Today was a big day for me spiritually. One of those rare days where I had an “ahah” moment, as Oprah would say. Until today, I don’t think I had ever actually really understood why truly succeeding at breastfeeding was so important to me…
Intellectually, I have never thought that breastfeeding is the absolute best way for every woman to feed her child. I don’t think that a breastfed infant will have a significant advantage over a formula-fed infant. And I don’t care if people want to judge me on whatever choice I have made when it comes down to it. On an intellectual level, breastmilk to me is just food. So is formula. As long as an infant is being regularly fed a healthy substance, I think that’s awesome. I will be the first person to encourage a woman to do what is best for herself and her family, whether that is to breastfeed, to pump her breastmilk, to supplement, or to formula feed.
Yet… With my first child, I went out of my way to pump my breastmilk every three hours in order to ensure she would receive breastmilk until she was six months old. I did this after I felt like I had “failed” at breastfeeding. My daughter seemed to get so frustrated at trying to breastfeed and I just couldn’t take the pressure of feeding a jaundiced child while also trying to teach her to latch on. Why did I go to such trouble to make this one thing that I didn’t care that much about happen? When people would ask me why I did it, I never seemed to be able to give them an answer that I was truly, spiritually happy with. And that bothered me. When people would look at me in admiration and comment on how awesome it was that I did this, it made me feel uncomfortable.
And yet, the deep, inner truth is that the raw, emotional part of me always felt a deep sadness and regret at not having succeeded at the breastfeeding relationship with my daughter. I never quite understood why I felt this way since, intellectually, I didn’t care either way. Yet, I made a promise to myself that, the second time around, I would try harder in order to make it work.
When my second child was born as a late-term premie (at 34 weeks), I did not know that I would be confronted with a second set of breastfeeding challenges. I did not expect that it would be such an adventure to breastfeed despite his weight and energy levels.
Let me say that I am extremely thankful to the wonderful team of nurses that I was lucky to encounter at the hospital I had given birth to. They never made a big deal of breastfeeding, yet they gave me every possible resource to make it happen, since they saw that it was important to me. They never harped on about the fact that most premature babies end up not being able to breastfeed. They didn’t warn me that it was going to be difficult. They gave me the tools, were always encouraging, always ready to give me advice and answer my questions.
And so I continued on my journey to breastfeed despite my son’s age. In his first weeks of life, it involved breastfeeding for no longer than 5 minutes, pumping breastmilk, and then supplementing his diet with the expressed milk (or formula if my supply wasn’t up to par). I was so tired and frustrated that I had to once again use my breastpump… Yet I encouraged myself to look at the bigger picture, and remember that feeling of regret when I gave up last time around.
And then, I realized that using a nipple shield seemed to make things easier for my son. He seemed to be less frustrated and exhausted from breastfeeding, so I started using it regularly. Once again, the nurse that visited me at home to check up on my son continued encouraging me. She reassured me that, despite the information that says that using a nipple shield could reduce milk supply, most women she encountered never had that problem. She encouraged me to try breastfeeding without it once my baby reached about four months of age if I felt like it, telling me that he would have a larger mouth and would be stronger and would most likely be able to transition without difficulty, since my nipples were short but not impossibly short.
The days when my son would breastfeed for over an hour and a half at a time, and then be hungry again twenty minutes later, I felt like crying. I felt like giving up. I spoke up about it to my friends and family members who had breastfed also, and received words of encouragement that it would get better. I encouraged myself to look further down the road, to truly believe that it was worth the determination, that it would get better. To deal with my frustrations in the moment, my boyfriend would give my son a bottle of formula so that I could get a break and/or sleep.
And yet, despite all of this, I still felt like a failure, deep down inside. When people would ask me if I breastfed, I still always told them that I used a nipple shield, as if that negatively changed things in some way.
Emotionally, I was proud to breastfeed. At the same time, I would be the first person to bitch if I knew someone who had been criticized for feeding their child formula. I have and always will be formula-feeding parents number one defender.
I just couldn’t wrap my head around that giant contradiction in my life – for others, I couldn’t care less about their choices, yet when it came to myself, I could not tolerate truly giving up breastfeeding. Did this make me a hypocrite? Did I place myself to higher standards than others? Was I lying to myself?
Two days ago, my son finally managed to breastfeed happily without the nipple shield. That moment of true happiness and relief finally came to me, and things finally became clear to me. For the first time, I understood why I fought so hard for so long to make it work.
I realized how inherently tied into a woman’s identity breastfeeding can truly be. How, after having spent my teenage and young adult years tying my femininity and sexuality to these breasts, then transitioning during my pregnancy to turning my breasts into the pure symbol of motherhood. I spent a large part of my first pregnancy researching how to breastfeed and how I would make it work for me. I gave myself little pep talks to give me courage so that I would be able to breastfeed in front of others despite my initial discomfort.
When I failed at breastfeeding naturally from my breast, without aid and accessories, I felt like I had failed at being a Woman. I felt, deep down inside, that I did not succeed at that one part of motherhood that was primal and biological – that was supposed to be this beautiful, natural thing. And no matter what I told myself, no matter how much I could accept this intellectually, socially, morally, something primal inside of me just could not swallow it down.
Perhaps now that I’ve finally succeeded at it, now that I finally feel One with my inner Woman, I will be able to let this go. It seems to me as though there is something wrong with associating womanhood with my breasts so intimately. I hope that my spirit catches up with my mind so that I can hold myself up to the same standards I set for others around me.
I don’t know what this means for others… Perhaps women have felt similarly. Perhaps others have had to find other ways to feel connected to their deeply spiritual Womanhood. After all, there must be another way to truly embrace one’s Womanhood without having to finally breastfeed successfully, no?
What are your thoughts on this? Write me a line in the comments!! I would love to know about other women’s experiences with the topic.