As a third time mom, my unsolicited advice is to let go of your expectations. Yes, all of them when it comes to parenthood. I spent five weeks after my first son was born convinced, I was a useless mother because I couldn’t breastfeed him. Typing those words now, almost five years later, makes me roll my eyes. I’m now the mother of three sons, all of whom never got a drop of breastmilk from me.
During my first pregnancy, I envisioned a specific birth and postpartum experience. I took hypnobirthing courses to prepare myself for an unmedicated birth. I researched placenta encapsulation to help combat potential postpartum depression. I read books that told me if a mother said she couldn’t breastfeed it was because she didn’t try hard enough. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t give my baby anything other than that “liquid gold.”
After an unmedicated birth that lasted under three hours, I felt like I was on my way to having my “perfect” birth and postpartum story. I started nursing my son immediately after he was born. Lactation consultants and nurses reassured me that his latch was perfect. Before we left the hospital, they noted that he dropped a little in weight but it was within expected range. I was sent home feeling like a breastfeeding champion.
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At home, I started noticing that my newborn was more than just new baby lethargic. His lips were chapped and his diaper had rust colored stains in them. He acted weak. At our day two pediatrician appointment, we learned he dropped 11% from his birth weight. He wasn’t getting “enough” or “anything” from me. I was shocked and devastated. Yet, I was determined not to give up. I just needed a little extra help to get things going.
We started supplementing with formula and using an SNS nursing aid. I saw weekly lactation specialists to do weight checks. Nothing was changing. I was failing.
I told myself that if I couldn’t feed my baby, I didn’t deserve to be his mother. If I couldn’t produce milk, there was nothing that differentiated me from a random woman on the street as his mother. I kept replaying the words from my breastfeeding book in my head, “If someone says they couldn’t breastfeed, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.” I couldn’t quit.
I kept trying for five weeks. I rented a hospital grade breast pump. I drank special teas and dark beer. I ate the oat cookies. I saw three different lactation consultants. I saw a tongue tie specialist. I was a master of the SNS wire feeding system, even inconspicuously using it while out at restaurants. I waited for my milk but it never came.
Choosing to stop “attempting” to breastfeed felt like the hardest choice I had to make for myself and my son. That choice meant letting go of the image I created for myself as a mom. I had to constantly tell myself that my breasts didn’t define me. I was still good and worthy of being my son’s mother.
Maybe you’re reading this and you have strong convictions about feeding infants. Or you don’t understand why this was such a big deal to me. When it comes to feeding a newborn, opinions are strong. Judgments are cruel. I know because I have been on the receiving end of this intense criticism. I had to free myself from the shame inflicted by others.
Watching my son thrive everyday with formula helped free me. I was able to finally be present with him once I stopped using the breastfeeding tools and interventions. Feeding was simple with formula. I just needed a comfortable seat, a clean bottle, and warm formula. No more wires, tape, tubes, or nipple shields. Letting go transformed me. I shifted from obsessing over how I was feeding my son to using that energy to learn how to be his mother.
I made time to connect with mothers who shared a similar feeding journey. I found joy in babywearing. I felt fulfilled seeking out ways to bring my son into my life instead of the other way around. When I became pregnant with my second son three years later, I felt pressured to try breastfeeding again. People asked, “Are you going to try again to see if this time is different?”
I was curious, but my husband was deploying for six months just 10 days after the birth. I didn’t want to add any extra stress to being alone with a toddler and newborn. With my second son, I experienced the same “lack of milk let down.” But instead of utilizing the breastfeeding intervention tools, I reached for formula on day three. My confidence as a mother grew because I didn’t waver.
In March 2021, I had my third son. I knew this would be my last baby. It would also be my last chance to breastfeed. I was still curious so I gave myself one week to try one final time. My son latched better than my other sons. I felt at ease. My best shot would be with him. But just like each time before, my milk didn’t cooperate. I had formula at the ready and this is how I will feed my son.
The truth is, I’ve had to grieve not breastfeeding with each of my sons. I am grieving an unexplainable loss. We don’t know why my milk never came in after three fast unmedicated births. Am I a medical mystery? Did I really not try hard enough? Did my sons have severe tongue or lip ties? I don’t know if I will ever get the answers.
I allow myself to feel jealous when I see or hear about positive breastfeeding. What helps is to remember what I went through to get to my place of peace. It helps me celebrate my current reality with my three sons.
Regardless of how they were fed, my sons are healthy. They aren’t sickly or struggling with allergies. They are silly, accident prone, adventurous little boys who don’t care that I didn’t breastfeed them. All they care about is that I am with them. All they need is me.