Until You’re Empty

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.

Picture of a 14-month-old child, smiling and pointing at the ceiling
He’s the baldest kid at daycare, but I attribute that to its actual cause, genetics.

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.

14 replies on “Until You’re Empty”

I wish my lactation consultants hadn’t tried to encourage me without letting me know that my breast shape/spacing made them think I probably had hypoplasia… I didn’t have a problem supplementing when the baby lost a little weight in the first few days, but after a week it became clear my milk would never really “come in” more than it had (max production was about 6 oz./24 hrs), but I would have been less heartbroken if they’d acknowledged the possibility that the baby would never thrive on just my milk– instead of doing the whole “let’s check the latch! let’s eat some oatmeal! drink the fluids! feed then pump!”

I appreciate that lots of mothers need the positive, we-can-solve-this routine when they’re facing problems that could actually be fixed with more support, and I’m sure there’s tons and tons of irresponsible doctors/nurses who push formula instead of helping a mother get the breastfeeding routine settled… but I wonder how many other ladies with physiological problems get their hopes dashed by lactation consultants pushing the breast-is-best agenda without acknowledging that failure to produce milk is an actual thing and not just a lack of education/effort.

Nobody ever got on my case, and I was really sad that I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed, but comments on breastfeeding articles just break my heart because I know some of those moms would think it’s because I’m lazy and don’t want the best for my child.

That was the other thing that really bugged me about the nurse who taught our prenatal classes: She said that every mum produces enough for her baby. Which is clearly not the case. As explained in the parent article and your comment, sneakotage.

I’m glad you didn’t have anyone “on your case”, but it still sounds like it wasn’t easy for you, either. New mums just need support – whatever their decisions are!

Great article. I had exactly the same problems with my first, and I was in a bad state emotionally after 3 months of struggling with breastfeeding. I cried from relief when my doc told me to stop trying and give the baby formula. With the second, breastfeeding was exactly as perfect as they tell you it will be. I loved it. But I also knew that we were lucky, and I never judged anyone for not breastfeeding. You have to be there to know how hard it is.
Totally agree with the difference between what society/midwives tell you and what actual people you know tell you. Don’t listen to anyone but your mum and friends. And STAY AWAY from lactation consultants. They’re evil, and they will destroy your soul.

I normally roll my eyes at inspiration Facebook posts, but this reminded me of this one that crossed my path not too long ago. Still silly, but it resonated.

To the mom who’s breastfeeding: Way to go! It really is an amazing gift to give your baby, for any amount of time that you can manage! You’re a good mom.

To the mom who’s formula feeding: Isn’t science amazing? To think there was a time when a baby with a mother who couldn’t produce enough would suffer, but now? Bett…er living through chemistry! You’re a good mom.

To the cloth diapering mom: Fluffy bums are the cutest, and so friendly on the bank account. You’re a good mom.

To the disposable diapering mom: Damn those things hold a lot, and it’s excellent to not worry about leakage and laundry! You’re a good mom.

To the mom who stays home: I can imagine it isn’t easy doing what you do, but to spend those precious years with your babies must be amazing. You’re a good mom.

To the mom who works: It’s wonderful that you’re sticking to your career, you’re a positive role model for your children in so many ways, it’s fantastic. You’re a good mom.

To the mom who had to feed her kids from the drive thru all week because you’re too worn out to cook or go grocery shopping: You’re feeding your kids, and hey, I bet they aren’t complaining! Sometimes sanity can indeed be found in a red box with a big yellow M on it. You’re a good mom.

To the mom who gave her kids a homecooked breakfast lunch and dinner for the past week: Excellent! Good nutrition is important, and they’re learning to enjoy healthy foods at an early age, a boon for the rest of their lives. You’re a good mom.

To the mom with the kids who are sitting quietly and using their manners in the fancy restaurant: Kudos, it takes a lot to maintain order with children in a place where they can’t run around. You’re a good mom.

To the mom with the toddler having a meltdown in the cereal aisle: they always seem to pick the most embarrassing places to lose their minds don’t they? We’ve all been through it. You’re a good mom.

To the moms who judge other moms for ANY of the above? Glass houses, friend. Glass houses.

First off, is that a baby peach-fuzz mohawk? Awesomeness.

Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry it was so difficult for you. Looks like a pretty healthy kiddo to me, so I’d say you did well.

I’m 8 months pregnant, so obviously thinking about breastfeeding and all that. In our prenatal classes, my husband asked a relatively simple question: “At what point could we introduce a bottle (with pumped breastmilk) and it wouldn’t interfere with baby’s latch?” The instructor jumped down his throat. Apparently, in her opinion, we can never, ever, never use a bottle. Um, wtf? I am not a cow. And I might have to be away from the little one when he needs to be fed. I was so angry.

Sorry for the long anecdote, but it seems like we can never win. As long as baby is getting adequate food, whose business is it but mum’s and baby’s whether that food is solely formula, solely breastmilk, or a combination?

I’m with you– babies need feeding, and sometimes you need other people to do the feeding. What if you had to have surgery or go on a trip or take some meds that are bad for the kid? People can be awful when they value a philosophy over real people and real life issues.

I just wanted to add– with my first child, we started mostly-formula-feeding supplemented with what breastmilk I could produce, and the baby never had an issue with a latch. Friends have had similar experiences (in the opposite direction– mostly breastfed, with bottles when needed).

Every kid is different on latches/bottle nipples/pacifiers, but I’m guessing most never bat an eye when you switch things up. Plus, if you tried switching out, and it did become apparent that your baby had some sort of latch confusion, it doesn’t seem like it’d be impossible to cut out the new thing until the baby got back on track.

sneakotage – Those was exactly our thoughts. What happens if I cannot feed for whatever reason?

Thanks for sharing your experience regarding latching. That has been our friend’s experience as well, but I find many different opinions helpful.

I don’t think there’s any one true way that works for every mum and baby…. despite what some professionals seem to push.

i have written 21 rules to help people get through life (they are actually published in my thesis, and i have essays on each rule). the number one rule is: those who have no lives will fuck with yours.

i have never met so many people who want to make constant comments about how the choice of breastfeeding (for whatever reason) compares to treason. some of those women are brutal in their assessments of the human condition as if they have the keys to the kingdom in every domain.

you have mental health, a supportive doctor, and a beautiful and healthy baby.

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