I’ve breastfed my daughter for twenty months; on all but three of the days she’s been alive. I’ve breastfed her at every hour of the day and night, and in every room in my house (bathroom included). I’ve breastfed her on buses, in shopping centres, in parks, on curbs, in hospitals, on airplanes, in restaurants, and the shoe section of Walmart. I breastfed her as the sun rose this morning, and as she fell asleep tonight.
I’ve chosen to breastfeed for a lot of reasons*. I’m lazy. It’s cheap and (sometimes) convenient. I believe that it can promote early attachment. I’m sure that I would have forgotten formula every time I left the house. I’ve read too many stories of shameless formula companies engaged in unethical activities. Breastmilk is nutritious. The benefits of breastfeeding are supported by research. It was assumed that I would, and I assumed that I would.
And I hate it.
When Bingo first latched on, we were in the recovery room of a hospital, wedged between a gray wall and other freshly sutured abdomens. Still shaking from the anesthetic, I felt awkward and unsure. Days later, my milk still hadn’t come in. Bingo’s weight dropped, and then dropped some more. She wailed with hunger and we shakily tipped an ounce of formula into her small mouth. I began to resent that this thing that was supposed to be so easy just wasn’t. And then my milk came in. Round circles appeared on my shirt, and I was embarrassed. My body shifted in ways that were totally beyond my control. The dull ache of nursing turned into pain so sharp that I dreaded the baby’s hunger, physically forcing myself not to pull away. And yet, after a month of breastfeeding, one of our midwives smilingly referred to us as a breastfeeding “success story”—without asking, even once, how I felt about it.
It’s gotten easier, absolutely. I can breastfeed in any place and any position. I can breastfeed with my eyes closed (and have). But I hate it, still. I hate the way that breastfeeding feels. I hate the urgency with which my daughter grabs at my shirt, my skin, my body. I hated the shrill cries that required my body to answer, that have been replaced by a whiny demand of “maaaaalllk!” I hate the stares and comments of strangers, whether they’re approving or critical (“You’re so discreet, I barely noticed!”, “You shouldn’t be doing that here.”) I hate the demand that it places on me above all others.
A few months after Bingo was born, I looked at a picture of my friend feeding his newborn baby. In the picture, my friend leans against a wall. He leans so casually that he could be waiting for a bus. He holds his baby close to his chest, and gently feeds him a bottle of formula. I looked at that photo and felt a jealousy so real that I haven’t forgotten about it since.
It’s not that I think formula feeding is inherently better. Feeding a newborn isn’t easy, no matter how you serve it. I’m sure that, at this very moment, another parent is frantically searching a diaper bag for a forgotten bottle, or cursing the formula powder spilled across the kitchen floor, or feeling judged for how their baby is fed, wishing that they could breastfeed instead. I know that the easy moment captured in my friend’s photo was surrounded by other, harder moments. But how much easier would it be, for all of us, if we were all supported to feed our babies in the ways that we choose? What if breastfeeding had been presented as one choice, and not the only choice? What if I had been told in a way that I felt, really felt, that the best way to feed Bingo was whatever way kept us both happy and well? What if I had been able to feed her that one ounce of formula without feeling as if any of us had failed?
I look at all of those what ifs and think: maybe I would have chosen to breastfeed anyways. And maybe I would hate it less.
*None of the reasons why I breastfeed mean that I think anybody else should. I believe that whatever ways you choose to feed your baby (or whatever ways your baby/life chooses for you) are right and good, if they’re right and good for you and your family.