Yesterday I stood in the express checkout line at the grocery store, and looked ahead of me to the woman currently being rung up. She had a little baby in a car seat carrier on the cart, and one of her fourteen-or-less items was a can of baby formula. I thought to myself: “Ahhh, I remember those days, and having to buy formula.” But then, as I continued to wait in line, I realized that in all the time that we did use formula to feed Simon, I don’t believe I ever once actually purchased it myself. I always sent my husband Jeramy out to buy it. Since I did the groceries the most often, this seemed odd to me and I got to wondering why this was.
Well, for one thing, Simon’s grandparents on both sides helped us out a lot by using their membership cards to one of those big shopping clubs to get it cheaper for us. But the other reason, though it pains me to admit it to you now, was shame.
When I was pregnant with Simon, I read Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, and spent a lot of time daydreaming about nursing my soon-to-arrive newborn. I had several conversations with my midwife about how excited I was to breastfeed and bond with my baby. I memorized the steps to a perfect latch and all the different breastfeeding positions. I put a little basket next to the glider in the nursery, inside of which I placed some nipple ointment, nursing pads, a nursing cape (in case we had visitors), and my Ina May book. I had read up and set up…I was ready.
When Simon came into the world I made my first attempt at nursing him within minutes of his birth. Right off the bat his latch wasn’t right, and over the next couple of weeks we were in and out of the Lactation Consultant’s office, talking about everything from possible tongue-tie to cranial sacral therapy. At home, we struggled and struggled through each nursing session, with me sometimes gritting my teeth in pain and suffering through it because I knew breast milk was the best nutrition for my baby, and because he was hungry.
We also dealt with thrush, a painful crack in my nipple, and supply-and-demand issues. Every time I needed to nurse my baby, my stress level would soar through the roof. This was not the peaceful bonding experience I had been dreaming of.
One day, my Lactation Consultant (an amazing lady, by the way) gave me a nipple shield. I reluctantly accepted it, knowing all the stigma that comes with it, but it revolutionized nursing for Simon and I. Suddenly, all the pain was gone, and with it my stress. I could now enjoy nursing him for as long as he wanted, gaze into his eyes, stroke his little fuzzy head and relax. I began to feel that bond I had been longing for, and we got into our own routine and settled there. The shield was my best friend and I always made sure it was washed and with us in a little plastic container.
Many other nursing moms are adamantly and vocally anti-nipple shield, so I went to great lengths to hide my use of it in certain situations. I would put my nursing cape on even in the presence of these other nursing women (with whom I would normally feel comfortable and not shy in front of), and sneak the little Tupperware I kept the shield in carefully up underneath, put it on, and hope that they didn’t notice my extra fiddling. I felt embarrassed yet also so happy to have this tool.
Months went by, and my hours at work increased. We began to use up all my stored milk from the freezer and we were pretty desperate. I had a lot of difficulty pumping milk, and after much long and laborious debate, Jeramy and I agreed to supplement with formula when I wasn’t around to nurse.
I again felt like a failure. There can be some snobbery among breastfeeding moms, and I was worried I would be considered less capable, less devoted, less motherly for feeding Simon formula. I heard stories of other moms who had so much milk production that they had to dump some out, due to lack of freezer space. I secretly coveted their magic supply, and imagined all the I-told-you-so’s I would get from those who oppose nipple shields (one of the reasons being they can hinder stimulation for milk production). Thankfully, I had supportive people around me too, most of all my husband who reassured me that though formula might not be our ideal, it was also not hurting our child in any way. The formula was nourishing my baby when I couldn’t, and I was doing what I needed to do.
Contributing to the guilt I felt was the sense of relief coming over me as I no longer felt pressure to pump, pump, pump. A couple of times, I would come home from work just as Jeramy had finished preparing a bottle, and I would take over feeding it to Simon. It felt both like I was doing something wrong, and simultaneously freeing to be able to bottle feed my baby. I would sometimes begrudgingly admit out loud: “I kinda like bottle feeding. A lot.”
At 9 1/2 months, Simon started biting me. He was getting used to the rubber nipples on the bottles and was teething pretty hard. At this point, I rarely needed to use the shield, but when this painful biting began, I dreaded another crack in my nipple and tried to use it again. No luck. He bit even harder on the shield. It sent jolts of searing pain through my entire chest and up my spine. I would break out in goosebumps and tears. I didn’t even feel like trying to breastfeed anymore. We had been through all that pain before, in the beginning, and I was terrified to start it all over again now. After more nights of crying and discussing and deliberating, we switched to formula feeding all the time.
On the one hand, it was wonderful. The fear was gone! On the other hand, my guilt increased substantially. I would avoid mentioning the formula in conversations with other moms, dodging the topic of feeding altogether. I would pray that strangers couldn’t tell that it was formula and not pumped milk in his bottles when we were in public. I would quickly rush to hide the can away in the cupboard when people came over to visit. I felt like the biggest breastfeeding failure on earth. Something I had wanted so badly, and fought so long and hard for…I had just abandoned it, had given up on my baby.
I sank into postpartum depression and I believe it had not only to do with the hormonal shift that came with the end of milk production and nursing, but also with my extremely strong guilt feelings. However, with time and support I eventually worked through it.
Now, looking back, I know I was not a failure. I worked very hard at something that was very important to me. I did what was right for the whole family at each step of the way, and I got through it all, to a place where I could finally make peace with my decisions. Sure, if I went back in time, with my current knowledge, I would change some things. I would have dealt with my shyness and joined a local La Leche League group. I would have stayed in the Lactation Consultant’s office longer and visited it more frequently. I would have quit my job sooner to focus on nursing more.
But I didn’t do those things and that is OK. I know this now. I am proud of the successes I did have, and of the fact that all of my anguish through the hard times we had means I love my son with all my heart and want to do what is right by him. My struggles also meant that I knew I needed to take care of myself too. A stressed out mommy is not good for baby either, and by changing course, I was able to more calmly and dotingly care for my child.
I share this all because there may be others out there having similar bouts of guilt, shame, stress, or jealousy with breastfeeding/formula feeding. I want to say it is OK to do what is right for you and to do it proudly. One of the things I would change if I could go back is all the hiding and pretending. Were I to be back in time, with a couple of nursing friends, I would proudly wear my shield or feed my baby a bottle of formula if I had to, because all of us would be doing the best thing we know how for our babies. Besides, any other mom who would judge me negatively for my choices, isn’t a real friend anyway.