I know, super engaging title. Roll with me.
I mentioned in my last post how hard it was for me to cope with the ending of my nursing career with Caroline and, further, switching from pumped breast milk to formula. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while, because it’s something that I’ve been struggling with.
I never was one of those people in the “no formula! evil!” camp. I was a formula fed baby and so was my brother and for the most part both of us turned out just fine. Sure, obviously breast milk is #1 because, well, that’s what we’re designed for. Boobies are for milk no matter what the lingerie industry likes to have us believe. But as an alternative, it isn’t as if formula is poison. Similac has been a trusted resource for quite some time now. And I always knew that, but I had pretty much resolved myself to spending the time and energy required to breastfeed for a year–that was my optimistic goal, but I figured absolutely no less than 6 months. Well, I barely got 3 out of the deal, which upset me a lot. Part of it was pride, because I liked the fact that her nourishment came from me. Another part of it was that I liked it–I liked the quiet time, I liked the fact that it was something that only she and I could do. Obviously it started out rough, but I was proud of the fact that we had worked through the hardest moments and after 8 weeks or so we had finally turned a corner–so I thought–and it was all working out. It never really occurred to me that the reason for the colic/discomfort was potentially due to the mechanics of the breastfeeding and/or the fact that she probably just wasn’t getting as much milk as she needed and wanted. It was a nasty cycle that was feeding into itself (no pun intended) and it really didn’t become apparent until it was already in hindsight.
And of course, once we did start bottle feeding and the change was so dramatic, I had to come to terms with the fact that I probably couldn’t nurse anymore, or at least not exclusively. For a while I tried to hold on to our nighttime feeds, but when a week went by and she woke up every single hour at night we started to sense that she just wasn’t getting full. The first night I fed her a bottle, she slept for 4 hours. So there went my last hold out of night feeds. I was pretty well crushed about the whole thing. I felt like this one thing that I was designed to do wasn’t working and there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.
Then, when my supply started to dip and my anxiety peaked again, I found myself sitting at the kitchen counter with 2 ounces of pumped milk and a hungry baby who was ready to go to sleep. And I didn’t have enough milk for the night. In the cupboard was a box of trial-size formula tins that Similac had sent me in the mail before the baby was even born. We still had a couple little bottles of newborn nutrition ready-feed formula that the hospital had sent us home with when she was being supplemented at the very beginning, too. Cameron, of course, didn’t think twice. Add the formula to the milk, he said. What’s the big deal?
And what was the big deal? Well, I had to deal with the feeling that my body was failing me and Caroline. Wasn’t I supposed to continue making enough milk for her? Why was it failing at only 11 weeks? And then there was the fact that feeding her formula was never in my “plan.” Of course I knew that there was nothing wrong with formula. It’s just that it’s expensive, and I figured if I was going to be home with her, breast milk is free. But still, when I added the liquid formula to my pitiful 2 ounces of milk and fed it to her before she went to bed, I heard this voice in the back of my head and it said you are failing. I felt so miserable and like such a horrible mother–and why? I knew that formula is no big deal. And let’s face it, I didn’t have much other choice. My milk was failing, Caroline was hungry, and there was formula in the cupboard. Easy solution.
As the next week went on and I supplemented more and more and eventually finally decided to just start formula feeding her, I thought a lot about what it was that made me feel so bad about giving her formula when I knew there was nothing wrong with it. And I realized that it all went back to the medical professionals I had interacted with since the time I was pregnant. During our childbirth classes, the teacher gave us a gloss-over of the benefits of breastfeeding versus formula, and I didn’t even really think about it at the time because I was planning to breastfeed. But I realized after the fact that her little “Breast is Best” speech was actually a diatribe about the evil horrors of formula and the havoc that it will wreak on the baby’s incomplete tummy. Our first morning in the hospital when she had lost so much weight, I had two nurses arguing over me–literally–about what to do with her. The older nurse was saying, we’ll supplement her with formula, no problem. The younger nurse, a lactaction consultant, was saying no, let her pump colostrum and we’ll syringe feed it to her. And again, I didn’t even think about it at the time, but some part of me was like, why is this even a question? The baby is hungry and tiny and losing weight, just give her the formula. When we left the hospital the nurse had to go to the pediatric unit to find some formula to send home with us so we could supplement like the doctor wanted, because the labor and delivery unit can’t even keep formula in the unit or they will lose their “breast friendly” status. When I went to her doctor about her colic for the umpteenth time and mentioned that she had been refusing to nurse, the nurse told me “usually when that happens you have to force them to nurse because otherwise they will prefer a bottle.” (And that was when I was still giving her breastmilk in a bottle.) Force her to nurse? Really? Is the act of breastfeeding really more important than the overall health of the baby and the mother? Who cares HOW she is getting the breastmilk as long as she is getting it?
So it finally occurred to me: no wonder I felt bad about giving her formula. Every medical professional I had bumped into since getting pregnant had been pounding anti-formula vitriol into my brain. Aren’t we supposed to trust medical professionals? It came to me that I actually had no idea what to do with the formula and I had to look it all up on my own on Similac’s website. There were no resources given to me when I was pregnant about what to do in the event that breastfeeding didn’t work out, for whatever reason(s). I felt oddly comforted by Similac’s website. It sounded inviting, comfortable, and had lots of disclaimers like “We believe breastfeeding is best, but if you decide to supplement with formula, we have what you’ll need.” It didn’t sound judgy. I didn’t find myself at a website saying “You shouldn’t even be looking at this website. Shame on you. Get back to putting that baby to the breast.”
It’s been several weeks now since we made the switch to formula and while I have to admit my stress is way less, I do miss the nursing sometimes. But, I have to look at my sweet Bean and admit that she is so. much. better. She is growing and learning and is happy and I have to remind myself that nobody should give a shit about how I am feeding her and what I am feeding her except me and Cameron. Still, it hurts sometimes when I come across blogs written by mothers who are lamenting the fact that their baby self-weaned at 2 years and how much they miss it. I have to curb my cynicism and my desire to say “You got 2 years out of the deal. Quit yer bitchin’.” I didn’t choose to stop nursing and I didn’t want to, it was a response to necessity, but sometimes I feel like some women look at formula feeders and think we must be lazy or have taken the easy route out. It hasn’t been easy to take this road, at least for me.
So, in those moments when I get nostalgic for the nursing or feel angry with the culture of anti-formula/mommy shaming, I remind myself of my new year’s resolutions and remember to be present and positive, and I think of the positives to formula feeding. I still get my quiet time with her before bed. She still can reach out and hold my thumb while she drifts off to sleep. She SLEEPS! No more getting up every 2 hours at night–this week she slept 10 hours in a row. I can wear whatever kinds of clothes I want. (My favorite hoodie was missing me!) I can go wherever I want with her and not worry about having enough milk pumped for her or having to get home in time to make more. She can stay overnight with Meme and Papi and I don’t have to spend days pumping a freezer supply first. I can drink as much coffee and wine as I want and I can indulge in my clove cigarette vice every so often. You know, all those bad things you’re not supposed to do anyway. (Hey, I’m a writer. When I get stuck, I drink more coffee and have a cigarette. What can I say.)
Most of all…she is happy. She has been so happy since we stopped nursing and as much as it hurts me, I have to remember that her happiness and health is the most important thing. It would have been incredibly selfish of me to try to continue nursing when it obviously wasn’t the best for her, no matter what the anti-formula doctors and lactivists say. Life is a moving target and nothing is ever black and white.