Annie, Contributing writer
Within my circle of friends, I was one of the last in the group to have my first child, so my preparation consisted largely of collecting the anecdotes and advice of girlfriends who went before me. One friend in particular had a miserable time breastfeeding, so throughout pregnancy I promised myself that once my daughter arrived I would do my best to breastfeed, but not beat myself up if it didn’t work for us.
My first breastfeeding experience in the hospital could not have been better. My new daughter, Violet, latched immediately, and after her first spit-up, the nurses said she’d taken in a healthy dose of colostrum. I continued to breastfeed in the hospital and in those early days at home, but as the days passed, the sessions got more challenging.
Sometimes it would take Violet 30 or even 45 minutes just to latch. Then as soon as she’d start getting milk, she’d come off the breast and we’d have to start over again. I remember feeling so frustrated and helpless, which was only compounded by sleep deprivation.
Within a week, I started to pump to ensure that Violet would continue to get breast milk as we worked on her latch. Pumping came much more easily to me, and it turned out I had quite a healthy supply. But my relief was short-lived. I soon felt attached to my pump, and was envious of my husband’s cozy feeding sessions with our newborn while I was alone in the corner hooked up to a machine. Wasn’t one of the primary benefits of breastfeeding supposed to be the bonding with my newborn? I felt like my pump was creating unnecessary separation.
During this time, I reached out to a few lactation consultants. Those available via my hospital network offered some help, but I didn’t feel I could be honest with them about what we were doing already. One of them was so adamant that a pacifier could cause nipple confusion that I was scared to admit we were already feeding Violet bottles most of the time. Both told me that if the latch was right, it shouldn’t hurt. So every time Violet latched and it was painful, I became convinced it wasn’t a good latch and that we needed to start over.
After nearly two weeks, I decided to find my own lactation consultant — someone with good online reviews — and made an appointment for the next day. She was wonderful, giving us all kinds of tips and tricks (Nipple shields! Laid-back nursing! The list goes on…) and helping Violet and me to achieve productive feeding in her care. At the end of our appointment, she declared that we’d be in good shape within a week.
But as soon as we tried our first feeding without her, our struggles returned. Throughout the process, my husband Scott did whatever he could to help us, including helping to get Violet in position to nurse while I lay flat on my back. Up until that point, Scott had been unconditionally supportive of my commitment to feed Violet breast milk exclusively. But after continuing to struggle with sustaining a good latch, one day, I snapped.
Scott stepped in and told me he thought it was time to stop breastfeeding and start using formula. I was convinced that he was not sufficiently informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and its superiority to formula. I told him that if he really understood, he would feel differently. But he contended that all three of us were miserable, and pleaded with me that our story as a family had to be about more than this sole focus on breastfeeding.
Accepting that formula feeding would be our fate, I reengaged my lactation consultant to help me transition. I was firm with her that I’d made my mind up, but that I still needed help with a weaning and transition plan. Yet again, she was wonderful — bringing along how-to guides, offering advice without judgment, and even telling me that if I did change my mind down the road, there was a possibility of reviving my milk supply to begin breastfeeding again. Lastly, she told me that through the work I’d already done — nursing and bottle feeding pumped milk — I’d already given Violet such a strong start. Her pep talked helped me to see some light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
The early days of motherhood are fragile and emotional. What I didn’t expect was that early on, mothering and breastfeeding would feel like one and the same. If I couldn’t breastfeed, then what value could I possibly add as a mother? And if I didn’t have the resolve to continue breastfeeding — through the pain, exhaustion, and growing sense of futility — what did that say about my ability tackle the inevitably tougher challenges of motherhood to come?
With the clarity of hindsight, I now realize that perhaps my first test as a mother was not a test of my ability to breastfeed my child, but a test of my ability to make an unpopular decision that happened to be the right one for my family. The strength to tune out the “breast is best” lectures and accept that a breastfeeding relationship wouldn’t be part of our story. To define what nurturing my daughter meant for me, and to not let anyone else’s words — or Instagram photos — make me feel like less of a mother. Finding the strength to stand alone, with my head held high, was one of the biggest challenges I’ve overcome. Now, I want to impart that same strength, confidence, and independence to my daughter.