Me and my milk, my milk and me –

For the first three weeks of Evangeline’s life, I quit breastfeeding around 2:00 a.m. every morning, when fatigue and pain combined felt like too much to bear.  “That’s it,” I said to S., if he was up with us. “Tomorrow we are buying formula. This is too hard – this isn’t working for us.” S. would quietly agree and assure me that yes, the next morning we could switch Evangeline over to formula completely, and then not act surprised at all when, by the clear light of 6:00 a.m. I would decide optimistically to keep at it for one more day.

There was something so terribly trying about nursing during those first few weeks, not the least of which was having a house full of family who wanted to see the baby but who did not want me to nurse in front of them, so E and I were relegated upstairs more often than not.  I wasn’t strong enough emotionally to tell our family members that if they didn’t like me nursing in front of them they could leave, and I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own skin to nurse with an audience, anyway.  Also, I work for a hospital – think about the average amount of information women receive about the benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding and multiply that by one hundred thousand billion and that is how subjected to the pros of breastfeeding I was – clearly, I didn’t love Evangeline if I didn’t breastfeed her. Clearly, I would be one step away from being declared an unfit mother. In the weeks leading up to my daughter’s birth, breastfeeding quickly became my number one priority – I read books on it,  I considered taking a class about it (and would have if I hadn’t broken my foot in the last month of pregnancy) – no matter what else happened, I would breastfeed this baby.

Fortunately for me, Evangeline was a champion eater from the get-go – she latched on perfectly the very first time – so much so that the nurses were admiring her form in much the way Olympic judges admire high-divers while I was still being stitched up.  It was never a problem getting Evangeline to latch and suck, but managing to get her full? Another story altogether.

Now, before I say what I am going to say, let me put up this disclaimer: I am (obviously) not a doctor, nor do I have any sound background for the medical opinion I am about to offer.  You know how all the books and all the lactation consultants and all the nurses say that colostrum is the perfect food for newborn babies, and how their tiny tummies can’t handle anything beyond a teaspoon of colostrum here and there, and your milk will come in a couple of days later when your baby’s appetite and tummy are ready for it? Well, I don’t think babies get that message. I don’t care what all the experts say…my baby came out hungry and  if someone would have just given her some goddamn formula already I think she would have done a joyous backflip during her first two days of life.   Instead, all she received was a teaspoon here and there of that perfectly-calibrated-for-her-digestion colustrum and let me tell you – she was furious.  I didn’t recognize her fury as hunger, though, until we took her to her first pediatrician’s appointment (the same morning my milk came in) and her bilirubin levels had spiked.  Our pediatrician unceremoniously stuck a 2 oz bottle of formula in Evangeline’s mouth and before I could protest said very matter-of-factly “Your baby is hungry.” I think Tina Fey said it best in her memoir Bossypants that when the same thing happened to her, she tried to act angry but she was too tired.  And, after Evangeline received her first slug of formula, she settled down and slept. S. and I stared in utter amazement and our content, sleeping baby. Then, we rejoiced.

For the last six months, my relationship with breastfeeding and formula feeding has run a gamut of emotions.  Since the magical moment when the pediatrician gave her her first bit of formula, Evangeline has never been completely formula free. Oh, there have been a series of days and even weeks here and there where she was strictly by-the-book breast fed but as often as not would receive a bottle of formula here or there as supplementation.  I never had a noticable drop in supply because of this (the threat all the la leche-ish literature dangles over new moms like a storm cloud) but that might because I was, and am, feeding a daughter who is in the 95th percentile for height and 50th for weight…girlfriend needs a lot of calories.

There were certain aspects of breastfeeding I swore to myself I would never do, that I found myself doing.  On the first day of my bout with mastitis, in terrible pain from clogged ducts and every feeding akin to being stabbed in the chest, I told S. it was definitely time to wean the baby and he, sort of appalled with what I was going through, agreed completely. That was over 3 months ago – I somehow managed to nurse through it. Then I promised myself that I wouldn’t pump when I was at work – Evangeline would be fine with morning and evening feedings.  I hated all the advice the breastfeeding books gave, like demand your employer provide you with  a clean and private room for twice a day pumping and wear comfortable clothes for pumping to work – jazz them up with a kicky cardigan!  Since I started working in healthcare PR once I realized my creative writing habit wasn’t exactly pulling in the big bucks, I’ve had a lot of doubts about my career, but the one thing I never doubted was the clothes -the glorious working girl clothes I can buy and justify because I’m in a fashion-conscious field.  Kicky cardigans and easy-access blouses wouldn’t cut it for one day in my office and the idea of clothes for pure functionality’s sake broke my heart just a little bit.

I ended up changing my mind about even that, though.  While I haven’t  caved and bought nursing specific clothes for work, I easily located the designated pumping room  and continued to pump for several weeks, until it became truly prohibitive, what with the carrying of the pump and the bottles on public transportation, and the keeping the milk cool and, well, you get the idea…I don’t think many women would consider pumping the most rewarding way to spend their time under the best of circumstances.

But nursing? Hell, I’m still doing it three times a day and I can’t believe I am admitting this but I truly believe nursing has fundamentally changed who I am and how I feel about my body.  For a long time I thought I was a little too martini-and-rare-steak kind of a girl to breastfeed my baby…I mean, I don’t pretend I have a very storied history but there are probably a few too many cigarettes and drinks in my twenties and too little yoga and bulgur…I just didn’t consider myself the kind of woman who breastfed, and the only reason I decided to do so was because of the incredible pressure, not out of any strong desire on my part. In fact, the expectation that I would breastfeed was one of the only things that made me feel trepidatious about getting pregnant in the first place.

I’m not really sure how long I’ll continue breastfeeding.  I have the sneaking suspicion my supply is plummeting and now that Evangeline is eating solid food, and is so terribly excited about it, I’m comfortable with the idea of weaning her when the time feels right- maybe next week, maybe when she’s a year old.  The idea of nursing past the one-year mark is prohibitive to me – but then again, I’ve done a lot of things I never thought I would with her, and am happier for them.

I’ll always remember the first truly satisfying nursing session Evangeline and I experienced together – it was a session that I  returned to again and again throughout growth spurts, late nights, early mornings when things didn’t always run so smoothly.  It was late in the afternoon, and I was nursing Evangeline continuously since she’s a cluster feeder by nature.  She finished nursing and as I picked her up to burp her she stretched both arms above her head, closed her eyes, and collapsed against my chest, as though there is nothing more she could possibly need in the world.  She fell into a deep nap, her jaw slightly slack, and I thought to myself I am the only person who will ever be privy to this look. I can’t capture it on camera and no one else will ever have this particular vantage point – I am the only person who will ever know this sweet, sweet look.

A friend of mine is pregnant right now and she is determined to formula feed from the very beginning.   She believes in her heart of hearts that this is the right decision for her family and with her husband capable of handling some of the feedings, she will be able to sleep more than a breastfeeding mom, and she’ll enjoy her baby more because she won’t be participating in an act she finds uncomfortable.  I have thus far refrained from offering my opinion because I know what it feels like to be pressured into the decision, and because I know how hateful the conversation can quickly turn. I was very startled to see how willing women are to attack one another on this issue, and how women use breastfeeding versus formula feeding to inform their identities.

Some of the things women claimed on the internet on the boards I frequented I found quite hilarious but also, unhelpful.  Several women claim that their breasts are no longer sexual objects and to consider them such would be wrong – they are now solely for feeding the baby. No more pretty bras – no more showing off the cleavage.  Some classified formula as “pure and total crap” and argued that moms who feed their children formula should have their children removed from their homes, others talked about formula as a gateway drug – a slippery slope to creaming chicken nuggets and putting coke in bottles for 4 month olds.  The arguments are depressing in both their inflexibility and their numbers…I don’t imagine by the time I have our second child we will have all learned to accept one another’s choices easily, or with kindness.

Despite all of the above, I find it hard to keep my mouth shut and not at the very least encourage my friend to breastfeed – for me it has been a remarkable experience, from the changing relationship I have with my body to the sweet time it gives with Evangeline – I’ve gone from a woman who truly didn’t think she could or would breastfeed to someone who has embraced both its inconveniences and its pleasures. Breastfeeding Evangeline has shown me another facet of my personality – one I didn’t think existed – and for that I am so, so grateful.

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12 Responses to Me and my milk, my milk and me –

  1. What a beautiful essay, thank you. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about breast-feeding until I’d done it and then I found I was a bit of tiger about it. I think we all find our comfort zone one way or another, and what’s most important is how it works for mother and baby. I live in a society where people breast-feed in public very naturally and freely and I think that helped me to feel very comfortable about it.

  2. shoreacres says:

    Your blog is so interesting to me because it’s a window into a very familiar – and vaguely disturbing – world, a world where ideology runs roughshod over freedom, relationship and personal satisfaction.

    I keep getting these flashbacks to the early 60s, when the rabid feminists began running amok, telling everyone that – well, that their way was the best. Helen Gurley Brown ruled the world, and we all read Cosmo like it was the Bible – which, in a way, it was. Marriage? Kaput. Kids? A drag on our self-actualization. And so on and so forth.

    It sounds like breast-feeding vs bottle-feeding is the new office vs home, and there are hints of the same inflexibility, i.e. “You’re certainly free to do as you please, but if you don’t do as I do, you’re obviously lower on the evolutionary chain.” 😉

    Ah, well. Everyone has to work these things out for themself, and it sounds as though you’re doing pretty well.

  3. Lovely, just lovely. I had always intended to breastfeed and then when it was the hardest thing EVER (I still bear the nipple scars), I was so devastated. But we kept at it (with the occasional formula supplement) and it was so worth it. Like Charlotte said, we all find our own comfort zone. So sad that we feel compelled to judge one another’s choices at times…

  4. katy says:

    I’d have a hard time not encouraging a friend to at least try it as well. If she tries and hates it, she can stop and return to her original plan. But once she stops producing milk, she can never even try to see if that’s something that will be a positive experience for her, you know?

    I’ve had so, so, so many of those, “tomorrow we will wean” moments. But then, I’ve also had those moments you described, where you are the only one in the world privy to that facial expression. What a nice story of you and your milk!

  5. litlove says:

    What an exquisite piece of writing. I think that babies don’t read child development manuals (mine certainly never had), and I think that new mothers should be encouraged NOT to submit to any dominant ideologies but get to know their child and trust their instincts. Those boards are pure poison. I know I starved my poor baby in the early months because my mother was a rabid believer in 4-hour feeds and insistant that no baby would take both a bottle teat and a mother’s nipple. I look back and wonder why on earth I believed her? When my child was often howling with hunger? But I didn’t trust myself to know anything. Eventually I gave up feeding him about four and a half months and was much happier afterwards. Not with the lack of contact, which I’d enjoyed, but with the security that he had been properly fed. He was happier because I was happier, and basically THAT is the most important ‘rule’ of motherhood. Get yourself happy and secure and your child will follow suit.

  6. smithereens says:

    It’s so sad how dogmatic people get on this very personal issue.
    Like you, breastfeeding surprised me because it showed me another side of me (and my body). It worked for me and I was comfortable with it while my girlfriends didn’t like it or didn’t manage it (or perhaps don’t want to say so). There’s a lot of tabu around the matter, but here in France it’s a lot more pro-formula than in the US. I did stop early b/c I couldn’t do it at work, but perhaps if/when we get another baby I’ll try again and longer.

  7. AnneCamille says:

    What a wonderful essay, Courtney. Sadly, I think the poisonous attitudes are no different today than they were 23 years ago when I had a newborn. My experience was a bit different than most, as my child was in NICU. I used a pumping machine. Let’s just say that the hospital type is nothing like what they sell retail. It probably didn’t help that the nurse wheeled the double-pump into the room and referred to it as “Elsie”. What on earth was she thinking? But, it did allow me to nurse 2 weeks later once my baby was ready to do so. But, after 3 weeks of small, frequent feedings, it was obvious that he wasn’t getting enough food and a lovely doctor told me that it was much better to feed my baby –by whatever method worked for my child — than to worry about breastfeeding my baby. I’m glad that I tried it, could never understand my sisters nursing for a year, but decided that I didn’t care a bit what others thought because I was doing what was best for my family. For other dietary reasons, my son was still on formula when he 4 (drank from a cup, not a bottle). More than once while purchasing cases of formula, I had cashiers ask me how old my other child was, assuming that the child with me was not the consumer. Almost always, I was told by these same people that my son was WAY too old for formula. Funny how people aren’t as loose-lipped about telling people that they shouldn’t be feeding their kids candy, soda, and McDonald’s.

  8. Stefanie says:

    Lovely essay Courtney. Since I am not a mother I have no experience with this but I have heard horror stories from coworkers. It seems like everyone likes to tell new mothers what to do and don’t trust that they can figure out for themselves what is best for herself and baby. Kudos to you for finding you own way through it all.

  9. Courtney says:

    Charlotte – I became a bit of a Tiger about it as well, although I could never get over myself enough to breastfeed in public. I think if we have a second child I’ll be MUCH more assertive and confident nursing.

    Shoreacres – I think you are right – this really and truly is the new work or stay at home mom debate…I can’t believe we all don’t realize we are working against each other instead of with each other…

    Kristi – seriously, thank god for formula – it totally helps out in a pinch (or three) and allows us to get over those humps!

    Katy – exactly right. You can always STOP breastfeeding but you can’t just start again, which begs the question – why not at least give it a go?

  10. Litlove – I couldn’t agree more! A happy mommy makes for a happy baby! And you are right – the boards are definitely poisonous and need to be avoided at all costs!

    Smithereens – interesting that France is more pro-formula… I never would have thought that! I think E and I are quickly coming to the end of our breastfeeding relationship as she is about to get a tooth AND her daddy is taking her on a flight to visit his folks in a few weeks – but I find myslef pretty happy with the 6 months we achieved.

  11. Anne, oooh, I would have wanted to CLOCK the people who felt they could stick their nose into your business like that. Really, there is nothing like babies to bring out the worst in people sometimes (and the best, in others…)

    Stefanie – thank you for the kind words, and know I am still thinking of you during your great floor restoration project!

  12. emily barton says:

    21 years ago, I was shopping with a friend and her baby when her baby got hungry. We sat down on a seat in a shoe store, and she very discreetly began nursing. We were asked to leave. I was appalled. Watching my friend nurse had always been such a beautiful experience for me, I couldn’t see how anyone could be offended. Sad to hear so much controversy still surrounds it.

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