My daughter was born with a rare genetic problem and was whisked away to the Neonatal ICU (NICU) shortly after birth. Seeing her in the NICU for the first time was one of my life’s biggest shocks. She was in an incubator with wires and monitors stuck on her chest, feet, wrists and an oxygen tube under her nose. It wasn’t at all how I imagined motherhood would begin.
My daughter stayed at the hospital for weeks while I went home to an empty-feeling house. The bassinette next to my bed hurt so much to look at that I put it away. We took the car seat out so we wouldn’t have to look at that either. I tried pumping, but it just wasn’t working. I was so stressed that my milk wasn’t flowing well. Nurses told me I should just relax and that would help my milk production, but how could I relax when I was so worried about my little baby? My mom said, “Think about your baby and it will make your milk come down.” When I thought about my baby, I thought of her hooked up to machines and it was like it made my milk freeze. I tried drinking tea with milk-producing herbs and eating food with lots of fenugreek. Everyone had advice for me and I tried their ideas, but nothing seemed to work. I pumped and pumped to try to increase production, but the milk just wouldn’t come. I remember one day, when I had been pumping and pumping and I looked down and there were just a few drops in the bottle. I was sitting there with tears flowing down my face but feeling too exhausted to really cry, and it made me wonder why I was even bothering to try. I felt like a failure as a mother. I felt angry and hurt that my body was betraying me like this. Wasn’t it just a natural thing that is supposed to happen?
Before she was born I had it all planned out how I was going to be the perfect mother and she'd get just breastmilk while we cuddled in a rocking chair sitting in a sunbeam, and GOD FORBID she have a drop of formula. I went to breastfeeding class and read "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding". I knew all the reasons why La Leche League says that breastfeeding is important for babies’ development and I was positive that we wouldn’t have any problems once my daughter and I got used to it. I thought that since my sisters and my mother and my aunts could all breastfeed, then I would be able to breastfeed too. Then life came along and laughed at my plan. Later I learned that breastfeeding hadn’t come so easily or naturally to them as I had thought.
I’ve learned since that a lot of women can’t breastfeed their babies. It is not rare. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s not our fault. Sometimes it just happens, especially to first time moms. Despite what we might think that it’s a new problem or that somehow some moms just aren’t trying hard enough, this has been happening for a long time. Hundreds, even thousands of years ago, women would help each other by feeding each other’s babies. A woman who could afford it might hire a wet-nurse to feed her baby, or sometimes a baby would be fed by their auntie or their mom’s friend. Today, we are lucky enough to have formula that closely mimics breastmilk. There are lots of babies who drink formula and grow up to be healthy, happy, smart adults.
Culturally, there are a lot of people who think they know best and want to judge women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. I’ve had to learn to ignore those people. They’re not in our shoes and they don’t understand. I pumped for as long as I could and my daughter got very little breastmilk. I had to accept that I did my best. After she came home I kept pumping for a while, even though I got very little milk. One day I realized that I was pumping milk and feeling guilty because I was barely getting anything, and I felt guilty because I couldn’t hold my baby while I was pumping. That was the day I decided I was done pumping. I put the pump down, picked up my daughter and realized that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. I had done my best and my daughter would be ok with formula.
Even though my daughter didn’t get breastfed, she got just as much love as other babies. Now I’ve had a second child, and this time around, it has been totally different and I have a ton of milk. Even if you couldn’t breastfeed your newborn doesn’t mean it will be like that with another baby. In fact, I have so much milk this time I’ve been able to pump it to donate to babies whose moms aren’t making milk. If you can’t breastfeed, ask your child’s doctor about getting donated milk for your baby.
If you couldn’t breastfeed you might feel guilty, but you shouldn’t. Sometimes it happens. You don’t need to feel alone or blame yourself. There are lots of us moms who have been there, and although it can be painful to accept, it doesn’t make you any less of a mother. Milk doesn’t make you a mom. Love makes you a mom.
A final thought: I’d encourage you to consider donating milk to a milk bank if your milk does flow with a future child. Be sure to check out the milk bank to be sure it’s a non-profit and that they give the milk to families for just the cost of processing it. Some of the “milk banks” are for-profit and process milk into formula that is sold.
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