It was New Year’s Eve when I was sitting in a patient intake room at a mental health treatment facility and my boobs were leaking through my shirt. As tears rolled down my cheeks and going on hour three in that room, I told the psychiatrist I’d just met with a shaky voice that I had been thinking about stopping pumping because I had a feeling I might feel better if I did, that but that I wasn’t sure I could because the guilt I felt about it was too overwhelming to deal with. She told me that the best thing for my baby was whatever it was that was going to make me feel better.
I wept and said, “My baby deserves to have a happy mama, it’s not supposed to be like this.” She looked at me with so much empathy and said, “You’re absolutely right, and you deserve to be a happy mama.”
Just typing this brings tears back to my eyes. There’s a lot to unpack here about my experience with postpartum depression and anxiety and what it was like to receive a full week of treatment at an actual mental hospital for it, and I do intend to share that with you, but it’ll have to be bit by bit. It’s just … a lot.
There are so many opinions and perspectives about breastfeeding and formula-feeding. All I’m going to say about it is that what works for one person may not work for another, so everyone’s perspective and opinion about it is warranted and should be respected. We each have different experiences, and because of that, no one is wrong or unjustified in the decisions they made in their own experience.
With that said, this was my experience with this baby in this life. That’s the beginning and end of everything. It took me a minute to get there, but I feel really good about what I did to make sure I was taking care of me. And that’s super important because, without that, I couldn’t have taken care of Sam and continued to do so.
When Sam was born, we had trouble getting him to latch. They told us he had a high palate, which was going to make it a little more difficult when it came to breastfeeding but it wasn’t insurmountable. We would just need to keep trying. I also had severe edema due to the sudden onset of pre-eclampsia right before he was born, which required induction to get him out. Because I was so swollen, they said, that could have been a contributor to his difficulty in latching on. Just keep trying. The swelling will go away. Try this nipple shield, it should help.
We were using the tiny two-ounce bottles to feed Sam in the hospital with formula, but the language being used was that we were “supplementing” with formula. And although I had attended a breastfeeding class put on by the hospital and had learned that my milk would not come in for a couple of days, it didn’t alleviate the stress I felt about not being able to produce anything he could consume. One of the lactation specialists came in and showed me how to use my breast pump so I could try to get colostrum for him, but even that came out in such a small amount that she literally had me feeding him with a syringe because even the tiniest bit is better than nothing, and you can just supplement with formula, just keep trying. She wrote it on the board in our hospital room so I would have a plan. I like plans.
Two and a half days later, the hospital sent us on our way with this new little life like it was no big deal. (I don’t know why but this still blows my mind every time I think about it.) I stuck to the plan. When Sam ignored my boob or would look at me like what are you doing, why is this happening, please just give me a bottle, this is weird, I kept looking at him and pleading for him to just try. I would shove my boob in his face and alternate holding positions and use the breastfeeding pillow and try not using the breastfeeding pillow for up to twenty minutes and then we would give him formula and/or whatever breastmilk we had in our reserves and I would sit there and pump. And while I pumped, I cried.
Then I started researching pumping exclusively. I decided to try to see the bright side and told myself that if he wasn’t going to latch, then I would pump so he was at least getting breastmilk, and I’d still be a good mom. I felt so demoralized and, honestly, like an utter failure. I had people tell me that pumping exclusively would be harder than breastfeeding, but I was dead set on this. I thought I needed to be a good mom and for me to do that, my baby had to have breastmilk because breast is best and I wanted to be the best. I wanted my baby to have the best. So, I pumped. I pumped for 15-30 minutes every three hours. And I cried.
One night I decided not to wake up in the middle of the night to pump because Jeff said he’d feed the baby and that I should really get some good sleep. When I woke up, I had leaked through my nightgown and onto the sheets. Later that day, because ironies of all ironies, a lactation specialist called me to follow up since we had struggled at the hospital with breastfeeding and they just wanted to check in to see how things were going. I told her he still wouldn’t latch but that I was pumping. I was pumping and my milk supply had come in and I felt good about it because it seemed like I was producing enough to be on par with what he was drinking and what the internet said was “normal.” I also told her I was using an app to track my pumping (because tracking helps you feel like you’re in control of things you have absolutely no control over) and she said it sounded like things were going well despite the fact that Sam wouldn’t latch. Just keep trying.
But then she told me that I would need to probably add 1-2 more pumping sessions a day and never skip a session because I would need to make sure my milk production didn’t suffer since I was only pumping. I cried on the phone with her and told her I was trying. So, I tried to shoot for 10 pumping sessions in a 24-hour period of time.
It didn’t go well. Every time I pumped, I cried. Any time I went any amount of time over three hours between pumping sessions, my phone buzzed and the app reminded me that I needed to pump. It was a cute little reminder of the inadequacy I felt as a mother, as a woman. The anxiety I felt about having to pump made it hard for me to eat, hard to sleep, hard to leave my house. The residual effect of the anxiety made me a nervous wreck and unable to manage my emotions, to a point where eventually my husband was so concerned that professional intervention took place.
The day before I sat in that intake room, I texted my mom: “Do you think if I were to stop pumping I might feel less depressed?” And I texted her a link that gave some instruction and suggestions for how to wean from pumping. I remember talking with her and saying that I thought I was going to start weaning and decreasing the number of times and how long I was pumping, that I was going to make an appointment with my therapist and finally get a haircut, and that I was hoping those things would help me feel better.
Except … I didn’t quite get there.
After staying up all night, I had a meltdown that was punctuated with me telling Jeff that I’d come to the conclusion that things would be better for everyone if I wasn’t here anymore, and that prompted him to call the hospital.
Sitting in that intake room and talking with all of those mental health professionals, it gave me a glimmer of hope that made it clear to me that it didn’t have to be like this. Hearing that I deserved to be happy from this psychiatrist I didn’t know from Adam was the validation I had been so desperate for, especially since I’d convinced myself that my family and my husband telling me that it was okay to stop pumping wasn’t enough.
I knew I needed to throw in the towel because it was making me miserable. That’s it. That’s how I knew.
After a couple of days in the program, I got to a place where the guilt and the fear weren’t eating me alive and I started weaning my pumping. And within a week, my milk had dried up and my body was my own again. I’m not saying it wasn’t painful, but I knew that every minute my boobs hurt and the bags of frozen peas and frozen corn I wore in my bra … all of that was so worth it because it was a way out of the darkness. It was one step forward to getting back to myself. Instead of spending almost half an hour pumping every three hours, I got to have a life, I got to sleep, I got to just hold my baby. The panic I felt about leaving my house started to disappear. I no longer heard the machine say words as it pumped. I deleted the app from my phone so that I didn’t have the nagging feeling that I was inadequate anymore.
It took counseling, a lot of verbal processing, and a sense of community with other moms, other women, for me to get to a place of acceptance and feeling like I wasn’t deficient because my baby wouldn’t latch, I wasn’t breastfeeding, I wasn’t pumping, and he was going to be a formula-fed baby. It took mantras and positive affirmations and reassurance from myself and others that I was doing the right thing, that I was a good mom. That I was enough.
Now, this was not a magical fix for the postpartum depression and anxiety I experienced, and it didn’t magically go away once I stopped pumping, but it was something that helped me.
My experience is not the same as anyone else’s, but sharing our experiences helps us not feel alone, especially when you’re in the dense, dark fog of it all. If my story helps just one person, that’s enough for me. If my experience helps to make just one person not feel so alone or provides any sort of validation for what they’re muddling through, then that’s enough.
I just want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, you are doing your best and you’re a good mama. As long as you’re taking care of you, you’re doing the right thing.