Monday, March 23, 2009

This is what happens when you get me started.

Maybe it wasn't all bad...

I've been thinking a lot about breastfeeding lately. I got a couple of interesting emails from friends discussing their own breastfeeding issues (one is felt vilified by her small town neighbors because she chose boob over bottle, one wishes she'd introduced the bottle earlier because her preschooler won't wean) and I keep coming back to the thought that no matter what road you choose, whether boob or bottle, somebody's going to make you feel like you're effing up. In my community ("self-important urban bohemian"), formula feeding is akin to abuse, and I'm only slightly exaggerating. I remember a neighbor snapping at me when I told her that I was trying to breastfeed ("What do you mean 'trying'? Are you committed or not?") and the squinty looks I'd get from the Ergo-slung mommies when I'd pull out a bottle. (It's the same ones they give me when they see me with a stroller. God forbid you refuse to tote your 30 lb. kid.) I was spending hours shackled to an electronic milker, sobbing because no matter how long I sat there or how much I stared at my baby (looking at your baby is supposed to help produce milk) or how desperately I willed it, all I'd end up with were a few measly drops. I was in the throes of post-partum depression, unable to sleep, living on one piece of toast a day because I was too exhausted to consume anything else, losing ludicrous amounts of weight (I was under 100 lbs. six weeks after giving birth) and convinced that I was starving my kid. (Considering it took him months to regain his birth weight, I think it's safe to say that I was.) But I wanted to do what was best for my baby and I fully, absolutely, to the core of my being believed that breastmilk was it. It was the perfect food! It raised IQ! IT WAS FREE! No amount of reasoning could sway me.

There was also the small fact that everybody else was able to do it. If I couldn't make milk - the most natural thing in the world! Monkeys do it! - what kind of mother would I be?

While I was in the hospital, I overheard a conversation between a nurse and my roommate, a wonderful woman who'd almost died giving birth to her baby girl. She'd called to ask for some formula to feed her newborn. As the nurse handed it over I heard her mutter, "You should be breastfeeding."

"I know."

"Then why aren't you? She needs to bond with you. She needs the nutrition."

"I just can't do it."

"Why not?"

"Because I have terminal cancer."

I understand the nurse's position. She was just trying to do what she thought was best. But the fact that it didn't enter her mind that there was any reason whatsoever for someone to choose bottle feeding confirmed everything I already thought: mothers who give formula are uncaring, irresponsible, unnuturing rubes.

I hired lactation consultants. One told me to repeat, "I'm doing what's best for my baby. I love my baby and I can do this," while I pumped. What little milk I was able to save was stored in baggies and hidden in the freezer like heroin. I'm not sure what I was supposed to be saving it for because I was warned repeatedly not to introduce the bottle or my milk would REALLY dry up. Eventually I had my son on my tit almost every minute of the day. He would alternately suck and scream while Matt begged me to give him formula but I was convinced that if I tried harder or put him on longer or, or, or...

I finally caved after 5 months.

Once I weaned things got better. I'm lucky enough to able to stay home and bond with the boy. (Childcare would have cost more than I was earning.) My son and I are totally attached, he's happy and smart and funny and awesome and yet it has taken almost a full year to shake the guilt. I hated watching my newborn gulp down vegetable oil (one of formula's main ingredients). We did a lot of research and made the best choices we could, shelling out $10 a day for organic, pre-made formula. (No mean feat on a writer's salary. I tried to go with powdered formula which was significantly cheaper but the tins are lined with BPA. Liquid formula comes in BPA-free plastic which won't poison anyone, and it was recyclable.) Breast may be best but formula allowed me to be sane, so formula it was.

It's amazing to me to think that in most of the country, the opposite is true. That there are still people who freak out over a boob, no matter how well concealed. I don't know... it seems like there should be more help. Everybody has to feed their baby. Why does it have to be so hard?


Margot said...

Oh my. I'm so sad to hear about anyone being treated as a pariah for their choice--be it breastfeeding or forumula, for whatever personal reasons they may choose. And man, it is *so* personal. You know that you did the best thing for your son, and you knew that breastfeeding wasn't working (and boy oh boy did you try! 5 months--you deserve a medal, woman!).

I think the thing people (and especially unforgiving breastfeeding zealots--same school of thought as militant vegans but that's another story) forget is that regardless of how the child is nourished, you *will* bond with your baby and he *will* turn out perfectly healthy either way. I'm just really glad that you got yourself through it--the ppd, and the struggle of it all, because obviously you're being the best mom you can be to your son! And just like you never hear about kids going to college needing to be rocked to sleep, you also never hear about kids heading off to college after guilt-tripping their moms about why they didn't breastfeed!

Missy said...

I think what people seem to forget is that how you feed your baby is a P-E-R-S-O-N-A-L choice.

Let me say it again. How one chooses to feed their child is a personal choice.

I think it is sad that people choose to judge or make comment on how a person provides nourishment to babies. The only time to make comment on that is if a person DOESN'T feed their baby.

People seem to have a need to make editorial comments regardless of what you choose to do. I am a big supporter of breastfeeding. I also have said during the course of many a conversation with people on the topic that it is HARD and not for every mom. If the mom and the kid are miserable, then it should stop. Misery, combined with out of control hormones, and sleep deprivation prime a situation for mothers to harm themselves or their child. No feeding choice is worth that.

I think Ali, that you need to start a new movement in motherhood. The one that supports judgement free feeding choices.

Bern said...

I think the reason people get so amped up about food and breastfeeding is because they can sense (and read in the newspaper) how out of control our own food supply is. Peanut butter, spinach, mad cow etc....It freaks me the shit out! We also don't have much of a national cuisine, or food identity (I'm thinking in comparison to France, Italy, Japan etc). In a sense that's great; we can eat at a Chinese restaurant one night, and a Lebanese one the next. But I also think this leaves us vulnerable to whatever newest food fad is out there. So perhaps militant breastfeeders and militant vegans get a feeling of control from that militancy. I know I do when I buy organic. I feel like I'm "stickin' it to the man" and hoping my food is "cleaner" (for lack of a better word) all at the same time.

On the other hand I'm wondering why breastfeeding is SO HARD? I was a hair breadth away from quitting at 6 weeks with my first one. And its not like I didn't have support. My mom was a hippie and BF'd me. My in-laws and hubbie were VERY supportive. But by God! It Was Hard. I know I definitely had post-partum but it feels like there has to be more of a reason for the struggle than that. Is it more isolating than bottle feeding? I don't know. I should shut up now though! I've had 2 glasses of wine.

Michael said...

That has got to be THE sweetest photo of you and Will. I am going to try to send it to my mom but she has some trouble with the internets..

electriclady said...


We used the same super pricey organic premade formula in the BPA-free bottles. And you know what? I sat down one day after I had weaned and totaled up all I had spent on trying to breastfeed, between the pump, the lactation consultants, the herbs, and the quasi-illegal domperidone, and compared it to how much the same amount of formula would have cost (because I TOTALLY kept track of every pitiful ounce I managed to eke out, in a big pink notebook). And guess what--formula feeding WOULD HAVE BEEN CHEAPER.

caramama said...

I just don't get the judgy-judginess on either side. Each person has to do what is right for them, their baby and their family. That may or may not be breastfeeding. You cannot know why people make the decisions they do when you are on the outside making arbitrary judgements.

From what you said, it sounds to me like you made a great decision to go to formula. It was better for you and the baby, and surely your family overall. Why someone "can't" or "doesn't" breastfeed doesn't matter. What matters is that the baby is getting fed and the mom is in touch with her baby's needs and the family is working together to adjust to the major life change that is having a child.

And by the way, I think it's great that you tried just as much as I think it's great that you switched when it wasn't working for you guys.

Lisa said...

Wow, Ali, our experiences are remarkably similar. Lily was in the NICU for a few days, and one of the "conditions" for getting her out was that she drink X oz. of formula per day. So I caved right away, while still holding her and nursing her every chance I had in the hospital. Then when we came home I stopped the formula entirely and we worked so hard at BF'ing. Lactation consultants, classes, herbs, meditation, Reglan, bought a pump, then rented a hospital-grade pump. But Lily kept losing weight and her liver enzymes began to be of concern--she was entering starvation mode.

So we were back to "supplementing" with formula--and we went with the nonorganic, mass-produced kind because by that time we had spent all our money on trying to increase my milk supply. Ultimately it was more like supplementing the formula with breast milk than vice versa. At least in my world I was relatively immune to the outside pressure--though L.A. mommy culture is very militant about BF'ing as well.

I will say, however, that I did not weigh 100 pounds at any point during the ordeal.


pursuedbyabear said...

It's not ok to judge. I think the reason everyone is so PRO breastfeeding is that everyone is so NOT pro breastfeeding. For a long time women were told not to breast feed, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which was that is was SHAMEFULL and sexual act.... still today people are told not to do it in public etc... we must remember that too... All that being said everyone does what they have to do to survive a newborn! SOOOOO hard those first few months and I only wish I had known you were going through all that at the time so I could have told you:" It's all good momma" it's all good.

Ali said...

You are all awesome.

When I set out to write this I was all, Won't this be a funny little story!


I wish I could say that after all I went through I'm incapable of casting stones but I cannot lie - I am still judge and jury if people don't adhere to my philosophy. Whenever I see young parents dipping their straws into quart-sized cups of Pepsi and funneling it directly into their 6 month old's mouth? Or overweight toddlers clutching bags of chicken McNuggets? I guarantee that there are no generous thoughts running through my head.

But those parents are just doing what they know. They're feeding their kids the way they were fed. Whenever I start feeling clenchy I repeat, "At least they're feeding them... At least they're feeding them..."

Holly said...

Alisha, this was a great piece, and more should be said from those who tried it and couldn't do it for one reason or another. We Americans have such a tendency to be all or nothing, don't we? Instead of saying, this is what works best for me? More women should speak out against this pressure being put on us to become absolutely perfect, flawless, a mom and an angel, a hero that lactates perfectly, raises children, has a successful career, is a wonderful (and sexy) wife with a smile on her face.

We all know it is an impossible standard to keep, and as a mother you had the good sense to say, a good mommy is one who is sane and not crying and depressed, able to take care of her child. Good for you for saying so.

Finding Normal said...

Imagine my surprise when my second child was born unable to suck, swallow, and breathe. My first was breastfed until I was pregnant again, surprisingly early, when he was 15 months old, and I was so looking forward to nursing a newborn again. Instead I pumped and froze and carted it to the NICU, where it was funneled into her stomach through a tube in her mouth, and later a tube directly into her tummy. And we still ended up needing formula to get enough calories and volume into her. And I still bonded with her, despite the tubes and beeps and fear.

That would be my challenge to all moms--just get over it. Be thankful that your baby is able to eat, whatever it is you CHOOSE to give them. We're all doing what's best in our eyes for our own babies. Life is far too short to be judging your neighbor for her feeding methods.