My friend, Sash, recently wrote a post on her blog (Inked in Colour) about encouraging her daughter to 'Rock the Boat, Baby', to have opinions and not be afraid of giving them. But it was also about political correctness and the way we want to avoid giving offense, especially to other mums. Important conversations are stifled or ignored. Voices are silenced. Part of this discussion draws on the topic of breastfeeding, making mums feel guilty and why there's not much talk out there about formula feeding.
I haven't talked about formula feeding here. I've skirted around it or glossed over it or hurried past it. Mostly because it's still raw and painful and the sense of sadness that surrounds what I still think of as a 'failure' is really hard to write about. Months and months of life with my wonderful, healthy, happy Dear Boy later and it still feels like failure. But perhaps it's time to change that and maybe throwing this out there into the world will help to make it feel less like failure and more like 'well, this happened'.
I wanted to breastfeed. I wanted to but it didn't work for us.
In hospital my supply was slow coming in and low. Dear Boy would reel back from me, arching his back and screaming with hunger. I attempted to pump; I was squeezed six ways from Sunday by the midwives; I had colostrum syringed from my body to drop into my boy's mouth.
I persisted. And persisted.
I tried alone in my room, weeping for help, with the call buzzer left blinking above my door.
I tried with the midwives lunging Dear Boy's head at my boobs.
I tried using this hold, and that hold, with pillows and shields and without.
I tried until my nipples were grazed, until they were cracked, until they were blistered and bleeding.
But Dear Boy either reared back and screamed or he slept, his lips trembling against my skin. On the midwives' advice, I tickled his feet, rubbed his cheeks, undressed him until he was naked and trembling, blew in his face, anything to try and rouse him enough to suck. But he wanted to sleep and not to thrive.
When three days had passed and my boy had lost too much of his birth weight, the midwives recommended supplementing with formula and I cried because I couldn't feed him. I cried when we were put on three-hourly feeds and after attempting to feed, pumping, bottle feeding with expressed milk and then topping up with formula, I lay wide awake for the half hour left before it had to start all over again.
Three days later, he had gained enough weight to leave the hospital but the three-hourly feeds continued - try to feed, pump, feed EBM, top up with formula, try to sleep.
The breastfeeding didn't ever go well. Not once did we ever achieve anything close to a 'good' feed - where Dear Boy got all he needed directly from the boob. Not once. We never had a feed where we didn't have to faff around with a bottle afterwards, where I didn't feel like I was broken.
I tried to increase my supply with extra pumping, with herbal supplements. I called the ABA's hotline numerous times. I visited the branch store just down the road. I hired an industrial strength pump. I paid for a lactation consultant to come to our house. I visited a day stay clinic at a hospital an hour from our house.
Nothing made it better.
After four weeks of screaming and crying (both his and mine), I gave up with even trying and just pumped and bottle-fed Dear Boy the expressed milk. I would feed him the EBM, settle him back to sleep and then sit in the dark lounge-room, watching The Hulk, Knight Rider, Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat and Charmed with the hiss-sigh of the pump keeping me company. Thirty to forty minutes of hiss-sigh, hiss-sigh, hiss-sigh and swapping the pump from breast to breast and still the mils never really went high enough to keep up.
After five weeks of being constantly reminded of my failure at this fundamental part of parenting (hiss-sigh, hiss-sigh, hiss-sigh), I fell apart. I cried every day - sometimes by myself, sometimes in a heap in Lovely Husband's arms. I started dreading Dear Boy waking from his sleeps because it would start again. I stopped feeding him at all, leaving Lovely Husband to cradle him and hold the bottle to his lips. I would use any excuse to leave the house and leave them there.
After six weeks I returned the pump. I bought extra bottles and another tin of formula. And I cried. While I still had the pump and was still expressing, I thought there was still hope. I'd try offering Dear Boy the breast every now and then just in case this was the magic time when it just all clicked. It never did.
As my supply dwindled and dried, I cried. Eventually, the crying dwindled and dried as well.
In hindsight, I realise I had built an expectation that breastfeeding would just happen. It was normal, and natural, and therefore, it would be easy.It wasn't even something I really thought hard about during my pregnancy. I simply assumed it would work. Millions of women, billions, had done it before me. I had seen the women in my family breastfeed without a problem. My mum had founded the ABA chapter in our town when I was a child - she had breastfed other people's children. I'd been given brochures about 'breast is best' and they'd been left unread because I agreed. Why would anyone in their right mind want to feed a baby formula when breasts were available?
When it didn't work, when it wasn't easy, when it wasn't 'second nature', when it hurt and didn't stop hurting, it shocked me in a very instinctual, animalistic way. My hormones were running wild, driving me to curl my body around around my boy, to hover when anyone held him, to lay sleepless with every noise he made. When I couldn't feed him, I was pushed out of that mama-bear mode and into a sterile, mechanical, refridgerated, electrical, pre-packaged place. There were guages and levels and scoops, there was temperatures and nuturitional minimums and bacteria. It was foreign and completely unexpected.
All of a sudden, the vision I had had of a natural, calm mama crumpled. Feeding was now equated with anxiety. Why won't he eat? What am I doing wrong? Is there something else I can try? Will it just work if I keep going? Is it something I did? Is he getting enough? Why isn't it coming out? Why does she have so much more than me? How will he even know that I'm his mum?
I know intellectually that being a mum is about more than feeding. But when such a huge part of his care was taken out of my control, it felt like I'd been fired from a job I'd only just gotten. If anyone could feed him, well, where did I fit in? It probably didn't help that the midwives were telling me different
things, giving conflicting advice but all demanding I keep trying the breast. It probably didn't help that I was
surrounded by serene breastfeeding posters and other boob propaganda. It
probably didn't help that the formula fridge was corridors away in an
all-access kitchen but the expressed milk was kept just next door under
lock and key. The message was loud and clear - breastfeeding is best and anything else will make you a bad parent.
I still do believe breast is best. But that doesn't mean that formula is a bad choice or the worst choice. Sometimes it's the only choice. Sometimes it's the best choice in a particular situation. I also believe that in five or ten or twenty years time, my boy won't know how he was fed in these early days unless I told him. I also believe that in five or ten or twenty years time that no-one would be able to say with any kind of scientific surety that this child, teenager or adult was breast-fed and this one was formula-fed. In terms of Dear Boy's health, his growth, his intellect, I honestly don't think it's going to make a bit of difference.
A lot of the time, I wonder why I wasted so much time and anguish and
so many tears on something that didn't work. I wonder why I couldn't
see then that being so hard on myself made the first six weeks of his
life the worst six weeks of mine.
Sometimes I still
cry. I cry after seeing other mums breastfeeding their babies. I cry
after I read things about breastfeeding mums and bubs and thinking about
how beautiful it could have been. I cry each time my ABA magazine
arrives because I forgot to cancel my membership. Mostly I cry though
because I'll never get those first six weeks back again. And like I mentioned in the comments of the Inked in Colour post, that's my sadness and no-one else's. I would never expect other mums to change the way they feed their babies or how they talk about their own experiences to make myself feel less sad. Because it really wouldn't help.
My boy is formula fed. I didn't choose that. I didn't want that. I didn't expect that.
But he thrives despite it or even perhaps because of it. He's healthy. He's big. He's happy.
And that's exactly what I wanted.