Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Ugly: Breast Feeding and Mother Guilt

The past three weeks have been the most difficult three weeks of my adult life. I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much about so much in such a short period of time since I was 17 years old. Why was I crying? Well, yes, sleep deprivation was part of it but the real reason was the dangerous mixture of breast feeding and mother guilt.

Breast feeding is not working for PJ and I. We had a rough start: he wasn’t getting enough food and I was in almost constant pain even when the feedings were over. Then things got a little bit better just in time for us to realize that PJ is having a hard time drinking and has started to play with his tongue against my nipple when he is tired from the stress of trying to breast feed. If you cannot imagine how much that hurts, consider any wound you’ve ever had in your mouth, take away all pain relief, and then talk non-stop for four hours. Really painful, right?

The result was PJ shrieking for what seemed to be hours on end, sleeping irregularly, and being generally restless. Even after 90 minutes of breast feeding, PJ would flip out 10 minutes later. We couldn’t believe it was hunger - he has just been ‘eating’ for 90 minutes! But it was because although he had been at my breast for a long time, he has spent more of that time exhausted. All we knew at the time was that something wasn’t right and every single bloody person that walked through the door looked right at me and said, “He’s hungry.”

Which added to my inability to be kind to myself and my high expectations around breast feeding - I never even considered that it might not work, never ever - I began struggling with incredible guilt that I was (and am) unable to feed my child - something that I have been told and something that I have believed to be normal, easy, and, most dangerously of all, natural. As a result, I have spent hours tense with pain while my son desperately tried to get enough milk without exhausting himself - saying things like “drink damnit” and weeping loudly - and then slumped over a breast pump weeping more quietly (it hurts less) and thinking “how can I already be a bad mom?”.

I have been angry at myself for not getting it right, for failing at something that is - like I said above - “natural”. I have been angry at PJ for doing it wrong. I have been angry at the Mr. for failing to understand how exhausting it is to breast feed, successfully or not. And then I feeling guilty for all of the above until my stomach hurts, my head hurts, my breast hurts, and in the end I couldn’t stand to be near my son out of sheer frustration, fear, anger and guilt.

Thank god for the ability to ask for help (which I wrote about in another post a while ago) and to ask for help loudly. This entire time I have been working with a midwife, now I’m also working with a breast feeding consultant and I might just get another involved as well, and of course I have been reaching out to other mother-friends. The problem isn’t solved but at least I don’t feel so alone (although all of the mother-friends that I spoke to were able to breast feed in the end).

Right now I’m still in too much pain to breast feed, so I’m pumping every two hours and then the Mr and I are giving PJ bottles of my breast milk. When that runs out, we are giving him formula. I’m working on taking a big step back from myself, from my expectations, and the expectations of others. Because my son isn’t going to go hungry, he isn’t going to be stressed out and screaming and unable to sleep for my ego or because breast feeding is “natural.” Yes, there are benefits but they sure as hell don’t overweigh the pain of hunger in a three week old child.

Honestly, I carry feelings of failure, feelings that come from external as well as internal pressure and expectations. I still hope that in a few days or a week PJ will be strong enough and I will be healed enough and relaxed enough to try again. I hope that when we try again we are successful. But if we aren’t I’m going to try my hardest not to blame myself and not to wallow in guilt. Instead I hope, regardless of outcome, I will make the decision that is right for my family and then concentrate on getting to know, spoiling with love, and enjoying this little man who has shaken up my life.

Because isn’t that what really matters in the end?

I’m trying to answer that question with a yes. 


Joanna Paterson said...

Oh Nicole my heart goes out to you. I don't know why more people don't say this, but the first six week's of a baby's life are unbelievably challenging and stressful, and the guilt levels are huge - pretty much whatever you do there's bound to be something that makes you feel you're not doing it right. I don't think there's any easy answer to this or the challenges of breast-feeding other than to keep trying to be kind to yourself and focusing on what matters, simple human love.

I think writing will help too and I take it as a v healthy sign that you are able to write about this and also to share it.

Sending you much love


Christina said...

I'm sorry that it isn't working and more sorry that you're feeling so badly about it. Please know that you aren't alone. If you need support check out The Fearless Formula Feeder. There are a lot of stories from moms who have been where you are. I hope it gives you the same comfort it gave me. Good luck.

Petra said...

Hey, dear nicole!
Isn't that intimidating sometimes what motherhood can to do us? You'll be much better soon as also your hormone levels normalize, promised. NO NEED to feel guilty and no need to literall torture yourself - love is more important than mother milk. so make sure that you don't loose sight of your own well-being in this, ok?

Sending you a big hug from Berlin,


starryfright said...

I remember the first 6 weeks of Emily's life. She latched on hard from the start, but incorrectly so there was pain, then bleeding involved. I had a nurse at the hospital work with me on getting her lower lip open enough. With all the work from labor and all the healing going on, and all the sleep deprivation it's really hard to deal with. It's even worse to have everyone else telling you things you don't care to hear, or telling you they did this and that and never had a problem. I'm sure it'll be okay. When it's 4am and my insomniac has been up 3 hours alternately crying and playing, it's hard to be positive, but there are so many other smiling, playing, and now almost walking moments to get me by.

I still feel a little guilt because we started the transition to formula at 6 months, and now she only breastfeeds 2-3 times during a 24 hour period, but this is what works for us. Your baby and your family are different than anyone else, so just do what you feel you need and keep you three happy.

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