Am I Really a Failure for Not Breastfeeding My Children?

Health & Wellness on 04.15.11
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I started out motherhood as a complete failure. At least that seemed to be what other people thought. I was one of the (what seemed to be few) people who started my children on formula at only a few days old. While I know that the studies all say "breast is best", I felt like I had a fairly strong argument as to why I made the decision, and yet I also always felt like I had to defend my decision to EVERY SINGLE PERSON I discussed it with. Somehow the subject comes up, I mention I didn't, there is a deadpan response of "Oh." and I start in with "I didn't breastfeed because...." every time, still even five years later. Why do women who don't breastfeed have to explain themselves or justify that they are still good parents? 

I Didn't Breastfeed Because...

When I was pregnant with both of my children, I had a completely open mind about breastfeeding. My plan was to at least try it, and I did. Our local hospital is even considered one of the few "baby friendly" hospitals in the U.S. by the World Health Organization because they are such huge proponents of it.

So here is my "I didn't breastfeed because..." explanation. Just in case I need to explain myself. My oldest child, a boy, arrived at 9 pounds 13 ounces late on a June afternoon. By evening I was trying to get him to latch on. Despite his love to eat (which hasn't waned), he really struggled with it. Over the next 24 hours I continuously tried to get him to nurse and actually had some mild success to the point where he at least was getting some nutrition, but it was not working particularly well for either of us. When we were released from the hospital, I went home with the intention of continuing the attempt at it. We left the hospital around 11 a.m. and I tried to feed him several times that afternoon and into the evening with no luck. Even when he was latching on, he was getting very little (I am aware that it takes time for milk to come in). I had a very unhappy baby on my hands, and my own mother telling me to just go get formula. At 7 p.m., after several hours of incessant crying, I gave in and sent my husband to the store for the formula. They say that babies don't need more milk than their mom's have. We gave my son a bottle, and he completely turned around into a happy, content baby. Clearly my newborn baby was hungry.

But I wasn't totally convinced. Maybe I just wanted to prove my mom wrong. I mean the 1970's, when she had me and my two siblings and gave us nothing but formula, were long gone and we now know that breast is best. I called the breastfeeding hotline at my hospital and arranged to get a breast pump so that I could at least be giving him some breast milk even if he wasn't latching on. For days, I spent half an hour at a time pumping only to get half an ounce to an ounce of breast milk. I would mix it with the formula just crossing my fingers that what little I could give him was enough to get him some of what was so great about breast milk. But after about a week, I gave up and went to formula only.

With my daughter, I went into breastfeeding with the same open mind, although I was a little more nervous than the first time around seeing as it hadn't gone so well originally. My 10 pound 3 ounce daughter latched on quite easily and I was thrilled and relieved. But the success was relatively short lived. She did latch on, but again there was just very little milk (although not as bad as the first time), and she just kept sucking and sucking. Another thing that nobody really talks about is how incredibly painful breastfeeding is in its initial stages, or at least it was for me. I would say that I have a very high tolerance for pain.  Did I not mention that I gave birth to the two above mentioned very large babies that averaged 10 pounds apiece with no pain medication? At some point around day three or four with my daughter, and after much aonizing over having "failed" again, I decided that I would actually prefer to give birth again several times a day rather than breastfeed, and so I decided to make the switch to formula.

Is the Backlash Necessary?

I met some resistance from friends and family. They had done it. Couldn't I just try harder? I wasn't allowed to complain about the cost of formula because it was my fault for "giving up" on breastfeeding. As I mentioned before, I am well aware that studies say breast is best. But I am also well aware of the fact that I and my siblings were not breastfed, and we are all very healthy now in our thirties. I have spoken to mothers of adult children who breastfed some of their children and formula fed others, and they have told me that they have seen no difference in their now adult children's health. My own children, now two and almost five, have barely missed a day of school due to illness, but have friends and classmates who were breastfed and who miss weeks on end because they are sick.

I am not in any way trying to dismiss what the research says, but as far as I can tell I am a perfectly healthy and relatively intelligent human being who was not breastfed and my children are as well, and I am tired of it being insinuated that I don't care as much about my children as other mothers of newborns or I failed at one of the most important things in motherhood because I didn't breastfeed my children. I can literally count the number of other people of my generation that I know who chose or were forced for medical reasons to choose not to breastfeed on one hand. One might say that I am the one that thinks I failed, but really, I am ok with my decision. I just never appreciated the awkward reactions of other people when the subject came up. There are much worse things that we can do to our children than to not breastfeed them, and while breast may be best, just because you don't breastfeed does not mean that you are failure.

So all you moms out there who are struggling with it, you are not alone, and there is a pretty darn good chance that your kids are going to turn out alright regardless of your decision. Do what's right for your family. And if you think I'm crazy or weak for not breastfeeding, go ahead and criticize me. I'm content with my decision, and what's most important to me is that I have two very happy and healthy kids with a close bond to their parents.

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