Breast is best – or is it?

Have you ever done something that appears to be so simple and natural, and yet it wasn’t that way to you? I remember being almost in tears. I was hit with a pang of disappointment as I grasp the handheld breast pump for almost 15 minutes and saw that only 1 (one!) ounce came out of my breasts. Before I became a mom, I had visions of milk flowing freely out of my boobs like water trickling down a skinny bottle. That moment never arrived.

Instead, what did happen was a sense of major disappointment, which I expressed (freely) to my husband, and being a male with no lactating boobs at the time, he didn’t quite understand why I was upset about only being able to produce one ounce of milk. He assured me that it was okay – we can still supplement with formula. I vividly told him that I really wanted to feed our baby with my milk only. My goal was six months*, and gosh darn it I’ve barely made it to two!

It was supposed to be so easy, but it wasn’t. In the beginning, I suffered through raw, sore nipples coupled with boobs that felt like it was about to explode any moment, as well as clogged milk ducts. I remember my husband bringing my newborn to me in the middle of the night and said, “She’s hungry,” and me being completely out of it, having no desire to feed her at all. My body was in pain, and so was my boobs. But I did it anyway. I figured if many women out there can do it, then so can I. My own mother breastfed me until I was a year and a half, so breastfeeding felt like something I was meant to do. There was no other question.

As Melinda Gates, mom of three, lamented recently on Refinery29.com,

“I think a lot of us go into motherhood with these idealized images of breastfeeding in our minds. But what those don’t show you is that keeping a tiny baby alive comes with a tremendous amount of pressure.”

I couldn’t agree more. Before I had my daughter, all I heard was “Do you plan on breastfeeding your baby?” from my OB/GYN. There were no “alternative” choices brought up. Nobody presented me with questions such as, “How do you plan on feeding your baby?” Formula seemed like something that was not a first choice option.

As of late, there have been research indicating that it’s not a matter of simply breast milk or the act of breastfeeding itself that provides long term benefits for the baby, it’s a matter of the health & prosperity of the women who chose to breastfed, as noted in a New York Times article. The same article also states that there are indeed socioeconomic differences in women who breastfed. As the rates of breastfeeding have increased in the past few decades, the rates of white women who breastfeed have also increased. In other words – white, college-educated women who live in safer neighborhoods and who had the financial capabilities to stay at home were more likely to breastfeed their babies, as if it were some sort of “trend” that they can talk about at their next mommy group gathering. For those of us who have to go outside of the home to work, it leaves a big challenge for feeding our children.

It’s no wonder that all those images I saw on social media of women breastfeeding happily were of white women, and my ignorant self failed to recognize that I was not one of them. I am not a white thirty-something woman who is a stay-at-home mom (although there is nothing wrong with that all) and live in a nice, spacious, artfully decorated home. Instead, I was a twenty-something Asian American woman living in an apartment in the suburbs of Portland (and not enjoying it) when my first baby was born, and our windows only provided a peek into other people’s apartments.

From Refinery29.com

I finally blamed it on the pump itself. I would have to get an electric pump, I told myself. But the cost at the time was monstrous – I didn’t have $300 for an electric pump and my insurance wouldn’t pay for that like it does now. In the end, I stopped at three months. It was a matter of (high) demand vs. (low) supply. I told myself that if there is a next time, I would try harder…and I did try. When my son came along, I breastfed him as well.

Then, when he was a month old, I got a new job…and it was one of those jobs I’d been waiting for a very long time – to work at a university that I graduated from and to be in the higher education industry, to step away from retail and customer service into something more challenging and career-like. I wasn’t going to stop breastfeeding just because I got a new job, I said. So I trooped on and once again, lasted for three months. And once again, I whined to my husband about how disappointed I was in myself. AND once again, he reminded me that there was nothing wrong with feeding our baby formula at all. “You did what you can,” he told me.

Breastfeeding is a sensitive subject, something I’ve wrestled in my mind for a very long time to talk about, because it’s such a personal thing. It took me almost four years and two kids to finally admit that it’s okay to NOT be able to feed my children only breast milk, that formula didn’t actually do anything more than provide them with nutrients to help them grow. Formula, in essence, is expensive, and I’ve probably spent more money on it than I’ve ever spent on any type of powders or liquids in my life, but formula has saved me from the feeling of total failure. It gave me the freedom to go to work and not be stressed about pumping every two hours; it gave my spouse the opportunity to easily feed our kids without having to go to me for supply first; and it gave both of us the ability to control how much our kids are getting, because we could measure the amount each time we gave them a bottle.

I remember a conversation I had recently with an old worker, who just became a mom last year, about breastfeeding. She asked me if I breastfed both of my kids. I said I did. Then she asked if my son is on formula. I said yes he is. I could tell that she was at a crossroads – her baby was eight months old already, only a few months younger than mine, and she was hesitant about stopping. “It’s so good for the baby,” she insisted. But then she said, “I just wish it wasn’t so stressful on the mom.” Amen, sister! I understood her dilemma completely, because I’ve been there before. Finally, I said, “Well, I think they both turned out okay, so I’m not going to dwell on it.”

A recent article on theguardian.com brought up an excellent point – that society needs to stop “infantilising women” giving them half the truth about breastfeeding. It’s time to tell it like it is, and hence, this is my story. Look, breastfeeding can be great – I’m not going to deny that. But if it’s so stressful, and there is not enough solid research (as in large population, longitudinal studies) then why continue? Why put yourself through that kind of stress?  As far as my mom is concerned, she had to work to provide for our household, and if god forbid, she had to lug around a large contraption that weighs almost 15 pounds every day in addition to what she was already lugging around (food) she would not have breastfed me at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t be mad at her. I would’ve been perfectly okay with it.

Last week, I came upon an article that resonated exactly with how I felt when I was on the breastfeeding journey. I would not be surprised if other *new* mothers felt the same way.

“I was obstinately committed to stimulating my dimwitted breasts, to shepherding my maximum antibodies and primordial IQ soup into him. This was the overachiever in me — The Breast Is Best!” -Laura Goode, “My Formula Fed Miracle”

In the end, it’s not HOW you feed your child (boob or bottle), it’s simply YOU doing what you feel is best for your child and yourself.

*because that’s what those organizations (World Health Organization & American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends. What the fuck do they know?!?!

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