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Bettina’s Story

I share my story because I hope that my personal experience can help someone avoid the conflicted feelings I had about breastfeeding and consequently, the tumultuous start I had with my first child. I also hope that it leads to more understanding for mothers on the fence, so that we are cheering them on instead of hitting them over the head with the benefits of breastfeeding–which only makes women who are caught between a rock and a hard place feel worse. Most of all, I hope there is a way we can all learn to support each other so that women who can’t or choose to not to breastfeed don’t feel guilty, and women who do breastfeed aren’t made to feel like social outcasts. All mothers want the best for their babies! Here is my story:

I did not want to breastfeed, and I sure wasn’t going to tell anyone.

 After all, I came from a European family of dyed-in-the-wool breastfeeders, and I felt that such an admission would only invite serious disapproval at best, and brow-beating at worst. I fit the profile of the college-educated, middle-class woman who is likely to breastfeed, and so my friends simply took it for granted that I would follow suit. “You are going to breastfeed aren’t you?” they said. Of course, I replied in the affirmative, cheerfully going along with debates like how long and whether to nurse in public or not. I was definitely not going to do it until my kid could lift my shirt and shout “I want boobies” in public places. I thought it safe to say that I would breastfeed for six months, and would then switch to formula. Not being very educated about the specific recommendations and benefits of breastfeeding, six months seemed like a respectable amount of time. More importantly, most people seemed satisfied with that number and the conversation about breastfeeding duration would end, happily for me. Secretly, however, I still held on to the dim hope that some obscure but not too dreadful disease or condition would rescue me from having to breastfeed at all.

Why didn’t I really want to breastfeed? Sure, I knew vaguely that there were benefits and had heard the slogan “breast is best.” But those benefits didn’t seem that pressing to me, compared with my more immediate concerns and general squeamishness: would I become permanently attached to the baby with no time to myself? Would it hurt? What was going to happen to my perky 34Bs? Perhaps that sounds selfish or superficial to some; but I have found it to be a secret common refrain among expecting moms. After all, I was an older mom-to-be who had worked on Wall Street for 10 years and lived a single life remote from babies and motherhood–a life of enjoying New York culture, entertaining, shopping, traveling and volunteering. As much as I wanted kids, I was afraid of giving up the life that I knew and the identity I had created. As for doing what was supposedly “natural”, I read that word as earthy-crunchy– which I was definitely not! “Natural” definitely did not sound glamorous, fashionable, savvy, smart, successful or sexy; all attributes to which I aspired. Besides, despite my German roots, I had become a product of the U.S. culture, where bottle-feeding is the norm. I couldn’t conceive of using my breasts for what they were made for, I only knew them as outfitted in La Perla! Finally, I had always been chagrined when I saw a woman nursing in public, and everything I knew about breastfeeding didn’t fit the image I was striving to project.

Still, I put on a good front. At least until a dear friend suggested I come help her with her new baby to learn the ropes, and handed me a bottle of warmed-up, pumped breastmilk to feed her newborn while she went to the doctor. My first thought was “yuck!” Hopefully she didn’t see the look of horror on my face when she proceeded to check the milk’s temperature and then lick the drops of breastmilk off her wrist.

When my son, Raymond, was born, I was still hoping that some rare ”condition” would magically appear that would absolve me of breastfeeding. No such luck. So, there I was, a basket case after a very traumatic and rough delivery (for both my son and I), this perfect being nestled in my arms and getting hungry, and I was still not sure how I was going to feed him. My lack of resolve about breastfeeding meant that I hadn’t prepared myself for this moment. I didn’t know anything about the importance of an immediate latch, feeding cues, expressing milk or the like. Months before, I turned a deaf ear to the urgent pleas of my best friend, Danielle, to take a breastfeeding class and speak to a lactation consultant before giving birth. Danielle had also advised me to hire a labor doula which probably would have made the birth much less traumatic. Here was a woman I trusted completely, and yet I failed to follow her guidance twice! In short, I dismissed all of these suggestions, telling myself that women have been giving birth and nursing their infants for thousands of years and, surely, this wasn’t necessary. I also relied heavily on the notion that if I did have a change of heart and want to breastfeed, the hospital nurses would surely teach me all there is to know.

My awkward position on the breastfeeding fence and reliance on the “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” philosophy, yielded disastrous results. The nurses’ varying breastfeeding advice and positions made me dizzy. Whenever I rang the bell, a nurse appeared and unceremoniously yanked, flattened and shoved my swollen boobs, which seem to have become public property (I now know that all good LCs ask for permission first, and try to help you maneuver a latch by yourself). My once very private, tender and perfect prized possessions were quite shocked and offended. I remember sitting hunched over my screaming son, trying to dangle my nipple into his mouth like a fish hook, sweating bullets, angry and frustrated and miserably depressed, all the while being admonished for my posture by the next nurse rotation.

By check-out time I was panicked. Not only did I have to take this newborn baby home that I had no idea how to care for, but I could not seem to get him to latch by myself and time was running out. Raymond had developed jaundice, which scared the daylights out of me (I now know that normal newborn jaundice occurs in 64% of infants) and the pediatrician on-call advised that I supplement with formula. (which may not have been indicated–see Common Breastfeeding Issues–Jaundice for eye-opening info), I was also experiencing post-partum depression (it was early 2001, pre-Andrea Yates and the greater understanding of PPD). I had already visualized Raymond’s little white coffin and how devastated his grandfather and namesake would be. However, as soon as I started supplementing, a strange thing happened: I suddenly wasn’t sure that I was so happy about quitting breastfeeding after all. Luckily, a brave nurse sensed my indecision, stood up to her colleagues, and suggested I get help from an outside, non-hospital lactation consultant. She even arranged to postpone my check-out time so that I could see one while still in the hospital. I am grateful to that great nurse to this day.

The lactation consultant I saw in the hospital was top-notch but scared the daylights out of me. She tried to show me how to express milk manually but it nearly put me over the deep end with revulsion, I mean, COME ON! I started to panic as she demonstrated feeding tubes and finger nipples, logs and check-lists, and creams and pillows and pumps. I was overwhelmed.

My mother and husband carted us home, baby in the car seat and me — a basket case. That first night was hellacious. With zero recovery from the difficult birth under my belt, I bolted upright every hour to “supplement” the baby with formula (the LC had said every two hours, so I was determined to double his intake and thereby ensure that his jaundice was cured–it never occurred to me that he could probably only drink the same amount). I fed him the formula from a little cup, fretted about my dwindling milk production and visualized more tragic scenes. I also noticed that the formula smelled awful, and so did my son’s poop! It started to dawn on me that maybe breastfeeding wasn’t so bad. Maybe I was still squeamish about nursing, but I was also squeamish about giving my baby something completely artificial. It was an awful place to be. I started to hate myself for having not wanted to breastfeed, but didn’t know if I could surmount the difficulties I was having. I felt trapped and an utter failure.

The next day a local lactation consultant came, as well as my incredible sister-in-law whose gentle, non-judgmental presence and positive example (she breastfed both her children, one with that nightmare finger tube contraption) provided just the right soothing support. My first revelation came in being assured that Raymond was perfectly capable of breastfeeding. My second awakening came when my sister-in-law and the lactation consultant showed me how to use the electric breastpump, and praised the trickle of “liquid gold” (colostrum), that I produced. For the first time, the door I had slammed shut in my mind about breastfeeding opened a tiny bit, to let a little light of wonder in. Here was tangible proof, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had the stuff to feed my little babe. Finally, I felt something other than dread and guilt about breastfeeding. I actually felt a little bit of pride and excitement over what my body could do, and saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Slowly but surely I began to make this crazy breastfeeding thing work. I was able to drop the formula completely after just two days at home.

Bettina and Ava and Ray

Bettina and Ava and Ray

For the next two weeks, my amazing mother (who would take the shirt off her back for her children and grandchildren, and yes, I realize I am very lucky!), helped me with the night shift while my husband slept on the couch. She slept next to me in the king bed and woke with me, sometimes every hour (a normal feeding pattern for stretches of the day for a newborn – See our sections Breastfeeding Booby Traps and the Learning Curve for more about when to nurse), to prop me up in bed, position the breastfeeding pillow, help me latch Raymond, run to fetch me sandwiches and OJ for my ravenous hunger and thirst, change little Raymond who invariably pooped in his diapers mid-feed, roll him back up in his blanket like a burrito, and help me lay back down. She also comforted and soothed me as I cried. I not only had post-partum depression, but the “let-down,” or milk ejection reflex as it is clinically known, was so excruciatingly painful it felt as if my breasts were being stabbed each and every time I nursed (by the way, this is rare and does get better), Every day I swore I would only nurse until Sunday. Every Sunday I swore only one more week. Every night at sundown I cried, inexplicably mourning the end of the day and dreading night time. I cried with relief when my husband walked in the door after work. I cried when my mother went home to North Carolina (I lived in New Jersey), came back, and went home again. I cried when my son would not nap or sleep, and when he wailed from abdominable pain. I wondered if he had colic (now I know that he was initially lactose sensitive to the formula I used). I cried wondering if I had already ruined him through my awful birth experience and poor breastfeeding start. I cried over the crushingly huge responsibility of learning to be a parent. And so the days and weeks snailed by.

I saw a psychiatrist for my post-partum depression, but she would not prescribe medication while I was nursing (check with your doctor, protocols have changed), so I had an agonizing decision to make. I considered pumping a month’s supply so that Raymond could get at least a little more breastmilk. But could I give up nursing when I had worked so hard? Friends and family members sympathized, encouraged me to go on anti-depressants, and generally let me off the hook. Finally I had the medical excuse I had looked for to give up. (It reminded me that one should be careful of what one wishes for, because the psychotic visions, one of the worst features of severe post-partum depression, are decidedly unpleasant and quite frightening.) So I teetered back and forth. Being of the stubborn variety, the fact that I had “an out” only made me more determined. Too many people had made it too easy for me to quit, so of course I dug in my heels. And then, I wasn’t ready to give up when I had worked so hard. There were also the benefits as I saw them. I was too lazy to do dishes and sterilize bottles. I had also noticed that the uncomfortable “let down” was also accompanied by a feeling of soothing contentment. More importantly, my overwhelming and out-of-proportion feelings of guilt and fear were being balanced out by the bonding and pride I felt when nursing. Nursing was also a physical and emotional release and I knew that the hormones were actually helping my post-partum depression to go away. I was reluctant to let that go. I feared having regrets. And, finally, I just plain loved watching my son close to me, skin-to-skin, in sheer bliss. One of my favorite memories to this day is when my mother pointed out to me how brand-new Raymond would start to quiver with joy and excitement as I unbuttoned my shirt. I loved seeing my son nurse deeply, as his eyelids lowering in pleasure, as he serenely drifted off to sleep, drunk with milk, my milk. I loved that the last dribble of breastmilk on the corner of his mouth smelled perfectly (not too) sweet and that it made him smell delicious. I also was sure that since I had no idea if I would be a good parent or a lousy parent, the least I could do was to give my child this one gift of health and bonding. I never wanted to face a day when he might have an illness that I could have protected him against, at least partially, by breastfeeding long enough.

So, I discussed it with my husband, and we decided to make breastfeeding a big priority. Luckily, my husband Patrick is the type who just wants me to be happy, so he was going to support me with whatever I thought best. I let a lot of things in the house go so that I could get more sleep, and he pitched in even more. We made financial decisions to postpone other plans and hired part-time help so I could at least get a nap twice a week. I know lots of moms who can do it without, but I was not one of those.

Being still somewhat private or shy I did not breastfeed in public. I went to great pains to bring a bottle of expressed milk to any social event, and when necessary, I nursed Raymond in department store changing rooms or in dark corners underneath forgotten stairwells. I found hidden spots in the World Financial Center, my former working grounds, and always brought a sling or blanket to cover myself, just in case. I knew breastfeeding made some people uncomfortable, as it had always made me before I was pregnant, so I went out of my way to be considerate. (I did not then, and still don’t, identify with the militant, bare-it-all breastfeeder.) I was so anxious to please, which had the unfortunate side effect of making me all the more vulnerable to criticism and disapproval. The inevitable occasion arose when my husband was taken aside and asked to please tell me to not breastfeed at the table at an upcoming luncheon at the family’s country club. At first I was crushed that anyone would think that I would be so ill-mannered when I had tried so hard to be a “good girl”, always proper, always attuned to “bring your own bottle” etiquette. Then I became indignant. Who should dictate when and where I should feed my baby? Why should I be stuck with a dirty bathroom? Being of the feisty variety, encounters such as these only fuelled my determination. The more I sensed judgment about my decision to breastfeed, the more I began to educate myself so as to better defend myself.

I nursed Raymond, one-day and one-week at time, and reached my original deadline of six months. By that time, he was on a regular feeding schedule, my nipples had toughened up, I had gained self-confidence, my post-partum depression had eased, and everything had started to fall into place. In fact, breastfeeding had actually become easy and convenient. But now that I had turned the corner, I discovered I was loathe to give it up. Maybe I had worked too hard and come too far. Maybe I had finally come to appreciate all the many gifts of breastfeeding my son. I was grateful to have the perfect cure-all, magic bullet, anytime soother on hand for my irritable, persnickety and non-sleeping son, especially after vaccinations, and during a scary visit to the emergency room with croup (we were weaning but after the inhalers were used he was so miserable that I gave in and put him to the boob – which calmed him instantly.) Breastfeeding also made traveling more manageable, especially during flight take-offs and landing, when I could keep my son latched on, quiet, and moving his jaw much longer than with a bottle. Raymond rarely got sick but when he did, it just made me feel better to be able to nurse him–at least I was able to do some small thing to make him feel better, to comfort him, to make him happy. The worst emotion as a parent is helplessness when your child is suffering, and breastfeeding always soothed him. I decided to continue my almost exclusive breastfeeding until I got pregnant again. We started trying when Raymond was a year old. After a few months with no results, I decided to wean Raymond. I was 38 and felt that I couldn’t really wait much longer. Raymond was 16 months, it was spring, and even though it seemed like a good time I still felt sad to give it up. I videotaped him nursing so I would always be able to remember our special time together, our trip to hell and back. Once I stopped breastfeeding Raymond, we got pregnant again fairly quickly so there was another nursing baby to look forward to. And the story of my second child is very short: I did my homework, prepared myself, and lined up my A-team, including an awesome ob/gyn, hospital, doula and lactation consultant. I enjoyed a natural, unmedicated birth, immediate latch by an alert baby, hardly any breastfeeding problems, all of which were easily resolved with a phone call to an LC, and a blissful, wonderful experience! Believe it or not, I nursed my second child for 2 ½ years, something I never would have been able to imagine, nor would have wanted to do if you had asked me when I was pregnant the first time. Just goes to show that all things are possible.