A couple of years ago, I started writing both of you letters. Slowly at first, as my health took a gentle downward dive; and then more fervently, at NPO midnights and early surgical mornings.
When I gave birth to my son in 2012, I did something that many modern women would condemn me for and even the most understanding lactivists would banish me from society for. I not only decided not to breastfeed, I decided to not even try. It was the first and best parenting decision I’ve made.
When I was pregnant, women (and a shocking number of men) saw my rounded belly and took it as an open invitation to discuss my breasts and what I planned to do with them. “So, are you going to breastfeed?” they asked, and I would answer with my standard vague response, “I’m just going to see how it goes.” A lot of people would say, “Well, you know, as long as you try.” It seemed like the general consensus was that if you tried and failed it was OK. But if you didn’t try, you were selfish.
I went to a wedding when I was seven or eight months pregnant. A guy, who I had met one other time, approached me before the ceremony. He was wheeling around a stroller with a young baby, probably four months old. “So are you going to breastfeed?” he asked. This was literally the second thing he said to me. I was so unprepared for this question that I tripped on my answer and self-consciously crossed my arms in front of my chest. I just murmured something about “trying.”
“Well, you should. I mean once you get past the cracked nipple stage, it’s the easiest thing ever. Plus you’ll lose a ton of weight.” I’m sure his wife, who was in the wedding party, would have really appreciated his sensitivity.
If you’ve never been pregnant or you’re not a woman, you might not be aware of the pressure that is placed upon women to breastfeed. Nothing gets a mommy message board as riled up as the issue of breastfeeding. I made the mistake of wandering onto a Babycenter.com message board one time and watched as women virtually lashed out at each other, hurling conflicting statistics about the importance of how you feed your child. To many of these women, the more you suffered for your child, the more virtuous you were.
I didn’t suffer through cracked nipples or latch issues or whatever problems breastfeeding moms face. I didn’t get that badge of honor for surviving late-night cluster feedings. No, my own personal sacrifice in the name of motherhood came from suffering through nine months of crippling depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
My anxiety and depression were not the typical new mom jitters or hormonal mood swings that even the luckiest pregnant women have to trudge through. These were full-blown panic attacks that left me vomiting and hyperventilating on the bathroom floor. At my best, I was able to fake a smile and talk about nursery colors. At my worst, I was packing a bag and waiting for my sister to come over to check me in to a psychiatric hospital.
Everyone has heard of postpartum depression. There are support groups and books and medications. But no one had ever warned me about antenatal depression (depression during pregnancy), which affects 14-23% of women, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone.
After many failed remedies -- meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, acupuncture, self-help books, exercise, diet changes, homeopathic cures, vitamins, Prozac -- I found a few that sort of helped: an amazingly supportive husband and family, a good therapist and a prescription for Zoloft.
The Zoloft, which is deemed mostly safe during pregnancy, kept my head above water but I still felt like I was one step away from drowning for the better part of a year. I simply survived pregnancy. When Sawyer decided to make his entrance into the world at 37.5 weeks, he came fast and hard. At just under six pounds, he was born with just a few strong pushes. He was tiny and early, but strong and healthy. He had survived my anxiety and depression as well, and wanted to get the hell out. I didn’t blame him.
After the nurse cleaned him off and handed him over to me, she asked, “Are you breast or bottle feeding him?” I told her I would be bottle-feeding. She showed me how to put a nipple on the premixed bottle of formula and I put it to Sawyer’s lips. He drank, happily, without judgment.
I could have tried. After all, I was elated when he was born and in those first few bleary-eyed days after he was born, I was the happiest I’d ever been. But I was not a stranger to anxiety and depression; it had been an on-and-off presence in my life for the past 10 years. I was a seasoned veteran of mood disorders and I knew that they would usually come back unannounced, at the most inopportune time.
I could have breastfed on Zoloft. But for me, an antidepressant alone had not done enough during my pregnancy and I knew there was a very good possibility that my depression would return after the post-birth euphoria had worn off. And I was right. So along with the typical postpartum checkup and first pediatrician visit, I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist.
Now that my treatment options were not limited by pregnancy or breastfeeding, I was finally able to get on a medication that was right for me. Two days after I began my prescription, it was like a switch flipped. I felt more like myself than I had in years.
Taking that medication meant that I had to give up the option of breastfeeding. But I was someone’s mom now and I couldn’t risk falling back as far as I had been. For me, breastfeeding would have been a stupid and selfish decision. If I had decided to breastfeed, it would have only been to try to make myself look good. After all, countless obstetricians and pediatricians had assured me that Sawyer would be happy and healthy on formula. No, I had to be present and capable of taking care of Sawyer, even if that meant I couldn’t follow every single American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to a T.
Yes, I was sensitive about it. I sobbed every time Sawyer would instinctively root at my chest. I felt eyes on me when I mixed up a bottle of formula at the mall. But going through hell and getting to the place of happiness gave me a new boldness. When people asked my why I didn’t breastfeed, I told them the truth, that I had suffered from depression during pregnancy and was now on a medication that wasn’t safe for breastfeeding. If I told someone that I couldn’t nurse because I was taking a blood pressure or diabetes medication, would I have been judged? This was no different. After all, depression is a serious disease, with suicide being one of the top ten causes of death in the United States. But because depression sufferers often look okay from the outside, their ailment isn’t always taken as seriously.
Too many women are bullied into breastfeeding by the one-size-fits-all mentality of society. We are always told that formula is fine but “breast is best.” My story is just one example of why it doesn’t work for every family. And no, formula wasn’t the second-best option for us; it was the best decision for the whole family.
If breastfeeding worked out for you and was a great experience, that is amazing and something to celebrate. I am proud of so many of my friends that were able to breastfeed and wish that I had had that opportunity. But remember that what was best for you and your baby isn’t necessarily the best for everyone else. If you’re a staunch proponent of breast-feeding, consider that the pregnant woman you’re about to advise may be fighting her own far more complicated battle. If you’re a pregnant woman who’s suffering from depression, be honest about it. You could be saving another woman’s life. And if you’re a man, please just shut up.
I’ve learned that being a parent isn’t about doing what’s best, it’s about doing what’s best for your child and family. It was impossible for me to both breastfeed and be a good mother. As a perfectionist, it was hard for me to let go of the ideal of doing both by the book. But I have learned that as a parent I’m going to have to make some big and little decisions. I’m going to have to decide how to feed my kid. I’m going to have to decide between spending an hour pureeing organic carrots or having a tickle fight with Sawyer. I think I’m teaching him a valuable lesson about accepting difficulties and embracing imperfection. Despite (and maybe because of) my parenting shortcomings, he’s going to be OK.