Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: breastfeeding

I Heart Formula Feeding (and I don’t care who knows it)

Listen to me read this post here:

 

Or read the post below here:

Something that I should say first

(I shouldn’t have to, but I know how quickly the mind jumps to conclusions…)

I think breastfeeding is awesome.

My love of formula feeding in no way diminishes your breastfeeding experience.

Infant feeding isn’t a zero-sum issue.

(And by the way, when did it become one?)

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Formula feeding, one week old

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As I’ve written about extensively in my book and in other blog posts, breastfeeding was so much worse than childbirth for me. (And I gave birth without drugs).

With my first baby, I was overcome with feelings of guilt (This shit might actually keep her brain from developing as much as it would if I were breastfeeding…) and shame (If I were a better mother, I would have kept pumping, even just a little bit. Every little bit helps.)

In my mind, I wasn’t allowed to openly love formula feeding. Proclaiming how much I loved formula feeding would have been akin to saying that I didn’t particularly care about the health of my child.

That’s what I thought.

When I try to trace back where those thoughts came from, I realize how much of my own insinuations were responsible for the guilt and shame that I felt. I read four or five credible books about breastfeeding when I was pregnant. (The Breastfeeding Book by Martha and William Sears was particularly good.) My takeaway from this and the other books was that, as long as I stuck with breastfeeding, my chances of success were very, very high.

I just needed to buckle down and commit to the process.

Because, let’s face it, breastfeeding is better for me and the baby.

I LOVED THIS MESSAGE.

Because if there’s one thing my friends and family know about me, it’s that I CAN BUCKLE DOWN AND COMMIT like no other.

I’m like a dog with a bone when I move something to the top of the priority list.

And in those first weeks after my first child was born…

Let’s just say, Ruff, ruff.

***

There’s a difference between loving the way that you feed your child and doing it simply because you hate the alternative.

I had to learn this the hard way with my first child.

Because, I confess, I didn’t love formula feeding her.

I just hated the alternative of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding made me absolutely miserable. It brought me no joy. It only brought physical and emotional pain. Feelings of inadequacy and resentment. And days and days of being awake for 22 out of 24 hours (and that brings you to the brink of psychosis, let me tell you).

So I quietly switched to formula feeding when my daughter was 12 days old. Every time, someone saw us feeding her tiny bottles of formula, the mental tape of guilt and shame ran its course in my mind.

I bit my lip and hoped no one would say anything.

Most people didn’t.

But some did.

And then I was prepared with my boilerplate speech that grew increasingly awkward as I tried to figure out on-the-fly if this audience really needed to know the shape of my nipples or the amount of milk that I was producing. (Does anyone really need to know that?)

It was agonizing.

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***

But this post isn’t supposed to be about how hard breastfeeding was for me.

It’s supposed to be about how awesome formula feeding has been for me.

I’ll admit, I didn’t automatically switch to loving formula feeding after having my second baby simply because I had done it before.

But once I realized the absolute deluge of work that having a second child heaped upon us, I was ALL ABOUT FORMULA FEEDING.

With no grandparents living nearby to constantly stop by and help out, we bear the full load by ourselves. (Read: full-time jobs, daycare drop-off/pick-up, hours of housecleaning every day, lawn mowing (a HUGE yard), shopping, doctor visits, dentist visits, blah, blah, blah…)

So trying to breastfeed when my body wasn’t cooperating?

Nope.

Breastfeeding even if my body were cooperating would have been a challenge.

I think the only way I would be breastfeeding right now is if…

1) I truly loved the experience of breastfeeding

and

2) I could hire outside help to pick up my share of the household chores.

Barring those two crucial factors, breastfeeding would just not happen.

Because now, the day is doubly full of responsibilities.

Now, there are no simply no free moments to wade through the quagmire of the Internet and second guess everything that I’m doing and compare this product and that product and this method and that method.

I no longer run Google searches like “infant formula obesity” or “does formula cause diarrhea?” or “comparison of intelligence breastfed and formula fed” or “mother child bonding only breastfeeding?” And then get sidetracked into a discussion board where self-righteous and insecure young mothers tear each other apart.

So unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that any more.

***

If you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you want some specific reasons that I love formula feeding.

Here are my top reasons, in order of importance to me.

  1. I know exactly how much my baby has eaten (This always helped put my mind at ease in those early weeks when your baby is trying to regain their birth weight.)
  2. I know exactly what ingredients my baby has eaten.
  3. I don’t have to worry about how my diet affects my baby. (After ten months of pregnancy, this is a huge relief, I can tell you.)
  4. My body starts to feel like it belongs to me again, much sooner.
  5. I can more easily share night feeding responsibilities.
  6. I don’t have to pump at night or at work, just to keep my milk supply up.
  7. Actually, just, I DON’T HAVE TO PUMP. (Those machines are like a form of torture, I swear to God. And of course, they were invented by a dude.)
  8. I don’t have to scrape the bottom of my soul for the willpower to endure a baby’s incessant need to nurse all day, for several days–just to get my baby through a growth spurt.
  9. I can get a babysitter and leave the house–without wondering how soon I’ll need to pump or nurse before my boobs explode.
  10. I will never run out of food for my baby–even if my body isn’t cooperating (a statement of middle-class privilege, I acknowledge. Although… so are a lot of these reasons…)
  11. If I get sick, I can take time to recover without having a baby attached to me all hours of the day.
  12. I can exercise without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  13. Actually, I can just live life without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  14. I only spend 2 hours per day feeding my child (20 minutes X 5-6 feedings), rather than 4.5 hours per day (45 minutes X 5-6 feedings–that was about the fastest I could ever nurse).
  15. I didn’t have to worry about whether my baby would take a bottle at daycare.
  16. I don’t have to confront the frustrating situation of wondering if some nut job is going to find my breastfeeding “inappropriate.” (IT’S NOT. GET OVER IT.)
  17. I’m sure I could go on…

***

I write this post specifically for mothers who are formula feeding.

Because I know what it’s like to be sitting in a group of moms and overhear someone refer to infant formula as “garbage.” Or hear another mom say, “Well, if that’s how you want to feed your baby…”

It ain’t fun.

And, if you were raised to be “ladylike” like me, you didn’t stand up for yourself. (Instead, you just pretended that you didn’t hear… and then complained about it later to an accepting audience as a means to let off steam. Being female is a bitch, isn’t it?)

What I want to say to you is this:

There will be sooo many times in motherhood when you can’t please everyone, no matter what you do.

This truth hit home hard just a month ago when another daycare mom who was considering withdrawing her baby (who had started just weeks earlier) called our daycare center a “dirty”, “expensive,” “baby factory.” (Expensive, sure, but dirty? Uh, have you been to other daycare centers???) After I told her that I liked our daycare, she said,

“Huh. I just thought my baby deserved better. But you’re fine with this, right?”

Ick. I couldn’t get out of the conversation fast enough.

Trust me. There will always be someone who will try to make you feel badly about how you’re raising your kids. No matter what you’re doing.

And if you need even more assurance that everything’s going to be okay, here’s Adam explaining why baby formula isn’t poison.

Press on, moms.

There will always be someone who is sure you’re not doing the best that you can. (And for some reason, it’s their responsibility to let you know about it.)

Press on.

The First Week: In Pictures

As can be expected, my ability to write is greatly diminished right now. And that’s totally fine with me. Self-care first. Instead of putting effort into writing, I’d like to just show you around my world in the last five days.

The Last Day of Pregnancy: February 1, 2017, 41 weeks and 3 days

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Birth: February 2, 2017, 1:27 p.m.

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Minutes old. Skin to skin.

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Life-saver. I suffered a postpartum hemorrhage, but my midwife and nurses were able to control the bleeding within the first hour of delivery. Thank God for modern medicine. 

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Putting on my Warrior hat to breastfeed after the birth.

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Day 1

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Getting ready to leave Family Beginnings, a natural birthing center attached to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. They. Are. Marvelous.

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Temporary living quarters while Doug finishes the baby’s room. 

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Self-care ain’t pretty sometimes.

Day 2

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Day 2 profile

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My viewpoint, post “nap.” So hard to sleep soundly.

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Day 3

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Day 3 Profile: Breasts actually feeling milk come in this time. Feeling a bit hopeful in this moment.

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Can you see it? Just barely? That is what 20 minutes of pumping yields. It won’t even drain into the vials. Baby has a good latch, but I have to use a shield to get a good latch. But he gets frustrated when hardly anything comes out. Can’t really blame him. Poor guy.

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How small, he starts.

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Yawn.

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Stork bite on right thigh.

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Looks just like his sister in the first week. I will show a side-by-side comparison someday.

Day 4

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Day 4: Weaning. As my breasts fill and ache, latching is more difficult and the pump won’t relieve it. I try having him latch without the shield. Awful. So awful. Baby is doing well with formula, and I’m tired of working to overcome these barriers. So I am utterly done with breastfeeding forever. And you know what? That’s okay with me. We’re not having any more kids after this one, so it’s time to stop stressing and just enjoy having a baby.

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Day 4 Profile

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Nipple shield with last bits of milk still on it. 

Day 5

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First doctor’s appointment. Henry receives an excellent bill of health. “You look pale,” says the pediatrician. “You should take iron to help with the breastfeeding.” I tell her that I started the weaning process yesterday and he’s exclusively on formula. “Well, he’s doing great. Can I get you some free cans of formula?” Thank God for choices and supportive pediatricians. I leave without the same feelings of guilt that I had with my first child. 

What’s not in these pictures?

All the people who are supporting me.

My husband, who has spent the last month painting and installing lights and shelving in not one, not two, but three bedrooms.

My mother, who has been watching the baby during the day while I have been sleeping and recovering from the blood loss. (I’ve got the night shift.)

My friends, who brought over bagels and scones and muffins on Day 2 and sat with me. Small reassurances that even though crazy things like birth and recovery happen, life goes on. And it’s all beautiful and holy.

My church, who lifted me with their prayers.

The postpartum period can be incredibly isolating and lonely, but all this help has made it just a little easier.

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So much beauty in the world.

Breastfeeding: It’s Complicated

That’s how I would summarize my previous experience with breastfeeding.

Before having my first child, I envisioned myself being one of those women who breastfed throughout maternity leave, dutifully pumped at work, and kept up the routine as long as I could. That’s how I always pictured that first year with my daughter. Nursing and pumping. As long as possible.

But my body had other ideas.

Although I’ve always been a strong believer in the power and wisdom of my own body, breastfeeding was truly not in the cards for me. We could talk about what it felt like to have postpartum thyroiditis. We could talk about my boobs, my nipples, how often we nursed, how her latch was, and the interventions that we tried.

But I’m kind of over that.

I’m kind of done explaining and justifying my experiences, anticipating all the nay-sayers who would just write off my truth as “one more woman who didn’t try hard enough.”

Yeah. Done with that.

Let me just say that, to me, breastfeeding was like trying to pull a dry, fraying end of a piece of thread through the tiniest of needles. Over and over again.

I could only nurse in Just This Way. And even then, I missed the needle over and over again. Only a tiny amount ever making it through the needle.

And then finding out that, hey, I didn’t even have a full spool of thread to work with.

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***

So here we are, just weeks away from the reality of breastfeeding another child. Wondering if this time will be just as awful as the last time. Hoping that this time, I’ll at least be spared the insomnia (courtesy of postpartum thyroiditis) that came with nursing our first child.

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to sleep between feedings.

Maybe this time, I’ll make at least 50% of what the baby needs, rather than 20%. 

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to make it three weeks instead of twelve days.

Maybe these seem like low standards, but they are monumental to me. I don’t have high expectations for what nursing will be like this time. I don’t plan on committing to a die-hard schedule that will increase my milk production at the cost of my own physical and mental health.

The truth is, for me, breastfeeding was much, much harder than childbirth.

And I gave birth with no drugs.

With childbirth, my body seemed to know the procedure. My hips cooperated. My uterus contracted and my baby responded well. I pushed like a pro. My blood loss was typical. And my body succeeded in making the slow journey back to its pre-pregnancy condition.

But with breastfeeding, my body couldn’t get the procedure right. It kept trying to drop into the process, only to be stopped by barrier after barrier after barrier.

Finally, I was forced to accept the fact that–despite everyone who assured me that I could breastfeed if I worked hard enough–I simply could not.

***

So this time, the internal dialogue will focus more on my own self-care.

 I’ll do this as long as I’m healthy.

I need to sleep at least 5 hours a day. At the very least.

If the baby is still hungry, I’ll consider formula.

If I’m not producing more than 1/2 ounce in a pumping session, I should consider whether or not I want to stick with breastfeeding.

If I stop breastfeeding, the baby will be fine. I will be fine. And if people judge me for it, I know they have no idea what I’ve been through. 

There was a time in my life when I would have thought that even thinking these thoughts would ultimately lead to me exclusively formula feeding, which–according to strong breastfeeding advocates–was the unhealthiest decision I could make for my newborn.

I thought that.

And I was all about the healthiest decision for my newborn.

But I did not factor my own health into my decision-making.

I thought that what I needed was not as important as what my baby needed. And while new mothers definitely experience a certain amount of humbling and re-prioritizing, it should never be at the detriment of her own health.

Yeah, you feel shitty in the newborn period. You’re sore and exhausted and overwhelmed. But there’s a difference between feeling shitty and feeling like you’re clinging to the edge of life.

Sleeping 1-3 hours per day because you’re nursing or pumping will do that to you.

So if you’re reading this and you’re feeling like a failure for not breastfeeding your child, let me be the first to tell you a simple truth: You are a good mom because of who you are. Not because of anything that you do.

These decisions about feeding, diapering, and sleeping don’t have “winning” sides.

Just love your child. And your child will love you.

It’s that simple.

Book Review: “Mothering Through the Darkness”

Mothering

If you’ve never experienced postpartum depression (PPD), it is tempting to write off books on the subject, thinking that they are not good investments of your time. I admit that I paused when considering whether to buy this book. I don’t call what I experienced after my daughter’s birth postpartum depression because it was not long-lasting and as soon as I started getting more than two hours of sleep per day, I vastly improved.

But don’t write off this book.

Because this book isn’t just for mothers who have experienced or who may experience PPD. It’s for husbands and close friends, parents and siblings, doctors and nurses, pastors and counselors. It’s for all of those people who interact closely with women during the postpartum period.

Stephanie Sprenger and Jill Smock, editors of The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship (2013) and My Other Ex: Women’s True Stores of Leaving and Losing Friends (2014), have selected and compiled a stunning collection of essays on the postpartum experience that is desperately needed and should be part of the pregnancy literature canon, if there is such a thing.

Mothering through the Darkness is not merely a collection of facts about what women experience during periods of postpartum depression. This is an articulate and engaging collective narrative of thirty-five essays that take the reader through a kaleidoscope of postpartum experiences, ranging from postpartum depression, anxiety, and mood disorders as well as the lesser known post-adoption depression. Some writers sought help while in their darkest hours; others struggled through without help and lived to regret it. But all of these stories succeed in connecting the reader with the foggy inner world of the postpartum period. It is this book’s ability to take the reader inside the mind of the mother that makes it a great read for those who are close to postpartum women.

In the book’s first essay, “Here Comes the Sun,” poet Maggie Smith says, “…we all come into this world unfinished, still stitching ourselves together” (p. 13). The essays that follow uphold this same spirit of honorable incompleteness. The dignity of process and ongoingness. Each essay ends with an understanding that one is never complete, never perfect, never fully finished.

What readers can find in Mothering Through the Darkness are common threads that stitch essays together to create coherence in a chaotic topic. Through Smock and Sprenger’s arrangement of these essays, readers can identify several major themes that emerge throughout the book.


Identity Shift

Not surprisingly, identity shift takes a central role in many of these essays. The struggle of women to redefine themselves as mothers is an extraordinary and monumental transformation. Such transformation is expressed in Denise Emanuel Clemen’s essay, “My Face in the Darkness,” in which she recalls how the birth of her first child created a new reality where “the world was turning upside down” (p. 159). She confuses a rocking chair for a wheelchair. She sleeps at the foot of her bed to watch the baby. This complete upending of her world leads to her profound loss of self.

“I’d lost my old self somehow. The self that persevered. The self that could hold everything in. The self that could ferret out solutions” (p. 162).

This same loss of self emerges in Jennifer Bullis’ “Recovering My Stranger-Self.” After a difficult pregnancy and postpartum period forced her to resign from her tenure-track position at a prestigious university, Bullis sees herself two and a half years later in a mirror and finally feels that she has returned to herself—yet she acknowledges that this new self is, “Not… (her) previous identity, but… someone (she) recognize(s) as capable… as a mother” (p. 119).

Failure

Perhaps the most robust theme among these essays is a sense of failure. In “The Breast of Me,” Suzanne Barston narrates a string of perceived failures before her baby is even born: difficulty getting pregnant, early delivery because of low amniotic fluid, and no euphoric feelings of love for her son once he was born. Soon after that, postpartum depression sets in. In Barston’s words,

“…all I could give him was breast milk. Not love. Not laughter. Not focused attention. My only job was to feed the baby, and if I failed at that, I’d be rendered completely irrelevant. I couldn’t give up” (p. 145).

Katie Sluiter’s essay, “Sometimes There Aren’t Enough Bags of Chips,” shows just how devastating a sense of failure can be when it is coupled with complete physical and mental exhaustion. In her case, her feelings of inadequacy, “turned into a blinding rage directed mostly at (her) husband and (her) mother” (p. 100), culminating with her throwing a bag of chips at her husband while cursing, “FUCK THIS HOUSE AND YOU AND THIS FAMILY” (p. 102).

Emotional Paradox

Women who experience the postpartum period understand the reality of simultaneously feeling multiple, conflicting emotions. Joy, guilt, and terror. Contentment, worry, and gratitude. Sadness, confusion, and wonder. With each emotion vying for its own space to stretch its wings, women can easily fall into the trap of believing that it is not normal for both positive and negative emotions to exist at the same time within the same mind. Not understanding this can drive mothers to feel like liars, impostors, or drama queens.

This is where the essays of Mothering through the Darkness can normalize—perhaps even recreate a new paradigm for—postpartum experiences. Maggie Smith (“Here Comes the Sun”) and Jen Simon (“It Got Better But It Took a Long Time to Get Good”) both refer to the haunting feeling of needing to be away from their babies while simultaneously needing to touch them. Both writers settle on the analogy of a phantom limb to explain how they felt about being away from their babies. Needing and not needing at the same time. The lightness of freedom and the weight of guilt.

Celeste Noelani McLean’s “Life with No Room” not only acknowledges these paradoxes, it shows how identifying these paradoxes helps her move through quandaries that would strike most outside observers as illogical.

“This is the truth. I loved my daughter from the moment I knew that she was inside me. But I also did not love her when she was born. I was tired, ragged, overtaken when she was born. There was no room in my life for me. Knowing this is the truth, that I was not making any of it up, doesn’t fix it. Doesn’t make me love my daughter anymore. But it does make me hate myself a little less” (p. 33).

In fact, McLean’s courage to acknowledge her own suicidal thoughts actually contributes to her ability to overcome them. In simple, powerful words, she explains how.

“I want to be dead, and I admit to this in a way, and it is so embarrassing to admit this. But also, it is a relief. I have spoken these words and I have not died” (p. 33).

Isolation

Perhaps the most poignant essay that addresses isolation and depression is Randon Billings Noble’s “Leaving the Island.” By comparing her journey through the postpartum period to the story of Robinson Crusoe, Noble demonstrates the loss of perspective and disorientation that new mothers can feel when they experience PPD. Although the representation of depression as an island is not new, Nobel’s description of it adds fresh insight.

“It is a place where logic fails…[and] where the laws of gravity are more powerful than any other force. It is a place almost impossible to revisit or describe once you’ve left” (p. 107).

Alexa Bigwarfe shows how feelings of isolation can further intensify PPD in her essay, “Breathe.” With two children, a new baby with a feeding tube, a husband who works all day, and a regimented pumping schedule to keep up her milk supply, Bigwarfe compares her days to house arrest. What saved her was medication and blogging.

“Through the comfort of strangers, I realized I was not alone and I was not a bad person” (p. 228).

Inability to recognize postpartum depression

This last theme is especially heartbreaking in Dawn S. Davies “Fear of Falling,” in which she describes the rift in her marriage that deepens as her husband’s lack of concern and compassion drives her deeper and deeper into depression. Davies recalls her attempt to exit a plane with her baby just before take-off because of her certainty that the plane would crash. When her husband growls at her to sit down because she is embarrassing him, Davies realizes that she must keep her irrational thoughts inside unless she is ready to accept the shame of sharing them.

It is this same tendency of women to soldier through tough times as a testament to their strength that Dana Schwartz takes issue with in her essay, “Afterbirth.” Schwartz opens with the story of her first birth and the large amount of blood that she lost from it. She says,

“I felt a strange sense of pride recounting the story, as if bleeding signified strength, as if almost dying but not was something to be proud of” (p. 39).

But this strength wanes when her baby develops severe colic that keeps her and her husband awake for months. Moving from powerful to powerless upsets her entire world and drives her to a key realization.

“Endurance is not strength; hardships are not badges to be earned. Blood loss is just blood loss, and too much of it will kill you” (p. 42).

 The Final Word

Mothering through the Darkness does not leave its readers with feelings of powerlessness. It is full of hope, but not the Hope as seen on Etsy, carved attractively into a wooden frame and then displayed above the mantle like a greeting card that never got sent.

In her essay, “We Come Looking for Hope,” Alexandra Rosas gives hope a more authentic definition. When a nurse recognizes the symptoms of postpartum depression descending on Rosas, she intervenes. The nurse assures her that she will get better because she has seen other patients get better after they got help. Rosas explains that through her postpartum fog, she had to make a decision—between believing that she could get better or being swallowed by depression. She credits this nurse with saving her life. As a result of this dire situation, Rosas creates a new definition of hope, one that rings desperately true.

“Hope is not a continuum—it’s not measured on a spectrum by degrees. It is a complete giving in to a desperate belief in something when you have nothing else left” (p. 171).

There is such truth in the absoluteness of this statement, the way it throws the reader out into the darkness, arms flailing, hoping and praying that there will be something there to grab on to. It’s this kind of candid truth that resonates most deeply with readers.


Although I haven’t mentioned every essay in this review, nearly every essay in this book caught and carried my full attention. They explored themes like the conflict between expectations and reality, healthy and unhealthy coping strategies, antenatal depression, and the darkest thoughts of self-harm and harming others. Their courage to write and share their stories will not only help you to recognize depression, but also to rethink how you can help a new mother who is experiencing PPD.

The writers of these essays do not look away. They look directly at you. They make you see who they are.

They make you see the face of the postpartum experience.

And for that, I thank them.

Buying Information

  • Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience.
  • Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
  • She Writes Press: Berkeley, CA. 2015
  • Available on Amazon in print and soon on Kindle.

Book Tour Stop # 2: LLLatch On and Breastfeeding Celebration

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Last Sunday after I came home after pitching my book to 200 strangers at a baby fair (where I wasn’t allowed to sell books because it was an “educational event”), I got a message from a friend who suggested that I might want to look into being a vendor at the La Leche League’s Latch On and Breastfeeding Celebration.

She was kind enough to acknowledge that this might not be my cup of tea–since (as you’ll find out in the book) breastfeeding damn-near killed me–but, hey, there would be a lot of moms there. And it was only $15 for the space to set up the table.

But enough time has passed since those desperate days when I spent far too much mental energy rationalizing why I formula fed my baby.

So I signed up.

I enjoyed this event more than last week’s baby fair for a few reasons.

  1. I was allowed to sell.
  2. The stream of people was more laid back and I could spend more time talking with potential readers (which allowed me to better tailor how I pitched the book to them).
  3. I got a chance to walk around and speak with other vendors.

I sold a handful of copies, but about a dozen people took information with them. A couple of doulas who wanted books to recommend to their clients. A couple of people who wanted to buy it later for a possible baby shower gift. And a few who preferred to read on a Kindle, but didn’t want to forget the title.

I talked to a mother who still managed to show interest in the book while balancing a baby and trying to visually track where her second child was. She mentioned that she belongs to a book club in her church and that this might be interesting for them. She passed me some money for her copy and said she would pick it up on her way out. She did. And as she walked away, she was already flipping through it–still balancing her baby, still visually tracking her other child.

That’s skill.

Another woman glanced over the book as I pitched it to her and she interrupted me to say, “Is this about postpartum?”

“You mean postpartum depression?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s what I meant.”

“No, I didn’t have postpartum depression.”

“Oh, so–”

“It’s a reflective memoir about–”

“I just thought maybe you went through something, or worked through something hard, or something like that.”

In my head, I guffawed loudly.

“Well,” I managed to pivot, “Becoming a mom for the first time is going through something hard. It’s a complete identity–”

“Oh yeah, I mean, I have a nine-year-old so, I know.” She started to turn away at this point, distracted by something else. Then she turned back for a moment. “Thanks.” And then she was gone.

The thing that’s hard about these events is that while other people are selling lotion, books, soap, and handmade crafts–I’m basically selling my soul.

I’m getting better at allowing disinterest to not sink in too deeply. I tell myself that not everyone likes reading.

That maybe she’s not interested because she has three kids already.

That maybe this first-time mom with the 1-week-old baby doesn’t need a cheerleader in her life. Maybe she has enough support. Maybe that’s why she’s not jumping at the chance to buy this book.

But it’s hard.

Today, as my mom and I packed up our table and chairs, I focused on the positive.

Four books sold.

Yes, that’s all.

But the book is now in four more people’s hands than it was before the day started.

Onward we go.

“My Gift to You, First-Time Mothers”

Here we are, dear readers.

I’m allowing myself to be seen in all moments, not just ones in which I had overwhelming gratitude and joy for motherhood. Not just ones in which people would see me as “a good mother.” I showed myself being ungrateful and whiny and vain.

Because that is real motherhood, especially new motherhood.

You are constantly caught between who you once were and who you are not quite yet. And in that tension, we feel shame over and over again that we are not good mothers. That we fail. That we feel ungrateful and selfish.

And that is not okay. It is not okay to feel shame so often in those first months of motherhood. You have enough to deal with. You should never feel ashamed that you are not further down the road than where you are at that moment.

You are where you are. You are not where everyone else is. And you know what? Everyone else isn’t all gathered together in the same place either.

We are all scattered around different points on this rugged terrain. But when you’re on the top of the mountain, looking down, it’s easy to push a few stones off onto the climbers below you when you’re just flexing a bit of muscle and clout. It’s easy to forget how easily new mothers bruise from being hit by these stones. It’s easy to lose all perspective and empathy for new mothers after you’ve emerged from its grueling initiation.

But don’t.

Don’t lose your empathy for what they are going through.

Don’t lose your ability to cry with them when they desperately tell you that they haven’t slept well in eight months. (That desperation is so real!)

Don’t lose your ability to listen without offering advice. They don’t want your advice, damn it. Unless they pointedly ask you for advice, you know what they want?

A hug. A freaking hug. That’s what they want.

To be heard and to be loved.

The last thing they need is to be shamed (“Well, I never had that problem”) or to be belittled (“Oh, wait until they’re 2! They’re hellions!”) or to be ignored. What they need is for you to tell them 1) that they’re doing a good job, 2) that they are strong, and 3) that you’ll come over and give them a break so they can do something that they want for once.

I wrote this book because I want so much for new mothers to feel understood, loved, heard, and championed. I want them to know that what makes them good mothers is simply getting through that first year—no matter how they get through it. I want them to know that someone out there respects and appreciates how unbelievably hard that first year of motherhood is.

Our government and our jobs may not care. And our partners may not completely understand. But other women who have been down this road can completely empathize. They’ve felt the frustration of having no weekends or holidays “off” for months and months. They know what it’s like to have your existence reduced to nothing but caretaker.

They know. Oh, they know.

So, here is my gift to you first-time moms.

Book-Cover-Becoming-Mother-Kindle

Let me take you into moments that new mothers don’t like to talk about—but that we should. Not to scare you—but to help you feel less alone if you find yourself in similar situations.

We all crave connection, especially in times of uncertainty. So let’s go on a journey together. Let’s tell each other our stories.

I’ll go first.

Book Club Discussion # 2: Who should intervene when women have trouble breastfeeding?

In this post, I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity,” (coming in August 2015) followed by commentary. I intend this post to be a springboard for a book-club-like discussion, so feel free to contribute!

From the chapter entitled, “Feeding”:

“So…” the pediatrician looks at the computer screen before she turns back to me. “Your daughter has lost eleven percent of her body weight in four days. That’s cause for concern,” she nods as she says this.

I am so relieved. I’m not crazy. I knew that she was hungry. I’m not crazy.

“Do you have any idea how much milk you’re producing?” she asks.

I shake my head. “We’ve just been trying to keep our heads above water, so I haven’t even tried pumping.”

“Okay… okay.” She is quiet for a moment. “Have you tried hand expressing any milk?”

“The lactation consultant said that I have flat and inverted nipples, so that’s why I wasn’t able to do that.”

“Okay… So I’d go ahead and try pumping just to get an idea of what you’re producing. It’s not going to be as much as what your baby can pull out, but it will do a few things. It will give you an idea of what you’re producing. It will give you a break from these marathon nursing sessions. And it will keep stimulating milk production.”

She stands up to examine Felicity. She looks into her eyes and feels her belly. “She’s pretty jaundiced, too. We’ll need to follow up on that.”

“Can I ask a question about me?”

She turns to look at me. “I’ve gained eleven pounds of fluid, and it’s all in my legs. And I can’t sleep. I keep trying to go to sleep between feedings, and I just can’t. I’m afraid that if this continues, it’s going to affect my milk coming in.”

“Okay, so that’s something that I’d talk with your OB about.”

Oh, wonderful, I think. Her.

“Great. She’s in Italy,” I say.

“Oh… She’s in a practice by herself?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe the nurses there, then… But really your OB should be the one to consult about those kinds of issues.”

It seems strange to me how we’re talking about all of these issues: Felicity’s weight loss, my lack of sleep and fluid retention, and my milk production. It’s all related, but the pediatrician is responsible for addressing Felicity’s weight loss, not any issues with me. But the issues with me are causing Felicity’s weight loss. It seems to me that someone—I don’t know who—should be treating this problem holistically. This is the time and place where I need someone to help me first so that I can help Felicity. I thought maybe this doctor—my family doctor—would be able to help. After all, she’s also Felicity’s pediatrician. But perhaps there are some legal issues here to consider? Who knows.

“So because of her rapid weight loss,” the doctor explains, “she really needs to have formula as a supplement until your milk comes in.”

There it is. All the on-line breastfeeding forums have cautioned me about this: the dreaded supplementation discussion at the first visit to the pediatrician. But I gather all of their dire warnings about supplementing in the first week and throw them to the wind. I’ll do what I need to do in this moment—regardless of the shame that I know will befall me.

The doctor pulls a starter kit of formula from a cabinet and opens the box. She unscrews the cap of a premade bottle. For a moment, I cringe. But when my doctor hands it to me, I take it. I push aside all my thoughts about the most natural option being the best decision in this moment. Today, living off something synthetic is better than dying from the lack of something natural.

I nestle the nipple of the bottle between Felicity’s lips and she starts guzzling. Her eyes flip open in surprise.

“You want to give her breaks, every half ounce or so,” the doctor advises. “She needs some time for her stomach to realize how much she’s eaten. If you let her eat too quickly, it could come straight back up.”

“So… I should just take it away and check every now and then?”

“Yeah, until you get the hang of it.”

The bottle has useful measurement marks to keep track of how much Felicity has eaten. I pull the bottle away after every half of an ounce. Then, I burp her, and we resume the feeding. Once Felicity has finished the bottle, she is fast asleep in my arms.

“Thank you,” I say. “Just… um…” I shake my head, the heat of my tears stinging as they rise. “This means a lot.” I wish there were stronger words than thank you, but I’m too emotional to find them.

Author Commentary

Even as I share this excerpt, I know that there are plenty of mothers who had a similar experience at their child’s first pediatrician visit. What I write about here is hotly debated among mothers–to supplement or not to supplement?

There are plenty of women who can share an experience of their milk fully coming in after the first pediatrician’s visit–and then feeling like the doctors suggested supplementing too soon. And if they did supplement in the first days of life and suffered from low milk supply later on, they may blame themselves for not having faith in their bodies to do the job. Or they may blame the doctors for not trusting in the strength of women’s bodies.

In my case, I wouldn’t realize until six months postpartum that–while at was at that first visit to the pediatrician–my body was experiencing postpartum thyroiditis. This condition caused me to make about 10% of the amount of breast milk that my daughter needed to survive every day. But I didn’t know this. I could have chosen to say, “No, I’ll keep exclusively nursing.”

But I didn’t. Something just didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the way my daughter looked as she strained and strained to eat, as if trying to draw water from a rock.

Before becoming a mother, I was never one to really trust my intuition. I relied mostly on facts, observations, and research to make decisions. But something shifted in those first days of motherhood and I couldn’t ignore what my intuition was telling me.

We could get tangled up in this messy web of whether or not to supplement while nursing, but I think there is a much bigger question that goes undiscussed far too often when we talk about breastfeeding troubles.

Who should be responsible for intervening when a mother has trouble breastfeeding? 

Right now in the United States, the pediatrician is the first medical professional that a new mother and baby typically encounter after they are discharged from the hospital. But as you can see from the excerpt above, pediatricians don’t always frame their advice and suggestions based on the assumption that the mother and baby are still one unit. They are thinking about the baby–not the mother. But this neglects the fact that the new mother and baby are still so integrally tied to each other in those first few weeks. They still exist in symbiosis. What affects the baby affects the mother–and what affects the mother affects the baby.

After the first pediatrician visit, mothers typically shoulder the responsibility for seeking out help if they are experiencing problems with breastfeeding. They might call a lactation consultant (if their insurance covers the expense.) But lactation consultants (LC) can offer wildly different advice–which leads mothers to calling LC after LC after LC.

So here’s a broad question that I’ll just put out there for you to think about and respond as you feel fit:

What kind of support system do mothers need when they are experiencing troubles with breastfeeding? Who should be involved? And how should they help?

I look forward to hearing from you!

(Want to join other Book Club Discussions? Click here.)

Book Club Discussion # 1: Breastfeeding… or not

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Felicity, March 2014: 7 months old (exclusively formula fed since 2 weeks old)

In this post, I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity,” (coming in August 2015) followed by commentary. I intend this post to be a springboard for a book-club-like discussion, so feel free to contribute!

 

From the chapter entitled, “The Conflict”:

 

Why did my inability to breastfeed cause me so much devastation? Was it perhaps because I still felt so connected to Felicity? Certainly, this presented a paradox: How could our needs be in such conflict while we were still so attached? She needed food, and I couldn’t provide it. It seemed impossible.

But there was another, deeper layer to my devastation—the devastation of a wounded identity, one that was still a newborn itself. That fresh identity as a competent mother—hero of my own story, defender of my newborn baby—was now at risk. I was becoming some breed of mother who didn’t neatly fall into one category or another. How could I have had an unmedicated childbirth and now be formula feeding my baby? What kind of mother was that?

Mothers like me didn’t seem to exist in mommy blogs or on-line forums. Mothers who gave birth without medication always breastfed their babies! They endured the pain so their babies would be alert after birth and latch with no problems. If they could stand the pain of childbirth, the pain of nursing cramps and chomped nipples and mastitis would be child’s play.

This is what I thought.

But again, these thoughts emerge from living in a society that emphasizes choice. When our concerns are not simply feeding our children, we can refocus our concerns on how we are feeding them. And when those feeding choices are presented on a continuum of “good, better, and best”, it’s fairly easy to jump to the conclusion of “good, better, and best mother.”

Even after I reassured myself that I was a competent mother, I knew the stereotypes that follow mothers who formula feed today. Our identities are not solely composed of what we think about ourselves. They also include—whether we like it or not—what others think about us. We may not care what some people think about our parenting, but we want those whom we respect to see us at least as good parents, if not great parents. And so this was a major psychological blow at a time when I was already bottoming out because of the fluctuations in my postpartum hormones.

So when I was unable to breastfeed, I had to reconcile many truths. I had to surrender my commitment to breastfeed. I had to accept that my baby wouldn’t be eating what everyone was calling “the best.” I had to reconcile what this decision said about my new identity as a mother. And I had to accept a very definite separation from my baby at a time when I wasn’t ready to let go.

 

Until I decided to wean Felicity, I had relied on evidence-based research to make decisions about labor, birth, and feeding. And while all of this knowledge helped me to avoid an unnecessary labor induction, it was not the definitive authority that I had imagined it to be during pregnancy. Because I lacked confidence in my own instincts as a woman and a mother, I placed all of my trust in this research, believing that it would provide me the best counsel about how to solve any problem that I could encounter as a new mother.

In fact, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) explored this tendency of American mothers to grant more authority to scientific knowledge than their own intuitive and bodily knowledge. She asserts that this tendency arises from American cultural beliefs that possessing, “scientific knowledge about medical birth” gives mothers power and control in a culture where, “knowledge… is respected… (and) enables one to be a competent player of our cultural game” (p. 31). Not only does her cultural observation explain my intense desire to read and research during pregnancy, but it helps me understand my own distrust in my body’s signals.

But if I had been able to listen to my body and trust my instincts more, I would have probably stopped breastfeeding around eight days postpartum. It was at this time that I knew my milk supply was not going to increase. My daughter was already eating mostly formula despite my constant pumping and nursing. I had done all of the interventions that I could try and the outcome was the same—one to two ounces of breast milk per day. At this point, I had to start denying what was happening to me in order to keep going. Every time I nursed her, I reminded myself that breastfeeding was best and that I was doing the right thing. I refused to let myself focus on the fact that she could only draw half an ounce of breast milk during a feeding. Instead, I allowed statistics and the results of scientific studies to overshadow my own personal experience.

But it wasn’t just research that fueled my self-denial.

It was also my own pride.

 

I shared in today’s breastfeeding enthusiasm to the point of sacrificing my own health. I had read about the dangers of infant formula. I didn’t want processed food going into my baby’s body. Unlike women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, I live in a time when breastfeeding is now heralded as the best decision that mothers can make for the health of their babies. It supports their immune systems. Breast milk is more easily digested, so babies have fewer cases of constipation and diarrhea. It makes them smarter? It decreases their chances of developing obesity? Okay, those findings seemed like a stretch, but I was willing to believe them—since I was going to breastfeed.

But ultimately, it was my own pride that kept me nursing and pumping until I literally had nothing left to give.

I didn’t want to be criticized. But I also didn’t want to be wrong.

(This is only an excerpt from this chapter. Buy the whole book in August! Request an email when it’s available here.)

 

Author Commentary

This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to write because it required me to

1) honestly assess my attitudes before I began breastfeeding

2) honestly assess my actual experience with breastfeeding and position it within the context of modern society’s expectations and norms for motherhood

3) express the chaotic, internal dialogue that ruled my thoughts in those first months of motherhood

4) articulate the complex identity crisis I experienced with enough context for others to understand how and why it occurred

5) be vulnerable to an audience who could choose to write me off as a mother who “didn’t try hard enough”

6) not resort to sweeping conclusions about breastfeeding, but rather acknowledge the truth that other women have very different experiences with breastfeeding

To be clear, I don’t think that breastfeeding necessarily causes an identity crisis for women. Rather, I see it as one of the many ways that we–especially Americans–measure “success.” We do it in every other facet of life. We measure success by the things that we do–studying all night to get an A on that exam, practicing all year to win that dance competition, killin’ it at your job for three years to earn that promotion.

And then we reward this work: trophies, diplomas and degrees, promotions, new and better jobs, new houses. We’ve worked hard enough. Others see us as valuable. Banks trust us.

So if we do this in every other facet of life, why should we expect anything different from the process of becoming a mother? Doesn’t it make sense that we set up these goals to achieve in motherhood and then crumble when we feel like we can’t reach them?

And what happens if we don’t achieve these goals? Quite often, we resort to the fundamentals of attribution theory: If we don’t succeed, it’s because something else stopped us from succeeding, but if someone else doesn’t succeed, it’s because they are somehow flawed.

And this is crucial for understanding why it was such a big deal to me that I couldn’t breastfeed–I knew that a lot of people would ascribe my “failure” to breastfeed to flaws in my own personality. I wasn’t tough enough. I was uneducated. I wasn’t vigilant enough seek out the right help. And this is why I found it so critical to defend myself by oversharing the awful details of my descent into hell with others. If they just understood my situation, they would understand, I thought.

This happens a lot with expectations for birth, too. In my case, my expectations for birth rather closely aligned with what actually happened (with some frustrating deviations–to be told at another time). But I was able to come out of that experience with the feeling that I had “succeeded.” And so, my identity as a “good mother” was bolstered by this experience.

So I really think that the identity crisis comes from having strong expectations before you give birth, not living up to those expectations, and then feeling like the society in which you live is actively measuring your success in motherhood according to those expectations. That–I believe–is the perfect storm for this kind of identity crisis.

If you are a mother, what expectations, or even “goals,” did you have before you gave birth? Did reality match those expectations? If not, how did it make you feel and how did you cope?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

 

References:

Davis-Floyd, R. (2003). American Birth as a Rite of Passage, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press.

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