula the pushy nurse had pushed us home with and gave a bottle to you. That was my second mistake, but we’d tried everything–singing, rocking, shushing, a swaddle that, if you were a baby burrito, would have left you strewing lettuce and tomato everywhere in your midst–and nothing worked. Nothing calmed you.

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895
Stock image of your first night at home, May 16, 2015.

In retrospect, you probably looked deep into the eyes of your parents, two loving but sleep-deprived and terrified deer in headlights, and were rightfully scared to be left alone with us. Despite all of the books and all the classes, we were a parenting slapstick routine right from the get-go, only without all the grace. Again, in retrospect, I have this advice to offer you, should you have children, about that first night you take the baby home.

Remember, at all times, to repeat these mantras during the course of that first night alone with your baby:

  1. It ends.
  2. It ends.
  3. It ends.

Not keeping that in mind was my third mistake. At the time, that first precious night felt, sincerely, never-ending, and between your screams and my pain and daddy’s fear and any permutation of that combination, I didn’t know how we would make it to morning. But somehow, someway, we all did, kid.

Fawn_in_Forest_edit
Look, Lily! A parent on high alert in the wild.

***

And then, about a week after being home from the hospital (where I’d had to have a catheter in for four days straight), I got an infection. The OB/GYN prescribed first an antibiotic that would be dangerous to use while breastfeeding. Your dad, double-checking with the pharmacist, found this out after he’d already paid. No refunds, no exchanges. I called my doctor and asked for another script, which he dutifully called in. This one was Keflex, a prescription known, in a percentage of patients who are allergic to penicillin (like I am) to create a bad reaction. In fact, the pharmacist, knowing my allergy, didn’t even want to sell it to us.

So there was my choice: Take a drug that could send me back into the hospital (but was safe for you) or take a medicine that could harm your development (but was safe for me). It wasn’t a fair decision but one I made nonetheless: I unhesitatingly picked the one that was safe for you and kept breastfeeding, ready at any minute for my skin to break out into hives or for my throat to close up or for me as a whole to just drop dead. Somehow, I didn’t, and we kept breastfeeding like all the books and all the classes and all the doctors said we were supposed to.

 ***

And then, from lack of sleep, I got some serious hallucinations. I was feeding you about every two to three hours–not long enough for this anxious light-sleeper to catch so much as a cat nap. By my calculations, I was awake for a  solid eleven days straight. My brain would take micro-naps with you snoring on my chest, but my body would jerk back awake when I would hear the threat whispered by an unknown new voice in my ear, “Don’t fall asleep. You’ll crush her.”

On the couple of days during that second week when I was able to get more rest, my dreams were mostly of flattening you accidentally as I rolled on you, or mistakenly losing you in the blankets in our bed (where you never even slept since you had your own bassinet, but only ever nodded off when I was in the recliner and you were on my or your dad’s chests). It got so dreams were too stressful a place to retreat to.

From the lack of sleep and the inferno of anxiety, my supply took a hit, and my breasts were no longer producing like they were supposed to. I ordered fenugreek and lactation cookies, but I didn’t have the patience or the peace to let them arrive. Suddenly, at your weight checks twice a week, you plateaued. Then, horror beyond explanation, you began to lose weight.

Your dad started feeding you a supplementary bottle at night, and you got a bit more shut-eye, but I was as nervous as ever, watching your body as if, just by scrutiny, I could telepathically put the weight on you. Trying to witness you add an ounce was like trying to watch paint dry: It drove me insane, and it didn’t add anything to the process.

It got so I was setting an endless stream of timers on my phone–one to start feeding you; one to switch breasts; one for the next feeding; one to change you. I was trying to cram your life and mine into some semblance of order. I was trying to predict when you would cry and cut it off at the pass. In trying to organize the calls of nature of a newborn baby, I may as well have been nailing Jell-O to a tree.

And all the while, there was advice from your dad’s and my well-meaning mothers; there were strategies from nurses and doctors; there were paragraphs on websites and in books; and there was the most useless advice of all: that I “follow [my] instincts.”

For someone with OCPD, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, my instincts are always to panic. It’s like there’s an alarm ever-present and itching, just under the skin, to go off in me. The same instincts that cause a deer to pause, mid-headlight in the middle of a highway, as a semi- comes barreling at them; these are the ways my cross-wired brain fires.

In addition to Murphy’s Law (which states that anything which can go wrong, will), I was now functioning firmly under Segal’s Law, an adage which reads,

“A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.”

Only I was surrounded by watches, literal- and figuratively. Between friends and family, what I’d read and what I’d been taught, I was being inundated like I was strolling down a buffet line of cuckoo clocks deciding which times should fill my plate. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?!) And the stress of trying to decide what was right for you and me, what would keep us both sane and alive, was crippling. My IC (interstitial cystitis) flared up as a result of the coffee I started drinking again to stay alert and awake (and alive!), and I just couldn’t take it anymore. The clock had to stop for a minute.

Watch_Mechanical_Quartz_Comparison
Two watches is one watch too many for your Mom. I will never in my life be Flava Flav, Lily.

***

After three weeks of struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety (and the guilt of having postpartum depression, too; look it up online, and all you’ll find is article after article about is how getting PPD will essentially ruin your child for the rest of her life) with no sleep and chronic pain and a bad supply and a lot of love for you and fear that you wouldn’t be able to thrive, I made the judgment call to give breastfeeding up.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because I adored the snuggling and the cuddling and the cozying up with you. I loved knowing it was my body that had been keeping you alive. I loved the ritual and the bond and following all the rules like “Breast is Best.” I felt more like a woman, a mother, and a feminist than I ever have before or since. It was an experience that was beautiful and powerful like a tidal wave that would eventually come to crush me if I stood too long in awe. I had to, very begrudgingly, step away.

I still, I admit, don’t know if what I did was the right thing to do. That’s what hurts the most. Should I, Lily, have tried harder or faster to fix myself for you? Could I have if I wanted to? I usually feel so certain of my opinions in these letters, but on this one, Lily, I just don’t have a clue. I am, for all of this, so sorry.

***

What I am certain of, because I put it up on Facebook the day after it happened, is a memory. On June 5, this was my online status:

After three weeks, I was devastated to have to give up breastfeeding. Yesterday, the first time I was the one to give “Lily” her formula bottle, I wept big alligator tears onto her back, as the hormones and disappointment poured out of me.

And my precious daughter reached her little fist up and gripped my finger. She “held my hand” the whole time as if to say It was all okay.* Among her many talents is teaching me how to be a more patient, loving, and (self) accepting mama.

For that moment, as for every one we have gotten and will get to share, I am immeasurably grateful, Lily. Thank you, my little love, for being my daughter.

***

*P.S. Incidentally, yes, that’s the story behind the image, horribly distorted I know but deeply meaningful, in my Gravatar profile. I keep it as a symbol to remind me.*

Picture Credits:

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19 thoughts on “Waving the White Flag–In Which I Have to Give Up Breastfeeding

  1. Ellie P. says:

    oops i pressed return prematurely!! Wanted to say that the story was VERY familiar to me!! U have really captured the essence of first-time motherhood, at least the beginning of it: trying to nail Jello to a tree. That’s exactly it!!! Well I managed to last 4 months which was less than I had wanted to but, same thing, the screaming, never knowing how much she was getting, and of course imagining that it wasn’t enough… because NObody is less secure than a brand-new young mother. We’re just never ready, are we? We’re kids ourselves!!! Anyway thankfully time slogs on and somehow we muddle through, and all survive!! So well written!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      It helps to hear things like “We’re just never ready, are we?” I thought for so long that I should put off having kids until I was sure I would be a good mother. Now I know that parenting is more like the Henry James quotation than I ever imagined: “We live in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have.”

      Like

  2. originaltitle says:

    I just wrote a super long comment that got completely erased. Sometimes I hate this little sliver of a comment box. Here we go: attempt #2. I can relate to so much of this. Especially the first night back from the hospital!! and conflicting advice from nurses, lactation consultants and relatives. I was terrified I was starving my daughter since she cried endlessly and never fell asleep at the breast or seemed satisfied, but luckily for us, I guess, she was still gaining weight at her appointments. Still the crying and the sleeplessness continued. My pediatrician told me it was just colic and to get over it and “do what’s best for your baby.” So I called lactation consultants daily and the nurse line for help. I started block feeding for my oversupply and started the elimination diet in case of allergies. I was down to just squash and pears (literally that is all I ate) for two months and she was still crying and not sleeping, but it was a little better so I kept doing the elimination diet. My new pediatrician says I was stupid to change my diet as it makes no difference, but I swear it helped a little or at least I felt like I was helping. I still wonder if I should have switched to formula. My husband and others would have been able to help me more. My husband would have had more opportunities to bond with my daughter. Maybe she would have been happier. I still torture myself and wonder if I caused my daughter’s colic by letting her breastfeed 24/7 since this reduced the crying by 50% but she wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t sleeping or eating. I’ll probably always blame myself. In a weak moment with the colic was first ramping up, before we knew that was for sure what it was, I looked up the symptoms of colic because she had been randomly crying more than usual and it wasn’t time for a growth spurt or wonder week. I told my husband it might be colic. That night she cried inconsolably for hours and he said, “Well, you said the word and here it is,” or something to that effect and I started crying because I thought that somehow my anxiety had caused her to have colic (he didn’t mean it that way, we’ve talked about it since but still I blame myself). All this is to say, I think you did what was right for you, your daughter and your husband. He probably got a lot of chances to help and bond with her which was probably great for your marriage and for you as parents. You and your daughter probably got a lot more sleep as a result and she will probably be much better adjusted growing up as a result. I admire you. I probably should have done the same thing you did. We are faced with a million micro and macro decisions a day with our kids and we never have time to prepare (even if we thought we were preparing). You just have to do what’s best and that doesn’t always mean what’s exclusively best for your child because if you’re suffering, they will suffer as a result. It has to be what’s best for both mother and baby because if mama ain’t happy as they say, ain’t nobody happy. Great post. Thanks for sharing your journey as always.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Your story of your daughter’s colic and all the experiences you had with that – including sitting with her and the sound of a hair dryer constantly – is so moving and humbling to me. Thank YOU for being so encouraging. Coming from a mother and writer like yourself, I feel very honored.

      Like

      1. originaltitle says:

        You’ve really got it together and have made great choices for you and your daughter. My story is one of me “trying to do the right thing,” which might have been the wrong thing all along because we were both miserable. You were intuitive and knew what you and your daughter needed!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Antanika says:

    Oh the pressure. I remember this so well with my second, it was my birthday and he was 10 weeks old and we battled those 10 weeks, he lost weight, he only gained 700grams since birth, he was dehydrated dispite my efforts to feed him, so off my husband went to get formula and i bawled and i bawled. Come the third baby a year later… and i only stopped feeding her this year and shes almost 3!
    You did the best for you all. Thats what being a good mum is all about. Those tears are in fact strong tears!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. minionmayhem514 says:

    The fact that you were/are so worried about doing the right thing for her speaks volumes about how much you care about her. She will know you did the right thing for both of you. They say breastfeeding is natural, but it’s also one of the most difficult things in the world. The important thing is nourishment, by any means necessary. Sometimes it’s milk, sometimes it’s formula. Sometimes it’s both. I’m pumping for my 28 weeker (now 2 weeks adjusted age), and fortifying with protein powder for weight gain and rice cereal for reflux. She’s 3 months old and we’ve only had 1 successful breastfeeding experience. With the fortifier, I can’t even attempt it.

    Just do your best. That’s all anyone can do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lonna Hill says:

    Your experience of breastfeeding sounds eerily similar to mine with baby #1–the hours of reading and preparation beforehand, the self-doubt and shaken confidence, the obsession with baby’s weight and the worry when he was quite far from gaining what he was supposed to, even the pushy nurse in the hospital before discharge. I, too, had a nurse come in and tell me that baby wasn’t getting enough, and without really discussing it with me, taped a tube to my boob and gave him formula through a supplemental nursing system.

    To make a long story short, I ended up giving up and exclusively pumping for as long as I could, which ended up being about ten months. I was working harder than any breastfeeding mom, and yet spent the entire year feeling like a failure as a mom.

    It seemed that “Are you nursing” was always the first question people asked me when they saw me holding a baby. Even complete strangers. I never knew what to say because with exclusively pumping, I didn’t really fall into any category. If they weren’t asking me if I was nursing, they were sharing their own experiences and credited breastfeeding with every single positive baby experience they had. It was the reason for their loss of baby weight, or the reason their baby hadn’t yet gotten a cold, or the reason mom and baby had such a bond and on and on and on. I would never expect my friends not to share their own experiences or thoughts. My feelings of inadequacy was my own heart problem, not theirs. So I would rejoice with them, smile and nod at their stories, and then go home and cry.

    To this day I don’t know if I any of the decisions I made were the best ones. Maybe pumping only reminded me of my failure to do it the way I wanted to. Maybe I should have just used formula. Maybe I could have tried harder to succeed. Maybe with just a few changes from the very beginning we wouldn’t have been set up for what happened. I’ll never know. It makes me sad to remember how many nights I spent crying. I struggled with PPD and anxiety that whole first year. And I blame my experience with breastfeeding for much of that.

    My experience with baby #2 was completely different. Everything was different with her, even the birth. Baby 1 was an induction at a US hospital. Baby 2 was birthed with a midwife at a midwife-headed birth center in Korea. With baby 1, I was in the US where I felt like I had so many people watching over my shoulder, judging my every move. With baby 2 we were in Korea during the summer when everyone was gone visiting their home country. I had a very small support network (husband, mom, midwife, doula) who I knew were there to help, not judge.

    I did end up being successful with breastfeeding with baby 2, and I learned exactly how much harder I had to work with baby 1 to try to get breastfeeding to work in the first place, and then how much extra work was involved in pumping and bottle feeding. And I questioned how working harder for my child could ever make me inadequate as a mother?

    And it also taught me that breastfeeding isn’t the magic cure-all that it’s made out to be. It made no difference in my post pregnancy weight loss. It made no difference in the number of times she got sick (Baby 2 got an ear infection and was on antibiotics for the first time when she was only four months old and had to be on antibiotics yet another time before she turned one). Bottle feeding baby 1 did not destroy or prevent my bond with him. I felt just as bonded with baby 1 as I did with baby 2 and loved both of them just as much.

    So this ended up being a much longer comment than I anticipated. But the main point is, I feel your pain. You are so, so not alone in your struggle. And it’s okay to mourn the loss of an expectation. Grieving a loss is normal. Give yourself permission to grieve. But don’t ever, ever let the loss make you feel like you are inadequate or less of a mommy than those who breastfeed.

    I said above that I still don’t know if the decisions I made with my son were the right decisions. Or if I could have made things work out if I had done things differently. But that’s the case with so many decisions we make as they grow up. As much as we love our kids, all we can ever do is take all the circumstances we are given and make the best decisions we can with what we know at the time. And the “best” decisions can be totally different for different families and even for different babies within the same family. And as the mommy, no one is more competent to decide what the best choices are for you and your baby.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Lonna, I can’t tell you what your taking the time to write out that long comment means to me. I really wrestled so much with my decision, and maybe I always will. But to hear there are others (especially in a culture SO OBSESSED now with the unattainable concept of the perfect mother) really helps lift my spirits. And that you are so compassionate and kind to tell your vulnerable truths to a stranger? That must make you one amazing mother! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jess says:

    I, too, have IC and possibly OCPD(slowly working towards a definite diagnosis, right now I am labeled “unconfirmed anxiety disorder” ;eye roll;) so I’m incredibly glad that I found this! As much as they are horrible go through, knowing someone experiences pretty the exact same thing is helpful in feeling not alone in the world. I stopped nursing my 19 month old about 3 weeks ago and I am dreading the pain that is too come. Nursing and pregnancy had me complete remission and I’m so afraid with my hormones dropping, the IC beast will come back with a vengeance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Jess, I’m so sorry for my long-delayed response. I’m glad you found me, too; you are most certainly not alone. For what it’s worth, and to be honest, I did experience the worst IC pain of my life post-pregnancy and giving up breastfeeding. And yet, I’m back to a place of tolerable flares. Sometimes the pain you live with is better than the pain you fear you might have to.

      I hope you and your 19 mo are both well!

      Like

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