Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Nursing Sucks

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Dear Marjo,

Nursing sucks. That is all.

Signed,

Dairy Queen

Dear Dairy Queen,

Oh, dear. Your letter is frightfully short. Perhaps you're too busy crying into the lanolin jar and using breast pads to dry your tears. Or maybe you're tethered to a breast pump, or downing yet another cup of fenugreek tea, or staggering under a 24/7 "every two hours" feeding schedule. So let's just put it out there: Nursing does suck, especially for the first few weeks. Yes, some moms get past this stage quickly, entering motherhood through a soft-focus lens, wearing daisies in their hair and smiling sweetly at their chubby newborns. But I'm guessing that's not you.

Dairy Queen, I deeply know how you feel. My own name would have been Dairy Who Are You Kidding. Looking back now, I know that my milk didn't come in. But no one told me that, and I didn't know enough to recognize it. So I nursed and pumped almost constantly, producing one tablespoon of milk for every hour of pumping. Every bit of skin that could chafe or crack did, and the pain was so intense that I keened as I nursed. Two weeks later my baby had lost a lot of weight. So the pediatrician gave us an ultimatum: The baby needed to gain three ounces in two days, or he would be admitted to Children's Hospital. The prescription? Formula.

I know, I know: A bottle would inhibit my baby's ability to latch. Formula corporations were the devil. Soy would later delay my son's puberty. Bottle-feeding was expensive, and would weaken the bond with my baby. Believe me, I heard it all and took it into my chafed and cracked little heart. Which is why, after two days of pumping my son full of Similac, I reverted to nursing.

For three long months I nursed and pumped, supplementing with one bottle of formula a day.  But still there was no milk, and my baby was gaining weight very slowly. I was emotionally wrecked, physically exhausted, and hardly able to take care of myself, never mind a baby. It was not the rosy glow of motherhood I'd expected.

"Breast is best," I kept hearing, and advice came from all corners. My doula brewed and ground and cooked foul-tasting food and drink. A lactation consultant taught me the football, the cradle, and the side-lying holds. A nurse watched me breastfeed just to make sure I was "doing it right." I even took Reglan, which brought plentiful bounties of leaking milk, and helped me breastfeed exclusively and happily for six weeks. But it also greased the skids into a lengthy and severe post-partum depression, which was already burgeoning.

Finally, at my son's three-month appointment, the pediatrician said once again that my baby was significantly underweight, and suggested a permanent switch to formula. I cried buckets of tears. Formula was not an option, I told her. I wanted to be a good mom, to keep nursing, not to give up and fail as a mother. And then she said the magic words. "It's not about breastfeeding. It's about feeding your baby. You're a good mom if you feed your baby."

I won't say the clouds parted and the angels sang. Even if they had, I was in too much physical and emotional pain to notice it. But I knew, on the spot, that what she said was true. If I was failing as a mother, it wasn't because I wasn't breastfeeding my baby. It was because I wasn't feeding him. My fall from nursing grace was immediate. On the way home I loaded up on formula, bottles, and rubber nipples. And just to underscore the change, my baby gorged himself on the new food before falling deeply asleep – a cycle he would continue for days until finally, blessedly, he slept through the night, satisfied instead of hungry. Bonus? My husband was able to feed the baby himself, which gave him the same deep bond that I was finding, finally, myself. Double bonus? Lunch with friends. Running without a stroller tethered to my wrist. Sleeeep. Most of all, I stopped judging myself and others for being a "bad mother" – whatever that means.

So Dairy Queen, I'll give you the same advice: It's about feeding your baby. That might mean breastfeeding, especially if you can find the magic answer that makes it easier for you and more health-giving for your baby. It might mean buying donated milk from a Milk Bank, hiring a wet nurse, or yes, using formula. Whatever your choice, remember that it's not about you feeding your image of an ideal mother: It's about feeding your beloved child.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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