Chrissy's Story: Maternal Grace "Fed is best"
I succeed. I have spent my entire life channeling enormous amounts of energy into excelling at everything I decide to pursue, and I pursue things I know I will find success in doing. Motherhood was one of those things to me- a single minded pursuit to create the Instagram-worthy portrait of maternal grace in real life.
Motherhood has been the most humbling experience because there is no tangible measure of success. For the first time in my life “success” couldn’t be achieved in a black and white way. There is no trophy, no certificate, no end of year review or degree to hang on the wall. In lieu of having some evidence of my success as a mother, I grasped at straws to find control in a completely out of control postpartum period.
During my first pregnancy I became obsessed with “natural” pregnancy and motherhood. In my mind, the most important thing was being able to say that I had my baby without any pain medication, without an epidural, without so much as Tylenol. I was convinced that having a natural childbirth was the only way to feel in control of the situation. One month after my first wedding anniversary I gave birth to my first son, in the water, completely naturally. And then everything spun out of control.
My kid sucked at sucking. He didn’t latch in the hospital. He didn’t wake up to tell me he was hungry when we went home. He didn’t eat at the breast, he nibbled and snoozed. He lost weight. And then he lost more. And everyone kept telling me to just keep latching him on, to keep letting him feed, that it would click. That he would start gaining, that he would start fattening up soon.
Except he didn’t.
His weight gain was a series of starts and stalls. I received different advice from different specialists every few days. Supplement like this, don’t supplement, he needs oral surgery, he needs occupational therapy, just give him a bottle, don’t give him a bottle or he’ll reject the breast, pump after feedings, don’t pump too much. No one was on the same page, and no one seemed to be helping me and my baby. Then there was the advice from other well meaning moms- have you tried a nipple shield? Maybe you aren't drinking enough water. Make yourself some lactation cookies! Yeah, it must be my lack of oatmeal and gatorade consumption. Thanks for the help.
After two months of trying to feed my boy in the way nature intended I had to stop. He wasn’t thriving. I was devastated, and convinced that I had to still give him my milk in any way I could. I started pumping ten times a day to make enough milk to feed him. I wrung my breasts as I pumped to squeeze out every last drop of liquid gold. I decided that if he couldn't get the milk out himself, then I would get it out for him. I was surrounded by overproducing milky mamas and couldn’t bare the thought of being the only one feeding formula to her baby. So, I endured weeks hooked up to a pump like an animal for hours a day so that I could say that I was giving my baby the “best”.
After 11 weeks I lost my mind. After pumping in airports and on planes while my husband held our baby as we flew across the country. After pumping in cars on the way to do groceries and back. After pumping during every nap and while cooking dinner. After pumping in a parking lot so I could take my baby on a walk in the park, I quit. I decided that my baby needed me more than he needed my milk. He needed a mom who could lie on the floor and play and talk to him. He needed to be held to my chest and not crammed between two flanges. He needed to go to playdates and to visit family without it being dictated by when I needed to pump next.
Stopping the madness was the best decision I ever made. In my darkest moments I was convinced that if I didn’t make enough milk for him that I was somehow a reflection of me being a poor parent, being selfish. I realize now that the decision to spend so much of his early months focused on pumping was the selfish act- it was about my pride, not what was best for him or for us.
I remember in the weeks and months after we switched to formula being convinced that I was the only one. Every time I saw a friend post a picture online where their child was being fed from a bottle I would wonder whether it was breastmilk or formula, whether maybe they too had gone through what I had and thrown in the towel themselves. But how do you ask that? “Excuse me Facebook friend, but can I ask you what it is you’re feeding your baby in that bottle? Did you also suffer that devastating loss of not being able to just breastfeed your child? Do you not make enough milk? Could your baby not get your milk out either? Maybe you just didn’t like breastfeeding? Are you grieving like you lost the most important relationship in your life? But most of all, please could you tell me I’m not alone?”. Throughout the whole ordeal I was waiting for someone, anyone, to give me permission to cut myself some slack. I desperately needed someone to say “You tried everything. You did your best. And now you can stop- go enjoy your baby.” No one ever did say that to me, but eventually I was able to say it to myself.
I don’t know of many things that can be as isolating as motherhood. Nothing is more lonely than feeling like you’ve done everything you can and yet you still have no control over the outcome. What I’ve learned is that there is no such thing as a right way to do things, and we all have our secrets and doubts. I’m pretty sure we’re all doing the best we can, though.