My husband and I were so excited to become parents. I wanted us to take all the classes together, to be as prepared as we could possibly be. In addition to childbirth and newborn care, we took the breastfeeding class. Walking into that classroom at about 8 months along, my intention was to try breastfeeding and see how it goes; and hopefully get some useful advice from this class. Then that instructor in her no nonsense way completely indoctrinated Tim and me into all the ways that breastfeeding was superior to formula. It was natural; it was readily available and and the right temperature; it was free; it strengthened the baby's immunity; it's good for my postpartum recovery and health. Nutritionally, she presented the choice between breastmilk and formula as the choice between wholesome home cooked meals versus McDonald's all the time (maybe an exaggeration). It left us wondering why anyone would decide not to breastfeed. My attitude changed from 'I'll try' to 'do or die', and Tim was fully in support. I didn't know it at the time, but it was going to take exactly that level of gritty determination to get me through those rocky weeks ahead. If I had set out to try, I would not have succeeded.
Delaney arrived over two weeks ahead of her due date after an uncomplicated 11-hour labor, weighing seven pounds eight ounces. We had an undisturbed hour of skin-to-skin immediately afterward, that the breastfeeding and childbirth instructors had said was critical to establishing breastfeeding. She was reluctant to latch at first, drowsy from the Nubain. Once I did succeed in getting her latched on and taking her first meal of colustrum, my feeling of victory was short-lived as she nodded off soon after. During that session, as he would with many more to follow, Tim had looked on trying to be helpful. "Is she latched on? Is she getting anything? Is she done?" I had no idea because I didn't know how this was supposed to feel.
At one of those first pediatrician appointments when her bilirubin levels were checked and she was weighed and measured, I mentioned to the doctor what a difficult time I was having getting her to nurse. He asked me if I'd been supplementing with formula. When I said I hadn't, he told me, "Well, whatever you're doing, it's working because she's gaining." He suggested that I look into getting a lactation consultant if I still felt I needed help, but his parting words were, "Keep up the good work." I would learn that most pediatricians know very little about breastfeeding, but that the numbers on the scale tell them everything they need to know. I was considerably relieved to know that Delaney was thriving even if I felt like a mess. I had a glimmer of hope. It might not be pretty but it's working.
"What's been the hardest thing about being a mom so far?" my brother-in-law asked me one day soon after that while at a family gathering. Without hesitation I answered, "Breastfeeding!" With a shrug, he bowed out of the conversation and his wife said, not unkindly, "You know, you don't have to breastfeed." What? No cheering me on in my noble endeavor? No 'hang in there, it gets better'? It came as a surprise to learn that not everyone around me saw breastfeeding as a must; certainly not worth any amount of suffering on the mom's part.
It had taken no less than my all -- days and nights and weeks devoted exclusively to learning the natural way to feed a baby. I am ashamed to say I secretly believed that women who hadn't succeeded at breastfeeding had just not tried as hard as me. The ones who didn't try at all just didn't care enough about giving their baby the best, or just didn't know any better. But life is the best teacher, and I would yet learn not to see it in such black and white terms.
We all hear "breast is best", but our society is still hostile to nursing moms in so many ways. We still hear all the time about mothers who nurse in public being asked to cover up or leave even as no one bats an eye at the amount of cleavage on TV or magazine covers. One of my other sisters, once she returned to work as a nurse after having her baby, had to find a comfy janitor's closet to pump in. At a hospital. There are many women who don't have the luxury of days and nights and weeks devoted exclusively to getting to know their babies and establishing the breastfeeding relationship, maybe because of their other children or because of their jobs. Many don't make it through the first couple weeks because adequate resources are often not available to a woman once she and the baby are home from the hospital. I remember a young Navy wife who used to live next door, who called a lactation consultant asking for help with nursing her days-old baby, and got just one piece of advice in lieu of a house call and hands-on help: "Take a warm bath with her." She'd had a c-section and really, that was the best the lactation consultant good do for her?
I am of course still an enthusiastic believer in all the benefits of breastfeeding, and I'll encourage and support other moms in any way I can; but along the way I have come to understand that the question of breast versus formula is more complicated than it seemed at first. There are those who, for reasons I can't relate to, make a different choice than me and that's OK too. No one should ever be made to feel guilty or like a failure for not breastfeeding.
I am profoundly grateful to have made it work for me. I am 17 months into nursing my fourth baby and am happy to say that the last three times were much easier to begin with than with the first, albeit still painful in the beginning. Now that this last one's a toddler we have begun the natural, gradual decline of weaning as he becomes a champion eater at the table, but I expect we'll continue on a few more months until we're ready to be done.
When I was trying to figure it all out with my first baby, I remember how much I was encouraged by hearing or reading about the struggles and successes of other moms trying to figure out how best to feed their babies. Whether it was my own mom relating her memories, or listening to the stories of others in my new mom's group, or reading a blog, I was uplifted knowing I was not alone. The Honest Company has a series called Honest Feeding Stories in its Honestly blog, some of which I have enjoyed reading since they reached out to me asking me to contribute. I was happy to since this is one of my favorite writing topics of all time.
10 years have mellowed me out from the zealous new mom determined to everything the "right" way when it came to babies, who was painfully insecure at the idea of failing in any aspect and judgmental about the choices of others. I've been humbled by the many ways I've messed up and I know I'll continue to be. The right way to feed a child, just like the right way to get them to sleep, get them to do their homework, stop fighting, is to do the best you can and do it with love. I've got an almost-10-year-old, 8-year-old, 5-year-old, a 17-month-old, and about a thousand more gray hairs. If my brother-in-law were to ask me today what the hardest part about being a mom is, he'd get a much different answer. Feeding a baby is only the beginning.