Idyllic images of mothers breastfeeding abound, but it's not always easy or beautiful. Valerie recounts her struggle to nurse her daughter, Eilidh, and shares the she lessons learned.
1) What was your experience breastfeeding after your daughter’s birth?
I had a traumatic birth; I had to be rushed to surgery after 18 hours of labor for a C-section. I didn’t have any complications afterwards but I felt like my body had failed me. There was no lactation consultant at the hospital either - she was on vacation. The others at the hospital told me my daughter, Eilidh, had a perfect latch - but she was spitting up blood. I didn’t realize that someone so gummy could be so painful. I thought ok, this is what is supposed to be like.
I went home and hired a consultant to come and I dealt with the pain for 2 weeks until I couldn’t take it any more. She just didn’t have a good latch. She would be ok with a consultant but then when we were by ourselves it wouldn’t work any more. I sincerely thought I was a huge failure as a parent because I couldn’t naturally give birth to her nor could I feed her.
2) What do you wish someone had told you when you were pregnant?
I’d heard people in my life just talk about how magical breastfeeding was and without knowing anything I committed to breastfeeding for a year while I was pregnant. I would walk around my neighborhood and see all these women nursing their babies and I thought I’m going to be this person. But that’s not how it worked out.
I wish someone would have told me how difficult it was going to be or had the potential to be. I thought that there was this innate knowledge of what I had to do; baby is born, put baby to breast, baby eats…not baby doesn’t know what they’re doing, you’re going to bleed, it’s going to be ugly and you’re not going to like your child. All this while you’re super hormonal.
I just felt a lot of guilt, I had these big plans to breastfeed for a year - and I thought by 10 weeks, I’m going back to work in a week, what am I doing? I finally came to terms with the situation - that nursing just wasn’t working for us - and decided not to stress myself out about it anymore, I can’t destroy myself. So now I’m mostly just pumping. It is a huge struggle to have to pump so much but my body is doing it and she’s a happy baby and we’re both happier for it.
3) What made you make the decision to breastfeed for a year?
My husband is very science-oriented and with all the research that’s been done on the benefits of breastmilk for the child we decided that I would breastfeed her. Personally, I probably wanted to do it because it was the “thing” to do and I thought it would be this great bonding experience between me and my child, which it turned out not to be. It’s hard to bond with someone who is hurting you. I find that we’re much more bonded now that I’m pumping.
4) Were you surprised you didn’t instantly bond with your baby?
There’s this all consuming love between a mother and child, it definitely exists, but it takes you a while to become a mother. I was talking to one of my girlfriends, who for the first three months after she gave birth, thought she had made the biggest mistake of her life. But once her son hit 3 months old she thought this is fantastic - he wasn’t a blob anymore. she could interact with him. I find that my daughter and I are more bonded now because we can engage with each other.
Early on I had problems bonding with her because my experience was traumatic. I just looked at her and got scared every time she was hungry. I just felt - I can’t do this. I dreaded the feedings. I kept hoping that it would get better. I wanted it to work so much but I couldn’t get it to work. And because I wanted it so badly it almost made it worse. And it doesn’t matter how many times people tell you it’s not your fault -you’re still thinking why can’t I get this right. All these other women in my moms group are doing it.
At the same time I’ve come to realize that I’m really fortunate. There were women in my groups that couldn’t produce milk or their babies were allergic to their milk. But there is nothing wrong with the way these women feed their children. I learned a very important lesson - not to be judgmental because you just don’t know what people are going through.
5) Have you supplemented with formula?
The way our society works now is that there is intense pressure on women to breastfeed. I’m a child of the 70’s. That pressure wasn’t there, everyone was raised on formula. But now it’s a dirty word. We had to give her formula for a little bit to supplement because I was in so much pain. I’m embarrassed to say this because I’m educated, but I didn’t do my research. I didn’t understand that by supplementing her I was destroying my milk supply, so I have worked diligently 8 times a day for 3 months to be able to feed my child 100% breastmilk. We went to a lactation consultant twice a week for ten weeks and we even hired a doula to come and sit with me.
6) Breastfeeding is hard enough, did you feel like clothing was an obstacle as well?
I absolutely did. I still do to a certain extent. It’s so much to juggle - you’ve got a baby, then you have a bra to unhook and then you have to get the shirt off. I find functional clothing is more useful now that I have to pump all the time and I need it to be convenient and functional. Any time I go out and buy anything I also think about whether I can pump in it.
I don’t like a lot of what’s out there in terms of nursing clothes, I like a couple of brands but most of the stuff is made for when you’re pregnant with the added nursing function. I think it’s important to have stuff you’d want to wear anyway, whether nursing or not. It’s frustrating. I just want stuff that doesn’t scream “I’m breastfeeding my child.”
All my maternity dresses are also meant to be worn afterwards. But I definitely don’t want to wear a maternity dress that is going to accent the fact that I still have a belly. I generally have to dress up for work and I feel limited as I look into my closet every day and wonder what to wear because I can’t wear most of my pre-maternity clothes either. Getting dressed and undressed 4 times at work to pump is very time consuming so having something easy and functional is really important.
As if i didn’t feel less like myself already and now I feel less like myself because I can’t even dress the way I want to. Just because you’re nursing or just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you have to wear cheap clothing either. And I don’t think you should be relegated to buying something that is 4 times your size.
I think it’s important to have some staple basics that are in good fabrics- something that didn’t really exist for nursing moms until now, with Teat & Cosset. I look at your pieces and I think wow, I can wear that sweater all year.
7) Any advice to new moms?
Don’t go into motherhood with too many expectations. Don’t let society pressure you into doing anything. Don’t let anyone make you feel like less of a mother and don’t carry that burden because you’ve already got enough to do. It can damage all the relationships that you have including your partner. I think my husband suffered quite a bit over my depression over the troubles that we had feeding. I don’t think everyone needs to take heroic measures like I’ve tried to do.
Make sure that you always remember who you are because that’s what you’re going to pass on to your child. Do things for yourself..that’s what I’m realizing after not having had a haircut for over a year. Self care is huge and you’re so consumed with taking care of somebody else that you forget about yourself and your partner and you can’t forget about those things. The sooner you return to feeling like yourself the better off everyone is going to be. Your priorities definitely shift, and that is fine, but don’t forget about taking care of yourself because no one else is going to.