Monday, June 9, 2014

Shame and Guilt:Mommy Wars

Once upon a time, I actually was contemplating being a nurse. I thought it would be amazing to be a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. I started taking classes my high school offered that would prepare me for this. One of those classes was Health Occupations. As part of the class, we had to do a shadow project and follow a health care worker around for the day. I called early and managed to snag one of the coveted spots at the labor and delivery unit of the local hospital to shadow the nurses there.

The day I spent there was a whirlwind and a lot of fun to watch. A woman laboring invited me to witness her birth, I got to help in the nursery giving new babies their first "baths", it was a great day...except for one little blip that really bothered me and stayed with me.

There was a young mother getting ready to leave the hospital that day with her baby. I was sitting at the nurses station having a chat with the nurse I'd been shadowing in the nursery asking questions required for my shadow project and another nurse approached.

"The girl in Room 312 is going home in a few minutes...and she is still REFUSING to breast feed. Can you believe it?!" she announced incredulously to the nurses seated at the station.

another nurse that had joined in on my Q&A session spoke up and said:

"Alright, sounds like we need to have another chat."

I then watched as the nurse I'd been shadowing, and three other nurses entered into this girls room and BULLIED her about not wanting to breast feed.

She had her reasons. She was a single mom who worked in a male dominated environment and knew that pumping wasn't going to be a very good option once she went back to work because there wasn't much time to stop and take breaks to do it. She knew legally she had rights to take breaks to pump, but she would rather not have to worry about the hassle of it all.

To me, this made sense...but the nurses kept pushing, bullying, SHAMING her for not being a good mom and doing what was "best" for her baby.

This exchange stuck with me throughout the years.

I understood the importance of breastfeeding. I understood what the baby would be getting, but I didn't see why it was such a big deal that someone DIDN'T breast feed for valid did that make them a "bad mom" (yes, the words "bad mom" were used by those nurses that day) if they were trying to do what worked best for their family and personal situation.

Then, my time to be a mother came.

I had planned on everything being as natural as possible. I didn't want an epidural, I didn't want Pitocin, I wanted to experience everything...

I naively spent hours writing a detailed birthing plan that I gave my midwife and handed in at the hospital when I pre-registered.

Of course, I was planning on breast was natural. It was what I was supposed to do...I had no reason not to.

Then, the Little Diva came over a month early...the birthing plan I had made so painstakingly was null and void. My water had broken, but my body wasn't contracting and I was at high risk for infection...enter the Pitocin drip...Forget about attempting to breast feed within the first hour after birth- Faith was rushed to the NICU before I even had a chance to see her little face with respiratory issues. She ended up on CPAP for the first 8 hours of her life....

Then, the school of hard knocks really began.

There were so many things that I wasn't prepared for...that nobody had told me.

Since I had said I was breast feeding, the nurses hadn't fed Faith at all. I had hemmorhaged and couldn't walk or stand for the first 8 hours after birth because I was on the cusp of needing a transfusion. I couldn't go see her until late the night after I delivered her. Since she was on CPAP they couldn't feed her yet, so they told me they would bring call me in after they could get her on a canula later that night.

Nobody came.

The next morning, a sweet nurse asked if I was ever going to try to feed my baby.

I had been pumping all night trying to get food for them to feed her through a dropper and I wasn't producing ANYTHING.

Nobody had told me that there were different sizes of suction cups for breast pumps, and being well endowed, my awesome pump had turned my nipples to hamburger because the suction cup was too small...

There was problem number 1.

The lactation consultant and nurses banded together, got me the right size suction cups, and encouraged me to keep going....Still...nothing.

Finally, one sweet nurse said we could try to see about latching since Faith was on the nasal canula instead of CPAP, hoping that maybe it would get me to produce to have the natural stimulation.

Again, my well endowed nature worked against me. My breasts were too big to fit into Faith's mouth with a good latch. Every moment we tried again and again to make it work was painful torture with blisters and scabs opening up...and my baby wasn't getting anything.

The idea of a traumatic birth delaying my production was brought up. One nurse brought me a strange device that you put formula into and it attached to your bra, then a long tube extended down the  breast. The baby would still try to latch, but would suck the formula out of the tube until I could start producing milk.

I was still too large to fit into Faith's mouth and the addition of the tube was awkward and frustrating.

Again, I was told I just needed to keep at it.

Faith wasn't eating enough to go home. Finally, in desperation I asked one of the nurses if I could just try to give her a bottle. I was exhausted. I had hemmorhaged, I had been up all night for 2 nights pumping trying to follow the instructions of the lactation consultant and inside the NICU trying to make this breast feeding thing work, and I just wanted to jump over the last hurdle to get my baby home.

The nurse gave me a shpeel about nipple confusion, and I told her I didn't care, I knew she wasn't getting what she needed because we were focusing too much on the breast feeding aspect of things. Sure enough, she devoured a full 30 mL bottle of formula...shocking the nurses...and slept for the next  hours straight... the first sleep I'd gotten since I'd entered the hospital almost 3 days before.

I still would attempt to breast feed and then, after we would fail at yet another attempt, I would top her off with a bottle.

Sure enough, she was able to come home after  4 days instead of after 2 weeks like they had originally thought...all because she was able to eat like she needed to and wanted to...

I went home and continued my crusade. My poor breasts were broken, bleeding, painful to the touch and swollen all the time. I finally started producing, and decided to give up on latching. I was getting almost no sleep in my attempts to get her to latch and it wasn't successful because she couldn't get a good enough latch to get anything out. It also turned out that my little early bird baby was a voracious eater. No matter how much I produced, I was always behind and had to top her off with formula.

Things did get a little better...I went from NO sleep to maybe an hour and a half in a 24 hour period... My body and my baby were completely out of sync. I would just finish pumping, and she would want to eat, which would work out at first, but then, while we was STARVING, she took forever to eat. I would lay her down almost 2 hours later, and I would need to pump again...and the cycle would start over.

Finally, in desperation to produce more milk so I could be a "good mom" and stop having to top her off with formula, I followed the instructions of a lactation consultant and purchased the herbs that were supposed to increase your milk supply...


I AND my baby ended up covered in hives- we were allergic to one or all of them. A call to the doctor revealed that I would have to throw out any milk I'd produced since starting the herbs and that I would have to continue to throw out anything I pumped for the next week to be sure they were out of my system...

Anyone who said there is no reason to cry over spilled milk never had to dump out six 30 mL bottles full of breast milk and face the idea of having to throw out everything they worked to pump after that for a week...

Tired, broken, in that point, after 3 weeks of trying to make it work, I decided to stop breast feeding. It just wasn't going to work.

I already felt bad enough...I knew formula was going to be an extra expense, I knew that breast milk was what was going to be "best" for my baby because that is what everyone had pounded into my head...and of course, when I reached out to fellow mommy friends, I was met with another much SHAME.

I was being selfish. It would get better. I could make it work if I really wanted to, I just wasn't trying hard enough. Had I called my local La Leche League? They could help give me more pointers. If not, I most certainly hadn't done EVERYTHING I could do. I just COULDN'T stop...PERISH THE THOUGHT! My declaration that I was giving up after 3 weeks of hell for my own sanity, so I could be a better mom, so I could enjoy my baby, was akin to having killed a baby seal on national television to the people that I thought were my friends...

Fortunately, I had a supportive family and husband who had watched me struggle through the last three weeks and were completely on board and helpful in any way they could be.

I decided to ignore the nay sayers and detach myself from them for a while, and focus on learning to enjoy my baby and finding a way to get caught up on sleep so I could feel like a normally functioning human again...

A breast exam by my midwife at my 6 week post partum check up revealed that my breast anatomy is actually slightly askew. I was told that no matter what it would likely always take longer for me to produce anything and I would likely have difficulty producing period.

When I found out a few months later that Phillie had surprised us and was on her way, I was dreading my decision...I didn't know what I was going to do.

I definitely didn't want a repeat of what had happened with Faith, and the realization that I would have a 10 month old AND a newborn to take care of weighed heavily.

My older sister was an amazing voice of reason. She calmed me as best as she could when the subject came up. She said to just try and see what happened and that I knew better where my breaking point was going to be this time...that I was prepared to deal with the public opinion because I'd been through it if I decided it just wasn't going to work.

The day came. Phillie arrived. I learned from my previous experience. There was no birth plan. No expectations. After going through 4 weeks of contractions that weren't causing any change, I was scheduled for an induction at 39 weeks ON THE DOT.

Everything went smoothly. I didn't tear, didn't hemmorhage...and Phillie slept through the entire first night of her life (she had a large head and probably a very large headache. The nurses said to not be surprised if she didn't stir since she was probably sleeping off the pain as the swelling in her head went down.)

I had also learned to say that I was going to do "both" when it came to breast or bottle. Of course, I was met with a shpeel about nipple confusion, but the nurses grudgingly brought some bottles of formula in for me to use should the need arise.

I attempted to get Phillie to latch...and, again, we had the same problem...her mouth was too small and I was too large...and of course, there was nothing coming out...

Since Phillie was eager to try to latch, I would try to get as good a latch as I could and let her suckle until frustration of not being satiated would settle in, and then switch to the bottle. I had figured that this would be better than being up all night trying to pump every 45 minutes.

My last day in the hospital, I had a knock at the door. In walked the lactation consultant...smug, and very proud of herself she announced, " I hear you say you're going to do both breast AND bottle...well, that just isn't going to work. I'm here to help you because you NEED to breast feed and breast feed only..."

I sat in shock for a moment.

Finally I said, "If you have any extra tips, I will happily take them. I just know what my body will and won't do. I don't even have colostrum right now. I'm letting the baby latch as best as I can to stimulate production but I know she is going to need a bottle at the end if I don't want her to starve to death."

The lactation consultant walked towards me, "That is just ridiculous. You have something. You HAVE to have SOMETHING."

She moved my baby down on the bed, and quickly reached out and grabbed my nipple, squeezing as HARD as she could for what felt like an eternity...squeezing every which way to try to get some colostrum to come out and determined to prove to this lesser individual (me) that she was dead wrong...she didn't even ask for my permission to touch me.

Finally, after the shock and horror wore off I asked her to stop and she said, "Hmmm...I guess you don't have anything...well, let's work on that latch then so we can be sure that you're stimulating production the RIGHT way." she said very condescendingly.

I showed her what I was doing. A technique the lactation consultant I'd had with Faith taught me in order to try to encourage the baby to get the nipple and as much of the surrounding skin as possible in an attempt to get a good latch.

"Oh, NO NO NO! That is ALL wrong."

She then proceeded to try to show me a very awkward, very ineffective way to get a good latch that wasn't going to work with my well endowed status.

"There," she said, so proud of herself, "Isn't that better?"

"No, actually, its worse. She has all nipple and no surrounding skin. At least she had some skin in her mouth when I was doing it the way they taught me with my first." I said, eager to get a little of my own back since this woman's obvious aim was to humiliate and shame me into submission...

She then proceeded to try again, each latch getting worse and worse. Finally, she reached out and grabbed my breast again, this time doing the EXACT SAME THING I had done.

"That's what I was doing already." I said.

"Well, " she said, "YOU can't do it because you don't have the vantage point that I do. It will be more effective if I do it and you keep practicing that technique I have been trying to teach you. Right now, I just want to get this baby latched." She said smugly.

"How is that?"

"Mmmm, better." I felt exactly the same as it had when I had done it...but I just wanted this woman OUT of my room.

She got up and said, "Well, keep at it...and I don't think you should use the bottle. You never know when you'll start to get something in and I would hate for there to be nipple confusion keeping you from being successful..." followed by a shpeel about why formula was so evil and bad and breast milk was so superior...

We came home from the hospital that evening.

Upon seeing me walk up the stairs to my apartment, Faith saw me and started to wail and scream. She hadn't seen me in 2 1/2 days...and, right on cue, Phillie let out a banshee roar to let me know she was hungry.

I had a screaming baby in a car seat on the floor and a screaming baby in my arms that just wanted to snuggle her mamma...

I handed Faith to my mom, took Phillie back to the bedroom for some privacy and then proceeded to have a panic attack...

My mother, knowing something wasn't right, had handed Faith off and joined me in my bedroom.

I was struggling. Wrestling with guilt and shame over the very idea that I wouldn't want to try to MAKE this work...breast feeding was natural. It was something that I was supposed to be able to do. I was a big fat failure..

Lactation Consultant lady had succeeded. I was feeling fully ashamed for my "selfish" thoughts.

My mother stroked my back and held my screaming infant. After a bit, she took Phillie out of the room and asked my mother in law to make a bottle and feed her and returned to me...shaking, in tears, unable to breathe or move...

and then she said, "Brittany, you have to ask yourself this question: Is breast feeding more important than being the best mom you can be to BOTH of your kids. If you're going to have a break down, I think you know the answer to that and you shouldn't feel guilty. It just doesn't work for some women and that is okay. You need to be the best mom and wife that you can be and if you're too focused on this one aspect of it, then you're going to miss everything that matters."

As she spoke, I calmed and I realized how right she was. Yes, nutritionally, breast milk was best, but emotionally, physically, I was going to be a wreck fighting to MAKE it happen for one child, and in the process I was going to miss out on time that my other child needed, that my husband needed. I couldn't spend weeks taxed and worried about making this work. Nature had put me at a disadvantage, but it didn't make me less of a mother...or even a bad mom. My baby would still be fed, diapered, bathed, and loved. It didn't matter what was in her tummy as long as she was healthy.

And with that, I dried my tears and decided to stop feeling guilty, to stop letting all the other voices shame me. It was MY choice and I was making the best choice I could make for my family as a whole...a choice that would allow me to function as a mom of two infants and be able to function as a wife and home maker at the same time....

In the end, Phillie had the worst type of reflux a baby could have. Even if I had struggled to "make it work", I would have had to stop because the only way to avoid surgery for her reflux was a switch to AR formula and giving her the strongest reflux meds a doctor could prescribe an infant in a rather large dose.

So...why am I bringing this up? Why the long preamble to share my story (especially because it may be TMI for some people...and for that I apologize)?

In the last few weeks, I've had several friends voice their intention to stop breast feeding for one reason or another and I have been truly sickened and saddened to watch them go through much of what I did...

Comments from well meaning "friends" shaming them for their decision, begging them to reconsider...or even their own statements saying that they felt like complete total and udder failures for making the decision to stop... emotionally pained that their child easily took a bottle and slept well for the first time since they came home from the hospital.

I understand that a few years ago, the statistics on breast feeding were grim and more and more moms were opting to bottle feed...I understand that ideally, you want to be able to breast feed because for the first 6 months it allows the baby a chance to get extra antibodies from mom to help keep them healthy...

but I also understand that we don't live in a perfect world...and things don't always work the same way for everyone...

WHY then are we allowing ourselves to be shamed for making decisions that work best for our families as moms? Why are we allowing ourselves to be shamed, to feel shame and guilt, when we bravely, openly admit that something just won't work for us? Why do we shame someone else or try to guilt them into going against what they know is right in their hearts?

I know the breast feeding debate is just another facet of the "mommy wars"...but let's get real...Do you get a medal for making it work? don't. Yes, some statistics somewhere say that breast fed babies are healthier and don't have ear infections...blah blah blah...

Both of my kids were mostly formula fed. Neither has ever had an ear infection in their life so far and the only illness we've ever dealt with was RSV in the winter of 2012...which was running rampant and MANY kids got it...

Yes, you don't want to ignore data, but you also shouldn't ignore your heart.

You are NOT less of a mother if you don't breast feed. You are not less of a mother if you can't breast feed...

What kind of a message does that send to adoptive mothers who have no other choice but formula?

What kind of message does that send to mothers who anatomically have issues that prevent them from breast feeding?

Immediately, when well meaning people ask me about my breast feeding experience and I say that I stopped early, there are looks of condescension and the conversation quickly moves on...

I do not deserve to be vilified for making a choice that worked best for MY family.

My friends in the last few weeks that have had to stop for various reasons don't deserve to be vilified either. They made a noble effort. Their choice to stop was a choice made out of love. A choice that allowed them to be the best mother that they could be for ALL of their children, and the best wife they could be for their husband.

We need to end the culture of shaming that occurs around breast feeding on BOTH ends. People complain all the time that they don't get tolerance to breast feed in public... Well, here is my complaint that I don't receive tolerance for having to make the tough choice not to breast feed because nature has decided to work against me...

Why can't we all just get along and admit that everyone is the best mom they can be as long as they are trying as hard as they can to meet all the needs of their growing families?

Nobody is perfect. Nature didn't bless everyone...and nobody is exempt from having life throw you a curve ball.

Yes, by all means, we need to be supportive...but there is a fine line between supportive and condescending.

Yes, you can suggest that a woman thinking about stopping visit with a lactation consultant or a rep from the La Leche League, but you don't need to imply that if she chooses not to do so that she hasn't done all that she can do to try to make it work if she did try... you don't live her life, in her don't see what her struggles are and you don't see the painstaking hours she has spent going back and forth about her decision.

Yes, you can suggest someone at least give it a try if they aren't planning to breast feed period...but the same logic applies...maybe she has a demanding job and she knows that, while legally they have to give her breaks to pump, its just not practical...Maybe she wants her husband/partner to be more involved and feels that sharing the feeding duties is a good way to encourage that bonding? You don't fully know her heart, her thoughts, or her situation.

To my friends that breast feed, I love you! You are amazing! Congratulations on being able to make it work. I am so excited for you and your family.

To my friends that don't, I love you! You are amazing! Congratulations on being able to make a decision that works best for you and your family! I am excited for you too.

To my friends contemplating giving up because its just not working. You are amazing! Look at you try! There is NO SHAME in stopping if its just not working. You are your own best gauge about whether or not you've tried all you can, and its completely your choice. Fortunately, your baby doesn't have to starve because there are nutrient filled options and you can work to find the one that works best for your baby and their digestive tract. You're not a bad mom, or a monster for considering it. If you decide to soldier on, I support you in that as well and hope that you find success quickly.

I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that I said something to the effect of:
I breast fed, I bottle fed, and it didn't matter because they all ended up eating the same french fries off the floor of my minivan and was like "thanks for cleaning"....

In the end, kids are still going to be kids.

The ultimate gauge of what kind of mom you are, good or bad, is going to rely heavily on what they think, and I can tell you that 99.9% of kids think their mom is the best mom ever no matter what...

Take comfort in that.

As I get ready to have another baby and contemplate whether or not I am going to attempt to breast feed again, I think about that often.

She isn't going to remember that I breast fed her, but she is going to remember the time I spent with her and my attitude.

If the best mom I can be is one that doesn't breast feed because I know I need to sleep, or I know nature hasn't exactly blessed me in that department, or I'm sick of getting mastitis every month without fail, or they have teeth and are biting me and I can't get them to stop no matter what I do...then I am okay with that.

I would rather enjoy my kids than stress over one aspect of their upbringing for months, making myself sick, tired and exhausted.

The only medals for motherhood are the ones we give ourselves in our own minds. We all have a journey to travel as mothers. We all have choices to make. We shouldn't shame or make one another feel guilty for making different choices because that is all they are: different choices for different families who lead different lives.

Hugs and loves until next time, darlings.

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