Although this personal story has only spanned the last four and a half months, it feels like it could be an epic. An epic complete with tragic flaw and quixotic quests. Like any good story, there is a protagonist and an antagonist, plenty of conflict, motifs of hope and disappointment, and coveted bursts of comic relief. This, my friends, is the tale of the Great Breastling Match, otherwise known as my desperate, devoted, and ultimately damned attempt to breastfeed my children.
If I’m honest with myself, I suppose the time frame for this story has spanned a bit longer than four months. You see, this story is actually a sequel that began with the birth of my first son, Everett. Everett arrived exactly a week before my due date and entered the world at a slight (but not far beyond average) stature of 6 lbs, 5 oz, and 20 inches. As a first-timer, I optimistically put him to the breast and assumed that his weak latch and low-powered suck would improve as he grew. At his weight check on day four of life, my sweet boy was losing not gaining so the pediatrician opened a bottle of formula right there in the office and in a matter of seconds my goal was shot. Goodbye to exclusive breastfeeding. While I received lots of encouragement and assurance that we could get back to that goal eventually, it was not meant to be. In fact, this was only the beginning of our feeding saga with Ev. A few days later, he began having bloody diapers…not just little flecks of red here and there, but definite blood mixed with stool that I would change as often as 14 times a day. Obviously, my poor little guy was miserable. He cried incessantly and who can blame him? His belly was on fire.
The doctors determined that Everett had a milk protein allergy, meaning that he was allergic to my breastmilk and to the evil canisters of cow’s milk-based formula we shook up to supplement each nursing session. I’ll spare you all the minute details, but from here we embarked on a journey that included intense dietary eliminations for me and a frustrating trial and error procedure with various “special” hypoallergenic formulas. I was not about to give up though. After hearing over and over and over how perfectly natural and perfectly nourishing and perfectly perfect breastfeeding was for my baby, I was not throwing in the towel. Everett’s feeds became a complex but flawed scientific method with confounding variables and many unconfirmed hypotheses. What if I stopped eating soy, pumped for 20 minutes after every feed, and tried the Nutramigen formula? Every diaper change was a roller coaster of hope and disappointment. As I carefully peeled back the velcro tabs to inspect our experiments’ results, I would continue to find blood and continue to frantically console an unhappy babe. When Everett was 10 weeks, this crazy cycle came to a halt. The doctors urged me to stop breastfeeding and begin a medicinal hydrolyzed formula called Neocate. We had to order it online from a medical nutrition company. It cost a fortune and our insurance company refused to cover it even though it was the only source of nutrition my baby could safely consume. But, Neocate changed our world. Within a couple days, Everett was a new baby. He became calm and smiley and content. And he began to grow. Despite this whirlwind journey with a happy ending, I still held on to the guilt. When we moved to a new city and I met new mommy friends, I felt the intense need to defend myself by telling Everett’s story each time I shook up a bottle of formula for him. “You see, I really wanted to breastfeed…” this story would begin.
And then this story would continue. And sequels are rarely better than the original tale, so I suppose I should have known better. When Everett was 16 months old, I got pregnant with our second little guy, Louie. By this time, Ev had outgrown his milk allergy and was happily eating yogurt and cheese and even the occasional ice cream treat. We were so relieved and I was ready to start the “Breast is Best” quest again with our second child. The doctors said there was a chance that Louie could have the same allergy, but that it was only incrementally greater than the chances that any kid, so we were hopeful. I stocked up on nursing bras with the special clips to make feeding as quick and seamless as a drive-thru order, purchased a breast pump to ensure I would not have supply issues, and dreamed of the day that I could simply snuggle my baby to my bosom and provide him with the natural goodness that only breastmilk can provide.
Louie arrived one week and one day before my due date… he had to outdo his brother my coming just before the 39 week mark. He was a bit puny as well at 6 lbs, 8 oz, and 18 inches. For the first two weeks, I felt like breastfeeding was going great. What a relief! He latched, he sucked, and he was making lots of wet diapers. All good signs. This was actually working! I was overjoyed!
But then at his two week weight check, he wasn’t gaining fast enough. We started with lots of pumping and bottle supplements of breastmilk, but ultimately we were opening the canisters of formula again. Was it a latch issue, a supply issue, a lack of strength to suck issue? Several visits to lactation consultants and pediatricians later, we still never knew for sure. All we knew is that the perfectly perfect “Breast is best” plan was not working. Again.
I should have been thankful that Louie was not having any milk allergy issues. And truly I was, but this gratitude did not take away the resentment and disappointment that I felt. Seriously, this is not going to work again? I would see women breastfeeding everywhere. Keep in mind, I’m a stay-at-home mom, so this sight is as common in my world as seeing trees in a forest. And to capitalize on this hackneyed phrase, I just could not focus on the forest through the trees. Couldn’t I just be happy to have a healthy growing boy that will ultimately grow into a healthy, playful toddler and then a healthy, strong man? I have Everett as living proof that a formula-fed baby can still be absolute perfection. But those damn trees just would not fade from my view. I would feel intense jealousy as friends just popped their babies on their breasts and complained about their abundant supplies, overactive letdowns, engorged breasts, and Hoover babies with adorable fat rolls that demanded to suck every two hours.
At least Everett’s inability to nurse was clear-cut, but Louie’s issue was more difficult to diagnose, which motivated me to press on. So I powered through what I would come to lovingly call our “breastling matches”. Louis was a lightweight “breastler” and almost always reigned champion. His various moves were quite impressive for such a little man: latch on, slip off, punch, scratch, kick, latch, delatch, screech, thrash, roll, yelp, latch, suck, suck, pop off, head butt, squeal. These matches would last about twenty minutes and my sweet little Hulk Hogan would take in about one ounce of liquid gold as his prize. One ounce. I know this, because we had several sessions with lactation consultants who would weigh Louie before and after a feed. Of course, each of these matches had to be followed by a bottle feed, which would consist of about half formula and half pumped breastmilk. Obviously my milk supply was the victim of our struggles.
The lactation consultants would smile and tell me that all I had to do was pump at least 8 times a day for 20-30 minutes. I’m an English teacher, but I can do that simple math: that’s almost 4 hours hooked up to a machine in a compromising position. I just could not sustain that while trying to care for a newborn and wrangling an energetic toddler. So I resigned to pumping as much as I felt I could handle, which ended up being about three times a day: first thing in the morning, mid-day during Everett’s nap, and in the evening. Looking back, many of these pumping sessions were near comical pep rallies for our breastling matches. I would often be hooked up to the pump while standing up and doing frantic bicep lifts with Louie in the carseat. This was not to lose postpartum weight mind you, it was the only way I could keep my infant from hysterically wailing during the 20 minutes that I could not snuggle him. Thank God for my hands-free bra. (Although I am considering burning this piece of spandex when this wild ride finally ceases.) These crazy pumping rituals coincided with Everett learning to talk, so some of his most commonly uttered phrases these days include, “Mama pump,” “Milky for Louie,” and “Turn it on.” He is obsessed with turning the dial on the machine and hooking the tubes in to the sockets. My little engineer. I am hoping that he is not cementing this quality time we spend as his earliest memories…that could necessitate therapy when he’s a teenager.
Luckily I have a close friend and neighbor who had a baby girl just weeks before I gave birth to Louie. She too struggled with breastfeeding, so we were able to offer each other support and laughter throughout the process. When discussing our upcoming hot dates with the breast pump each evening, we would often break into 1990s splendor through song: “Pump up the jam! Pump it up!” If you lived through this decade, you will appreciate this allusion brought to you by the legendary group Technotronic. Singing that refrain while commiserating via text message is often the only thing that would get me through the thrice-daily grind.
And here we are at the end of the summer already. Louie is four and half months old and I have officially given up the breastling matches. Just so that I could be sure I tried absolutely everything, we had both his tongue frenulum and upper labial frenulum clipped by an ENT doctor who suspected that these tongue and lip ties could be impacting his latch. Unfortunately, our nursing relationship actually got worse while his mouth healed and never rebounded. I am, however, still pumping. Sometimes only twice a day and my supply is steadily tanking, but I’m eking out as much as I can to nourish his little growing body. I feel like Louie’s bottles are little soy latte smoothies with a breastmilk boost. It’s the Immunity Boost, the Perfect Nutrition Boost, and I set my goals for sustaining this dance one month at a time. I’ve made it to 4 months; the next goal is 5 with the ultimate achievement of reaching six months, since I know my supply will not hold up for an entire year. I still feel angry, disappointed, and as ridiculous as it is, a little bit of shame that I struck out at the breast once again. I still feel the need to explain why I bottle feed and make sure people know that I really wanted to nurse my children. I feel like I got punched in the stomach when I see “friends'” Facebook links to articles about the benefits of breastfeeding. And I still cringe each time my eyes glance at the ingredients list on the Similac canister. Why is corn syrup solids the first ingredient in all baby formula? Gross. I just don’t get it.
And maybe it’s a little foolish for me to be stressing so much over something that, in reality, is quite trivial. I have two beautiful, healthy boys that are mostly formula fed. And as my husband reminds me daily, they will still go to college despite their breastmilk deficiency. It is this self-imposed guilt and grief that is the tragic flaw in my epic. It is my need to defend my honor as a devoted, lactating mother that makes my quest a bit quixotic and absurd. Rationally, I know I have tried my hardest and the choices I have made are the ones that are best for my children, my family, and my own well-being. But emotionally, I long to experience “real breastfeeding,” the act of my body nourishing my son’s in this physical, literal way. It will be another layer of grieving when I finally pack up the pump, but for now my hubris demands that I continue to provide my little one with a mere few ounces of “superfood” each day. I tell my story, not to solicit sympathy and not even to defend myself when I imagine that the other mom behind me in Target in glaring at the super-sized containers of formula in my cart. I tell my story simply to chronicle one of the many complexities of growing and cultivating little human beings. My epic may be a little over-dramatic and my breast puns a bit tacky, but there is truly no other saga that I want to be writing.