I didn’t set out to be a marathon breastfeeder.
When I first found out I was pregnant, I was ambivalent about breastfeeding. I knew all the health benefits for mother and baby, and that it was free, and it meant that you didn’t have to do all the prep work that was involved in formula-feeding. But it was something that I couldn’t imagine myself doing. Using my breasts to feed someone else seemed so far removed from my experience that it was like science fiction; you may as well have told me that I would also build my child a nest out of clippings from my own hair, or baptize him with some exotic animal’s blood.
So the fact that I not only breastfed my son, but breastfed him for three and a half years seems pretty incredible in retrospect.
As I neared the end of my easy, uncomplicated pregnancy, I started to come around to the idea of breastfeeding. Being pregnant had shifted my ideas about my body, and the idea of sharing my breasts with my baby seemed less foreign; after all, I’d just spent seven and a half months sharing my uterus. I didn’t feel certain enough to fully commit to the idea of nursing, but I figured that could try it for a month or two, maybe six months at the outside, and see how that went. If I hated it, or if for whatever reason I was unable to breastfeed, there was always formula. It was as simple as that.
Then, at 34 weeks pregnant, I landed in the hospital. After spending two weeks there, I found myself lying on an operating table, my arms splayed out and strapped down like Jesus on the cross while several pairs of strange hands rooted around in my belly. During the surgery, my doctor discovered that I have a congenital malformation of the uterus, a fact that somehow hadn’t been caught on any of my ultrasounds. This was what had caused the complications that led to my son’s preterm birth.
It was a watershed moment for me. While I had been spending the past eight months doing everything I could to ensure that I gave birth to the strongest, healthiest baby possible, my body had furtively been working its own dark magic against me. Instead of being thankful for the fact that my body had managed to grow this gorgeous snub-nosed wonder, I was equal parts angry and afraid. Angry because it wasn’t fair; angry because a biological trick had cheated me out of the pregnancy and birth that I’d hoped for. Afraid because I had no idea what other dark secrets my body was harboring.
I decided that if my body could not give my son the nine months’ residency that he should have had, then at the very least it was going to give him breast milk.
Feeding my son was a struggle from day one, and every time the nurse would roll the big, flat, metal scale into my hospital room, I found myself holding my breath and praying that this would be the weight check that showed even an ounce or two of gain. His numbers kept dropping, though – from his birth weight of five pounds, four ounces all the way down to four pounds, 12 ounces by the time we left the hospital.
“How can anyone think it’s a good idea to let me take this tiny baby home?” I wondered.
For the first week or two after we were discharged from the hospital, my son’s weight hovered around the five pound mark. The issue wasn’t with supply, it was with demand. My son didn’t seem to want to eat. He fell asleep a few minutes into each feeding, even though we tried every trick in the book to get him to stay awake. It was a vicious cycle; the fewer calories he consumed, the less energy he had to expend on sucking in those calories. Every feeding session felt like a fight.
My mother called to ask how her new grandson was doing. My voice hitching and hot, embarrassing tears dribbling down my cheeks, I told her that I was still having a hard time nursing him.
“It’s okay to give up on breastfeeding, Annie,” she said gently. “I did. Twice.”
I couldn’t figure out how to articulate that it was perfectly fine that she’d quit breastfeeding and instead formula-fed two of her three daughters, but at the same time I just wasn’t ready to give up. My drive to breastfeed felt like one of the few solid, certain things in those frighteningly uncertain first weeks of parenting. The choice to breastfeed seemed like one of the few things I had even the smallest amount of control over.
So we shuttled back and forth between our family doctor’s office, the lactation clinic at the hospital, and our apartment where I hovered nervously over my son as he slept, trying to divine from the delicate map of his features some kind of indication that things would be easier soon.
A can of formula arrived unexpectedly in the mail – I still don’t know who gave my address to a formula company, and I still think sending unsolicited formula to frazzled new parents is dirty – and I thought about how easy it would be to make just one bottle. When my son’s squalling cries pulled me out of sleep in the darkest hours of the night and I stumbled, my breasts heavy and leaking, over to his crib, I would fantasize about what it would be like to stay in bed while my husband got up to feed our son. That thought was undeniably appealing.
Instead, I rented a pump from the hospital. I watched the milk running down into the little collection bottles. It was gorgeous stuff, my milk – frothy and warm and slightly sweet-smelling, like a melted milkshake. How was it possible that my fallible human body managed to make this? I knew the scientific facts behind milk production, of course, but still, it was hard not feel awed by the fact that my body made this nutritionally perfect food. It was, to use a term I picked up during a childhood spent in Catholic school, a Joyful Mystery.
By this point, our son was a month old and slowly starting to gain weight, but still not enough. No matter what I did, it was never enough.
Meanwhile, the anxious dread I felt about feeding started to spread, as if by osmosis, to everything else I did as a parent. Was I positioning him properly in the carrier? Were these grunting noises normal? Did our ancient, clanking steam radiators make our apartment too hot for a baby? One night, sometime after midnight, my husband woke up to find me sitting on the floor next to the bed, crying over my laptop. Noticing that he was awake, I asked my husband if he thought it was possible that our son might have an undiagnosed genetic abnormality. Could that explain his feeding difficulties?
Strangely enough, it was just as the postpartum depression was starting to dig its poisonous claws into my brain that our feeding issues started to sort themselves out. The lactation clinic gave us a nipple shield, which is a thin, flexible piece of silicone that fits over the breast. The shape of the shield makes latching easier, meaning that babies don’t have to work as hard to eat. My son’s feedings started increasing in length from five minutes, to 12 minutes, to 20 minutes. He started gaining weight at a much faster rate, his thighs plumping out and little folds appearing at his wrists and elbows as his arms thickened. As his calorie intake soared, he started to have enough energy to stay awake for longer periods of time. His crying didn’t sound as sad and fretful as it had. He started offering up the occasional smile. After a few weeks, we were able to give up the shield altogether; one little piece of plastic had resolved all of our feeding issues.
But by then I had sunk too far into the murky underworld of postpartum depression to find any relief in these facts.
Too embarrassed and ashamed to ask for help, I became suicidal. A crisis bloomed like a pus-filled boil, and then there was a protracted moment of catharsis during which I narrowly avoided hospitalization. As I slowly recovered, I felt a bitter regret over the fact that I had lost the first few months of my son’s life to the dismal haze of depression, but I also felt overwhelmed by the sense that I’d been given a second chance.
And breastfeeding had played a role in my getting this second chance.
I don’t want to make any grand, sweeping statements like, “breastfeeding saved my life,” or “breastfeeding cured me of my postpartum depression,” but I will say this: when things were at their darkest, breastfeeding was the only thing I felt like I was doing right as a mother. Which means that I might have more capital-F Feelings attached to it than other people might.
I grew to love breastfeeding. I loved the way my son would crow with delight every time I started to unbutton my shirt; I loved the gulping, guzzling sounds he made as he drank my milk. I started to teach him sign language, and by the time he was 6 months old, the sign for milk would send him lunging for my chest. I started asking my husband to take pictures of us while I breastfed, and I loved the way they turned out, how calm and peaceful my face looked as I watched my son nurse. I looked like a painting of Maria Lactans; my face always settled into the same patient smile that she wore as she gazed down at Jesus.
My son’s first birthday came and went, and we kept breastfeeding. My reasons for this weren’t based on a belief that I occupied a motherly moral high ground or anything like that; mostly I knew that weaning would be a fight. He also wasn’t big on solid food yet, so I figured that any extra nutrition he was getting from breast milk could only be a good thing. Finally, it seemed like a waste of all the effort I’d put into breastfeeding in the first place to suddenly stop just because my kid had reached some arbitrary age.
I’d expected toddler nursing to feel weird, but it didn’t. Instead, it was sweet and funny and playful and, sometimes, even peaceful. My favorite moments were the ones that came in the middle of exhausting, harried days when, needing a rest, I would suggest that we nurse. Then we would lie down on the couch or the bed and I would close my eyes and take a short breather while my son breastfed. When things felt overwhelming, taking a pause to breastfeed always made both of us feel calmer. And if my son was sick or hurt or even just sad, breast milk was like a magic cure-all. When people asked me when I planned on weaning him, I gave them a vague whenever-we’re-ready type of answer, mostly because I didn’t have any firm ideas on this myself.
As my son got older, people became visibly more uncomfortable about us breastfeeding.
“Oh, Anne, no,” said one acquaintance, her voice heavy with disappointment, when I told her that my 2 1/2-year-old was still nursing.
“Doesn’t it hurt now that he has teeth?” (I heard that one a lot – and no, it didn’t.)
“If you let him keep breastfeeding, he’s going to grow up to be so spoiled.”
“If you don’t set firm limits, he’ll still be breastfeeding by the time he’s in middle school!”
“Do you really think that this is healthy? What does your doctor say?”
“Doesn’t it bother you that someday he’ll remember breastfeeding? Isn’t that kind of gross?”
“At this point, don’t you think it’s more about your needs than his needs?”
That last one always made me laugh, because they wouldn’t have said that if they’d ever seen my son ask to breastfeed. He would catapult himself into my bed every morning, smush himself up against me, and gleefully ask, “Can I have some mama’s milks?” If it had really been about all my needs, I would have kicked him out of my room so that I could get more sleep.
My son finally weaned this past summer, at the age of 3 1/2. When it did happen, it almost seemed like a non-event; he just gradually asked to nurse less and less, until he stopped asking altogether. One day I realized that it had been weeks since we’d breastfed – and just like that he was weaned. No tears. No tantrums. No breastfeeding until middle school. Just my son quietly deciding that he was done.
I’m grateful for the fact that I was able to breastfeed; I know that many women are unable to, both because of physical and emotional reasons. I’m glad that formula exists, since it has certainly saved the lives of countless babies. I believe in bodily autonomy, and I think that the choice to breastfeed is entirely up to the individual person. But still, I’m grateful for the fact that I breastfed.
I don’t think that extended breastfeeding (or breastfeeding at all) has made me a better mother than anyone else, but I do think that it has helped make me the best mother that I can be. For other parents, formula feeding is a tool that helps them be the best possible parents they can be. We all want the same thing – kids who are happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. Instead of slinging various studies at each other claiming that breastfeeding is better, or, wait breastfeeding isn’t better, or, wait, you should breastfeed for 12 months, no, 2 years, let’s all try high five-ing each other for the fact that we’ve made it this far. Because parenting is hard enough without wasting time and energy trying to hurt each others’ feelings.
Like On Parenting on Facebook for more news, essays and advice.
You may also be interested in: