This past December, when I was 6 months pregnant, I met my dear friend Blayne for lunch. While we were at the restaurant, she gave me a beautiful, handmade Christmas present: A necklace. A delicate bird charm on a silver silk cord. Along with the necklace was an instruction card. This was a wish necklace. Make a wish when you put it on and it will fall off when your wish is ready to come true. As I fastened the clasp, I could only think of one thing. I wished for a happy, healthy, perfect little girl.
An unfortunate side effect of having a new baby is that your brain turns to mush. In order to continue this story, I need to backtrack a bit.
When Tom and I finally had some time alone on Willow’s birthday, we were visited by one of the hospital’s lactation consultants. She had been told ahead of time that there was blood in my colostrum, and seemed very confused by this. That was probably the first thing that triggered my anxiety. This wasn’t common? She attempted to get Willow to latch by grabbing my breast and shoving it into her mouth. Ouch! Not only was Willow hurting me, but the lactation consultant was hurting me too. Each time I winced, it almost seemed like she thought I was overreacting. I’m not sure. After doing this for a little while, she seemed to get impatient and hand expressed some colostrum into a spoon for Willow to drink. It was red with blood and did nothing to ease my anxiety. The consultant said she would come back again tomorrow and left.
Fast forward to our first night in the hospital. It seemed like we had just closed our eyes to get some sleep when Willow really woke up and started crying. She was hungry and I couldn’t feed her.
I had always planned on exclusively breastfeeding. I admit, in the past I have judged people for not breastfeeding. Why on earth would you give your baby formula when your body makes a completely free, perfect food for your baby? Well, hey Universe. I take all that back. And I’m sorry.
It didn’t take too long for us to decide that yes, Willow needed formula and she needed it now. Our tiny daughter needed to be fed and in that moment it did. not. matter. where it came from. Willow’s crying brought one of the night nurses to our room. She unceremoniously told us that our baby was hungry, and to just give her a bottle – in the same way you might say, “Hey idiots, don’t you know anything about babies?” Sadly, this was just our first experience with a nurse who didn’t give a shit. Since we hadn’t gotten anywhere close to establishing breastfeeding, we wanted to avoid nipple confusion and gave Willow some formula from a medicine cup. Thankfully she calmed right down and went back to sleep after eating. I’d love to tell you that after that Tom and I got some rest. Ha! Those of you that have spent a night in a hospital know that nurses come in for some reason or other about every hour or two. As exhausted as I was, I felt relieved when the sun came up.
On day two my body really started to hurt. It felt like I had been in a bad car accident. My neck and shoulders killed. Not to mention the joy of stitches and hemorrhoids! I was really excited to take a shower and hoped that it would bring some kind of relief. When I took off my clothes I realized that I had burst capillaries across my chest and back as well. Sigh.
We got another visit from the lactation consultant that day. The first thing she did was apologize to me and hand me a print-out on something called “rusty pipes syndrome”. Apparently this is what was causing blood to appear in my colostrum and she shouldn’t have hand-expressed any the previous day. (I couldn’t help but feel a little justified about the level of discomfort I was in.) The good news was it wasn’t serious at all and would clear up. In the meantime, she recommended that I start using a breast pump every 2 hours to establish my milk supply. So I did. It was really uncomfortable but at least I felt like I was doing something for my baby. I didn’t get much from the pump, but whatever I got went to Willow.
I found myself really starting to worry about Willow’s little face. Her nose had been smushed to the left and her mouth was being pulled to the right. Was that contributing to her trouble breastfeeding? Would it stay like that forever?? Sadness and negativity began slowly building inside me. I had already cried many times at this point and the tears were coming more and more frequently. My body hurt and my heart hurt. Disappointment washed over me like a wave and I started to break down. I sat with Tom and tried to tell him how I felt.
The birth left me feeling completely traumatized. The pain and helplessness I felt during labor was unlike anything I had ever experienced and I hated what was left. I felt broken. I was broken. I had been pushed way beyond personal limits I didn’t even know existed. I was empty. I was ashamed of my weakness. No matter how many times someone told me how strong I was or what an amazing job I’d done, I felt no joy in my natural birth.
On top of all that it was becoming clear that breastfeeding wasn’t going to be easy for us. I started to panic. Of course I knew that breastfeeding could be difficult. I knew of several people who had trouble! That didn’t make it any easier. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t making much food for my baby, and what little I had was full of blood.
I had been pumping during the day and it started to seem like the blood was going away. It was a little encouraging. That night was another difficult one, thanks to (you guessed it) exhaustion, interrupting nurses, and setting an alarm to pump every two hours. As the night wore on, the pumping became more and more uncomfortable until eventually it downright hurt. Soon my colostrum just looked like blood.
I continued to get opinions from every nurse who came in. One told me I needed to keep pumping. One told me to give my breasts a rest. One told me there was no such thing as nipple confusion. And they were all completely sure that their opinion was fact. And I kept crying.
On the morning of the third day we were more than ready to go home. Those last few hours in the hospital absolutely dragged. While Tom was out getting us breakfast, a particularly cold nurse came in to take Willow away for a test. When I asked what the test was, she said she didn’t know. When I asked how long Willow would be away from me, she said she didn’t know. And she could not give a shit. She practically rolled her eyes at me as she took my baby away and closed the door. I completely lost it. I started sobbing and couldn’t stop. I was so overwhelmed. It seemed like nothing was going right. I had no control and I absolutely hated it. I was aware that major hormonal shifts were probably causing the “baby blues”, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
Finally it was time to leave! I should mention that there were 2 or 3 nurses on the floor who were great, and I made sure to thank them on our way out. Willow was so tiny and her legs were so curled it was hard to get her dressed and in the car seat. As we were making our way back to Brooklyn, I felt a mix of emotions. I never felt any fear related to my ability to care for my baby, but I felt anxiety as to how smoothly everything would go. And of course, I was tired. So tired.
Our first night at home was relatively calm. I’m sure Tom and I would laugh if we could watch ourselves. Every tiny noise or movement she made had us looking to see if anything was wrong. Willow didn’t cry much, and when she did, it was very easy to calm her. The very next morning we set up an appointment with a lactation consultant. She arrived around 10 in the morning and I filled her in on everything that had happened so far. She immediately noticed the asymmetry of Willow’s face. She watched us try to nurse and felt around in Willow’s mouth. Some of what she said was obvious: Willow wasn’t opening her mouth wide enough or getting her tongue forward enough to latch properly. As a result, she was biting my nipple. She also suspected that the muscle tension that was pulling her mouth to the right was contributing to her troubles. She recommended that we take Willow to see a craniosacral therapist. I didn’t really know too much about this kind of therapy but it sounded great – like chiropractic for your skull. We made that appointment for the following Tuesday, which would mark the end of Willow’s first week in the world. In the meantime the consultant gave us some good information to work with. First, she said we could feed Willow with a bottle instead of a cup if it would be easier for us. She showed us how to pace bottle feeding so that it was more like breastfeeding. She also advised me to rent a hospital grade breast pump to work on building my milk supply.
Having things to do helped me deal with the anxiety and depression I was feeling. I just needed to feel like I was doing something for my daughter’s well-being. Our first craniosacral visit was very interesting. The therapist was able to break down a lot of what was going on with Willow’s body. Something about her birth had created a kind of twist in her little frame and different parts of her were being pulled in different directions. While these things tend to correct themselves eventually, the craniosacral work can move things along more quickly. Our one week old was putty in the therapist’s hands. We made another appointment for a week later and left feeling encouraged.
Before too long I was producing enough milk that Willow didn’t need any formula. That was really big for me. No matter how discouraged I was feeling, at least I was giving her my milk. It was the one thing I could feel good about. But I didn’t feel good about it for long.
The more time that passed and we weren’t able to breastfeed, the more depressed I got. Every 2 to 3 hours I would pump my breast milk and cry. Why couldn’t we do this? Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world – shouldn’t we be able to figure it out? Shouldn’t this be easy? Shouldn’t this get easier? I desperately wanted that relationship with my baby. After all the preparation and reading I had done prior to Willow’s birth, I wanted this healthy, joyful experience of breastfeeding my child. I wanted to be the source of her food and comfort. I wanted to be special to her. I wanted to be Mom. Instead, I was having a relationship with a machine.
Willow also had difficulties with the bottle. It was hard for her to get a proper seal and as a result she often dribbled milk all over herself. Every precious drop that spilled felt like a punch in the gut. Sometimes she got so frustrated she couldn’t stay calm enough to drink. Watching her struggle made my heart ache.
Disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt. Neither does failure. I couldn’t blame my tiny baby for her inability to breastfeed, so I blamed myself. Just like the final moments of my labor, I asked myself how much longer I could do this. I felt weak and selfish. The internet didn’t help. I discovered the term “exclusively pumping” and that some mothers did it for a year. A YEAR. Or six months. Or three months. Any amount of time seemed almost impossible to me. But I couldn’t stop. If I stopped, then I really would be the worst mother in the world. My body was producing the most perfect food for her and it was my job to make sure she got it. I couldn’t stop. I told myself to make it to 4 weeks, and then I could reassess the situation.
Just before Willow turned 4 weeks old, I decided to try using a nipple shield. And it worked. Sort of. I knew that she was getting milk from me but I couldn’t tell how much. I felt so excited about this victory that it made me hope again. I knew that this had to be a sign that things would get better. Of course we would get it eventually. We had to!
The following week we had the lactation consultant visit us again. She was able to determine that Willow was getting about ¾ oz. from each breast. Not bad, but not great. She gave me all kinds of advice about how to proceed but a lot of it is a blur now. There were no set rules in this situation. I just wanted to go on something concrete. The bottom line was that we still weren’t sure why Willow was having difficulty and we didn’t know if or when the issues would correct themselves. During this same visit the consultant also said that she suspected Willow might have some minor posterior tongue tie and that we could consider getting it snipped.
I started to feel overwhelmed with the waiting. It seemed strange, just waiting each day for my baby to “get it”. There are plenty of babies who have trouble and then suddenly one day something clicks into place. I wanted that to happen so badly but in truth, I just wasn’t seeing any progress. Time went by and I continued trying to nurse Willow with the nipple shield. Some days were better than others, but she still got almost all her milk from a bottle. After another week or so, it actually seemed like things were starting to get worse. She would struggle and fuss more often, and I just couldn’t take it. I already had anxiety before feeding times, and now I absolutely dreaded them. What the hell was wrong with me?
The dark clouds I felt overhead weren’t going away. I was devastated. All the physical pain and negativity surrounding my birth experience mixed with my current disappointment to create a paralyzing cocktail. This was no way to mother my child. I had completely disappeared into my grief. Tom was missing his wife, and Willow needed a healthy mother. I started to realize that I needed to break this cycle, but feared the emotional repercussions. Failure. Selfish. These words echoed over and over in my mind and I couldn’t escape them. I felt jealous of women who were able to breastfeed. I felt jealous of women who decided never to breastfeed and were completely at peace with that. I wanted to feel comfortable somewhere.
I’m so glad to have had the support of my family through all this. My husband, my mother, my sister, and my mother-in-law all agreed that breastfeeding wasn’t worth all this suffering. Once I had their validation, I started to feel a tiny bit better. I (foolishly) continued to seek help online, until one day I actually found what I needed. The Fearless Formula Feeder was everything I had been looking to find. Here hundreds and hundreds of women had written their stories about how they wanted to breastfeed and ended up either not being able to and/or choosing not to. It was amazing. I wept as I read story after story that could have been mine. I started to feel cleansed by all the tears I shed. I was not alone, and I was not a bad mother.
When it was time to see my obstetrician for my postpartum checkup, I was still a mess. Even after having had moments of major clarity, when I really thought about my decision to stop breastfeeding I lost it. I cried through my entire appointment. My doctor was really worried about me, and I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t eating enough. I was always forgetting to take my thyroid medication. I was always sad. She agreed that it seemed for the best that I stop pumping and that my baby would be just fine if I gave her formula. She was very kind and told me I should be proud of the six weeks of milk I was able to give my daughter. I would need to make my milk dry up and she warned that it would be uncomfortable.
She was right. The next few days were agony. My breasts felt like rocks and I winced whenever anything touched them. I wore the tightest bra I had, applied ice packs, and even put cold cabbage leaves in my bra. They hurt so badly I couldn’t hold Willow against my chest. I had to sleep on my back or the pain would wake me up. Some part of my brain knew that I was making the right decision, but that part was still very quiet. I was a horrible person. There are so many mothers that aren’t able to make milk for their babies and here I was, throwing that precious gift away. The day I gave Willow my last bottle of breast milk I broke down again. I was sure that my doctor would put me on antidepressants.
Just when it seemed I would never stop feeling this way, the clouds began to clear. I really started to feel better. After three excruciating days, my breasts weren’t nearly as painful. Willow drank formula like she couldn’t even tell the difference. And she smiled. My precious little girl started to smile, and I smiled back. Not only was my daughter fine, she was thriving.
All this time I wore that necklace. Once I put it on I never took it off. For months I had dreamily held it between my fingers and remembered my wish. Of course I knew it was only a symbol. I’m much too pragmatic a person to actually put any kind of stock in wishes, but still I longed for a magical sign. My daughter’s birthday came and went, and still the necklace hadn’t fallen off. I thought to myself, maybe when we figure breastfeeding out, it will fall off. I had even imagined Willow pulling it off with her tiny little hands. But that never happened. And neither did breastfeeding.
As I slowly returned to the light, I began to realize how much I’d been focusing on everything that had gone wrong. I didn’t experience the euphoria associated with a natural birth. If anything, I felt shamed by how weak my body and spirit had been. Whatever happened to make Willow crooked on her way out the birth canal must have somehow been my fault. She couldn’t latch and she couldn’t open her mouth wide enough and she couldn’t get her tongue forward and her nose was crooked and her mouth was crooked and her muscles were tight and her sacrum was twisted. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for all these problems to be fixed and I lost sight of the fact that she was healthy. She was happy. She was growing and gaining weight and hitting milestones and doing absolutely everything she was supposed to be doing. She just wasn’t able to breastfeed. So what? I was putting so much pressure on this tiny little person to be perfect and she already was. She was perfect.
My perfect, darling Willow. My wish came true. I gave her a kiss and took the necklace off.