Everybody’s a Winner! Breastmilk v. Formula Part 1 of 2: BREASTFEEDING
As if being pregnant, giving birth, and raising a baby weren’t hard enough, on top of all that, you have to decide how you’re going to feed your newborn. Is breast best or is formula number one? It can be hard to maintain perspective when you face a lot of pressures from friends, family, and even strangers to do it one way or another. We at The Scold have been there. In this two part series, Scold co-founders Danika and Tiffany interview each other on their experiences feeding their babies with breastmilk and formula, respectively. Check it out for some non-judgemental storytelling about the challenges and joys of both. Spoiler alert: both babies are now happy and healthy toddlers who, Danika and Tiffany are certain, are also super geniuses who should probably be celebrities and/or world leaders because they are so charming.
DANIKA ON BREASTFEEDING
Why did you decide to breastfeed?
I always just kind of assumed that if I had kids I would breastfeed them. My mom breastfed, and it seemed like the choice that made sense for me--I mean, I make my own kefir and I garden and I sew a lot of my clothes, so breastfeeding and cloth diapers just seemed like things I would do. When you’re already sort of assuming you’ll breastfeed, lots of people will be like ‘that is the best thing to do.” I think I thought about it more like “why is breastfeeding the right thing to do” than “is breastfeeding the right thing to do?” And then, financially it seemed great. We were incredibly worried about having enough money to provide for a child, and not paying for formula seemed awesome.
What were the major advantages of breastfeeding for you and your family?
It required no pre-planning. I didn’t have to decide anything ahead of time. In this way, breastfeeding is the lazy mom’s choice! Actually, you (Tiffany) had quit breastfeeding right before my daughter was born, and you gave me your pump, so I didn’t even have to research or call my insurance or order a pump, I just opened the box with yours in it and that was the pump I used (at first). Breastfeeding was “free”, that was an advantage. Of course there were some costs--I did buy three or four different kinds of bottles trying to find one my daughter would take, and I bought a little storage rack and freezer bags to put in the freezer for breastmilk and stuff like that, but not much. Maybe I ate more? But I was so sleep deprived that I feel like that probably had more of an impact on my eating than breastfeeding. And the cuddles and closeness were nice. I liked everything about it except for how painful it was at first.
What was the suckiest part about breastfeeding?
First the engorgement and then the nipple pain. My nipples never cracked or bled much, they just were crazy raw and red and when my daughter would latch on I would feel this blinding lightning flash of pain, and then it would sort of dull to feeling like someone was tapping my nipples with sandpaper. That, the pain every time she nursed, lasted for about three months. Like, for three months every time she would go to nurse, blinding pain. And I would know it was coming, so it would make me fear feeding her, which was pretty horrible.
I saw a lactation consultant and we went to a pediatric dentist who was willing to “revise” the tongue-tie she maybe had? With a laser!!!! If we wanted to pay $900 out of pocket for the procedure which he assured us might have one of three outcomes: 1. Improve her latch and make me more comfortable 2. Make no change in her latch/my comfort 3. Make her latch/feeding worse. That seemed like a terrible bargain because we didn’t have $900 and what if it made everything worse? So we didn’t do it. And trying to make that decision when I was sleep deprived and in pain was really hard. I want to be clear, though, that I didn’t decide to keep breastfeeding because I thought the pain was “worth it” or something. I did it because I was scared that things would get worse, and I didn’t think I could handle it if things got worse. I think a big difference between your experience and mine was that my baby was always gaining weight well, and I was afraid that if I changed anything THAT--the one thing that was working well--would go down the drain.
What crazy things happened to your body when you were breastfeeding? Be as gross as you need to be in describing this.
Engorgement was terrible. In the weeks after I gave birth I had one 36G (!!!!) nursing bra that was actually large enough to hold my breasts, but my breasts were so sore I couldn’t bear for anything to touch them so I didn’t wear it that much--but I also couldn’t bear to just go topless because they were so HUGE and PENDULOUS and HURT and they leaked everywhere. I didn’t leave the house for a month except to go to doctors’ appointments, and it was partly because I just couldn’t figure out what to wear on my top half that wasn’t painful or immediately covered in milk. I spent too many of the scant minutes I had to myself changing my bra and shirt trying to find a combination that would be comfortable.
I had just enormous quantities of milk, like, my milk would shoot across the room when it let down, and it would spray my daughter in the face and she would kind of gasp and choke. When the lactation consultant came the baby drank something like 8 oz of milk in 8 minutes, and the LC basically said that she thought the baby had a shitty latch (hence my poor sandpapered nipples) but I had so much milk that it was just firehosing down her throat in spite of her latch. So in that sense it was “working”. And, again, sleep deprivation meant that I was poorly equipped to make any new decisions so I just kept breastfeeding . . . and then, just past the three month mark, it was fine. No more pain, no more firehose milk, my supply stabilized and suddenly it was awesome. The grossest thing I can tell you is that in January, about six months after my daughter weaned, these HUGE thick callouses just sloughed off my nipples. Like, the size and thickness of your pinky fingernail. I got out of the shower one day and they were just hanging half off both my nipples and then in a couple of days worked all the way off. So I guess that part of the reason it stopped hurting is that my nipples grew fucking plate armor to defend themselves and that took three months to accomplish.
What things did you use breast milk for other than feeding your baby? Like, you know how they say it cures every illness and, as a beauty product, makes your skin as perfect as a love interest in a Korean drama? Did you use your breastmilk to become invincible and beautiful?
The ONLY thing I ever did other than feed it to my baby was one day I went to grab kefir to pour in the dog’s breakfast (because OF COURSE I make my dog breakfast????) and I accidentally grabbed a jar of breast milk and poured it over his porridge, and I was like nooooooooo! I still have a bunch of it in the freezer and it’s all more than a year old so next time you’re here if you want to make it into lotion or something that would be a fun sleepover activity! Just kidding, I am going to throw it out when I get around to defrosting the freezer.
What kind of labor did breastfeeding involve? Walk me through a typical day. Did you develop any strategies for minimizing the amount of labor you put in?
Actually breastfeeding was great--I didn’t have to carry bottles or wash them or anything, so I liked that part. Sometimes, especially when my daughter was really little it felt like all I did was hold a baby while she nursed, and sometimes it would get boring. I guess you're not supposed to say that, but you know, at first it's like six or seven times a day and it does get boring. I was totally on call at night--especially because everyone told me that if my husband was going to take night feedings I should GET UP AND PUMP WHILE HE GAVE THE BABY A BOTTLE and that seemed like the most bullshit dumb idea imaginable. If I was going to get up I might as well just nurse and doze snug in the bed as get up, go downstairs, hook myself up to a pump, wash all the pump stuff . . . and my husband is up, now, too? That’s ridiculous. No.
Because pumping was the most labor intensive and ridiculous part of the whole thing. I had an incredibly humane maternity leave for the US, because my daughter was born in August and I got the fall semester off from teaching. I went back full time the Spring semester, and she was five months old. So at first I was just trying to pump once a day to build up a supply for when I went back. That was harder than it seems, though, because I had to try to find a time to pump that wasn’t right after she nursed (when I wouldn’t have as much milk) and also wasn’t right before she wanted to nurse (leaving her without much to drink), and it meant that maybe she finished eating and then I’d go pump after an hour and that would be a half hour pumping and cleaning the pump, and then in another hour she’d need to nurse again, and that was the whole morning.
What was your husband’s role -- in the sense of being a partner, father, and adult who can take care of logistics -- in feeding your baby?
At first it was basically nothing, if we’re strictly talking about feeding the baby. He fed me. He washed the pump parts and bottles sometimes. Around three months we started trying to get her to drink from a bottle every other day or so, and he did some of that. When I went back to work, he would have her the whole day on my teaching day, from about 5:30 am to about 5:30 at night, so he would give her bottles, but it always seemed like she drank as little as possible to get through the day and then when I got home she would just latch on and CHUG.
People talk about how breastfeeding a baby helps you to bond with the baby. How did your husband bond with your baby or is theirs a cold and loveless relationship?
I’m going to answer this question in a pretty humorless way, sorry for the lack of jokes. My baby’s daddy is definitely her second favorite person in the whole world, in spite of his not having boobs. BUT I actually do think that the facts of breastfeeding make it much harder to have an equal relationship. I couldn’t be away from her for more than about four hours unless I pumped, which was a huge incentive to not be away from her unless I absolutely had to, because pumping is the worst. If I was present, I fed her, because that was the easiest way to feed her. So I just spent masses more time with her than her dad did in the first few months, and that meant we got to know each other and there were so many things I could do more quickly or more efficiently or in a way she was more used to, and it would have been easy to let that escalate and become self-reinforcing. It really slotted us into gendered roles in a way that nothing else in our relationship ever has, and now at 18 months my daughter is starting to ask for her dad for more things, like she likes him to give her her bath. But she still almost always comes to me first or wants me when she’s upset or nervous or sick or whatever.
The idea that breastfeeding is the only way to bond with your baby is pretty dumb, but I do think that if one parent IS breastfeeding it is very very very difficult for both parents to have “equal” emotional relationships with the baby, at least for the first few years. You’d have to both be determined to make it that way--and remember, you are going to have to work at it at a time when everything is new and crazy and you are both sleep deprived, and, like, maybe the baby is screaming and the breastfeeding parent can definitely calm her in a minute, but you are going to make the decision that the non-breastfeeding parent does the comforting and it takes ten minutes. That doesn’t sound like a big deal maybe? But it is ten minutes less sleep, probably for both of you, and you have to sacrifice that ten minutes over and over to get parity.
What about weaning? How did you do it? Was it hard?
This is probably the one thing I was really nervous about from the start so of course it was a thing that turned out to be basically a non-issue. When I went back to teaching in the fall after my daughter turned one, she had already dropped back to only nursing 3 times--first thing in the morning, right before her nap, and right before bed. And she could start drinking milk. So I just decided I wouldn’t pump on the days I was teaching, because I found it really isolating: I would get to work at 7:30, pump, go straight into the classroom and teach 3 classes, go to my office and pump while shovelling my face full of food, wash my pump, go teach a class, and then go catch the train home. I never got to talk to any of my colleagues because if I wasn’t teaching I was pumping. So I think my supply probably dropped once I wasn’t nursing or pumping at all two days a week, and my daughter’s interest in nursing decreased dramatically, either because my supply dropped or because she wasn’t nursing those two days, and within three weeks of going back to teaching she wasn’t asking to nurse anymore and that was that and it was awesome. Once it stopped hurting I did like nursing, but I didn’t miss it when she stopped. It felt fine, like the right time for that change in our relationship. We had other ways of relating by then because she was signing and starting to talk and communicate in other ways.
What emotional benefits did breastfeeding provide you? What was emotionally taxing about breastfeeding?
See above about bonding with the baby. I found it both gratifying and exhausting to be my child’s preferred parent for emotional comfort, sometimes both at the same time.
Were you ever shamed for breastfeeding?
No, but I also never breastfed in public much. The few times I tried my baby would just look around and be too distracted to eat, and she would pull off a nursing cover. That combined with being homebodies to begin with meant there weren’t that many opportunities for somebody to shame me.
What kind of support did you have?
I had a lot of emotional support of the “you are a good mom, whatever you choose is a good choice” variety. I felt like a lot of information was available to me. Everyone was very supportive of breastfeeding, but I never felt like anyone would have given me shit if I had said “this hurts, I quit.”
What kind of support did you wish you had?
I wish I’d had administrative support, someone who could have come over for three hours and called lactation consultants for me and made appointments and called the health insurance and researched pumps (because I did get one when I went back to work so I could have yours at home and a second one in the office) and so on. It probably took me two weeks to find an LC just because every time I would make a call and hit even a minor stumble, I would get derailed and not make another call until the next day.
I wish I’d had better governmental support and better institutional support. I had to ask for maternity leave, and I didn’t know if I would get it until the end of the Spring semester, which was really stressful, because if I didn’t get it I was going to have to start teaching the week after my due date.
Any regrets about your choice or aspects of it?
I don’t regret anything I did but I deeply resent how hostile US culture and policy are to families in general and mothers in particular. I had a pretty cushy set up by US standards, and it was still exhausting and isolating and hard.
What is your best memory of breastfeeding? What about your most persistent memory of that time? When you think about “breastfeeding the baby” what do you think of?
I actually feel like there’s only the persistent memory, no one time stands out, and while I know that it was painful for a long time I don’t actually remember the pain. I remember it being really quiet and peaceful and snuggly, and now that I’m thinking about it, my daughter doesn’t really snuggle like that anymore--she’s pretty active and always running around, and even if she gets hurt she wants a quick hug and then she wants down. I really loved being so close to her and being needed in such a fundamental way.
Now that you've had one experience feeding a baby what is your idealized perfect baby feeding fantasy? And what is the actual realistic thing you would do next time?
I think my fantasy would just be 1. No persistent pain and 2. A year off from work to be at home and feed my baby, with no administrative bullshit to deal with. Just, the family at home being a family for a year. No dealing with paying off the hospital bills and scheduling appointments and being ready to go back to work and so on. That would make breastfeeding so much easier. I wouldn’t even get a pump. Maybe a hand pump for if I want to go out for more than 4 hours.
What advice or thoughts do you have for other mothers considering breastfeeding?
I don’t think I know ANYONE who breastfed and it was just fine and easy from day one. Everyone seems to have one horror story or another, clogged ducts or low supply or the complexities of going back to work, or needing to change their diet because baby was sensitive to mom’s diet, or any of one million things. I’m sure there are those people, and they’ll come out of the woodwork to tell me about how easy they had it, but as far as I can tell the idea that breastfeeding is “easy” because it’s “natural” is ridiculous. I mean, running is “natural,” and there are a lot of people who find it easy, but most people have to train and most people eventually get injured, and nobody ever says “oh, running is super easy, you know what, I’m going to just start running ten miles a day next week because it’s natural”.
But that’s how breastfeeding is with your first baby: you’ve never done it before, and now you’re doing it several hours a day. Breastfeeding is hard, and it’s hard in different ways for everyone, and it may be true that most breastfeeding difficulties resolve with time--mine did--but “time” may mean MONTHS of working things out, and if you have little or no maternity leave? If you’re one of the many USian mothers going back to work a week after giving birth? Then figuring out breastfeeding is likely to be exhausting and complicated. Pumping is unpleasant and weird, and nothing about it is “natural”. I am glad I was able to breastfeed, but I feel like the pressure that is put on moms to breastfeed is a classic case of displacing a structural problem to the individual: “good moms sacrifice themselves to feed their child” and “if you want to breastfeed you can”--YOU the INDIVIDUAL, instead of “good countries and good employers build institutions that support families by providing the health care and time off from work that breastfeeding require, or by allowing parents to bring babies to work when feasible or providing subsidized on-site child care”.
So my advice would be: there are rewards for breastfeeding and if you want to do it give it a try, but know that it is probably going to be hard, possibly physically hard, possibly emotionally hard, possibly logistically hard, and possibly all three. Even if the people in your circle are super supportive, the institutions that surround you won’t be. You are not a bad person if you can’t single handedly overcome the obstacles placed in your way by the institutions that surround you.
What parting shots do you have for assholes who think you’re doing it wrong?
Fuck you, I’m awesome.