A few weeks ago, I set upon the task of cleaning out my family’s front closet. Behind the coats and old boots, I found something that immediately caused a pit in my stomach and nearly brought tears to my eyes. Just the sight of this seemingly innocuous black nylon tote reminded me of all of the physical and emotional pain it represented. This was the bag I used to cart around my breast pump during one of the hardest periods in my life: my breastfeeding journey.
We are all familiar with the adage “breast is best,” but I am here to argue that maybe breast isn’t always best. While I think we should aim for a world where every mother has the support and resources needed to be able to choose breastfeeding, I also dream that those same mothers would be free to decide not to breastfeed, or to quit without fear of pressure or judgement.
Nothing But the Best
I have two children and breastfed both of them; however, the two experiences were vastly different. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for six months. When I was pregnant with my first son, I remember this coming up in conversation very early in my prenatal care.
Soon after hearing the baby’s heartbeat, I was hearing “breast is best” for the first of many times throughout my pregnancy. I committed to breastfeeding then and there. If it was best, then that is what I would do, because I wanted the best for my baby.
Quickly after our introduction, both exhausted but happy to be together, my son latched and nursed for the first time. Our first few weeks of breastfeeding were an adjustment, but he was eating. I felt good that I was giving him the best thing I could.
Switching From Breastfeeding to Exclusive Pumping
About a month into breastfeeding, I developed an infection on one of my nipples. When my son nursed, his sweet little mouth felt like the jagged edges of a can opener. It was incredibly painful, but I would not be deterred and insisted on continuing to nurse. Despite my best efforts, at two months old, my son just stopped nursing one day and refused to do it any longer. We consulted with his doctor, my doctor, and a lactation specialist, but there was nothing anyone could do.
At that point, my husband could see that I was distressed and exhausted. He suggested that we switch to formula, but I couldn’t give up. Breast was best and that was what I wanted for our baby. I couldn’t nurse, but I could still give the baby breast milk. For seven months, I exclusively pumped. When I say exclusively, I mean that I fed him only with milk that I pumped and that I don’t think I did anything but pump during that time.
I pumped at home, sitting next to a baby that had rejected my breast. I pumped in my office with the door closed, terrified that I had forgotten to lock the door, and someone would walk in to find me exposed, wearing my ridiculous hands-free pumping bra. I pumped in public restrooms, hidden in stalls or huddled in a corner when there was no other privacy.
Milk was on my mind constantly. Would I keep on schedule that day? Did I have all the parts to the pump? Was there somewhere I could store the milk? Did I have enough for tomorrow? I was anxious and miserable. Finally, when my son was nine months old, I reluctantly stopped breastfeeding–only because I physically could not produce enough milk.
Mother Knows Best
My experience is not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are a variety of reasons women may not want, or be able, to breastfeed. Some may not produce milk or enough milk. Certain medications make it inadvisable for women to breastfeed while taking them. Work schedules or other obligations may make it impossible for someone to commit to the full-time job that is breastfeeding.
I have nothing against breastfeeding. With my second baby, I breastfed without any issue for almost two years. It was a beautiful experience, and if I had another baby, I would try breastfeeding again. But what I wouldn’t do is succumb to the feelings of pressure and judgement that made me continue breastfeeding even when it was damaging my physical and mental health.
So instead of breast is best, I believe that breast is great. And, as a society, we should support any mother that chooses to do it. What is truly best can only be decided by each individual mother based on her circumstances. While the old adage “breast is best” may work for some, we must remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, “mother knows best.”