I didn’t realise it at the time but the first brave decision I made as a parent was to formula feed my baby.
During my pregnancy and prior I assumed I would breastfeed. It wasn’t a question to me, it was simply a fact. I confess to even having looked down upon mothers I saw publicly bottle feeding their children because I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to give them the best start in life. Breastfeeding is free! It’s beautiful! It’s a huge ‘fuck you!’ to society’s increasingly pervasive assertion that breasts exist solely to please men and so do not really belong to the women who own them or the babies they are designed to nourish!
It was a total no-brainer.
Within twenty minutes of Little T’s arrival he was suckling at my breast. Even though I couldn’t feel much below my shoulders after a misplaced spinal block and I was absolutely exhausted, that first feed was the most wonderful moment of my life. It eclipsed the birth itself (most likely because I didn’t have two surgeons elbows deep in my entrails) and I basked in it. It felt right and natural and was a first step to healing the trauma of the induction. I was swept up in a tsunami of contentment and Big T looked down on us, a proud husband and new father, and all was right with the world.
Little over four weeks later, I stopped breastfeeding.
Feeding Little T had been difficult. There were problems with weight gain and latching, and the middle-of-the-night marathon feeds were taking their toll, but none of that is what stopped me.
I’d been steadily sinking and I hit the floor with a thud. Increasingly I felt like I should run away, just clear out my bank account and disappear somewhere – whether that meant alive or dead didn’t matter. I didn’t believe I was a good mother or wife, didn’t believe I was capable of it. Every morning when my husband went out to work I dispassionately wondered whether I’d ever see him again.
Objectively I knew I had PND, but no number of husbands, friends, doctors or health visitors could convince me I wasn’t a terrible person who didn’t deserve to be happy. It was as though the two things were separate in my head.
And yet there was still enough fight in me that I listened when Big T pleaded with me to talk to a doctor, to ask for medication, to try, for him and for our son. He knew just how to get through to me, by being strong enough to essentially call my bluff.
“Just talk to the GP, and ask for medication. If it works then brilliant, you’ll feel better… And if it doesn’t then you can leave us if that’s what you need to do, I won’t stop you. I just want you to try for us.”
Thinking now about how brave it was of him to say that makes me want to sob. He made it impossible for me to argue. What harm could there be in trying? What did I have to lose? So I saw my doctor that same week.
Which brings me back to the beginning of the end of my breastfeeding.
My depression was without doubt severe enough to warrant meds of some kind. Without going into unnecessary medical detail, there are breastfeeding compatible drugs available, sertraline and paroxetine being the commonly prescribed (though there are others), but in my case, I’d taken them all before. My mental health history is long and complicated and much of my adult life has been spent trying to find the right drug to treat my combination of pathologies. It’s been a long journey filled with roadblocks of extreme side effects and negligible efficacy and I found the only medication to work for me (without compromising my physical health) was venlafaxine – which is not safe while breastfeeding.
I had to make a decision, and I had to be strong enough to make it without faith in my diagnosis and with the possibility hanging over me that it may not even work. In hindsight I must’ve known deep inside that how I felt wasn’t my fault and that it could be treated, but at the time I was absolutely scared senseless. I had to weigh up the risks and make the horrible decision to either start taking venlafaxine and give up the beautiful bond I had nursing my son (which could send me spiralling even lower), to pursue therapy which would take time, or to simply leave it and hope my madness ran its course. It was an agonising choice to have to make, and in the end what made it for me was the sober knowledge that if something didn’t change very quickly I wouldn’t be here to try again.
So the decision was made, I got my first prescription, and we started exclusively formula feeding Little T.
At first I found it impossible to give him a bottle without feeling a stab of pain and regret. Whenever I saw a breastfeeding mum I’d feel tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I felt angry and jealous when I heard women talking about the prejudices they’d faced when nursing in public; I wanted to be them, feeding my son the way I felt I was meant to, not hindered by craziness, or whatever it was. The meds hadn’t started working their magic by that point and I was cynical that they would. In my mind all of this was my fault; I’d already fucked up my baby’s early weeks beyond redemption and here I was depriving him of his natural right to his mother’s breast milk. It hurt. It hurt even more when I saw him spluttering formula and gagging on the teat and bringing up his feed due to the excess wind the bottle gave him. I could no longer share skin-on-skin time with him because he’d root for a nipple and start to whimper when I pulled him away which broke my heart, and more often than not caused meltdowns on both sides of our relationship. Big T took on more feeds, including the nights, which helped immeasurably at first. I could sleep! Well, sleep as much as my panic would allow, though it was certainly an improvement, except over time I became aware that there was a hole between me and my son. Big T became better at feeding him, better at winding, better at minimising spit ups. I became scared of feeding times because they were always such an ordeal. The relative calm of my breastfeeding days were replaced by squirming and choking and impatient crying. I was scared I’d made a horrible mistake. I believed I’d given up the only thing I had to offer as a mother.
I turned a corner about two weeks after we moved on to formula. It sounds like a short amount of time now but then it seemed an eternity (hell, it was a third of Little T’s life!). The venlafaxine started to work and it was as though I was an animal coming out of hibernation, squinting at the brightness. I began to embrace bottle feeding Little T and set my mind to making it as easy as possible for both of us. I looked for the beautiful moments during feeds, the close cuddles and the eye contact and the squishy nose kisses, some of which I couldn’t do while breastfeeding, and instead of resenting my husband for his part in nurturing our baby I tried to learn from him and enjoy the bond my two favourite people shared.
When it comes to feeding, certainly in the UK, parents can’t do right for doing wrong. Breastfeeding mothers are labelled ‘tramps’ and asked to leave shops for nursing in public, and formula feeders are constantly badgered by the NHS and assumed to be lazy, or even worse, damaging their children. The truth is that we are all doing what we need to for our babies and for ourselves, which aren’t mutually exclusive priorities. As someone who has experience from both sides of the ‘divide’ it frustrates me beyond measure that mothers are pitched against each other on this issue. Any parent knows that the second you have your child in your arms you might as well throw the rule book away. Nothing is black and white, and nor are our children. We all proudly talk of our children’s individuality and we believe with the strongest conviction that we are the people most able to take care of those incredible little lives, yet when it comes to particular decisions such as feeding, we become dogmatic and intolerant, as though there can only be one right answer to the complicated question of raising every single human being on the planet. It makes me genuinely sad. Parenting is hard enough.
Does it still get me down that I had to give up breastfeeding? Every day. I will always mourn the loss, however dramatic that sounds. I envy breastfeeding mums, and yes, I genuinely believe the adage that ‘breast is best’ if you can and want to do it. Every nursing mother has my full support fighting the ignorance of too much of society.
In my case I made a decision that some research tells me will affect my son’s development. I took away a bonding tool and replaced the comfort of my breast with a plastic substitute and I committed myself to large portions of my day washing and sterilising bottles.
And I may well have saved my own life in the process.
So I proudly take out my bottles and formula in public and nourish my little boy in the knowledge that at my lowest point I was strong enough to make a choice that gave my baby his mother, my husband his wife… and myself?