When my third son was a year old, I stopped breastfeeding. He was not pleased.
In fact, because I more or less went cold turkey on him, he waged an all-out assault on my breasts, toddling over to me multiple times a day and pounding on my chest while screaming directly into my face. I felt a tiny bit guilty, but mostly, I felt relieved. Three boys in three years meant I’d spent four years and eleven months either pregnant or breastfeeding and I was so done. My husband and I had a weekend away scheduled and I couldn’t imagine hauling my trusty old breast pump along for our first attempt at a weekend of romance in far too long.
While my son was initially furious, I knew he’d get over it. I knew that once he experienced the freedom of bottles and sippy cups — after all, now he could toddle all over the house while drinking — he’d move on completely. And I was right. He was happy, I was happy, everything was fine. Our weekend away was romantic and relaxing, exactly what we needed to reconnect.
But it turns out we came home with an unplanned surprise — our fourth son. Rinse, lather, repeat. Though we’d taken, um, precautions to prevent exactly this sort of thing, the gods of fertility chose otherwise and after a few weeks of shock (and all-day barfing), we felt excited to add this fourth little one to our wild brood.
It worked out. Our little surprise baby is almost six years old now, and those years of slogging through morning sickness/diapers/sleepless nights/toddler tantrums are a fuzzy memory. It still feels intense when I replay it all in my mind, but now that we’ve hit these sweet-spot years of parenting, I can say that it was worth it.
There are a million reasons that breastfeeding is so popular right now. While some of the hype is warranted as a response to generations of women being told to put their boobs away, some of it is just society’s latest way to control and shame women into using their bodies in the way society has decided is honorable.
But can I tell you what I don’t think was worth it? The immense effort and drain on my body, time, marriage, and mental health that was breastfeeding. The truth is, when I look back, the thing that still feels traumatic to me is all my memories of latching my babies, trying to latch my babies, dealing with babies that nurse for ten minutes and then want to nurse again twenty minutes later, feeling so over-touched that if I even felt my husband’s eyes on me as I undressed each night, my whole body tensed involuntarily. Breastfeeding for as long as I did taxed my body, my mental health, and our family’s overall happiness to an almost unsustainable level, and in case I didn’t already make it clear, I’d make a different choice today.
My reality was a combination of the normal, exhausting life of a mother with many small children and the fact of my undiagnosed, unmedicated depression and anxiety. In other words, while breastfeeding and raising young children, I was also dealing with extenuating circumstances regarding my mental health.
Within the last month, I’ve encouraged a mom pregnant with her third baby to supplement with formula as soon as possible, and another mom to stop breastfeeding her five-month-old altogether when she goes back to work later this month. Before everyone freaks out, understand that my encouragement came only after each of these fellow moms shared their unique life vs. breastfeeding dilemmas with me. For a few different reasons, these moms were hinting at their desire to supplement or quit, and I simply affirmed their desires and instincts.
I did this because I trust them.
I did this because they are great moms who love their kids.
I did this because I believe that they know best what their bodies, children, and families can handle.
I did this because there is nothing fundamentally wrong with formula.
I did this because as they told me their stories, I heard the familiar echo of life’s circumstances — the ones that no one else can see, the ones that sometimes you can’t even see, the ones that mean it’s all too much.
I did this because I wish someone had done the same for me.
Here’s the deal; you do not have to breastfeed. You can quit breastfeeding. You can even do a mix of breastfeeding and supplementing with that devil’s juice, formula. You can, and if you want to, you should.
Let’s be honest. There are a million reasons that breastfeeding is so popular right now. While some of the hype is warranted as a response to generations of women being told to put their boobs away, some of it is just society’s latest way to control and shame women into using their bodies in the way society has decided is honorable. The formula industry has been cast as the creation of Satan himself while the mother that breastfeeds despite all odds (and full-time jobs, and mental health crises, and lack of desire) is held up as the Holy Mother, worthy to be praised.
For the love of all, if there’s one thing we should all be screaming from the rooftops right now, it’s that we are capable of agency and self-determination. We are capable of making decisions, and our bodies belong only to ourselves. If we choose to share them with a breastfeeding child, great. But if we choose, for whatever reason, not to, nobody should blink an eye.
Life is hard enough. Motherhood is hard enough. Extenuating circumstances lurk behind nearly every door, and you should never have to reveal them in order to gain societal approval over your parenting choices. And frankly, if we’re so worried about the children, let’s worry about the children whose parents don’t feed them at all. Let’s worry about the kids whose parents aren’t even around to make these decisions. Let’s use our busy-body behavior and shrill voices to speak up for those kids.
If you’re feeling torn, feeling like breastfeeding just isn’t the way forward for you and your child, for your life, then please hear me say — you don’t have to put that baby on your breast even one more time. You don’t need my permission, but just in case the permission of someone who has been there will help, I’m giving it to you.
It’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s probably the exact right thing to do. I spent more than six years pregnant and breastfeeding... and drowning. I wish someone had looked me in the eyes and with one hand offered to pull me up out of the waves, and with the other, handed me a bottle of formula.