The first two days with my newborn were hell.
Those weren't exactly the words I'd expected to come out of my mouth as a first-time mom, but from the moment my new little man laid eyes on my breasts, his reaction was to scream. I had intended to breastfeed, just like I had planned on having my baby sleep through the night at eight-weeks-old; I was aware that things were pretty unpredictable. What I didn't know was that the transition from breastfeeding to formula was going to be, what I perceived at the time, my first failure in motherhood.
Oliver (Olly) was delivered at a downtown Manhattan hospital. After 18 hours of labor, a long pregnancy that left me 55 pounds heavier, and a whole life of waiting to be a mom, the moment had finally arrived.
In the maternity ward, the culture of breastfeeding became my new world. By the time Olly was introduced to my naked chest he was incredibly hungry, and due to my, let's just say challenging nipples, it was as if the poor guy was trying to suck a melon through a straw. But the nurses all seemed to be of one belief system: breast is best. I knew about the general positives of breastfeeding that I had learned in classes and books, so I didn't think they were that out of line for encouraging me.
There's no arguing that the antibodies found in breast milk that help build a healthy immune system cannot be found in formula. I had read that breast milk can reduce the risk of cancer, obesity, respiratory problems, blood disorders and so on, so of course I was going to try to give my child the best start possible. But the nurses' "healthy" encouragement soon became dictated instructions that left me feeling guilty for not doing such a great job.
I met with three lactation consultants, all with different strategies to get Olly sucking, and each one of them remarked on his impatience. But was he impatient or just hungry? I began to question them on why breast milk is leaps and bounds better than formula. They all had the same ambiguous look as they answered by saying, "It's just better for your baby." That was it. It was just "better." So I continued blindly, pushing my two-day-old baby and myself to just be "better."
After a day and a half of different nurses meandering in and casually giving me a purple nurple, telling me that I just had to just grin and bear it, I began to think of them as brainwashed. "If he can't even get the colostrum out, isn't that bad?" I'd said. "He's fine. He just has to learn," they responded. They all said that every new mom has challenges with breastfeeding, but that in the end the rewards always outweigh the struggle.
It wasn't about my struggle though, or my sore nipples, or my frustration -- it was about my new best friend in the world, and he was hungry. That was it. That was all that mattered.
I got the feeling from these nurses that if I were to feed him formula it would be like pouring a bottle of vodka down his throat. At that point, my determination to breastfeed was there not because of my personal belief in the benefits, but because of the social pressure I felt around me.
Towards the end of the second day, tired and defeated, I sat limply holding the back of Olly's neck, trying to place him directly in front of my nipple. As tears gently fell down my cheek, a woman walked into the room. Olly's back was arched and he was screaming bloody murder. The woman leaned in and said with a thick Brooklyn accent, "My baby was just as hungry when he was born and I wasn't producing enough milk, so I supplemented with formula." Promptly sitting up, I looked at her with starstruck eyes; someone was actually going to help me. She took a look around, like a dealer about to sell drugs, and told me that if I wanted, she'd bring me a secret stash of formula.
After I had said, "Yes!" a little too excitedly, she came back with six or seven bottles and hid them in my overnight bag. I was crying as I opened the bottle and attached the plastic nipple. I was so desperate to have my child's belly full that my need to feel competent as a breastfeeding mother disappeared completely. As soon as Olly's lips made contact with that pseudo boob, his eyes fluttered and rolled back blissfully into his head. The room was quiet, and I could actually hear Manhattan's nature sounds: sirens and honking cars. It was so very peaceful.
After arriving home and continuing the struggle for breastfeeding breeziness, I realized that for the first time I was not in control. I felt affected by the perception of my situation rather than just making a decision based on what was best for my new relationship.
I have to say, I envy women who can just whip out their boob and feed their baby easily and naturally. I admire the type of woman who quietly breastfeeds without a hint of judgment towards others who formula feed. I also look up to women who persevered through the latching and the sucking with cracked nipples and infections trying to get to that stage of ease. They can say after a month of hell, "I never gave up and it was terrible, but now it's easy, convenient and my baby is getting breast milk." They are like war vets in my mind, soldiers who endured a battle. And even with my second baby, after the blood and thrush and continuing the battle with a totally different personality and the same issues, I had to look at the situation and decide what I felt was right versus what our current society tells us is right and what a 'good' mother is.
After a couple of months and what felt like hundreds of hours at the pump station, I turned to formula full time. I remember the day that I told our Paediatrician in NYC that I had turned to formula. I had tears in my eyes as I expressed guilt. As she looked down at her chart she said, "Just so you know, there are discrepancies about the scientific evidence that breast milk will, for example, produce a smarter baby or prevent Cancer, or that a formula-fed baby will have a weaker immune system." She then looked at me, as Olly lay sleeping against my bare skin, and said, "See, there is no difference between the way you bond with your baby and all the other breastfeeding moms out there." If Olly hadn't been sleeping so peacefully, I would have jumped into her arms.
When people ask me if I breastfed my boys and I tell them my experience, I wonder if they might think I just didn't try hard enough, or that I'm just not fully educated on the benefits of breastfeeding. But there was my first lesson in parenting: It doesn't matter what they think. What matters is that I have a happy baby.
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