One Mom's Breastfeeding Journey: How It Changed Her Perspective

By: Erin Donohoo:

I approached breastfeeding with a cavalier attitude. My husband and I sat through the lactation course at the hospital and I thought that if it worked out it would be great but if it didn’t then I’d just use formula. My sister in law had a baby a few years before and she wasn’t able to breastfeed. I guessed that it might not be something for me.  I had no idea the path I would take.

When I was admitted to the hospital, I made it clear that I wanted to nurse my daughter. I was able to do so right after delivery. She took right to it and seemed to be doing well. I loved nursing her. The smell of her hair.  The closeness of her body to mine. The comfort that I felt being able to curl in bed with her and have the whole world melt away. I never pictured myself as being so in love with the act of breastfeeding my daughter. It became very comfortable for me to do it. I never had to worry with mixing a bottle, throwing money down the drain when it wasn’t consumed and I could do it wherever I wanted.  Everything was going well and I didn’t want to stop.  There were so many advantages to breastfeeding that I didn’t understand why anyone would ever use formula.  I felt like I was a wonder woman, being able to really be everything my daughter needed.

Did I judge those mothers who used formula?  Yes. Yes, I did.  They were lazy, selfish and uneducated about the miracle of breast milk. Why would anyone willingly go straight to formula or just give up on breast feeding?  It was definitely a selfish move. I had sacrificed  a lot of my body and my year just to get pregnant, stay pregnant and now deliver this perfect being. If I could do it, everyone else should be held to the same standard.

Ten weeks later it all changed.  I realized I wasn’t invincible. My mother died unexpectedly. It was a huge shock to my system. A few hours later I was sitting at the dining room table, planning her funeral with my brother, calling relatives and trying to figure out what to do next. My daughter was starving and no matter how long I nursed her she was not full. I pumped after waiting several hours and barely produced one ounce. I didn’t know what to do. My body had shut down from shock. She was hungry and I physically could not do anything about it. I was falling into hell. I had brought some milk from the fridge with me and I gave it to her. I called a friend and asked the unthinkable: to get her to drive from Birmingham to Auburn and bring me some of the milk I had at my house. Julie did it without a second thought. She also sat at the table and watched me start eating for the first time in a while. The next morning I started making a little more milk. I felt like I had some normal life coming back. I couldn’t let this horrible situation end my perfect nursing experience.  I realized though that there are times that you can’t do it all.

When my daughter was 6 months old, I started weaning her. Pete and I got married well into our 30’s and we knew we would have two children quickly. I had to quit breast feeding to try to get pregnant again. I couldn’t lactate and take fertility drugs. Which did I value more- breast milk in my daughter or not having another child- or having a child much closer to 40?  It was a calculated decision. I didn’t want to stop nursing, and I really didn’t want to give her formula.  I also didn’t want her to be an only child. I started using formula with her and felt terrible. It took six months to get pregnant and every month that I wasn’t pregnant I felt guilty because it could have been a month that I could breastfeed her. I saw women get pregnant while nursing and I was jealous of them. Why was it easy for them and not for me?

When I was pregnant with my son, I told Pete that I was excited about having another child but I was really excited about breast feeding again.  I knew I would be able to nurse him for however long we both could have a mutually satisfying relationship. I longed for the days that I could cuddle him in bed and have those sweet memories made that I had with my daughter.

Of course, everyone knew that I was going to breast feed again. It was never a secret that I did it the first time around.  Somehow it felt a little different though. My sister in law was pregnant (with her fourth) and due two weeks before I was. At a family gathering something came up about the fact that I nursed and she said that I “like, nurse FOREVER”. Forever?  Really?  Cause I felt that I had been cutting it short at 6 months with my daughter. Then I got strange looks when I said that I was hoping to nurse him for a year. I couldn’t figure out why it was strange to nurse him for the first year. I had people say that I was the only person they knew that breast fed. I couldn’t believe it. Was I really a freak?  I was making the very best choice for me and for my family. Mothering was hard enough without people making comments about how I reared my children.  The people who said it was “sick” to know that a mother was nursing that long. As if I was checking him out of AP Biology to nurse him.  I started to realize that I had been one of those judgmental people and now the tables were turned.

Right before my first was born, my mother gave me some of the best advice I could ever hear. “You’re going to make lots of decisions for your children.  Some of them are good; some of them are not that great. But there’s a lot of not so great decisions that you’ll learn from and it’s not going to kill anyone. And if you ask for my opinion I will give it- but only if you ask.”  It’s become my mantra for motherhood. My best friend became pregnant shortly after William was born. She had been trying to conceive for a while and had problems along the way. She has Rheumatoid Arthritis and she stopped taking Enbrel to become pregnant. She would not be able to nurse and take medication. She was hoping that her RA would go into remission and thankfully during the pregnancy, it did. As he got a little older she started feeling the pain again. We had many conversations about what to do and she was very adamant that she wanted to keep nursing. I kept reminding her that she has to take care of herself first before she could take care of the baby. If that meant giving him formula rather than breast milk, it was a perfect choice. Why give him the breast if she wouldn’t physically be able to pick him up? So against all assumptions, I told her to stop nursing when she felt that she needed to go back on Enbrel. She knew when that day arrived and she got over the guilt. He is a healthy and very happy baby.  She’s a happy mother because she feels like taking care of him- and that makes her a better mother and wife. And let me say- after all Jess has been through with her body, she is my flipping HERO.

I nursed William for a little over a year. The beginning was hard. He acted like he was sucking the chrome off of a trailer hitch. I was bruised and tearful. But I was determined to keep at it. He was thriving and the pain became less and less. I worked through it and we had a great nursing experience. William loved to nurse. I could ask him if he wanted to nurse and he would come crawling at warp speed to get to me. My daughter would pull her shirts up and nurse her stuffed animals. She even told me one day “Mommee, those boobies?  Those are William’s boobies!”. I told her to go tell her Daddee the same thing.  My husband still laughs about all the times I nursed in public. Like trick or treating and I just had him attached and walking from house to house. Or in the back of church during the scripture reading was from Isaiah speaking about the comforting love of God being like the nursing mother (and yes, we laughed about the appropriateness of the situation). Or sitting in his (very Catholic) parents living room with everyone standing around and my boob is out with a baby attached. Or twice on the plane to Chicago. Or six rows up from the dug out at Wrigley Field. Or yes, in the dressing room at a drag show where my friend from college had to warn the drag queens that I was in there “so they won’t be freaked out”. After William was weaned, I had 1700 frozen ounces that he finished.  I was quite proud getting him so much liquid gold.

I still miss the nursing of a baby. It is a special, close time that you can’t ever get back. It creates a bond between mother and child that is so indescribable. But I didn’t get a gold star for it.  No pat on the back. Nothing. It’s similar to the rest of the parenting experience. It’s not for the approval of the rest of the world. It’s for your own pride and joy. It’s to live in those moments that you know you have done your absolute best for your family each day.  For me, that happens to mean that I breast feed. It also means that I support other mothers in being good mothers- and not judging them for their choices.