you can’t always get what you want
Long before S was pregnant, she envisioned herself as a breastfeeding mom. She imagined cherishing the snuggly, cozy time with Munchkin and being able to soothe him when he was upset. She even foresaw herself becoming enthusiastic about breastfeeding and doing it longer than most. The idea that it might not be possible – or possible for a full year exclusively – never entered her mind.
The New York Times recently dedicated its opinion pages to a debate about breastfeeding. Contributing authors wrote about the benefits of breastfeeding and the hidden costs of free formula, as well the pressures and anxieties the topic causes for new moms. With a degree in maternal and child health, S did not need to be sold on the benefits of breastfeeding. She is firmly indoctrinated in the “breast is best” philosophy, but there was one article in particular that was poignant and resonated especially with her.
The author wrote that “breast is not only best; it is the yardstick by which our parenting prowess is measured…The more you know, the more bottle feeding becomes a scarlet letter of sorts, the mark of bad motherhood. We’ve all been told that breastfeeding is the nutritionally superior choice; due to its lack of accoutrements, it is also environmentally superior. Is it any surprise, then, that it has also become the morally superior choice?” In some circles, the number of months moms breastfed becomes a badge of honor to be worn proudly on their chests. Time Magazine even ran a controversial cover of a woman breastfeeding a 3-year-old with the caption, “Are you mom enough?”
Somehow the way we feed babies has come to define motherhood, but it should not. As is true of pregnancy and childbirth, things do not necessarily go exactly as one would like. In fact, one of the greatest lessons S has learned in becoming a parent is that one truly has no control over the cards one is dealt.
Babies are supposed to surpass their birth weight by their third week, yet after a month of breastfeeding and pumping after every feed, Munchkin still had not regained his birth weight. S had always heard that moms make exactly the amount of milk that their babies need and that babies who do not latch properly or suckle efficiently can be taught. Breastfeeding pundits say not to worry or count the ounces. As long as the baby is gaining, all is well. But what if he is not? S had read about sore nipples, blocked ducts, mastitis, and thrush, to name a few. But when lactivists discuss low supply, they make it sound as if it is very, very rare and that often mothers think their supply is low when it really is not. Everything – everything – S had read indicated that if she tried hard enough she could get her supply up.
S had a wealth of knowledge but nothing could prepare her for the raw, heart wrenching emotion that overtook her when she realized she was not making enough milk for Munchkin and would never be able to. She felt like an inadequate mother with two deficient breasts. It took a while for S’s inner critic to calm down. The initial weeks of Munchkin’s life were a galling journey through shock, sadness, and self-condemnation before she eventually reached acceptance.
We were incredibly fortunate that our lactation consultant connected us to another mom who had the opposite problem. After nursing her first two children, she produced copious amounts of milk but due to birth complications was unable to nurse her youngest son. She was going through the rigorous testing process to donate her excess milk to the hospital and kindly agreed to donate some to us also. S continued to pump round the clock to supplement Munchkin’s feedings with the little she makes, and thanks to the donor milk we were able to put off introducing formula until Munchkin was almost four months old.
We brought a cooler of breast milk with us to Chisinau. Knowing that the donor milk would eventually run out forced S to come to terms with introducing formula, which we had to do in Munchkin’s 16th week. Having had some time to make peace with this eventuality, S no longer views it as the poison it is made out to be. Will Munchkin really have a lower IQ, reduced immunity, greater chance of childhood obesity, and be less “attached” or close to us as a result? There is new research suggesting that many of the long-term benefits attributed to breastfeeding may be an effect not of breastfeeding or breast milk itself but of the general good health and prosperity of women who choose to breastfeed.
All we know is that Munchkin is all health and vigor, sweetness and delight. He grows, he learns, and he fills our world with wonder and joy. What more could we ask for?