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What I Finally Realized About Breastfeeding

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I never made a conscious decision to stop breastfeeding... it was a slow mental, well, wean.

At first I was intent on breastfeeding; the idea of formula even touching Layla's lips made me nauseated and anxious, as if formula would poison her (an idea that some breastfeeding proponents suggest quite readily). But because of Layla's prematurity -- she was born months early and spent eight weeks in the hospital -- I couldn't breastfeed at first. She was too small and her digestive system wasn't fully formed, nor did she know how to suck, swallow, and breathe all at the same time. I would have to wait until she was almost ready to leave the hospital. So instead of breastfeeding, my only "job" while Layla spent two months in the NICU was to pump.

And pump. And pump. At least eight times a day -- preferably ten times -- for fifteen minutes on each breast. That's five hours a day.

At the time, I thought of my breast pump both fondly (Wow, thanks for all the milk!) and simultaneously hated it intensely. It was a reminder of my daughter's preemie status, yet another machine that would replace the "natural" bond that we were missing out on. That, and it hurt like hell.

But for the most part, I was grateful. I was desperate to do something tangible for Layla while she was hospitalized -- sitting vigil by her incubator made me feel helpless -- and pumping five hours a day was sure-as-shit tangible. But once you face the harsh reality of the pump, no matter how much good you know it will do for your kid, well ... let's just say there's really no getting over seeing your nipples stretched out four inches longer than they're supposed to be, as they're vacuumed into the pump. (And thanks to the sadistic inventor of the breast pump, the pump part is transparent, so you get to see every inch of the taffy that your former nipple has become.)

My pump, which came in a jaunty little nylon purse that looked like a 1990s Kate Spade knockoff, made a rhythmic sound when operating that sounded a little too much like House music for my comfort. There's something about a club kid beat set to your breasts being tortured that makes the whole ridiculous scenario feel even crueler. And despite the Vaseline-like cream I put on after every pump, my nipples still bled and cracked. It got so bad after a few weeks that I just sobbed and screamed in pain throughout the sessions.

But still, I didn't stop -- and every time I looked at Layla's drawer in the NICU freezer stacked to the top with frozen breast milk, I felt like it was all worth it. Sure, I was depressed, in pain, and exhausted all the time, but I was doing right bymy kid.

Then something miraculous -- and devastating -- happened. Layla's digestive system was suddenly working full-speed. At first, Layla would take only two or three milliliters
of milk an hour through her feeding tube. An hour after feeding her, the nurse would check how much she actually digested by sucking out her stomach contents through the same tube -- the milk often sat there, undigested. After six weeks, however, she was digesting like a champ. Enough that the IV vitamins and nutrients she had been getting were removed, and she was sustained solely by breast milk. Within a week my freezer drawer started to dwindle. Despite the hundreds of hours I spent pumping, it turned out my supply wasn't as terrific as I thought. Soon I was rushing back and forth to the hospital to make sure they had enough milk.

The first day that there wasn't breast milk for Layla, and the nurses used formula, I sobbed. I was devastated, ashamed that I couldn't give my daughter the one "natural" thing I could provide while she was hooked up to so many wires and tubes. But still I kept trying. I gave her as much milk as I could and tried not to think about the formula.

When Layla was able to come home, it didn't get much better. She was able to latch on for short periods of time, but because we were desperately trying to get her to gain weight, I was still pumping to increase my supply and so we could measure out exactly how much milk she was getting. I made an appointment with a lactation consultant that a friend recommended. She was warm and understanding, if a bit hippieish for my taste -- she refused to use hand sanitizer before touching Layla, saying it wasn't environmentally friendly. I was a bit aghast -- sanitizer was like a religion in our household -- but perfect, I thought, I need someone "natural" to help me! She had plenty of suggestions: My pump wasn't powerful enough (?!), I should be taking herbal supplements, drinking oatmeal shakes several times a day, and trying "power pumping" -- going at it every hour. I felt overwhelmed, but was happy to have some pointers.

When I mentioned that I was supplementing with formula, she wasn't as horrified as I imagined a lactation consultant would be, though she did gently recommend using donor milk -- another woman's breast milk. I balked.

Instead, I just tried harder. After a particularly hard night in which I screamed for almost a half hour straight while pumping, my husband suggested I quit. I was so obsessed with giving Layla breast milk that I wasn't bonding with her at all -- I was too busy at the pump, and too miserable. It took me a long time to realize that what Layla needed more than breast milk was a mother who wasn't exhausted and stewing in shame.

After I stopped breastfeeding entirely, I remembered Betty Friedan writing in "The Feminine Mystique" about a mother who suffered a nervous breakdown when she couldn't breastfeed. That seemed about right.

Our ability to nurse is presented to American women as the most basic, natural thing
a woman can do for her child. So when it doesn't work -- or, shame on us, we simply don't want to do it -- we're blamed for being selfish, or not trying hard enough. That's a message that's hard not to internalize.

I must admit that I once looked down a bit on mothers who chose not to breastfeed; I didn't understand why they wouldn't at least try. After all, everyone tells us it is the best thing we can do for our babies. But what if it's not? What if all the guilt and shame and bleeding nipples are all for something that's not as amazing for our children as we've been led to believe?

This is an adapted excerpt from Jessica Valenti's Why Have Kids?: A New Mother Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness