Breastfeeding Guilt Can Suck It

This National Breastfeeding Month, I want to remind you breast isn’t always best

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

We were the only ones in the emergency department. Or at least that’s what it seemed like. The only people I’d seen since we’d arrived were the nurses who checked us in at the front — screening me for COVID-19, and telling my husband that he could go home or he could wait in the car.

Only one parent was allowed in with a child. About 2 months ago when we’d been in the hospital last, we’d both been allowed to stay with our daughter in the NICU. But here in the emergency department, the rules were different.

It was a no-brainer. I had to be the one to stay with our daughter. I was breastfeeding her. Or, I’d been trying to at least — which, it turns out, was the reason we were there.

People talk a lot about breast being best. Like a lot. Like so much that anyone who dares think for a second about not breastfeeding her child is made to feel like she is somehow a negligent or insufficient parent. It is quite frankly, absolute bullshit and it needs to stop.

Yes, I know the studies. I know the research. We all know the benefits — countless benefits — that come from breastfeeding your children. There are health benefits, emotional benefits, weight loss benefits and financial benefits. (Breastfeeding is free after all.)

But what I also know is that breastfeeding, as natural as it is, doesn’t come as easily as what it seems like it should. Some moms can’t produce enough milk. Some moms and babies have trouble with latching. For some moms the whole process wrecks havoc on their mental health. And well, some moms just hate it.

With me, none of those things were the problem. The problem was my daughter couldn’t drink it. I was making milk, so much milk. Gallons and gallons of it. (I kept track.) But it just kept making my daughter sick.

It was Mother’s Day. My first Mother’s Day when she had her first diaper with blood in it. I didn’t know much about parenting, but I knew this wasn’t good. We called the doctor who blissfully got us in that day and pronounced that our daughter had a milk soy protein intolerance.

(Side note: I hope if my daughter reads this one day, she forgives me for talking about her poop in a public forum. Everyone poops, dear, and this is the far from the most embarrassing thing I will do to you. I’m sorry, but also this is a good lesson on not letting shit — literal or figurative — get to you.)

The diagnosis made sense. I’d had the same problem as a baby. My husband and I were given a packet that outlined everything I could and couldn’t eat now to make sure I didn’t upset my daughter’s delicate stomach.

Then we were told not to be afraid to go to the emergency department if more, alarming amounts of blood appeared. This instruction was important for us because we’d been quarantined hard for months at this point — before because of my pregnancy and then because we had a preterm newborn.

But thankfully, an emergency department visit wasn’t necessary — until it was.

It was supposed to be a nice nap. After about six weeks, my husband and I had finally caved a bit on our quarantine lock-down and allowed our moms to come help with the baby while they wore masks and washed their hands like handwashing was going out of style. I’d gone to sleep early while my husband and my mother-in-law watched my daughter.

I woke up to the screaming.

It wasn’t her usual crying. It was worse, way worse or at least it sounded that way to me, because when I heard it, I literally leapt out of bed and ran to the other room to see what was going on.

My husband said she’d been crying like that on and off since I’d gone to bed a few hours ago. I just hadn’t heard her before.

She’d been at the doctor that morning. Another bloody diaper. The doctor had suggested it was just another milk soy protein intolerance thing — maybe, despite my diligent label-checking, I’d accidentally eaten some milk or soy. The soy in particular was tricky — showing up in places I would never suspect, like my lip gloss.

But this time there was the small possibility of something else. Our daughter had just had her two-month vaccines and apparently, one of them, for rotavirus, can in rare circumstances, lead to intussusception — or basically an intestinal blockage. (Do not, I repeat, do not use this as an excuse to not vaccinate your children. Thank you.)

With that on the radar, the doctor instructed us to trust our gut and go to the emergency department if we felt like something was seriously wrong. If our daughter was fussier than usual or seemed like she was in pain.

An intestinal blockage was not something I wanted to mess around with, so we loaded up the car and rushed to the emergency department.

Our room was dark and unlike in the NICU, it certainly wasn’t designed for a baby.

I was alone, desperately had to pee and I couldn’t find a good place to set my daughter down, even for a second so I could adjust the surgical mask I’d worn into the hospital since it was a required COVID-19 precaution.

There was a hospital bed, but it was high and even though my daughter was only 2-months old, she’d been a wiggler since day one. I didn’t feel safe setting her down on the bed, even if it was just while I figured out how to work the rails. I’m not mechanically inclined — that could have taken me awhile.

So instead, I climbed up to sit on the bed, spread out my legs in front of me and placed her between them. My legs acting as the rails I couldn’t figure out. I’d finally gotten her to stop crying and she was sleeping fitfully as I texted my husband who was waiting in the parking lot.

There was no news. No news for what felt like the longest time.

Then, finally, a nurse came in and I asked her to watch my daughter while I went to the bathroom attached to our room. She gave me a new surgical mask. Mine was wet. Whether this was from my tears or my daughter’s, whose head I’d had pressed up against my face to stop her from crying, I’m not sure.

There was more waiting. Then an ultrasound was ordered. Then more waiting.

She was admitted to the pediatrics department.

We were there for a day a half. She had no treatment plan. No medicines to take. Her stay was purely observational. Her ultrasound had come back clean, but intussusception could come and go, so they wanted us to wait and they wanted her to eat. Basically, they wanted to ensure she got back to her usual drinking levels and she didn’t develop dehydration.

But after the first 24 hours, they told me they didn’t think it was intussusception or anything to do with the vaccine necessarily.

They thought it was the milk. In addition to her milk and soy protein intolerance they thought she might also be intolerant to corn.

Do you know many things have either milk or soy or corn? Almost all the damn things.

After a day and a half when they were satisfied my daughter was OK, they gave me another packet of what I could and could not eat if I wanted to breast feed.

And I tried so hard, I really, really did. Until I broke down crying one night because I couldn’t eat chips and salsa. Like, I was full on sobbing in my kitchen in the middle of the afternoon because all I wanted in the world was to eat chips and salsa.

Now, I get it, in that moment, I should have had some perspective. It was ridiculous to cry about not being able to have chips and salsa. I had food. I had shelter. I had a healthy daughter aside from the whole milk intolerance thing. I had it good. I felt like such a jerk.

But more than anything, I felt guilty. So guilty. Because what I wanted most in the world was to just give my daughter the special predigested formula the hospital said I could give her if the food restrictions became too much.

See, they will never straight-up tell you to just do the formula. Or to stick with breastfeeding for that matter. Because they don’t want to pressure you. But I felt pressure any way, so much pressure to breast feed.

But I wasn’t doing my daughter any favors by being a crying, weepy, hungry mess.

Up until that moment, I’d been an absolute freaking trooper. I’d had a pregnancy so good it was laughable. I’d sailed through months of quarantine with hardly any trouble. I’d gone through roughly 12 hours of labor at home, on my own, with no pain medication, before realizing, shit, this is what having a baby feels like. I was remarkably, weirdly calm as my husband and I sped to the emergency department and I had my baby 15 minutes after arrival, one month early. I’d handled the 8-day NICU stay with shocking calm.

I handled the lack of sleep. The cries. The diapers. I handled all of it by running on Coke, cookies and sheer adrenaline.

But now I couldn’t have the Coke. I couldn’t have the cookies and I was sobbing on the floor of my kitchen. All because I felt guilty about wanting to feed my daughter formula instead of breast milk that kept making her sick.

I stopped breastfeeding that night and it was the right decision for me and for my daughter.

Next month is National Breastfeeding Month so you will hear a lot about how it is the best thing for you and your baby. And, yeah, most of the time it is. But sometimes — and this is the thing that nobody tells you — sometimes it’s not.

No one needs to give you permission to stop breastfeeding. But if you need it, I’m giving it to you. I’m giving you permission to stop hating it. To stop trying if it’s not working. To stop beating yourself up if it’s not for you.

It’s easy as parents, and moms especially, to fall into parenting guilt traps. There is always something we could be doing better. There is always another recommendation to follow, another tip to try, another expert to read. There is so much to learn and you always feel like you’re making the wrong decision.

You always want to do what is best for your child. But in doing that, you shouldn’t always sacrifice what is best for you. You can love your child best, care for your child best, when you’re in a good position mentally and emotionally.

So if breastfeeding is detrimental to your mental health and is leaving you sobbing somewhere and unable to care for, or love your baby to the best of your ability, please stop. Or heck, even if you just don’t like it. Just stop.

Stop and then, here’s the crucial step — don’t feel guilty about it.

Because I did for awhile until I realized what kind of example I was setting to my daughter by falling into that guilt trap. As her parent, I would never want her to put herself through what I was putting myself through. I wouldn’t want her to feel guilty for feeding her baby another healthy, acceptable way.

If one day, I found my daughter sobbing on the floor of her kitchen because she couldn’t eat chips and salsa, and because she felt like a bad mom for not breastfeeding, I would pick her up, brush off her tears and tell her she was a great mom.

Then I’d give the baby some formula, and I’d give my baby some damn chips and salsa.

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve written nonfiction children’s books, bar reviews, health care communications and more: https://ashleystrehlehartman.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store