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.