I always planned to breastfeed. It made perfect sense to me: it’s less expensive, has nutrition that is tailored specifically for my baby, and it could even help me lose the baby weight? It seemed like a no-brainer. In all the books I read and the prenatal classes I attended they really hammered home the importance of breastfeeding. Rates of breastfeeding mothers are very low in Ireland and the maternity hospitals are on a mission to increase those rates. They talked about how breast milk is something our bodies produce naturally, how it’s nutritionally superior, how it can reduce the chances of some types of cancer in mom and baby, and how breastfed babies have higher IQ’s. They talked about the stigma surrounding breastfeeding, and I was fully prepared to take on any asshole who approached me to say something discouraging if I was nursing Nora in public. What the books and classes failed to convey was how stressful, time-consuming, and painful it can be. They never talked about how sometimes our bodies just aren’t up to the task and that it’s OK to use formula. I was so determined to breastfeed, that while I was pregnant I used supple cups, tiny suction cups you can use to train flat or inverted nipples to stand upright. I wanted to do everything I could to increase the chances for a successful latch, since that was the problem I heard about most often.
I was set up to fail from the start. Nora needed to take formula in the very beginning because I was on a morphine drip. When I stopped the morphine, she wouldn’t latch onto my left side. I tried pumping on my left and feeding her exclusively on my right, but my left side became painfully engorged. I tried nipple shields on the left side and that worked for a while, but she would nurse for an hour at a time, and cry a half hour later because she was still hungry. So we started supplementing with formula. I tried pumping when she took formula to try and keep my supply up and hopefully build up some sort of stockpile so Tom could help with feedings. I would pump for hours at a time, but would only produce an ounce or so. Around this time Nora started to thrash around while feeding, whipping her head around with my nipple still in her mouth. She would also latch correctly in the beginning, pop off, and reattach with her lips pursed.
I tried to seek help. While I was still in the hospital, the lactation specialist was the one who advised me to use nipple shields for my left side. The public health nurse who visited for a two-week check-up watched me feed Nora and told me we were doing it correctly, but she never saw Nora thrash around. When the Coronovirus restrictions were put in place, lactation consultants and public health nurses stopped in-person services, and breastfeeding support groups stopped meeting. I had to effectively figure this out on my own. I read articles and message board posts, but nothing I tried increased my supply or helped Nora to stay latched correctly.
As Nora and I became more frustrated, I continued to gradually decrease how often I was nursing. I went from nursing for every other feeding, to nursing for three meals/day and at night, to only nursing at night. Two nights ago, I switched sides four times and she was still hungry. It became clear to me that this wasn’t working for either of us anymore. Yesterday morning I put on a regular underwire bra for the first time in six months, and my heart and my boobs have been aching ever since.
I had heard about the emotional toll ending breastfeeding could take. I always thought this wouldn’t happen to me. Even while I was in the midst of trying to find some arrangement that worked, I always thought that if it didn’t work out I would be OK because I knew I had tried my best. What I didn’t expect was the guilt. I know logically that breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t stop my hormones from convincing me that if I had tried just a little harder, I might have cracked the code. That doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’m robbing my daughter of something my body made specifically to help her grow. I know plenty of wonderful moms who feed their babies with formula and I have never once judged them or questioned how hard they tried, but for some reason I do this to myself.
For now I will become a statistic, joining the ranks of women in Ireland who formula-feed their babies, and try to brace myself for my first period in over a year.