It’s World Breastfeeding Week, so I felt compelled to share this now. This post has been incredibly difficult to start writing. I just have so many intense emotions about my first breastfeeding journey with my daughter, I don’t even know where to start. Even now, I’m surprised by the hot, angry tears rolling down my face as I recall the pain and frustration that I went through.
Ultimately, the system let me down. I did the preparation. I took the breastfeeding class at the hospital. I read all about successful breastfeeding. I got advice from friends who were successful at breastfeeding. Everything I read and everyone I encountered just said “If something isn’t working, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.” That was the back-up plan. Educated professionals would be able to help me through if I had issues. I would put my faith and trust in them.
Like I said, the system let me down.
I learned the painful way that you absolutely have to be your own advocate – I didn’t realize that I needed to know how to diagnose and solve my own breastfeeding problems. Pediatricians are not trained in infant feeding – and I quickly found that mine were no help at all. And lactation consultants are not all created equal. It took me 3 lactation consultants, 2 occupational therapists, and hundreds of dollars before I figured out what the issue was. And yes I said I. Because I was the one who ultimately had to figure out the issue, and seek the appropriate care. But by the time I did, it was too late for our nursing relationship.
Where did I finally find help? There’s a plain stark room tucked away in a church in a suburb of Atlanta. Inside, every week, a group of new mothers convenes with the tiniest of humans, hoping to glean some comfort and confidence in their journey. We go around the circle introducing ourselves and our babies. Some babies are being bounced in wraps, some are giggling on their tummies on the floor. Some are nursing happily while others are nursing angrily, while others are tucking into a bottle. Mothers get up and down to weigh their babies before and after their feeds, anxiously waiting to see how many ounces were (or weren’t) guzzled down. A lactation consultant walks around and helps with positioning and latching, and then the floor is open for questions. The first rule is always to answer a question with more questions. How old is your baby? What have you already attempted? What is your goal?
That last one is the most important question. What is your goal?
In my 5 tumultuous weeks of new mommy postpartum haze, no one had ever asked me this question until now. In fact, my goals didn’t seem to matter to any of the professionals I had seen. They placated me with empty compliments and made false assumptions. You’re going back to work anyways, so at least she’s drinking well from a bottle. (But I want her to nurse). Exclusive pumping isn’t sustainable long-term, so don’t be afraid if you have to give formula. (But I don’t want to give formula). Using an SNS is too much work, just stick with the bottle. (I am willing to do whatever work it takes, don’t discount my willpower). Everything they said seemed to be said for the purpose of assuaging the guilt that they assumed I had. They were trying to let me off the hook. But I didn’t want them to make me feel better or to let me off the hook – I wanted them to help me meet my goals. When the advice you give is not tailored to a person’s goals, then you will fail them. Plain and simple. And for the record, I had zero guilt. My failure is theirs; the guilt should be on them.
And who finally suggested the answer I had been looking for all along? Another mother who had the same issue. I can vividly remember the words coming out of her mouth, and the wave of relief and realization that struck me at that moment. That’s exactly it. That sounds like the only explanation. Why hasn’t anyone else told me this? And now you’re telling me there might be an answer?
This was my mistake: relying on the stories of people who had been successful at breastfeeding. Sure they had encountered the usual hiccups, and had warned me about those. But once things got on the right track for them, it was mostly smooth sailing. What I had needed all along was someone who had struggled. Struggled so fiercely that they had retaliated by learning every single thing there was to know about breastfeeding. They’ve been there, in the most desperate hour of the night, struggling to feed their hungry child. It’s these mothers, the ones who struggled, and yet overcame, who have the answers. Because they’ll fight for you. They’ll fight for your goals. They’ll help you find the answer even if they don’t know it off hand. These are the women you need in your village, in your corner.
Don’t be surprised if you’re just a few days postpartum, coming off of your hormonal high, and you get a message from me checking in to see how it’s going. I can’t help but wonder if you’re in a place where you need help. Where all you need is someone to reach out and offer it. I never set out to be a breastfeeding advocate, but that’s where my struggle has led me. To be fiercely passionate about this brief moment in time in a mother’s life, when a multitude of forces are working against her, and no one’s asking about her goals. 85% of new mothers want to breastfeed exclusively for 3 months or more, yet only 32% meet their goal. That many women not meeting their goals is not a result of individual failures – it’s a wholesale failure of the system.
In the long run, I was able to exclusively provide breastmilk for my daughter for 16 months. But the path was nothing like I imagined. Most of you probably have no interest in all of the ins and outs of lactation, so I’ll save it for my next post for those of you who are. (This is your fair warning not to read it if you don’t want to hear any talk about nipples). At the end of the day, all I hope is that it helps someone else meet their goals, whether you want to nurse for 3 months or 24; I’m in your corner.