The doctors warned me that a C-section might be required if my baby’s heart rate continued to decline, but I could push if I wanted.
I didn’t want to chance it. He needed to get out as soon as possible. My body had done a great job to this point, but it was time for the brain to make an executive decision.
They wheeled me into a clean, antiseptic room; they pumped up my epidural so my legs were logs; they erected the surgical screens. I felt a dull sweeping movement across the bottom of my swollen belly. After what seemed eons, but was only seconds, I finally heard a cry. He was here, perfectly healthy, with a little head full of red hair and bright, open eyes.
Your body is an excellently designed machine, but it’s not the most perfect machine. We have eyes that require corrective lenses, underfunctioning thyroids, faulty valves that give us acid reflux, limbs of different lengths. The body works, but it works within limits. It has limits, varying limits, varied as the personalities and souls these bodies hold.
But when you become a mother, these realities seem to be gone from the literature. All the books and blogs and experts seem to press upon you this idea of your body being the most Perfect And Wonderful And Flawless organism. Which would be a lovely idea if it didn’t come with the corollary that if something isn’t working right, it must be something you’re doing wrong.
And nowhere is that thought more prevalent and corrosive than around breastfeeding.
We’ve all heard the “Breast is Best” motto, pushed heavily in recent years to counteract a bit of insidious marketing from formula companies. And I’m not going to debate the merits of breastmilk and breastfeeding; science says it’s better, case closed.
But many women don’t get the choice to solely breastfeed. It can be for a number of reasons, physical, psychological, situational – but it’s a reality, one many of us personally know.
But you would think that it’s because we’re lazy, because we’re just not COMMITTED, because do you really care about what’s best for your child, because why would you even HAVE children if you’re not going to do what’s best for them, you miserable piece of shit and horrible excuse for a human being, why don’t you go give your baby up to someone who can actually raise it properly you fucking scum.
That might be a bit of hyperbole (although I challenge you to read the comments in any news story about breastfeeding, and you’ll see it isn’t by a lot), but in the mind of a new mother, a woman strained through sleep deprivation and hormones and the stress of going through an intense physical experience coupled with an enormous new responsibility, the criticism – internal and external – surrounding what is basically a physical function can transform into a deafening roar, into the point where the stress and the gnawing feelings of inadequacy take a very physical form.
The books said that I’d be able to produce what my baby demanded, so my body should follow suit. Breast milk is the perfect nutrition. You can give your baby everything he needs. It just takes learning, effort. If it’s still not working, it requires more effort. If not, more. More. More.
I had a lactation consultant help me at the hospital (my little guy had a great latch; I just wasn’t producing anything yet). I would pump after each “feeding” to try and get the milk to come in, which was both physically painful and emotionally draining, since my baby had literally screamed at my breast for ten minutes straight because he was still hungry. After a week, I finally produced some milk, but I didn’t make a lot. I drank a ton of water. I took fenugreek and drank mother’s milk tea.
After these efforts, these supposed heroics, I still had to supplement with formula. And I berated myself. I glared at my relatively small breasts with hate, cursing them for not fully performing their one designated task. Before becoming a mother, I was pretty comfortable with my body. I grew to hate my body. I hated myself for my failure of a body.
It’s not enough milk. I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough. My body can’t keep my baby alive. I’m not enough. I’m failing. I’ll continue to fail. I’m not enough.
It got dark in my mind, largely because of the shadow that this failure of basic human biology had cast over me. I couldn’t even birth a baby right, and now I couldn’t feed a baby right.
I went to my six-week postpartum appointment and talked with my OB/GYN about my struggles. She told me that hers were very much the same. She, too, had berated herself. She, too, had supplemented.
And as I talked with family, with friends, anywhere away from the clinical and societal detachment of books and blogs and studies, the stories came. My friend who was in tears after talking with a judgmental consultant from a pro-breastfeeding organization when she was struggling. My own mother, who said both her babies demanded more than she could produce. My coworker who said the experience of breastfeeding was more painful than childbirth itself. And many had positive experiences with breastfeeding too, but the road to that positivity carried a lot of speedbumps.
What the hell are we doing to ourselves?
There’s one thing that my mom kept telling me, and it’s probably what pulled me through – a simple, jokey statement: “You’re not a cow.” Because here I was, distilling my worth as a mother down to my milk output, like I was selling it at the baby milk farm for profit.
Why are we judging the worth of mothers by the quantity of a certain fluid they produce? Why do we criticize them if they have to supplement, or, CLUTCH YOUR PEARLS, if they decide to not breastfeed at all? Is it because their babies end up worse off? No, studies have shown the resultant differences between breastfed and formula-fed babies are minimal. And as my doctor said, my baby was still getting the benefits of breastmilk.
Why was I in this place? Where did I get this notion that trying to do the best for my extremely healthy, happy, and growing baby constituted a failure?
We judge women by how much of themselves they sacrifice. Because the supposed “selflessness” of a mother is valued more than her sanity and well-being. Because if you haven’t exhausted every possible venue for dividing up your meager remains of vitality, you’re Not Doing Enough. Become a hollowed-out hull. Do it for your baby. It’s what good mothers do.
I realize my struggles aren’t everyone’s. I have a raging case of perfectionism with the natural side effect of self-flagellation, in addition to the societal Breast is Best drumbeat. But I’ve heard enough stories to know I’m not alone.
My son is 14 months old now. I continued with breastfeeding and supplementing until he was six months old. From there, he was strictly in the Powdered Neglect camp. He’s obviously suffered.
I required surgical intervention to deliver a healthy child. I required formula to deliver adequate nutrition to my baby. I am more than a milk delivery vehicle. I’m a woman, a full personality, a complete soul, a wife, a daughter, a friend.
I am a good mother. I’m succeeding. I’m doing enough. I’m enough.