Thursday, September 18, 2008

Confessions of an Ambivalent Breastfeeder

Before I was actually a mom, I was an avid crusader for breastfeeding. I inwardly cringed when a pregnant friend of mine dismissed it out of hand, saying "I know I'll get lots of bad-mommy grief, but I have just never wanted to breastfeed." I couldn't help advising her to at least nurse for the first few days, at least give the baby the benefit of colostrum. She did neither, and I was certain that her baby would turn out to be colicky, needy, allergy-ridden, and illness-prone. He was and is none of these. 

During those first excruciatingly painful weeks of breastfeeding, I held on to my convictions like a wounded soldier slugging through the trenches. I remember one particular night, sitting cross-legged on the bed with my Avery in my lap, crying hot, fat tears because every little squeeze of her suckling felt like hot lava coming out of my nipples. Steve, feeling desperate and helpless, pleaded with me to just buy an electric breast pump, no matter what it cost. Anything to give me a break from this. 

I did buy the breast pump (and got a great deal on ebay), but by the time it arrived, the worst of the physical pain had subsided. However, the emotional toll was just beginning to take shape, and the breast pump did little to allay that. As Susan Maushart puts it in her book "The Mask of Motherhood," breastfeeding completely messes with one's sense of time and space. If you were any kind of ambitious, productive, or god-forbid, perfectionist type of woman before breastfeeding, you are in for a rude shock when your hours suddenly become langorous waves of not much going on; when it all becomes a matter of "hurry up and do nothing." Tasks are interrupted, thoughts go unfinished, conversation floats away, and yet nothing seems to be happening. When your days seem blank and empty on one-hand, but you can't seem to get anything done on the other.

Steve asked me once why I didn't just spend my time catching up on movies I'd always wanted to see. I was hard-put to explain how it would be impossible to do so. The urgency of my baby's need to nurse, punctuated by cries which scoured my insides raw and filled me with panic, gave me little time to prepare even the simple task of watching a movie. I nearly always had a line-up of other basic priorities in the way, things like brushing my teeth, showering, making lunch, eating, even using the toilet, that needed to be planned in advance and taken care of first, and simply getting through any of those tasks seemed to take up most of my free time. And if I did sit down with her in front of the TV, it was inevitable that I would find myself out of easy reach of the proper remote control, or the magazine that I was in the middle of reading, or that glass of water I suddenly, desperately needed as my milk let down. And getting up to retrieve these things, disturbing the calm that felt like a reprieve, was exhausting just to think about. Plus, knowing that the movies would be interrupted every 15 minutes by cries or diaper changes made the whole idea less palatable. It was far less stressful just to not start things, to not want things. 

And then there were also the hours I needed just to look at my baby girl, whose little mouth puckered up like a rosebud when she slept, and wonder at how much love it would actually take to make my heart explode, because I couldn't imagine it being filled up any more. Let me tell you, this alone takes up a heck of a lot of your day.

All of it together: the emotional roller coaster, the constant feeling of disorganization and chaos, the sleep-deprivation, the empty stretch of "unproductive" days, began to take a toll on my mental state and I developed insomnia and went through my days in a heightened state of anxiety, agitation and worry.  One horrible night when she was 8 weeks old, after nursing for hours and not being able to calm Avery or even lay her down for a second, I looked at the ceiling and screamed in frustration. Which of course scared her to death and broke my heart in two. I called Steve at work, hysterically crying, and demanded that he come home immediately, for what kind of mother screams with an 8-week old child in her lap? 

A mother who needs a break is who. A mother who was overly idealistic in her views on "attachment parenting" and breastfeeding, who believed implicitly that one must subvert one's whole self to the needs of the infant. A mother who had spent her entire life learning to be autonomous, independent, and productive, and who was shocked to realize that motherhood insists you let go of all of these.

I needed a break from her. I needed a break to feel like myself again. But it was me and only me who could give her the sustenance she needed. She refused the bottle, only the breast would do. There were solutions to this, but lost in the fog of my idealism, I couldn't see through to those.

I looked in vain for assurance, validation, help in all the parenting books I had, but the only answer to be found there was that if it hurt, I must be doing it wrong. If I had ambivalent feelings, I must be depressed. Noone mentioned how hard it truly was. In short, if I wasn't the blissed-out earth mother selflessly giving everything over to my child, I must be a failure. Over time, I gave up reading the standard child-rearing manuals, and turned to books on the reality of mothering written by real mothers. Narratives which told the truth about child-rearing without the prescriptive, idealistic advice of the manuals. This was when I started to forgive myself for having complicated emotions about the whole thing. When I started letting go of some of the idealism and guilt. 

I finally started to supplement her diet with soy formula when she was about 6 months old. It began with a bottle before bedtime to help her sleep, and by 8 months, she was having 20-30 ounces a day, (an amount I still felt I had to apologize for if anyone asked.)

Now, reading this, it sounds as if I was a total masochist for several months, but the reality is complicated. In truth, once the physical pain of breastfeeding went away, there was something dreamy and exquisite about those hours I spent rocking, holding and nursing Avery. I felt we existed in a small, charmed circle, curled together for hours on the bed, on the couch, tucked into the overstuffed chair. But I sometimes think that Hell is being forced to do something you love 24 hours a day, 8 days a week. When I needed to get away, and couldn't, nursing could also be tortuous.

Avery is a happy, healthy little girl now. But she is no healthier or happier, that I can tell, than any of her formula-fed peers. Once, when Avery was five months old and we were visiting friends in Houston, she came down with a cold that she picked up from my friend's pre-school son. She cried inconsolably all through the 40th birthday party I had flown from Atlanta to attend. One of the mothers there asked me if she was breastfed exclusively, and I said yes. She looked at me sideways, as if I must be lying. "That's strange that she got sick, then!" she said. 

We have to remind ourselves that, although breast milk is certainly superior on many levels, it does not immunize your children against all illness. Children catch colds. They do. Formula wasn't invented until the late 19th century. Children were breastfed for millenia before that, and guess what, a good percentage of them didn't make it to their 5th birthday! 

Breast milk does not guarantee your child an illness-free existence. It does not guard against allergies or autism if those are in her genes. It will not get your child an Ivy league education. It has benefits, but having a happy mother also has its benefits.

So when women sheepishly admit that they gave up breastfeeding early, I can only look at them with understanding, not pity, and certainly not judgment. Nursing Avery was one of the hardest things I've ever done. And I gave up portions of my sanity to pull it off. If I had to do it again, I would still breastfeed, but I would also give myself breaks, and introduce the bottle much earlier if needed and hopefully without so much guilt. I would ask for, and accept, more help.

And I while I would encourage new moms to breastfeed, I will also tell the truth about it. That it is both more rewarding and more frustrating than you will ever think possible. That it's okay to not like it sometimes. That it's okay to give yourself a break. That formula is not the end of the world. I no longer cringe inside at the mention of bottle-feeding. Instead, I commiserate.

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