Friday, August 31, 2012

Formula-fed

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.

10 comments :

  1. Yes!!! Thank you for opening up, for sharing your story(and I hope it gives other mamas a bit more courage to share theirs!), for being the mama that you are to that lovely dear boy... he's so lucky to have you! Together we stand, divided we fall - I'm very proud to stand next to you, your honesty is inspiring! xox

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  2. I love this post Lilybett. It is honest, truthful, a reality that should be presented as equally as 'breast is best'. Mummas in our society know that breast is best. The ABA has done an amazing job of continuing to keep breastfeeding at the forefront of antenatal education, and support mothers as they have for many, many decades. However, as you've described this so often means that the 'other' is silenced. Your story, which is so similar to my story, and the stories of so, so many other mums is one that we needed to know as well. So that there could be just a glimmer of okayness in our heads and hearts while we grieve the 'loss' of our breastfeeding abilities.

    Thank you for sharing your story. x

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  3. Whats best for baby is whats best... not what you are told is best. No-one can take away you being the most important person in his life. I felt like I failed because with my second baby I chose to stop breast feeding I had alot of milk but he hurt me and wasnt getting enough, I pumped for a while but eventually wanted to leave the house with out pads or leaks. I felt selfish but it wasnt the beautiful experience I had had the first time around, people frowned when I told them he had gone to formula at such and such weeks. I felt like I had not been fair to him because I had done it for longer for his brother. Mothers feel guilt, alot of guilt, all the time. Talking about it and getting past things helps.Even if my hubby doesnt really get it he listens to me figure my way through.

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  4. LB this could be my story with my 2nd little guy too (right down to the half hour between each round of attempt feed/screaming/EBM/attempt to settle baby/pump pump pump till the next round starts again sitting up watching infomercials to the sound of that &^^$&$(#)))^^ pump. Add 9 rounds of mastitis : ( and I stuck it out (stupidly in hindsight) for around 4 and a half months I couldnt really tell you why I think largely desire and pressure to succeed (even hate that word as of course the OPPOSITE is FAIL and thats just not true), stubbornness, had plenty of milk, and the intermittient reinforcement that every know and again randomly just enough to give me hope that he would relax and attach and this blasted thing would work he would feed ok on one side. Seriously so many tears and such a dark horrible time for all of us (had a little 2 year old at the time too who would just sit and play on the floor in my room day in day out while I wrangled the pump and the screaming banshee that my baby had become....and that I had become at times too so sleep deprived). It really was hell. I remember sitting having coffee with a friend (who had a baby exact same ages maybe days apart) and watching her feed him so easily and breaking apart inside thinking I cant do this anymore I just cant it is too damaging for all of us but then he would feed ok one feed out of 6 and then one out of 3 (always on one side better than the other for some reason?) then we kept limping along and eventually around the 5 mth mark I sat there and realised almost every feed was "ok" it was never easy but we got to around 8mths somehow before he self weaned. Oh God it is so hard even writing about this it brings up so many raw emotions and I am tense while I think about it. He is a shocking eater now too and I often think no wonder when every feed involved him screaming his little heart out and being so close to food but not being able to open his mouth and latch on and just get access to it there was always time and screaming and faffing around and me tense and yadda yadda yadda you know what it was like it is so hard to describe except hell. Like you we saw child health nurses and GPs and Lactation Consultants and made many pleading ph calls asking how can we sort this out, but nothing and no one helped. And all this in an environment where Formula is evil and mums who opt for formula are 'evil' too. I still remember the stares and glares and comments I would get (from strangers as well as family and friends) when I had a bottle for him and I felt like screaming "FFS it is BREAST MILK you &*(#$(#^*#^^^^^^^^^^^" when it was none of their business what it was and they had NO IDEA what it was like and at least the baby was alive and fed and happy. Oh man it was hell. Anyway just a (long rambling) comment to say I HEAR YOU and to ask that others think before judging someone else with their parenting choices as they have NO IDEA what is going on for that mum....walk a day in their shoes is all I can say. Thanks LB not that I enjoyed this trip back to v difficult sad time in my life but because it is always nice to know you are not alone. And thankyou for you courage in sharing this difficult time as I am sure it will help another mum.

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  5. Thank you for sharing your story Lilybet. I had a friend who tried everything like you did and it didn't work for #1 son.
    You said it all - your wonderful, healthy, happy Dear Boy later , there is nothing wrong with formula.
    My twin#2 arched his back , screamed and refused to BF for 5 months. If not for his twin I would have chosen formula too to give to my son too.
    Even if mums decide not to Breastfeed there should be no judgement ever

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I think there's just too much judgement of mums, full stop. We all need to go easier on each other and ourselves most of all.

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  6. I know I've come to this late, and I also realise I don't have anything particularly insightful or interesting to say but...! I DID want to say how great this post was. "Enjoyed" is the wrong word for it, but it rang painfully true - even though breastfeeding eventually worked out for us, I wish I'd been able to read this when things were nightmarish for both the baby and I back at the start.

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    1. Thanks for coming at all! I'm not sure you could come late to a post like this, though. Almost two years later and it's continually at the top of my 'most read posts' list. Breastfeeding stories seem to be universal, no matter whether the experience was positive or negative. Please check out my Breasts and Bottles series as well if you're interested in other breastfeeding stories.

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  7. Thanks for sharing. This sounded so close to my own breastfeeding experience with my now 2 year old son. It was so emotional and overwhelming for me and it makes me sad that that is how I spent my time during his first few months of life.

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    1. I found it really hard to get past that sadness - it sometimes still hits me even two and a half years later. I've been posting stories in my Breasts and Bottles series from other mums to try and prevent other mums feeling the same way about their own circumstances - I wish I'd known that there are many different ways that feeding can happen in those early days. If you'd like to contribute your story to the series, please send me an email - lilybett[at]gmail[dot]com

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Thanks for taking the time to respond to what you have read here at Lilybett and Boy. I love reading through all your comments.

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