I deserve better than to be judged: On breastfeeding vs. formula

I’m coming back to the beginning to preface this, as it’s turning into a pretty lengthy post. There has been a good amount of argument this week around the Internet (particularly among those on the mommy blogger circuit) about breast feeding vs. formula feeding and whether hospitals should provide free samples of formula to moms.

Honestly, I’ve stayed away from it as much as I can, because this is a bit of a trigger for me. What I have read — on both sides — has brought back a hint of that gut-wrenchingly anxious feeling I experienced at the height of my PPD. I am a formula feeder — not by choice — and, as much as I wish this wasn’t the case, I still feel guilty about it.

So if you don’t want to bother reading my story, please just understand this part. When I became a mom, my world stood still while the rest of the world continued moving around me. It would be great if we all suddenly lived in a vacuum during and after childbirth where we had an easy time making decisions, all things were perfect and we actually got to make choices about all the things that were important to us. But that’s not the case for me, for you or for any other parent in the world.

Things happen. Not every mom is the same, and not every mom’s experience is the same. And these debates over which choice is right and who is a better mommy is painful. I know I put enough pressure on myself to be a good mom without a bunch of other people adding to that by whispering (or shouting, as the case may be) in my ear about how this or that decision is the. most. important. one. and if I don’t choose correctly, it’ll eternally damage my child and my bond with him.

Please, please remember, no matter which side of whatever argument you fall on, that the vast majority of us are out here struggling to do the best we can with what we have. We love our kids just like you love yours. And I’d guarantee that 99% of us would benefit so much more from understanding and support than we would from another argument.

*************************************

I was able to hold Noah only briefly before he was taken to the NICU.

When Noah went to the NICU right after being born (a week late and weighing 9 lbs. 5 oz.), I was unprepared for it on every level.

I had dreamed of that perfect moment when Bobby and I took him in our arms and became a family of three. Noah would have immediate skin-to-skin contact, and I would be able to bond with him through breastfeeding right away.

Except it didn’t happen that way.

My doctor warned me that I might not get to hold him right away after she broke my water and found a rather alarming amount of meconium. But, she said, there was a good chance if he cried immediately that the nurse would go ahead and hand him to me.

The first words I said, and I remember it so clearly, when my son was born were, “He’s crying!”

I’m not sure if I physically reached for him — I imagine I did — but every inch of my being ached to have that little screaming, red mess of a baby laid on my chest. I had carried him for nine months, and I was ready to start getting to know my child.

So imagine my disappointment when he was almost immediately whisked away to a warmer to be poked and prodded by nurses. My doctor and delivery nurse were doing their own poking and prodding on me, and I had to ask someone to move out of the way so I could actually even see Noah.

The details surrounding precisely what happened next are a little fuzzy. I was told his Apgar scores were 9 and 9, about as close to perfect as you can get. But then there was some worry about the way he was breathing. They wanted to take him to the NICU so they could figure out what was wrong. I asked if I at least could hold him before they took him away, and someone swaddled him up and handed him to me. Bobby didn’t even get to hold his son until later that night (actually just after midnight, I think).

I had to wait in my room for my epidural to wear off. I had planned a med-free birth, but after 28 hours of laboring with little progress, my doctor and I decided to go a different route. The nurse finally came to help me get cleaned up, and I was cleared to go visit Noah.

We had to scrub in to see him in the NICU. I was sore, tired and achy as I shrugged into the sterile hospital gown that was required to go in the room with him. At that point they had him in a regular cradle, but they would soon move him to an incubator unit because they thought his body temperature was getting too low.

Bobby feeding Noah in the incubator.

The nurses couldn’t be very specific about what was wrong with him, just that he had an infection, he needed IV antibiotics and that we would not be able to hold him just yet. They were not allowing him to eat until the following day, so definitely no breastfeeding.

At some point, the hospital set me up with a breast pump, and I set about pumping every couple of hours. I was running on not near enough sleep after the long labor, and my body ached as if I had the flu. But still I pumped every few hours. The voice of Noah’s pediatrician and my doctor and basically every other person I’ve ever talked to about breastfeeding echoed in my head, reminding me how important that first bit of colostrum is to the baby and how I basically had to use it or lose it.

So I kept at it. We were able to begin feeding Noah small bottles of formula provided by the hospital after a day or so of him being in the NICU, first by sticking our hands in the incubator and eventually actually holding him. The nurses mixed in the little bit of colostrum I produced, praising me for my effort and reminding me how much that would help Noah. But still no breastfeeding. They couldn’t unhook all the wires, and it just wasn’t possible, they said.

I was released on Wednesday after having Noah late Sunday night, and Bobby and I revolved our schedule around pumping and making it back to the hospital with that before it was time for Noah to eat. We were going to the hospital every three hours during the day.

As the week went on, there was some uncertainty about when Noah would be released. First it was going to be after 5 days, then a week, then maybe an extra two days or two more weeks. And I continued to feel worse and worse rather than feeling better. By Friday I suspected it might be something more than just the normal aches that come from childbirth, took my temperature — it was 102. Bobby called my doctor immediately, and she prescribed an antibiotic. We would find out later that Noah and I had the same infection — villitis.

Meanwhile, we were finally allowed that Friday morning to meet with the lactation consultants and attempt to breastfeed Noah for the first time. I cried. It was such a sweet relief. The lactation nurse told me she could tell he was going to be a good breast feeder.

The next morning we were hopeful that Noah would be released. I still felt terrible, but at least I knew what was wrong and had medicine. I had been pumping successfully for a week, and even though it seemed like my supply was not growing like it should, I would be able to actually breast feed like normal soon. We planned to go for Noah’s first feeding that morning so I could attempt BFing him again. Bobby dropped me off at the door about 10 minutes before the scheduled feeding time, and I scrubbed in, put on the hospital gown over my clothes and bopped on over to Noah’s NICU suite with my Boppy pillow in tow.

And when I got there, a nurse I’d never seen before was feeding him a bottle. And I LOST it.

Bobby seriously had to pull me away from Noah’s room and the nurse who was feeding him, because I was sobbing. It was like that whole week’s frustrations and all the hopes and fears about finally bringing our child home all escaped at once. I sank into a chair in the NICU nursing room and buried my head in my hands. Bobby went to grab Noah’s bassinet and pulled him into the room, which was probably the only thing that saved the scene from getting even uglier.

Noah's first day home

We did end up taking Noah home that day, much to our relief. Some things got easier from there, and some got worse. Bobby and I were new parents with no idea what we were doing. We weren’t getting sleep, and suddenly I was up every few hours trying to cram my boob into the mouth of a screaming baby. Difficult even when you’re at 100%, but I was still recovering from the infection that had raged for almost a week before I got treated. I was running a fever every day, and Bobby would tell me months later that I had actually deliriously tried to leave the house “to go feed the baby” in the middle of the night one of those nights.

I tried breastfeeding Noah as often as I could and pumped when I couldn’t. Adding to the stress was the fact that because of Noah’s NICU stay we were still having to take him to have his sodium levels checked about every other day. That particular part of this story is a bit of a blur, but just trust me when I say it was ridiculous and probably never should have even happened, but his doctors wanted to be very cautious.

I set up a follow-up appointment with a lactation consultant because we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, and this was the one bit of advice most everyone seemed to agree on. Again, the lactation consultant commented on how well Noah latched on and that she thought he would do just fine as a breast feeder once I got the hang of it.

Then after I was done nursing him, she placed him on the scale to see if he’d gotten enough. She looked at the nurse with her with pursed lips before she looked at me. She told me it looked like maybe we had better supplement with the bottle of formula I’d brought with me because he’d only consumed about 8 millileters.

I’m surprised I didn’t break down then and there.

Meanwhile the rest of the world spun on around me. My father had been sick for quite some time with lung cancer that spread to his brain, and I knew he was nearing the end of his life. Those people who say that at least it was expected? They really don’t know what they’re talking about.

I knew if I could just make it to Noah’s two-week follow-up with his pediatrician then I could get the all-clear for him traveling and see my father before he died. I wanted him to meet Noah.

Noah’s appointment was at 2:30 on a Monday. My dad passed away around 11 that morning.

Bobby insisted that I pack up and go be with my family, and he was right. I looked him in the eye and asked if he knew that this would probably bring an end to breastfeeding for us, and he said yes. I told him I couldn’t handle the added stress of pumping on the road and in the midst of grieving family members and funeral arrangements. I would return to pumping if I could, but I didn’t pack the pump. What I did pack? As many bottles of ready-to-feed leftover hospital sample formula as I had left.

That trip was hard. My mother had lost her husband of 40+ years. My sisters and I had lost our father. Noah had lost the Papa he never met. My Aunt Merilyn offered to keep Noah at my mom’s house during the visitation and funeral, and I nervously accepted.

My emotions threatened to overwhelm me during this time. I was mourning the loss of my dad, but there was also something else that kept returning to the front of my mind, that kept my shoulders in a perpetual slump and my head down: I felt so guilty. I felt like a failure. I constantly questioned whether I should have brought the pump, whether I should have Bobby bring it with him when he joined me in south Alabama on the day of the funeral. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe I could change my mind. The constant questioning, the pressure, the guilt — they all made me feel as if I could never possibly be the right kind of mom for Noah.

Once we arrived back home after my father’s funeral, I pumped one last time. I didn’t even pump 10 ml. I was done.

The pumping and breastfeeding part might have been over, but the guilt and self-doubt had only just started. Every time I sat down to give Noah a bottle, my body physically yearned to have that breastfeeding connection with him, and I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how many times I cried as I fed him.

Less than two weeks after my dad passed, I would find myself sitting in the hallway of my home, Noah in my lap and a bottle in my hand as tornado sirens went off in the distance. I think the distraction of feeding him was the only thing that kept me from realizing that train-like noise that was roaring outside our house was actually the EF-4 tornado that destroyed a large part of Tuscaloosa.

My mom called, and I answered, not realizing the scope of what was going on. She told me she was watching coverage of Tuscaloosa on the Weather Channel and that they said a huge tornado was hitting the city. She wanted to know if we were OK. We got disconnected.

A lot of cell phone towers were destroyed by the storm, but I would eventually get word to my sister through a text message that we were OK and our house was fine. We were just without electricity and clean water — not exactly conducive to taking care of a baby.

We loaded up in the car in hopes of finding a hotel with electricity nearby. We had no idea what we were setting out into. I will never forget merging onto the interstate connector near our home and the only light being the eerie red glow from hundreds of tail lights. I fed Noah a bottle in the car on our way to stay with friends whose home had been unaffected by the tornado.

Finally back home after staying with friends for several days after the tornado.

If my father’s death hadn’t put an end to breastfeeding for us, the tornado certainly would have. It was impossible to escape the devastation in the following days and weeks because it was everywhere. And all those negative emotions that had been building? They went into overload.

It would be several more weeks before I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. The pressure I put on myself, the guilt, the shame, the feelings of being a terrible mother all combined with the mourning of the loss of my father and the destruction of the city I called home to put me in an incredibly dark place. Losing breastfeeding was one of the issues at the center of this dark universe, and it continues to cling to its place there.

So where does that leave me now? I’m surviving PPD, and I’m learning to accept the fact that breastfeeding just. didn’t. work. out. It’s not my fault. I did what I had to do, and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of that. Because I am surviving. And I have a happy, healthy six-month-old that I am a GOOD mother to.

Six months old, and THRIVING. And Mommy isn't doing too bad either!

If you made it through this, I hope you know that if you are making the best decisions you know how to, then you ARE a good mother, no matter what anyone else says. These topics people love to argue about aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and even if they did, new topics would just replace them.

If you need help, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. If you have questions, you shouldn’t have to fear asking them. And there are most likely people out there who have faced the same or similar things as you who know better than to judge you for not traveling the exact path they have.

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19 responses to “I deserve better than to be judged: On breastfeeding vs. formula

  1. Oh Misty…you’ve said so many of the same things that I felt (and still feel, on a daily basis). I didn’t lose a parent or go through a natural disaster, but my own health problems kept breastfeeding from continuing for us, and I feel guilty and sad about it every. single. day. You are not alone!

  2. Those who “can” just need to remember that not all of us can. After years of fertility treatments we finally had Caleb. I tried and tried to breast feed him, but due to hormonal reasons I just would not produce and we were forced to bottle feed. That was 15 years ago and I got too many negative comments about what a “bad, uneducated” mother I was.

    Then 3 years ago we welcomed Madilyn. I was sitting in a mall food court one day and almost lost it when a grandmotherly looking woman said really loud, “if you don’t want to feed it right you should not have had it.” WHAT!! I almost flipped. Especially since she was just placed in my arms with 0 notice a few days before. Unless you are “matched” months in advanced there is no way you can breast feed an adopted child. I wanted to slap that grandma silly.

    Breastfeeding or not is an individual family decision, that is no ones business. Thanks for writing this reminder post, that we deserve more than judgement.

    • I can’t believe the stuff people think is OK to say. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like if a woman is pregnant or has a small child people take it as license to be rude.

  3. First of all, I love you … all of the things you went through this past Spring — I don’t know how you did it. You are so strong, and I think you know now that you are stronger than you thought you were.

    Anyone who thinks you’re not a good mother to Noah because we’re not breast-feeding can kiss my round white ass.

    There’s only one point here I disagree with. You’re not exactly a “good” mother to Noah. You’re a GREAT mother. Don’t let shitheads on the internet tell you differently.

  4. MISTY BELL. This is like the best post ever!!! And Bobby’s comment is like the best comment ever. You are a fabulous mommy and Noah is lucky to have you. I too dont know how in the world you managed to make it through all of this and the fact that you handled it with all such grace is awesome. While I think BF is great, I also realize – and think others should understand that sometimes despite someones desire too, its just not possible. All that matters is the love and care that you give to that baby, and if there is one thing I know, its that love is NOT lacking from you or Bobby!!! I havent read any negative blogs lately (though I have been out of it for a week or so and maybe I am out of the loop) but I am sorry you have had to deal with it all. I recently wrote a post about my experience with BF and weaning and set it to post next week sometime, but I am going to reread it and make sure it doesnt sound preachy or judgemental as I would never want to sound like that to families who have been through challenges like you!! Love you bunches and keep posting cute pics of your little man 🙂

  5. O honey, I tearing up for you. I love this post. I hate that you didn’t get the dream birth you wanted but I am so happy you made the best of it…and are standing up for it. You are a warrior and I am happy I am getting to know you. 🙂 Many hugs, lady.

    • I’m happy to be getting to know you, too, Brandy. The community I’m finding online through all this has been such a great support.

  6. Oh lady – you have been through some shit. My Mom actually has a very similar story with her father, he also passed away days after my Sister was born – I know how hard that was for her, and my heart is with you for everything you’ve overcome. You are a serious warrior. Fight on!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Morgan. Like I told Brandy above, the online PPD community has been such a big help and support.

  7. So, I just read this blog. And cried reading it. Just wanted you to know I love you, I’m praying for you, and am here for you. And didn’t realize just how tough you’re Spring was; you my friend are quite strong and pretty bad A. Love you friend! 🙂

  8. Thank you for your story. While our details are different, my story (and outcome) is essentially the same. I was diagnosed with PPD at five weeks. Things got worse before they got better Your comment above, about not living in a vacuum in those first crucial few weeks really resonated. Some of my breastfeeding “failure” can be attributed to being pushed to make decisions when I wasn’t ready or didn’t have enough information. I have begun the process of forgiving myself – it’s quite a long road. Thank you for your story, I wish you the best in your recovery.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, and I definitely hope you are able to find peace about your experiences, too. Having a sweet little kiddo that’s healthy (and that I can actually enjoy since getting treated for PPD) makes a big difference for me! And I have hope for next time. Wishing you well in your recovery and forgiveness process, too.

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  12. Very awesome post. So sorry about your events but very well written. Good luck in the coming year. You have so much to be proud of ppd is tough on all.

  13. This post makes me so sad. I am a Lactation Consultant and stories like this just break my heart. Please don’t feel guilty or that you should have to explain your story to people. We all just do the best we can and sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work out. I wish people would be less judgmental.

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