Recently two breastfeeding stories have gone viral online.
A mother was nursing her 16 day old baby at a rec center, and asked by a staff member to leave. The confrontation was caught on camera, and the mom had to invoke her legal right to breastfeeding to get the staff member off her back.
The second is an image of 21-year-old Elicia Binman breastfeeding her daughter in front of an Enfamil booth at a baby fair in Minnesota. Some praised her for shedding light on an alternative to formula, while others felt she was being arrogant and combative.
I am a full supporter of breastfeeding. I did it and I definitely felt the benefits, but I have to say — the prevalence of these two stories makes me sad. Because I feel that breastfeeding is coming to shape the conversation on motherhood in a way that is very narrow.
When I was pregnant, I was consumed by a desire to breastfeed. My mother had done it and my childbirth instructor, who was a very strong advocate of attachment parenting and natural birth, discussed it constantly. As she talked, I could feel my Type A competitiveness getting revved up. I started to see breastfeeding as a personal goal that I would achieve — like completing a term paper, or losing 10 pounds. I wasn’t thinking of breastfeeding primarily in terms of my son. I was thinking of it as a reflection of myself.
Things went smoothly at the hospital after I gave birth. My son latched on immediately and I was thrilled. On our last day at the hospital, the nurse came into our room and offered us a large container of Enfamil. She might as well have been handing me a vial of arsenic.
“Um, I won’t be needing that, ” I said.
“We can’t let you leave without it, ” she said “You can do whatever you want with it after you go.”
I haltingly accepted the container. But in the weeks after my son’s birth, it became apparent that I had supply issues.
Having never heard from my childbirth instructor that supply issues — while uncommon — are not unusual, I felt that I was doing something wrong.
And so it began — Mother’s Milk Tea, oatmeal, drinking lots of water, getting as much sleep as I could, pumping in between feedings — anything to increase supply.
But when my son went in for his 4 week checkup, he was in a lower weight percentage than he’d been when he was born. And since he was a late-term preemie my doctor was concerned.
He suggested formula. I told him that I would keep breastfeeding exclusively. After all my chilbirth instructor had taught me that introducing babies to formula was a slippery slope. It started with an ounce here and there, and ended up replacing breast milk.
By week 6 I felt as though I was on the brink of collapse. My supply issues hadn’t improved and I was frequently coming up just a few ounces shy of satiating my son fully. I kept one step ahead by pumping furiously on the days my supply was higher.
Then came the day that it all caught up with me. I had just breastfed my son, and he was still hungry. I pulled two ounces of pumped breast milk from the fridge. My stomach tightened as I handed my husband the bottle. It was my ‘head start’ milk for the next day. My son drank hungrily, and started crying again. He was still hungry. I put him on my breast. He sucked for a few moments, then started wailing. I pulled out my breast pump.
“Leila, ” my husband said, “We have to give him the formula.”
I could feel the hot tears pooling behind my eyes. “No, wait! I can get it going, ” I said.
“He’s hungry. He needs it.”
My husband went to the nursery and pulled the Enfamil out of the closet. It was buried in the back, like a dirty secret.
We began supplementing with formula, but I was still determined to provide my son as much breast milk as possible. My goal was to make it to the 12 month mark, but deep down I knew that — between my supply issues and being a work-from-home mother — this would be damn near impossible.
I was pumping in the day time to make it easier for me to work and nursing at night, but every time I missed a pumping session — which wasn’t often — my supply dipped precipitously. I scoured the internet, praying that in some corner of the world wide web, someone had discovered a supply-boosting secret I hadn’t already tried. In breastfeeding forum after breastfeeding forum I read vitriol directed at mothers who supplemented or formula fed. Each comment filled me with incredible guilt.
And then I found it! A woman who had used non-FDA approved drugs, available in Canada, to get her supply back up.
The next morning I excitedly told my husband, “There’s this drug I can use, to get my supply back up. The side effect is depression, but I think I’ll be okay.”
As I looked into my husband’s stunned face, I could see what I’d become — a woman obsessed. A crazed and frazzled new mother who needed to accept that she had done all she could. It was over. As my supply dwindled I didn’t continue to fight it. By 6 and a half months, my son was on formula exclusively.
After I let go of nursing, I started to see life from the ‘other side.’ My eyes opened to the myriad of ways outside of breastfeeding I could ensure my son was healthy and well; making sure he had adequate space to play and explore, that he felt like an important and loved member of our family, that we taught him the concept of boundaries, that he slept comfortably and well. In my quest to breastfeed exclusively for 12 months, these things had been obscured.
And this is why it troubles me that in many circles, discussions on motherhood have been overshadowed by discussions on breastfeeding. They are not synonymous. One is a subset of the other.
It’s been three years since my breastfeeding debacle with my son. And looking back now I can see clearly that my over-reliance on a pump with decreasing suction was the reason for my dwindling supply (I’ve since learned that quite a few lactating women do not respond to pumps, and their babies can get all they need from nursing directly.) A year ago I was blessed with a second child, a daughter who is exclusively breastfed. I have had no supply issues and will continue to feed her as long as she wants.
But I now understand that breastfeeding needs to be relegated to its appropriate place — a practice that is very important and should be more widespread, but should never become all-consuming, or inspire guilt, paranoia, fear or panic, as it did in me.
Breastfeeding only happens in the first few years of a child’s life. But teaching children to be healthy, confident, independent, thoughtful and emotionally balanced are lifelong exercises. As we continue to battle low rates of breastfeeding in the black community, I hope that we can keep an eye on the big picture.