Supplementing

Today we took Thea for her four month check up. I had it in my mind that we’d talk about sleeping and introducing solids. I knew she’d get weighed and measured. I also knew she was “petite” or, let’s be honest, skinny. Without letting myself acknowledge it, because she’s so happy and rarely fusses, I deep down, was worried she wasn’t gaining enough weight.

Breastfeeding has been much more stressful than I imagined. When I heard it was hard, I thought like, finding the right position or getting the baby to latch on properly, or managing leaking would be hard. I suppose those things are new things to negotiate in early motherhood, but for us they were not what made it stressful. Thea started nursing with a nipple shield because she had a tongue tie, and even after her frenulectomy she never would go back to nursing without it. She eats really slowly. A fast nursing session is forty minutes. Most are an hour. For a newborn this is okay, but by four months, most babies are at least a little faster. I had lunch with a friend and her baby the other day and the kid ate and went down for a nap in five minutes. Thea’s still snuggling into position at that time. One week (early on) I spent 70 hours nursing.

Anyway. Pumping, feeding, nursing, had all become sources of near-constant anxiety. I pump in the car on the way to and from track since I can’t pump while I’m coaching (which is usually when Nick feeds her). I’m glued to my phone during practice to see when I need to try to leave (so I can start pumping). I haven’t been the coach I want to be, and I haven’t really been able to explain why either to my high school girls or my male colleagues. I haven’t had a hair cut since before Thea was born because there’s no cell service in my hair salon and I was afraid she’d need to eat and there wouldn’t be a bottle for her. Since she’s still not sleeping through the night and I’m getting sleep-deprived enough to walk into walls, my parents have offered to do a house swap so I can sleep in my bedroom at their house and catch up. But I haven’t been able to say yes because we only have three bags of breastmilk in the freezer and a) what if she drank them all and was still hungry? and b) what am I supposed to do when I have an all-day track meet?

Writing this all out, it seems obvious that I should have just started supplementing. At least for the bottle Thea takes while I’m at work and unable to pump. But I had this idea in my head that formula would be like McDonalds and I needed to avoid it at all costs. I took Fenugreek, guzzled water, ate as much protein as I could fit in my stomach, bought different pumps, different flanges, tried different visualization activities, but not a single minute went by when I wasn’t worried that I didn’t have enough milk in my body or the fridge for my girl.

Thinking back on the polite concern on my pediatrician’s face as she asked us questions about Thea’s milestones I feel so guilty. What kind of weird stubbornness or pride was making me think it was more important that I stick to some ideology than that Thea was gaining weight? She was happy, smiley, sleeping at least a six hour stretch, rolling over,… and then today I realized that even though she is doing all of those things, she’s not getting enough to eat.

I managed to hold it together through the conversation about how to supplement, to answer the questions I know were designed to ensure that she was developing appropriately (other than weight gain), and even through her shots. But, when I saw the lactation consultant I’d met with right after Thea was born, I burst into tears. I was holding a bottle of Similac, Thea was screaming (she wouldn’t nurse or take the bottle after her shots), Nick was exasperated and there was this woman I knew would understand why I was so emotional about this.

The lactation consultant at our pediatrician is an amazing woman. She’s not judgmental about supplementing or formula feeding. She’s funny, straightforward, and supportive. She runs the new moms group at the practice and many moms refuse to leave after their three months of “newness” is up. For all those reasons, I know why seeing her made me feel safe enough to cry, but all day I’ve been thinking about how I might have better explained all the complex, contradicting emotions involved with supplementing to Nick. I thought about googling something like “essay about how breastfeeding is emotional for moms” or “how to explain to your husband why having to supplement feels like failure.” Then I thought I’d try to write about it myself.

So, husbands, this is how your newly-supplementing wife might feel:

  • embarrassment for not realizing sooner that I should be giving Thea more food
  • doubt about every decision I’ve made regarding my body – how much I’ve run, eaten, had to drink, stressed (this isn’t really a decision, I’ve been a tightly-wound New England wacko my whole life as far as I know… even before I lived in New England)
  • fear that Thea’s going to wean herself
  • relief that she can now get as much to eat as she needs no matter what’s in the freezer
  • gratefulness that formula exists and my girl can get bigger even if I don’t have enough milk to help that happen on my own
  • rage that ONCE AGAIN women are made to feel guilty about every single medical decision they make regarding their bodies and their children. Why on earth are (some) women (including me) buying into the idea that we should forgo painkillers while in labor, breastfeed until our children are talking regardless of our work situations or milk supplies? I love nuzzling Thea against me and feeding her and plan told so as long as it works for us. But because that is what feels right for me and my girl, not because I was bombarded with “Breast is Best” signs when I was pregnant. I wonder what the public discourse around breastfeeding (not to mention support for breastfeeding) would be like if men could do it?

Sometimes when I’m nursing Thea in the middle of the night, I think about what we’d do if we were Russian refugees (I used to like to play that I was a Russian refugee as a child… very Cold War, right?). I’d nurse her to make sure she was quiet while the anti-Russian bad guys were near! Then I think about this story I read or saw about a baby that was miraculously silent the entire time he and his family were hiding from Nazis (I imagine this like in the Sound of Music when the nuns distract the Nazis and break their car). Having my sweet daughter has made me aware, sometimes to an obsessive degree, of the fragility of survival. I guess on a basic level, it’s scary, humbling and too close to the bone to think about what would have happened to me, or to sweet Thea in a time before formula.

A woman i know said that breastfeeding is the hardest thing she’d ever done. In my head, I scoffed at her. But I also remember where she was standing, where I was sitting, what our babies were doing, when she said this. I can’t say that breastfeeding is the most physically painful thing I’ve ever done the most or intellectually demanding, but it’s the long-term responsibility with which I’ve been tasked that matters most. And, what is perhaps most emotional of all is that despite the things I did because I thought they would help increase my milk supply or help Thea eat more efficiently, I had almost no control over this Very Important Thing. I couldn’t train for it, study for it, endure pain of it in a way that made me better at it.

And then, like so many things in motherhood already have, this whole episode makes me realize how lucky I am that the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or the greatest pain I’ve ever felt (labor) are still so much less hard and less painful than the paths that so many women are traveling for their children.