Pumping, Formula & the end of Mom Guilt

Last week, Lauren shared her experience with breastfeeding and the truth behind an experience that most think will come naturally and easily. I’m beyond proud of her for sharing her story, and for accomplishing something so difficult and rewarding. Sharing our real experiences helps so many of us know we’re not abnormal, and we’re not alone.

I had a very different and similarly difficult experience figuring out how to feed Sloane after she was born. For those of us who can’t, or choose not to breastfeed, there’s an entire other world of emotions and struggles we’re exposed to. As most of us know, and probably have experienced, Mom Guilt and Mom Shaming are REAL. And I think they’re the absolute worst things we can do to one another as women and as mothers. So before I begin, I want everyone to know that in my humble opinion, fed is best. If you’ve chosen to breastfeed your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If you’ve chosen to pump for your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If you’ve chosen to formula feed your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If your baby is happy and healthy and growing…YOU’RE AN AMAZING MOM.

Sloane was a preemie, born 6-weeks early. She was tiny, only 4 pounds, and needed a lot of help learning how to feed herself. We spent the first two weeks of her life in the NICU, helping her to grow and learn how to eat. In the beginning, she was too tired to breastfeed or take a bottle, and so she ate primarily through a feeding tube. And given the rough start she had to life, I was determined to do everything I could to help her succeed. In that moment, one of the only things I could control in the care for my daughter was being able to provide breast milk. And so began my journey with my mortal frenemy, the breast pump.

Those first two weeks in the NICU were a blur of routine. Sloane ate every three hours, so my life was lived in three hour increments. At the beginning of our three hour cycle, I’d go into the NICU, and hold her for 90-mins while she slept on my chest and ate through her feeding tube. Then I’d head back to my room and pump for 30-minutes, clean my pump and eat some food, and then do it all over again. Pumping every three hours was important for me to build up my supply. Overnight, this meant waking to pump multiple times per night, in my cold dark house, with my baby miles away in the NICU. I spent most of the time watching trashy TV and crying. Those were some lonely and emotional nights.

As Sloane got bigger and stronger, she started taking more bottles. We quickly learned the rules for release from the NICU: Sloane had to drink a set amount of ounces from a bottle, at each of her 8 daily feedings, over a consistent number of days to be cleared for release. When we tried to get her to breastfeed, it made her sleepy. So sleepy that she wouldn’t finish her bottle. And when she didn’t finish her bottle, our clock would reset to zero, and we’d have to build up our bank of successful feedings again. After a few very defeating resets, we quickly decided to put breastfeeding on hold, and focus 100% on pumping and bottle feeding. We’d figure out breastfeeding once we brought her home. It couldn’t be that hard, right?!

Well, the day came when we brought her home, and I was an emotional wreck. She was so tiny, and we didn’t have our nurses around anymore to reassure us that she was ok. I diligently logged every single ounce she ate at every meal, to ensure she was getting enough food and growing. I wanted to try breastfeeding, but Sloane and I couldn’t quite figure it out. She was great with her bottle, so we introduced nipple shields to provide the same texture, but something just wasn’t clicking. At this point, I was trying to (unsuccessfully) breastfeed for 20-30 minutes, then give Sloane a bottle for another 20 minutes, then pump for another 30. I was a literal feeding machine, and felt tethered to my couch, unable to escape the cycle.

I couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t breastfeed well, so I scheduled an appointment with a lactation consultant. When she was around, she made it look easy. Sloane and I would be in a groove! Once she left, it was like we had two left feet, and neither of us could make it work. This went on for weeks, with multiple visits from our LC, and no success breastfeeding when she wasn’t around. I was exhausted and emotional. I’d get frustrated with my tiny baby when she couldn't get it quite right, which then made me feel awful. I felt like I needed to figure out breastfeeding, because that’s what all good Moms do right? And couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working for us.

Then, one evening, my husband said what I needed to hear. “Who cares if you can’t breastfeed? Pumping is working, Sloane loves her bottle. Why don’t you just go all in on that?”. He was right (hunnie, look! I admitted you’re right!). And from that moment on I came to terms with the fact that breastfeeding didn’t work for us, and we went “all in” on exclusive pumping.

Well let me tell you, though I was relieved to stop trying to breastfeed, exclusive pumping was no walk in the park.

It was hard. Physically and mentally draining. My pump became another appendage, and I couldn’t leave home without it. I pumped everywhere you could ever imagine (even a few times while driving...shhhh) and lived on a schedule. Once I figured out how to pump and bottle feed simultaneously, life became a little easier. I’d prop up my feet, lay Sloane on my thighs, and feed her while I pumped. This saved SO much time.

Though this was working for us, and Sloane was thriving, I struggled with feeling judged by other Moms for giving my baby a bottle. I don’t know if I was actually being judged, or if I was projecting insecurities. Probably a little of both. I made it a point to tell anyone within a 50 foot radius that there was BREAST MILK in her bottle. I don’t know why I cared so much about what other Moms thought, but I did. I had worked so damn hard to pump that milk, it felt offensive to me if someone thought it was formula. Looking back, it feels like crazy talk, because I am pro formula. Fed is best!

I wanted to feel like a good Mom, and for some reason I felt like being a good Mom meant breastfeeding. Because everyone else around me did it. And talked about how much they loved it, how special it was, how beneficial it was for their babies. How “breast was best”. I’ll never forget a time when I was feeding Sloane a bottle at a park, and a little girl came up to me, curious about my baby and her bottle. I was telling her all about it, and said “I bet you had a bottle like this when you were a baby”. Her Mom turned to me and said “No actually, she never used a bottle when she was a baby." Then turned to her daughter, "sweetie, you never had a bottle like this as a baby, you only drank from Mommy”. My heart sank immediately. While I assume it was not her intention, I instantly felt minimized. Less than. Not good enough. My Mom guilt leapt in, and I judged myself. But why? How was I any less of a Mom for feeding my baby from a bottle? Why was I inflicting so much judgement and ridicule upon myself? Quite often, we are our harshest critics.

I wound up exclusively pumping for five months…five long months. All of my friends who were breastfeeding wanted to make it to one year, and so I felt like I should too. That if I didn’t, Sloane would somehow be at a disadvantage. That I wouldn’t be as good of a Mom. That somehow I didn’t care about my daughter as much as they cared about their kids. But I was exhausted. And I was sick of being tethered to my pump. And I was getting ready to return to work, and was an emotional train wreck at the thought of the end of my maternity leave. Thinking about the logistics of returning to work, a new routine, the stresses of my job, and the pace of pumping on top of it all, my head felt like it was going to explode.

Finally, for the sake of my sanity - yes, I finally stopped to think about ME for once - I made a decision. I decided that the stress of pumping while returning to work would be too much for me to handle. So I committed to myself that I’d wean and introduce formula in my final weeks of maternity leave before heading back to work. Half of me felt elated! And the other half felt selfish and guilty.

And then I weaned. And truth be told, transitioning to formula was one of the best things I ever did for myself. And guess what?! Sloane didn’t skip a beat, took to formula like a champ, and continued growing and thriving. The world didn’t end. In fact, I felt great. I finally started feeling like myself again.

Once I weaned and Sloane was drinking formula, I wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. The ease, the relief, the reduced stress. The fact that it had no impact whatsoever on my daughter’s health or wellbeing. It signified to me that so much of my commitment to keep up exclusive pumping for five months was because of external pressures and my internal monologue. Not necessarily what was best for me or for my family. I have a few friends who’ve exclusively pumped as well, and they felt the same pressures, worries, and fears. When they heard my story, it was like a wave of relief came over them. They weren’t alone. Maybe they didn’t feel like they needed to keep it up forever too. Some felt so much pressure to breastfeed in those early days, despite it not working for them, that their babies were hungry, and were not gaining weight. The pressure to breastfeed should never outweigh the health and safety of our babies.

I truthfully think I’ve come out of this experience stronger and less worried about what others think, more confident in myself and my decisions. Next time around, if breastfeeding doesn’t work for us again, I don’t think I’ll hesitate to introduce formula earlier. And I’ll loudly and proudly declare that there is FORMULA in my baby’s bottle. If he or she is healthy and growing, and if they have all of the love in the world, why should it matter? I’ll know that I’m a great Mom, and my baby will too.

I am so proud of the women who choose to breastfeed, and know how incredibly hard they work to provide this for their children. They should be proud, as we all should equally for caring for our children as best we can. But sometimes I worry that we’ve pushed breastfeeding as the end all be all, and the mark of perfect motherhood, that we forget the ones who can’t breastfeed or don’t want to breastfeed. And sometimes the pressure to be what we’ve painted as the perfect Mom can push us to do things that aren’t the best for our physical or emotional well being. I say this to remind everyone to be kind. To judge less. And to ask questions more, so we can understand and support one another on our paths to be the best Moms we can for our children.

If you’ve chosen to breastfeed your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If you’ve chosen to pump for your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If you’ve chosen to formula feed your baby, you’re an amazing Mom. If your baby is happy and healthy and growing…YOU’RE AN AMAZING MOM.

For any women in a similar situation, exclusively pumping or struggling with breastfeeding, have questions about formula, or just want to talk more, I’m here as a resource! Please reach out to me at thereturnityproject@gmail.com.

Lots of love to all the mamas out there doing their best.