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Breastfeeding was a luxury I couldn't afford

Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her husband, Chris, and her two daughters. Mary loves to write about all of the things she loves the most: motherhood, marriage, food, current events and really great books.

I was too poor to breastfeed, but that doesn't mean I didn't want to

Shortly after giving birth, I had to make a decision that would ultimately limit my ability to breastfeed my newborn daughter. I was forced to take a long, hard look at our bank account and deal with the reality that a sufficient maternity leave was not an option for me.

I had already come to the realization that my full-time job in hospitality wasn’t going to work for our family, with its long hours, last-minute call-ins and the low pay that wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of day care. Now I had to deal with the fact that I had no paid maternity leave available to me, and my husband’s salary fell short of covering our monthly bills. Backed into a corner, it seemed my only choice was to find flexible work that allowed us to avoid the cost of day care altogether and to return to work as soon as possible.

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At four weeks postpartum, I returned to work with my breast pump in tow. I was cleaning a school and a church seven nights a week after my husband got home from work and working in patient transportation at a hospital on Saturdays and Sundays. With two part-time jobs, I was able to scrape together full-time hours. Since both my jobs paid just above minimum wage, my husband also picked up extra work on the weekends to supplement his full-time income. It wasn’t easy for our family. We were brand-new parents spending most of our time apart, and our marriage was struggling under the stress of our situation. We hung in there, knowing we were managing to pay the bills and hoping something would change before the exhaustion of our situation took its toll.

There was one problem: My weird hours and part-time jobs were not lining up with my goal to breastfeed. One job was a small business, so it wasn’t held to the laws for pumping moms. I wasn’t able to pump during my time at work unless I could finish my tasks quickly and clock out early to pump before I headed home. On one occasion, I was asked to stay late and stood there awkwardly trying to explain to my childless boss why I couldn’t put off pumping any longer, only to be told I would just have to wait.

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Having already struggled with my supply from the start, inconsistent pumping or no pumping while I was away from my daughter was like the nail in the coffin. Within weeks of my return to work, I was supplementing with formula to keep up with my daughter. By 6 months, she was drinking mostly formula, and my milk supply had dwindled to nothing. Although I tried and tried to rescue my supply with supplements and extra pumpings, nothing I could do would make up for the fact that I wasn’t able to pump when I was away from home.

I was heartbroken when I finally decided to stop trying to encourage my daughter to nurse from an empty breast. I couldn’t help but feel that standing between me and my desire to breastfeed my daughter for the first year was the fact that I didn’t have the privilege of being home with her full time. It seemed obvious that breastfeeding was a luxury I simply couldn’t afford.

I know I am not alone. Low-income and middle-class mothers all over the United States are dealing with the same struggle every day.

“Unfortunately, there is a sharp socioeconomic divide when it comes to breastfeeding,” Jennifer Grayson explains in her op-ed for the LA Times. “Studies show a distinct correlation between parents' income and education levels and a mother’s likelihood of breastfeeding. Privilege helps a lot.” 

I often wonder when things will change. How can one of the most advanced countries in the world offer such terrible support to new mothers? How can we know the importance of breastfeeding in the first year and not offer mothers the resources they need to succeed? Why is it that we understand what a vital role an adequate maternity leave plays in maternal and infant health but refuse to make paid leave a priority?

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Before the arrival of my second, I was able to take a small but important step in my career to work for a hospital in behavioral health full time. For the first time ever, I was working in an environment that not only followed the laws in place for working and pumping moms, but my co-workers bent over backward to make sure I got the time I needed to pump every day. Because of this, I was able to breastfeed my second daughter for a year, with occasional formula or donor milk supplementation. Now that the birth of my third baby is just around the corner, I feel extremely grateful to have made the transition to full-time freelancing, allowing me to work from home and hopefully breastfeed successfully for a year.

The truth is, I am one of the lucky ones. My circumstances have changed, allowing me to afford the luxury of breastfeeding my second and third children. I know I am privileged being able to stay home with my kids so I can focus on their care for the first year. But I have also seen the other side of the coin.

I have felt the heartbreak of leaving my baby way too early because my employer didn’t offer paid leave. I have felt the embarrassment of hand-expressing in a bathroom stall just to get some relief when I wasn’t given time to pump. I have felt the guilt of knowing that breast is best but being held back from giving my baby the best because of my circumstances.

Breastfeeding may be natural, it may be a free option for feeding a newborn, but for mothers like me, the resources and support needed to succeed cost too much.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

I was too poor to breastfeed, but that doesn't mean I didn't want to
Image: Leilani Rogers/Photos by Lei

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