What No One Tells You About Breasfeeding (5 minute read)

Oh what a topic to write about.  

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Disclaimer: this is a lengthy post.  I missed last week's post so I'm making up for it.  

So I exclusively breastfed my daughter 2 weeks shy of 6 months. I completely weaned her on my birthday as a gift to myself. It was also around the time when Florence Leung’s husband released a statement about losing his wife. 

I’d consider myself a realistic optimist so I try my best to understand and accept why horrible situations happen and I try to see the silver lining in them (Without logic and reasoning to some of the darkest moments of humanity, I don’t think I could do my day job).

A sad and unfortunate event gave me the courage to do a good thing for myself. Her story resonated with me not only because we gave birth around the same time but it struck a strong chord within the Chinese community, bringing awareness of postpartum depression and conversations about mental illness. My dad’s a news junkie (especially stories involving Chinese people) and he was the first one to tell me about Florence. 

I am my father’s daughter in which we both wear our sums on our sleeves. Externally, he is a hardened, retired blue-collar immigrant who would tell me his stories of perseverance where he had to carry water as a kid with his 7 brothers and sisters. 

Internally, he is a sensitive soul softened by his strong and independent wife and daughters. Florence's story brought out that side of him. He expressed the extreme sadness he felt for the family and shared with me an old news story he remembered where a female psychiatrist had a similar outcome. He stressed that mental illness can affect anyone, even those who are experts in that field. In his own way, he was making sure I was taking care of myself.

When I was pregnant, I read a bit about breastfeeding and attended the "ever so eager parents-to-be” workshop with my husband (you know the ones where you’re supposed to simulate labour by holding an ice cube while your partner helps you visualize a flower blooming…side note, doing the Ice Bucket challenge every day would not compare to how much pain labour was for me). Basically, I knew breastfeeding was a hard and daunting task from the get-go so I didn't set high expectations for myself (at least I didn't think I would).

A week or so before my due date, my husband and I went to a friend’s BBQ. At the party, I sat with two moms, hoping to gain insight from them about my impending event.  I’m not sure how the conversation started but breastfeeding came up. Each mom provided their opposing opinion on the matter as I sat there like a fat, water balloon between them. 

The mom on my left nonchalantly told me she exclusively breastfed her toddler son without a hitch but was having a tough time weaning because her son lost interest before she did. 

The mom on my right brought her 3-month-old and was feeding him formula.  She reassured me that formula is totally fine to give and to not feel pressured to breastfeed because it can be very difficult.  

Then they both looked at me and asked me what I'm going to do.  I told them I’m going to try breastfeeding but if it doesn't work out, I’ve got a bunch of formula samples ready.

It was one of the HARDEST things I've ever had to do in my life. I'd say those first weeks were pure torture, physically, emotionally and mentally. 

During the first 8 weeks, I dreaded every feed, all 10-12 of them each day

I asked for help. I got help. 
I had my latch checked by a bunch of folks. 
I saw a breastfeeding consultant. 
I had round the clock nurses come to help me at the hospital. 
My sister (a family doc and mom of 2) even grabbed my boob and stuck it in my baby's tiny mouth. 
I went to community mom support groups. 
I weighed and measured her length every other day to validate my efforts.  

I asked my helpless husband to help. He passed me the nursing pillow. He passed me water. He passed me lanolin. He bought me a nipple shield. He was a cheerleader, texting encouraging messages throughout the day when he was at work. 

I pumped.  
I googled. 
I read articles, blogs, forums. 
I visited the La Leche League’s website every waking hour. 
I wanted to feed her formula many times. 
The latch was painful. 
I had thrush.  
I clenched my jaw every time. 
I cried. I vented. I struggled.  
Then I became motivated to start all over again. 

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It was a mental game that I played with myself every day.  I desperately wanted to know that I was doing a good job as a mom and it was like every feed that I completed provided me with reassurance and validation. 

I can do this! Yes, I can! 

No, I can’t!  Let's read about all those breastfeeding benefits again! 
Yes, I can! Oh, it hurts like the dickens!  Just give her formula! 
No, I can’t! 
Then, it became bearable with slight discomfort. 
Then miraculously at the end of the 8 weeks, it became the norm.  

Her milk drunk face was my highlight at the end of every feed. I cherished the closeness I felt to her during those times. Breastfeeding empowered me, giving me purpose as I defined my new role as a mom.  The next 3 months were breastfeeding bliss. No pain. No leakiness. No awkwardness.  My husband and I got through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Narcos.

I had a major setback at 5 months. I developed a bad case of mastitis.  I had a fever, joint pain, chills and every feed became my worst nightmare.  It was like those first 8 weeks all over again, feeling like a failure who had relapsed (but relapsed from what?).  

That was the moment when Kim Chen released his statement.  I read it and then read it again and again as tears splashed on my phone.  I couldn't do it anymore.  I saw my family doctor and without a single look of judgment, she explained exactly how I should wean.  I completely weaned her in 2 weeks and she was on formula. I was physically healed, emotionally drained and mentally confused.

Why was I so hard on myself when I hadn't set any expectations to breastfeed from the beginning?  Yes, there were nurses at the hospital and posters everywhere, promoting, encouraging and some pressuring me to breastfeed.  

All the resources you get from the government recommend to "exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months."  I remember learning about it in school and memorizing all the physiological benefits of breastfeeding.  No one stated it, but it was like formula was inadvertently associated with another F-word, FAILURE.    

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The moment she was born, I was given a new job, a permanent job with a ton of ambiguity, no prescribed duties, no performance feedback but a lot of responsibility.  The only way I could become confident in the role was to actually do it (talk about being thrown in the deep end).  

I knew a baby needed to eat, sleep, play, poop and pee.  And I (along with my partner) was responsible for defining how I do those things.  Breastfeeding was perceived as the most beneficial way to feed my baby and when I'm new at a job, I want to do my best.  

I didn't know that the best way may not be the right way because I did not know what right meant for me.  I didn't know because I hadn't done it before.  How do I know what I can't possibly know?  

Even when I talked to other mothers (like at the BBQ), I received mixed opinions.  The Internet provides an even more ambiguous stream of information. It's like how you can find 10 articles telling you coffee gives you cancer and then find 10 other ones telling you it will prevent it.

So in the end, fed is best.  As long as the child is healthily gaining weight and growing in length, a mother should have the right to feed her child in the way she feels is appropriate.  Having done both breastfeeding and formula methods, I appreciate the benefits of each.  

Let's have compassion, respect, and empathy for each other as we navigate through this already difficult job as parents.  Accepting ambiguity is one of the core tenets of parenthood and I try to take it one day at a time.

So Readers, what's your take on breastfeeding? For moms, what was the right way for you to feed your child?

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