what I want you to know: don’t pity my child because he wasn’t breastfed

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. This guest post is by Lindsay.

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What I want you to know is that I always planned on breastfeeding. It was the only thing that was for certain during my difficult pregnancy, the one constant I could rely on and prepare for when I wasn't sure of anything else at all. My hospital bag was packed with nursing gowns and nursing bras, I had my breast pump waiting by the door in the event that my doctors decided now was the time for the baby to come. I spent weeks upon weeks on bedrest, worrying and feeling myself swell with both edema and anxiety and the frightening realization that things might not be okay. I hoped that I would be able to carry at least to term and worried about my baby's lung development and everything that came with the situation. I worried about everything except breastfeeding, because that was a given. It was the only thing I knew for certain.

I want you to know that I didn't get to see my baby or hold him in my arms until he was already two days old. I will never get those memories back. I will never get to see my parents faces light up as they meet their grandson for the first time. I will never be able to watch my husband proudly show off his son to our relatives and friends. I have a photograph of me, barely conscious and unable to open my eyes, with the lactation consultant holding my baby to my chest so I could experience skin-to-skin time. As I spent days hooked up onto powerful IVs and drugs to keep me stable, they counteracted my ability to breastfeed. I want you to know that I still tried. Even though my doctors told me that due to the medications I was on, my body just wouldn't produce milk, I tried. I want you to know that I spent hours at home trying to pump, feeling weak and sick and running to throw up or gripping the edge of the rocking chair and praying I wouldn't pass out from the dizziness. I want you to know that eventually it came to the point where my husband, mother and doctors told me that my son needed his mother alive more than he needed breastmilk and that continuing to try was futile, but the words fell on deaf ears. Women produce milk. Women breastfeed their children. It was the best thing for this little boy who I loved more than anything in the world. Was I not a woman? And what kind of woman was I, unable to even be pregnant correctly or give birth correctly or feed my baby properly? In a moment of sheer desperation in the middle of the night, I sent a confessional e-mail to my psychologist. She reassured me the same thing, that my son needed his mom to get strong and well. He needed me to love him, read to him, change him, care for him, teach him things and help him grow big and strong. He needed his mom more than he needed breastmilk. I want you to know that I repeated their words like a mantra in my brain and tried to get myself to believe them. I mixed his formula in Medela bottles when we had guests over so that they would assume I was breastfeeding. When friends asked me how wonderful breastfeeding was and didn't I love it, I nodded and smiled, simply wishing I could answer honestly. I was ashamed of my lack of ability, feeling like I wasn't a suitable mother or woman because I couldn't do anything right for my son.

I want you to know that once I gave myself time to get better, once I let the pump sit in the box in the closet and gave my body the medication and rest it needed, life was beautiful. I was able to hold my baby and care for him. I was able to make him bottles and soothe his cries. I was able to change his diapers and read him stories. I was able to be his mom. I want you to know that I realized I was still a woman, I was still his mother, even if I couldn't produce milk of my own. I was able to sing him to sleep as he peacefully dozed off with a smile on his face, his belly full and his heart happy. I was able to nurture him, to love him, to give him the childhood that he deserved. I want you to know that I still felt insecure about my not being able to breastfeed. I still felt like less of a woman, less of a mother. I want you to know it wasn't easy.
The first time I mixed a bottle in public, a breastfeeding mother whispered to her friend and nodded at me with her chin. The friend gave me a sympathetic look and shook her head, half rolling her eyes. I debated running out of the infant storytime class and hiding in my room forever, filling again with that old familiar shame. But I didn't. I want you to know that I kept going to this class and, as it turned out, that storytime class ended up being my son's favorite thing in the world. I could have never gone back like my gut was telling me not to, but I tried to find strength in the pit of my stomach. He deserved to be there as much as any other little boy, singing songs and clapping his hands and listening to stories. He deserved that regardless of what was in his bottle. I want you to know that the critiques continued. A cashier in the grocery store saw me buying formula and said how sad it was that young mothers never think to breastfeed. I cried on the drive home from the store and didn't tell anyone about this. What if they agreed with her? What if they didn't understand how much I tried, how much it just wasn't medically possible? What if they didn't agree that my son needed his mom more than he needed breastmilk?

At that same infant storytime class, I met a mother who has a 10-month old baby girl she adopted from Korea when she was just 3 months old. She was telling another mother about the conditions in which this baby lived prior to adoption, urine burns on her skin and her bones peeking through her skin. The little girl crawled up on her mom's lap, clapped her hands along with the next song and let out the biggest laugh when it was over. She threw her arms around her mom's neck and cuddled her close. "I love you, baby," said her mother. And then a lightbulb went off in my brain. I read that babies who are formula fed will never have the bond and relationship that breastfed babies have. Here was this mother who adopted this little girl, who didn't give birth to her, who didn't have the chance or ability to breastfeed her and yet, they loved one another. They shared a bond. They were both happy, completed one another. I want you to know that I have such a bond with my son. I want you to know that it's possible. That, despite what you will read on the internet, formula-fed babies are just as capable of feeling love. That if there is a medical reason that a mother cannot breastfeed, that if a mother adopts her children, that even if a mother just makes the decision she doesn't wish to breastfeed, these children are still capable of feeling loved. They are still capable of forming a bond with their mothers. And these women? These women are still mothers. They are not women longing to be pitied because they will never have a bond with their children that others do. They are women who are mothers, who are bonded to their children with that unbreakable bond that only mothers and their children can have.

I want you to know that I'm not knocking breastfeeding. I, just like everyone else, know the benefits. I will always plan on breastfeeding any future children that we have. I just want you to know that you're not alone if you can't. You're not alone, and you're not less of a mother or a woman.

I want you to know that I'm now able to laugh when someone says that they pity children who aren't breastfeed. I want you to know that when I tuck in my baby at night, all tight in his swaddle, his belly full and a smile stuck to his face, it doesn't matter to me if somebody out there is pitying him. I know well enough that there is nothing to pity. He is safe and sound, sleeping without a care in the world, and he is a mother who loves him more than life itself.


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