It’s 2 am and my baby, Molly, stirs in the bassinet next to me. I pick her up and walk out to the kitchen, where I scoop formula into a bottle and shake it up before popping it in her mouth. It’s become routine, but it still invokes a little sadness in me….it’s certainly something I never expected to be doing.
You see, I’m one of those moms who really, truly loves breastfeeding. I had a lot of nursing struggles in the beginning with both of my first two babies, but I pushed through and a few months in it became easy. I loved being able to feed my baby anytime, anywhere with this amazing super milk made just for them. I loved the little sounds they made and the way they looked in their milk drunk coma. I nursed my baby while hiking and felt like super mom, and I could pump out milk like a boss. Even when my second baby bit me so hard that I couldn’t nurse on that side for over a week, we kept going, and I nursed her until 18 months.
So as this sweet little third baby of mine grew inside of me, nursing was one of the things I most looked forward to. When she was born, she latched on right away, and I was so thankful. Things continued to go great…at first.
But then that changed. My milk supply came in and, just like with my other two, I became engorged. My baby started struggling to latch. My second baby had the same thing happen and I ended up pumping and giving her a bottle, which I regretted because she wouldn’t nurse for a week and a half after that. I wasn’t going to risk that this time, so I kept pushing through. For whatever reason, my milk supply tanked overnight. Molly started screaming every time she’d try to nurse and my milk took forever to let down. It stressed me out and everything got worse. I could tell I wasn’t full, even after going several hours without nursing. I’d pump and only get dribbles out [side note: I know pumping isn’t always an indicator of milk supply, but it always has been for me in the past]. Every feeding became a battle, with her popping on and off for 30 minutes, screaming the whole time, until my milk would finally let down a little or she’d get tired…I could never tell which. I would have to send my other kids out of the room each time because they only stressed me out more.
I tried everything I knew to try to fix things. I ate all the right foods, did lots of skin-to-skin, and quoted Scripture to try to decrease my anxiety. And I prayed…oh did I pray. I begged God to make my milk come back. But things only went from bad to worse. Her diaper count started to drop, and her screaming cry became more hoarse. Everyone in the house was getting very little sleep, and between that and all the crazy hormones, I felt like I was losing my sanity. I’d snap at the kids if they even came near while I was trying to nurse. I just knew in my heart that this wasn’t working and she wasn’t getting enough.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came one night when my three-year-old came in after Molly finally started nursing (after 30 min of screaming) and sat next to me. She was visibly upset, and after probing her she said that she didn’t like the baby screaming. I looked at her little face and realized that this battle was creating as much anxiety in her as it was me. I knew then that this wasn’t healthy for anybody. My kids needed a sane mom, Molly needed to eat, and I didn’t need my older two to resent the new baby. At a week and a half old, as tears streamed down my face, I gave her her first bottle. I watched as she guzzled it down, satisfied for the first time in days.
Suddenly she became the happiest, most content baby. She started to put on weight and thrive. Everybody started getting more sleep and anxiety levels went down. The strangest thing happened, and I was actually able to enjoy my baby–and to enjoy feeding her–for the first time. My older two started enjoying her again. It was obviously the right decision for our family.
But, if I’m honest, I still struggled. For awhile I cried every time I mixed up a bottle. I worried that I wasn’t giving her the best start. I wanted to give Molly the same chance as my other two. I wanter her to be just as healthy, just as well fed, etc. I grieved the loss of all those special times breastfeeding. Every social media post about breastfeeding caused a pang in my heart. And I felt embarrassed and ashamed. The first times I went into public, I dreaded somebody seeing me shake up a bottle. I put off telling even close friends what was going on. I knew in my heart I was doing what was best for Molly and our family, but that didn’t mean I didn’t wish things were different.
I feel such a connection now to other moms who can’t breastfeed. For the first time, I really understand. I understand the disappointment and frustration. I understand the worries about being judged. I understand the grief. It’s very real and very true.
Now at 6 weeks postpartum, I’m able to pump about 2 bottles out a day, and for the rest she gets formula. We’re in a routine and I’m okay with things for the most part. We found a formula that she does very well on, and each new little fat roll comforts my heart.
Part of me didn’t want to share all this because, frankly, it’s very personal and nobody else’s business. But then I realized that I needed to share my story for the sake of all the other moms like me.
Breastfeeding is an amazing, beautiful thing…but I’ve come to realize how quickly it can become an idol. It certainly had become so to me. I was relying on it to keep my kids healthy and allergy free. I was sacrificing everything else for its sake. In many ways, I was viewing breastfeeding as the epitome of mothering a baby. What I wasn’t seeing was that breastfeeding is just one piece of the puzzle. There are so many other parts to motherhood that I was missing. I was missing out on the joy of this newborn stage. I was missing out on the bonding as a new family of 5. And I was missing out on my other two children, who were needing a present, sane mom just as much as the baby was.
And formula feeding doesn’t mean I’m missing out on all of the other beautiful parts of the baby stage. I babywear her a lot, the same way I wore my other babies. I still snuggle her and hold her close. When I feed her, we stare into each other’s eyes the same way I would if I was nursing. She sleeps right next to me in her bassinet.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful thing. We need to normalize it. We need to support new moms struggling to breastfeed, and we need to encourage moms to persevere and try hard to get it to work. But we also need to support moms who have tried and can’t make it work. They shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed or less of a mother, or like they just didn’t try hard enough or know enough. I can tell you from experience that what I didn’t need was another well-meaning person with a suggestion on how to increase my milk supply. What I needed were the friends who recognized the tough decision I made and cheered me on in it. I needed the people who told me I was doing a good job for doing what was best for my baby.
If breastfeeding came easy for you, be thankful and don’t judge those moms for whom it didn’t. When you see a mom shaking up a bottle of formula, don’t make assumptions, and don’t feel superior. Don’t make a comment about how much easier bottle feeding is. Instead, smile at her and say, “Good for you, feeding your baby!” Chances are, bottle feeding her baby is actually one of the hardest things she’s ever done.
And if you’re like me, and haven’t been able to breastfeed your baby for whatever reason…take heart. It’s okay to feel a little sad, but just know that you are doing an amazing job, Mama. You are feeding and nourishing your baby. You are caring for them the way they need you to. There’s nothing faulty about you and you didn’t do anything wrong. Feeding your baby formula doesn’t make you any less of a mother than having a c-section does. Don’t doubt yourself, and don’t let anyone else make you ashamed. Love and feed that baby the way only you can. Trust your instincts. Stop focusing on the things you can’t change, and focus on the things you can (the way you mother, the foods you’ll feed him/her later on, etc). Don’t let the inability to breastfeed steal these precious, fleeting moments from you. All too soon that little baby won’t be a baby anymore, and it won’t matter a whit whether they were bottlefed or breastfed. What will matter is that you loved them and cared for them to the best of your ability.
I don’t think I’ll ever love bottle feeding. I still mourn the loss of that special experience, and I will probably always wish I could have breastfed of her like I wanted. But I am thankful for a healthy baby who is thriving on formula. I’m thankful that I’m still able to pump out a little. And I’m proud of myself for not sacrificing my baby’s health, our bond, my mental health, or my husband and other two children for the sake of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is best…if it works. But if it doesn’t, fed truly is best.