Breastfeeding was a war zone and we were both casualties.
It was my friend who finally made me see sense. She’s a doctor so her opinion cut through in a way my other friends couldn’t, even if they’d told me the same thing.
“Mia, you’ve been on antibiotics for 70 days in the past six months,” she said over the phone after I rang her for yet another emergency script because I had the tell-tale signs of yet another bout of mastitis and I knew I had a very small window before I became completely incapacitated and in agony.
“It’s time to wean. It’s TIME TO WEAN.”
I nodded obediently down the phone as my eyes filled with tears. Of regret. Of relief. Of surrender.
It had been a horrendous time since my daughter had been born seven months earlier, one I never saw coming. I wasn’t a first time mom. I’d breastfed my first child without incident for a year. I loved breastfeeding. I didn’t judge mothers who didn’t or couldn’t breastfeed but I was quietly smug about the fact my son had never had a sip of formula. I’d read the books and the pamphlets. I’d done the classes and listened to the early healthcare nurses. I knew that breast was best.
So when my daughter was born seven years later, I had no reason to expect things would be different. This time though, instead of a contented baby on my breast, I had a squirming, crying, writhing baby who fought noisy, distressing battles with her only source of sustenance, multiple times every day and throughout every night. Breastfeeding was a warzone and we were both casualties.
I got mastitis for the first time when she was only a couple of weeks old. For the next seven months, I wouldn’t be able to go more than three weeks without being felled by the fevers, the pain, the bone-shaking chills, the raging infection, the flu-like symptoms that would send me to bed for 72 hours every time, wrapped in a parka and wearing Ugg boots under six blankets.
“You have to keep feeding through the mastitis, this is crucial,” I was told by breastfeeding support lines and books, and pamphlets about lactation. So I did. I was terrified of my milk drying up. New mothers are made to feel this terror of somehow interrupting or depleting their milk supply. It’s very high up on the things you are meant to feel guilty about. As if trying to keep a human alive with your body is not pressure enough.
I guess the pendulum had to swing too far in the other direction. I guess in previous generations, mothers were overlooking the value of breastfeeding in a rush to use formula that was marketed as “better.” But that wasn’t in my lifetime. My years as a new mother were informed by a different sort of pressure, the pressure to breastfeed at all costs. The pressure to resist the lure of evil formula regardless of the toll it took on mother or baby. That may not have been the explicit message but it felt like the implicit one.
And I absorbed it by osmosis.
So brainwashed was I by the idea that formula was bad for my baby that I chose to incapacitate myself for the first seven months of her life rather than give her formula. I chose to breastfeed her milk that was tainted with the antibiotics I had to take to fight the infection in my breasts rather than give her formula. I chose to endure terrible pain and to subject my family to vast inconvenience as I crashed out of their lives again and again for days at a time. I chose to let my confidence as a mother and as a woman be eroded by a twisted belief that this hell was preferable to the failure of giving my daughter formula.
It wasn’t until my friend shook me out of my delusion by giving me “permission” to wean that I saw the very real damage I was doing to my baby and myself. I gave my daughter formula that day and began to regain my health, my self confidence and my relationship with my little girl.
We never looked back.
Three years later when I had my third child, I was nervous. I wanted to try breastfeeding him because I genuinely loved it. But I was wildly apprehensive that I would struggle again. I didn’t. Every mother is different and so is every baby. Just like my first baby, this one breastfed well. But this time I was ready. My mind was open to the possibility of formula, open to the possibility of supplementary feeds or weaning earlier than I had planned…my mind was open.
Formula is not the enemy. The enemy is when you’re so overwhelmed by the expectations of others who don’t know your story that you make decisions based on guilt. The act of being a good mother and taking care of your baby is made up of many moving parts. And sometimes, formula is actually one of them.
Mia Freedman is the editor and publisher of Mamamia.com.au, the website she founded in 2007 when she left traditional media and didn’t quite know what else to do next. You can follow Mia on twitter @miafreedman.
Photo courtesy of the author.
This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.