I walked the familiar route; the same one I’d taken a few days ago, shuffling through contractions. Now I was making the treksolo, my son at home with my husband. As I neared the meeting, emotions surged. Alone for the first time in months, I felt a blend of freedom and loneliness. I reveled in the peace of being on my own, yet worried about leaving my son; what if he got hungry? Remnants of long, discouraging feeding sessions echoed in my steps. My nipples were sore, and my breasts ached all the time. I hated begging my little one to wake, especially at nights.The whole process haunted me – the struggle to latch, my tears, his snorts of frustration. I felt trapped by the constant need to feed my son, and I dreaded his cries, even avoided being near him fearing my proximity would inspire him to want to nurse. Thirteen days postpartum I was desperate for support and solutions.
I entered the breastfeeding support group, hoping for it to be my beacon of hope. I wanted to explore the option of introducing the bottle. I thought if I could include my husband on a few feedings, I might lift the fog of pressure and inadequacy. I was looking for advice from mothers who’d been through it. But, by the end of the meeting, I felt even more pressure to breastfeed. The women were appalled I had come without my baby, and when asked how to best transition,they balked; none of their children ever took bottles. At home, my hopelessness churned again. My life had become a cycle of frustration, tears and guilt, and I didn’t want this to be the start of my relationship with my son. So, after a sob filled conversation with my sister-in-law, I made the decision. I would transition to pumping exclusively.
I searched all the baby books in my possession, but not one mentioned pumping or formula as an option. Pages were dedicated to different positions for breastfeeding and troubleshooting potential problems like tongue-ties or clogged ducts. But there wasn’t a single word about the emotional state of Mom, nothing on how to choose a feeding method to best support my family. It was like a cult: breast is best.Breast is only.
I was completely unprepared for the physical, emotional and mental toll breastfeeding would have. My first exposure to it was minutes after the C-section, still coming out of the delirium of meds, watching my husband and the nurse shove my son’s face onto my chest. I wanted to scream that I needed a second to regain my sense of self, to catch my breath, so I could be an active participant. But all the books had stressed how vital the first few minutes of contact were, especially for successful breastfeeding. So I held my tongue and felt powerless as my body slipped away from me. In the days that followed my nipples cracked and bled. My breasts became engorged, and I constantly worried about (and fought) clogged ducts. Even switching to pumping was no picnic, hooking up to a machine that squeezed milk out of me, all the while holding my breath, hoping my son can just stay asleep/content for five more minutes. And I haven’t even attempted to breastfeed in public, though I know that experience is probably in my future. Sometimes I fantasize about not producing milk and being able to transition to formula.
In those early weeks, as a first time mom, I lost it. Instead of feeling capable and empowered, all of the books and the support group made me feel inadequate and self-conscious. I devolved into spirals of doubt over every decision I made: should I change him now? How often should I bathe him? Am I holding him right? Am I comforting him enough? Is he hungry? Now, eight weeks in, I’d like to think I’ve developed some confidence. I recognize some of his cries, but more importantly, I don’t read baby books anymore; those are just slippery slopes of comparison. And, luckily, I found a better support group, full of moms who breastfeed, formula feed and pump, and know fed is best.
As I look back on my first moments with my son, I wish I would have advocated for myself. I got swept away with the mindset that once baby was born, I existed solely for him. I realize that preserving my sense of self is just as crucial to his health as well, another sentiment missing in all those baby books.
Parivash Goff is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She is also the co-editor of Good Little Girls. When not working with students to decipher algebraic expressions, she spends her free time reading, writing and hiking. You can read her writing on her personal blog: Two Halves of One.