“’Breast is best.’
This was the mantra playing over and over again in my head as I sat in the Obstetrics Emergency Room, four floors below my baby’s room in the NICU.
This was the mantra I tried to cling to as I sat there with engorged breasts and nipples covered in blisters so bad the doctor said it was the worst case she’d ever seen.
This was the mantra I wanted so desperately to live by as I cried hysterically over the pain, not to mention the fact easing the pain meant spending precious time away from my sick baby.
This mantra made me feel like a bad mom. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I decided I would breastfeed. I was praised for this decision and told I was doing the right thing. Why? Because ‘breast is best.’
This is the attitude surrounding how babies should be fed and no one is really talking about how dangerous this pressure can be to a new mom’s mental health. I was prepared to breastfeed. What I was not prepared for, started the day after my daughter was born.
Imagine the best thing to ever happen to you – the absolute bliss of your new baby girl in your arms. You carried her and fed her and grew her for nine months and she was finally here. Now imagine her being taken right out of your arms. Imagine being told later it was a seizure she had in those arms. Imagine frantically packing all of your things and rushing out of the hospital barely 24 hours after giving birth, driving two hours to a more advanced hospital.
Imagine seeing your day-old baby with tubes up her nose and down her throat, needles in her tiny arms, monitors on her chest and head. Imagine having just pushed an almost nine-pound baby out of you one day and sleeping in a hospital chair in the NICU the next day. Imagine the mental state you might be in. Do you imagine your mental state would get better after being judged for your decision to switch to formula?
This was my experience as a first-time mom. My baby girl was sent almost straight to the NICU. I’d heard how breastfeeding would be a bonding experience with my baby, which I didn’t get. It wasn’t my baby I got to bond with. It was my breast pump. It wasn’t little cries waking me at night. It was my alarm.
I’d sit alone in a dark corner of a room, hook myself up to a machine, and watch as liquid was forced out of my breasts while liquid flowed freely out of my eyes. At the hospital, while my boyfriend stood at our baby’s crib, I was alternating between running to the bathroom for postpartum care and sitting down to pump.
I’d stare at her crib longingly, wanting her to know me, afraid she’d start to think her mama had abandoned her. I cried some more. I spent so much time crying. And still, I was praised for my milk output. Breast is best.
About a week and a half later, we were still in the NICU (with no clue we’d still be there months later) when I confided in a nurse about how much pain I was in. She arranged for the lactation consultant to come, who took one look at my boobs and told me I needed to go down to the ER. It looked like I was growing boils out of my nipples.
Laying in the emergency room alone, I broke down. I just couldn’t do it any more. I was in severe pain, I was so sad, and all I wanted was to be with my baby. I felt like a prisoner in my body and I felt so guilty for feeling this way. Because I’d been made to think if I didn’t pump out milk, I was depriving her of the best. Even as I was sent away with a concoction of ointments for my diseased looking and leaky boobs, I was told not to worry, I could still pump. I never wanted to pump again and it made me a bad mom.
Except it didn’t. I was told breast was best. But what about what was best for me? What about what was best for my situation? Could I really be called selfish? A brand new mom going from birth to walking to the NICU every day to see her newborn?
Might I add I never got the ‘take it easy’ time suggested for the early days of postpartum. Not meaning rest because any mom can tell you there is not a moment of rest, but physically I was doing way too much. Emotionally I was beyond drained. Mentally I was stretched thin between looking up information on my daughter’s condition and making daily phone calls about insurance. Trying to please, oh please just hold it together in front of these doctors. So again I ask, could I be called selfish? Because I was.
I made an honest Facebook post about what I was going through, which included I had decided to switch to formula. I was not expecting someone to comment I hadn’t tried hard enough before giving up with breastfeeding and my boobs would toughen up. Mom guilt starts the day your sweet baby is born and comes out all the time. I was overwhelmed with it when I read the comment. I wasn’t tough enough. I had failed my baby. I was a bad mom.
But I wasn’t. Breastfeeding is great and works for some moms, but there are so many situations and so many moms who it just isn’t ideal for. And it is okay. And we need to be saying it more. And louder. It is okay to formula feed your baby. Moms judge themselves harshly enough, second guessing and criticizing themselves and constantly thinking those magic words, ‘Am I a good mom?’
We don’t need the outside world chiming in on it, nor do we need to perpetuate the idea a good mom does this, this, and this and if you don’t do those things then it makes you one of those ‘bad moms.’ I was shamed for formula feeding while I cried every day as my baby laid in a NICU crib. I was shamed for how I chose to feed my baby.
I’m in a much more stable frame of mind now, so I know this was wrong. But in the early days of our NICU journey I was so fragile, so desperate to be a good mom in any way I possibly could. And this is why I say it is dangerous – this mantra, this mentality. Breast is not best for everyone. You are a mom, but you are a person too, and your mental health matters.
If you are crying every time you look at a pump then breast might not be best. If your boobs are becoming engorged because you work a full-time job and don’t have time to pump during the day then breast might not be best. If you end up in an ER sprouting blisters from your nipples then, well, breast just might not be best.
And if you need validation for your feelings, then I will give it to you. Your feelings are valid and you, mama, are valued. Two and a half months later, my baby is still in the hospital, but I spend all my time holding her and playing with her. I am no longer strapped to a machine. I’m not in daily physical pain. I don’t regret my decision to stop breastfeeding. I have a new mantra now, one given to me by my favorite NICU nurse: ‘Fed is best.'”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessyca Thibault. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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