A few days ago my cousin gave birth to a beautiful little boy. As we received updates from family on the progression of her labour and spoke to her through those early days of exponential love and fear that strangle the hearts of new parents, so much of our journey through newborn parenting felt raw and real again. Especially when it came to feeding.
“Feed the baby!” my Lactation Consultant used to cheer. A simple instruction that came for me with more stress than I had ever felt and a paralyzing fear that I could not in fact do what she was championing: feed my baby.
Before giving birth, I shopped for the perfect nursing clothes. The ones that would allow me to comfortably breastfeed in public, looking like the other Instagram moms with their baskets of flowers and flowy lace tops, hair gathered into perfectly casual mom buns. I tossed aside any notion that I would be shy about breastfeeding. I didn’t really consider that I wouldn’t actually be able to.
Both realizations, my lack of ability to feed my baby and the discomfort with doing so that followed close behind, came as a surprise. Our entire journey through feeding came as a surprise. No one really warned us that those early days, some of the most beautiful moments of our lives, would be coupled with so many visits from our midwives, so many frequent calls to our Lactation Consultant (who we began to fondly refer to as our fairy godmother), so many hours spent googling “how to increase milk supply”, or that tubes, cups, eye droppers and an army of natural and prescription supplements would become our constant companions. Nobody mentioned that no matter how many times she was weighed or how often she ate, there would be moments of sheer panic that our baby wasn’t getting enough.
It’s incredibly distressing when your body doesn’t do what everyone tells you is the most natural thing in the world. Almost two and a half months in and the fear that I am properly feeding the baby still creeps in every time she doesn’t seem content after breastfeeding, doesn’t finish a bottle (yep, I said bottle), doesn’t want to eat for a more extended period of time or appears to have lost some weight – something that she has yet to do except for those first few days after birth when almost all babies dip a little.
This fear is absolutely a product of the early days when something that was supposed to come so naturally became a full time job of worry and work (tubes, pumping, cleaning, repeat!) and at times overshadowed everything else that happened in a day. I became scared of the next time my baby would be hungry and fretted between feedings as a result. The thought of visitors would send me into a panic and leaving the house and taking our little tube feeding show on the road seemed an impossible feat.
My fear is one I also attribute to a culture of best intentions that reminds you everywhere you look that breast is best and the rest just a compromise of sorts. It “should work” the websites read and if it doesn’t just try harder as if you weren’t already giving every last ounce of your being to keep your baby alive in the most natural way possible. And maybe, just maybe if you look way down in the tiny fine print at the bottom it says try a bottle, if you have to, but be aware of a long list of emotional and physical consequences.
This culture doesn’t just stop at websites and baby books. It is not a rare occurrence to have the comment “Cute baby!” followed quickly by “Are you breastfeeding?” So common in fact a recent checkout at the local dollar store went something like, “That will be two dollars and twenty-five cents, would you like a bag, do you breastfeed?” And while the answer to this question was one I could have easily made up or simply walked away from, I felt each time the need to explain and justify our breast, bottle, formula buffet of feeding options as if they would be able to tell if I were lying or that they somehow had the right to hold court on the methods of how to best feed MY baby.
This pressure lead me to fear alternatives, stress myself most likely out of milk production, and look enviously on at those who breastfeed without struggle. All until one day when our baby wouldn’t latch, which meant the little tube we were using to supplement her wouldn’t work and all of us were in tears looking desperately for those bottles we had bought and tucked away.
We introduced the fretted bottle that had come with the acute warning of potentially turning our baby off breastfeeding (and therefore hurting her health and our bond, they warned), only to find that our baby didn’t think that bottle was so hot and wailed when it even came near her! Breasts that didn’t produce what she needed and a bottle that made her scream – no one warned us about this in all those prenatal classes we spent hours attending.
It took a visit from one of our amazing midwives who held me as I cried, mourning my failure to feed my baby to finally embrace our journey and let it all go. She rubbed my back and told me to let go of the pressure that I had put on myself, take a look at my healthy baby and the bond we shared, greater than anything I could imagine, and congratulate ourselves on doing such a great job loving and feeding our baby.
I am glad we tried and continue to try as hard as we could to do the best for our baby. We are now feeding our baby with a combination of bottle feeding, breastfeeding, formula and pumped milk and ultimately, though I still wish I could breastfeed more easily, I am not sure I would change a thing. But I would tell those parents reading this at 2am because they can’t sleep due to worry that it is always going to be OK and that you can always try something and then try something new. For the one thing I can say unquestionably about parenting is that there is no one way and definitely no one best way that works for all new parents and babies. If there were, mine would not be one of thousands of posts written about this, not to mention all the books and specialists who continue to tackle the immense world of raising these tiny beings.
I would also say that while there is no questioning the physical, psychological and developmental benefits of breastfeeding, I would challenge the pressure that the more recent campaigns to normalize breastfeeding inadvertently cause to those who struggle with it. Let’s balance the discussion, I say, and build up the communities of support that I believe will ultimate decrease the stress and increase the success of new moms in all aspects of parenting, but especially when it comes to feeding.
In line with that idea, let me end off by saying that this story is uniquely mine and potentially only true and real to me, this baby and this moment in time. That said, if a fraction of it resonates with another new mom or dad and offers a bit of reprieve, insight or comradery in the blurry newborn days, then I am glad these thoughts and experiences have been documented in a more public way.