Saturday, April 09, 2011

Seeing the breast half full

My breastmilk and what I came to call my "yellow, plastic triplet."

It's hard to remember what I thought about breastfeeding before I became pregnant. I think it went something like this: "My mom breastfed me and I'm awesome, so I'll breastfeed my kids and then they'll be awesome. Great idea! High five!"

After I got pregnant I read books like La Leche League's "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" and others that made breastfeeding sound supremely easy — much easier than mixing, washing and sterilizing bottles. So, I thought, even into the first several months of breastfeeding: "I'll be home with them anyway, so it'll be easy. You know, some day. Not right now, obviously. Right now it's The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done in My Life, but it will be easy. Some day. Right?"

And perhaps it would have been. Perhaps if my body had had those extra 10 weeks of gestation to adjust to the reality of producing enough milk for two babies, it would have been easy. Perhaps if I'd had actual hungry babies at my breast instead of my horrible yellow, plastic, mechanical "triplet" for the first three months, it would have been easy.

Instead, carefree breastfeeding turned out to be just another normal part of motherhood that I would be forced to accept wasn't in the cards for me.

For those reading this blog who aren't women living in Oregon, I might need to explain why I feel so ashamed and heartbroken after completing the Herculean task of giving my 30-week preemie twins nearly nine months of breastmilk. You see, in Oregon, and particularly in Portland, a mother who fails at breastfeeding or — God forbid — doesn't even try, is a monstrous person who hates her babies and doesn't care if they succeed.

In fact, a therapist I talked to (yes, OK, my therapist) said that she's seeing a lot of women who feel extreme shame and guilt over their inability to breastfeed. She said that in the 1950s and 1960s women were literally told that breastmilk was bad for babies, and while it's good that the pendulum has swung the other direction, formula is not The Great Evil.

I think I'll go a step further and say breastfeeding might actually be BAD for some women in certain circumstances. That's right. I said it. Breastfeeding — when you take into account the stress and obsession and the inability to be away from your babies or a pump for more than a few hours ever — might actually be worse than formula feeding. One thing's for sure, it probably wasn't a good idea for that mother in North Dakota who was arrested for breastfeeding her 6-week-old while completely drunk.

Who knows what that particular woman's motivations were, but I do think that the competition around breastfeeding is too intense. On a popular breastfeeding site, kellymom.com, you are simply not allowed to suggest on their forums that breastfeeding might not be the best choice for someone. Even though breastfeeding is a monumental task that requires lots of support in order to succeed, I think we need to be wary of letting our encouragement turn into a guilt trip.

Of course, this could all just be sour grapes. I wanted to be that woman who exclusively breastfed her kids for at least 12 months — giving them all of those essential nutrients and body-building brain food that would make them remarkable human beings. More than that, I wanted desperately to make up for my body's inability to gestate my twins for a reasonable amount of time. Maybe I couldn't stave off the contractions in my uterus, but damn it if I wasn't going to extrude life-giving fats and proteins from my breasts.

I even had a running list of reasons to keep going:
Reason No. 48: Top two ingredients in our very expensive specially formulated preemie formula: Nonfat (Cow's) Milk and Corn Syrup Solids.
Reason No. 12: Dozing in bed at 4 a.m. while breastfeeding a snuggly baby instead of waking up completely to make a bottle in the cold kitchen.
Reason No. 59: Breastfeeding is free.

All the pills I took while breastfeeding:
prenatal multivitamin, Vitamin C, lecithin,
fenugreek, probiotics and fish oil.
That last bit is a lie. In order to keep my supply up and ensure that my babies weren't pretending to be full only to scream at me for more food an hour later, I rented a hospital-grade breast pump and an extremely sensitive scale, which I used every day for MONTHS. (I tried to wean myself off of it, during what are now known as The Weeks From Hell when I got a horrifically painful case of mastitis and had to deal with mysteriously cranky babies — well, even more mysteriously cranky than usual.) This is in addition to the lecithin and fenugreek pills and the nipple creams and the $50 pumping kits and all sorts of other things I ended up needing just to fulfill my divine (and natural!) duty to breastfeed.

In the end, the only time it got easy was when, seven months post-partum, I stopped trying. The whole house had come down with a bad cold and after the fog cleared, I thought to myself: "What am I doing? I thought it was supposed to be easy by now. Isn't it time for it to be easy?" So, in exactly that way that I never did before children, I gave up. I gave myself to the end of the week to quit, but I really wanted to stop. That. Very. Day.

That was two months ago. I continued to breastfeed several times a day for a few weeks because — turns out — it often was easier than mixing, washing and sterilizing. But eventually my milk supply did what I knew it would do in the face of such a cavalier attitude: disappear.

Twenty-five ounces a day became 20, became 10 until, the day before I returned my rental pump, I got a measly 3.5 ounces. And perhaps that's the thing I hate most about breastfeeding: that although I should feel proud of every day, every meal, every ounce, there was no finish line to cross, no engraved trophy waiting for me at the end. By its very nature, breastfeeding is something that slowly dries up so that by the end you feel like you failed just a little more each day.

It reminds me of this joke I heard: a lawyer, a doctor and a farmer are talking about what they would do if they won $1 million. The lawyer says he would open his own firm, the doctor says he would open his own clinic, and the farmer? He says: "Well, I reckon I would just keep farming 'til it was all gone."

That's how I think about breastfeeding now: I just kept doing it 'til it was all gone.

15 comments:

  1. amen, shasta! breastfeeding is/was one of the hardest things i've ever done. it was not the magical, natural act that i was led to believe it would be...so disappointing. and you're so right on about the stigma attached to those of us no longer breastfeeding. thank you for this. it comes at a perfect time for me and i appreciate your point of view.

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  2. oh and p.s. you deserve the biggest, shiniest trophy ever for breastfeeing for the 9 months you did-feeding 2 no less. it's uber-impressive and you should be proud.

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  3. Thanks, E! I had written that a couple weeks ago but was pushed to finish it up after I heard you were having trouble. Breastfeeding is seriously the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I think the biggest thing I didn't realize was that it's always you, the mom, every 2-3 hours, every single day, no breaks, no skipped shifts, no sleeping in. This on top of everything else motherhood entails!

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  4. Hi Shasta, I caught this post on Red Dress Club, and I am so glad I did.

    There isn't a trophy, but I hope you recognize there must be a shiny gold star on your soul somewhere.

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  5. Thank you Natalie! I appreciate it!

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  6. I intended to breastfeed because it was free, and breast is best. In that order.

    Then I found out I was pregnant with triplets, and STILL intended to do it - or at least try - knowing that I'd probably need to supplement with formula. Because it was free. And oh yes, breast is best. But with three on the way, mostly because it was free.

    Then Caitlin died. Then the girls came 10 weeks early.
    But I pumped and pumped, and when it was time for the girls to be discharged I was barely above the level they wanted to see moms of twins go home with, so told me about fenugreek (did nothing), and all the drugs and other things that helped (none of them did). I never tried nursing them in the NICU, because I didn't want people coming up and manhandling me, and they kept bothering me about it (once my husband yelled, "You ask her all the time about her supply, you need to leave her alone she's getting stressed out.") And if they didn't take to it, I didn't want them to stay longer because they hadn't proven they could eat.

    When I got home I tried to keep pumping, but could only do it 2-3 times a day, and what had been 25-30 ounces dropped to 10-15 when they were discharged, then down to 5. Then I was stuck in - well if I breastfeed them and not pump, I can see if it builds back up. But if I breastfeed them, with my low supply I will be doing it all. day. long. How do you do that when trying to take care of two?

    But mostly, I remember sitting in recovery with Caitlin, and my husband coming back once, twice, three times, telling me "the NICU nurses say you need to start pumping within six hours", when it was only two hours and I was sitting trying to spend time with my dead daughter. The fourth time they told him (I still had four hours to go!), he said he told them, "I've told my wife enough times already. If I go in and tell her again she is going to beat the crap out of me." And so I think that tainted it for me.

    I wrote a book. Sorry!

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  7. Thanks for sharing your story, Amy. It really is amazing how intense the push to breastfeed is. You get this feeling from the nurses and lactation consultants that anything less than 100% breastfeeding means you are doomed to failure. Especially with twins, I never quite understood this since I could have easily fed one. I should have just fed one one day and the other the next day, but then our sleep schedule would have been all off probably and who knows.
    Anyway, it definitely shows how intense the push is when nurses won't even give you a few hours peace with your dead daughter.

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  8. Love this post! First,gold star for you for lasting so long!!! I was also going to breast feed for a year... UNTIL Elsie started bleeding internally at 2 months leading to an emergency room trip at 3am with a bloody diaper. After a month of eating nothing trying to figure out what she was reacting to, I decided breast wasn't best for this little girl and the bleeding needed to stop. I still feel guilty occasionally but luckily I had an amazing Pedi that helped me through it and she has since outgrown the allergy. GREAT POST!

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  9. Great Post. For me breastfeeding was 10x harder than giving birth with no drugs. It was even more painful. And the guilt over not doing it was horrible as well. Thanks for putting it all out there! And I am impressed you did it that long x2!

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  10. Thanks so much for this post! You have such a great perspective on this! I STILL feel guilty about "quitting" breastfeeding our twins at 8 months, even though it was the best decision for us. I wish I could get over that silly notion! Kudos to you, friend!

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  11. Hey there - reading back on old posts and came upon this one which I LOVED. I had lots of the same difficulties as you and other commenters (pain, NICU, frustration for me and him, the grief of failed expectations).

    The worst difficulty, though, was going to a la leche league meeting hoping for support and some help because if just felt so very impossibly hard for me. There's a lot a water under the bridge since that meeting, but I still get mad if I think about it too much. What I really needed was kindness and friendship, what I got was judgement and lots of conflicting advice - most of which seemed to have "suck it up" as the subtext.

    Yeah, still mad about that, I guess, 8.5 years later.

    Anyway, thanks for verbalizing what obviously many of us are feeling!

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  12. I am standing up and applauding you for this post! Couldn't agree more!

    I pumped for my boys for 6 months...but should have stopped when they came home from the hospital...but I became OBSESSED with it...and that's so not like me.

    I try to give advice to the pregnant twin mommies I meet, because I KNOW how hard nursing twins is...but you just can't tell people what to do in this area. So basically, I just try to gently remind them that "formula isn't horrible, but an exhausted, and unhappy mommy can be".

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  13. While I am so sorry that you attempted a Herculean effort and didn't feel that you were sucessful--I am more sorry that you don't seem to celebrate your sucess for all of the right reasons. Nine months is commendable--esp with twins--and doubly so with twins that can early and made you have to live through the NICU experience. (As a former NICU nurse I totally understand the atmosphere.)

    At the same time--I don't feel like you have a very good appreciation for the lifelong benefits that you have given your children--and you withhold the encouragement that other women need to even attempt the amazing thing that you accomplished

    http://thefeministbreeder.com/when-it-comes-to-breastfeeding-we-cant-handle-the-truth/

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    1. Maybe I did give them lifelong benefits and that's awesome. But in my zealotry to breastfeed perhaps I missed out on other opportunities. For example, perhaps I would have had more time to research and implement the therapy that we now feel offers Malachi the best shot at semi-normal function.

      It's true, women need support and encouragement to breastfeed and it's worth the effort in a lot of cases. But negativity, guilt and judgement have never been very good longterm motivators and I think the BF community needs to drop them if they really want broader acceptance.

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  14. Oh, I was a breastfeeding failure from well over a year ago now and I still teared up reading this blog. I appreciated the perspective you offer on how and why it's okay to have given up. I'm not saying that correctly but anyway I really relate to what you say here. I just always assumed I'd be one of those moms who people point at and whisper to each other, "How old do you think that child is that's breastfeeding there?!" but I only made it about 4 months. I think your message may help me let go of just a little more of the guilt that I still carry over this.

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