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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. 

02.28.2014 convenient hand hold4

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?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. No one tells you breast feeding might be hard. Every mom I know struggled with it in one way or another, and felt like a “failure@ because of it. Sharing this story is so important, so other new mums know they’re not alone… Congrats on doing whatever it takes to raise a healthy, happy boy! I love the BFing photo, BTW… :)

    July 11, 2014
    • Thanks, Tara! There’s actually another FBing photo from that series we love even more, but it’s marginally more revealing and we decided to go with the one that is a bit more internet-appropriate. S was definitely on the fence before we posted this, but now she is equally glad she did. We cannot believe the overwhelmingly positive response that this post generated. And if it helps some other new moms to get through their personal struggles, so much the better.

      July 18, 2014
  2. Colm #

    This is a vey interesting subject for me. I do not believe in the ‘breast is best’ philosophy at all. I come from a family of five bottle fed children and some of my fondest memories are of my father feeding my siblings as babies. In my own case, I would have felt totally left out of the single most important part of nurturing our boys and that would have been very very hard on me.
    Personally i believe nutirtion, whilst very important, is not the most important thing in a baby’s early years. I believe in the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impresison and that both parents have to feel fully involved in all the important ‘inputs’ to a baby’s life.
    What is very clear to me is that you guys are giving your baby lots and lots of the most important ‘input’ … Love! This is demonstrated by the obvious consideration, research and attention you are paying to the important decisions which must be taken.
    They say babies are like sponges, soaking up everything that is happening around them. I really believe this to be true and I think it is important to recognise that nutrition alone will not make a child! And, i also believe that the best nutrition will not make the best child.

    July 13, 2014
    • Thanks for sharing the dad’s perspective, Colm. While I still think breast milk is preferable to formula, I am totally with you in terms of how amazing it feels to be able to nurture the little man. In fact, I think what helped me feel most like a dad from day one is the amount of time I spent holding him and helping feed him. Hope R&R is treating you well, D

      July 18, 2014
  3. Sarah #

    No one tells you before you have a baby that breastfeeding is really hard. I remember everyone saying things like “oh its natural” and “your baby knows what to do”. My son was three weeks early (totally his choice, not mine) and could barely suck. It took a week for him to learn to latch. In the meantime I was pumping every two hours round the clock. He finally caught on (literally) and I am so grateful things have gone on as long as they have but it has been so much work. Do whatever you need to do to feed your baby and keep your sanity!

    July 14, 2014
    • Thanks for your kind words, Sarah. We’re happy that things also worked out for you and your son in the end. S has been overwhelmed by the amount of support she’s received after writing this blog post and we’re glad that you also shared your story to add to this important narrative.

      July 18, 2014

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