“Just go grab a can of formula; I quit.” I pleaded with my partner to end the nightmare, or at least it felt like a nightmare. I hadn’t slept more than three hours at a time in two weeks. “Is that what you really want?” he asked me while I tried again to get my newborn latched on. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had an overactive letdown and my baby was having a hard time swallowing fast enough.
This wasn’t like how it was with my first two. I formula fed them from the start. The decision to do so was made without much thought. I was 16 and had never even seen someone breastfeed, let alone thought about doing it myself. It was before the brelfie and the movement to normalize breastfeeding.
No one in my family or neighborhood breastfed, or if they did, they didn’t do it in public or even talk about it. Bottles were commonplace. All my dolls growing up were fed this way. I don’t think I even knew that there was another option — one that could one day come from my own body — until I was around 10 years old.
“You aren’t going to breastfeed, right?” my mom asked me as we looked over the book the obstetrician’s office gave all expectant mothers. As a teen, I was still influenced by her opinion. She explained how hard it would be to breastfeed. That it would make it difficult for other people to watch the baby for me — something I was going to rely on to survive. Unlike older mothers who planned their pregnancies, I hadn’t built a life of my own to bring this baby into. That was something I’d have to try to do while mothering. Having to pump would only make things harder. Besides, she told me, if I chose to breastfeed, I probably wouldn’t be able to resume taking lithium — which I depended on to keep my bipolar disorder in check — once the baby was born.
After this conversation, I didn’t really see breastfeeding as an option for me and added bottles to my list of things to buy for the baby.
When I became pregnant with my second child a few years later, I just did what I already knew. Life was very stressful for me during this period. I was in an abusive relationship, living in poverty and without access to reliable transportation. Adding learning how to get a baby to latch on, changing medications and trying to pump to the mix just wasn’t an option. I needed to focus on survival.
Things were very different when I was pregnant with my third child. By this time, not only had I gotten my life together (mostly, anyway), but I saw breastfeeding everywhere. Instead of my mom telling me how hard breastfeeding would be, I was met with encouragement from doctors and nurses during my prenatal visits. I had a supportive partner and was planning on staying home with the baby.
I had time on my side too, I could spend hours researching how to breastfeed. And I did. By the time my baby was born, I must have bookmarked at least 20 different recipes for lactation cookies and had read up on tongue tie and low supply. I felt prepared.
But all of that still didn’t protect me from wanting to quit. It didn’t prepare me for how hard it would be. For being one of the most natural things I’ve ever done, breastfeeding had a very steep learning curve. And although American society is warming up to breastfeeding, there are still way too many societal barriers for most women to succeed. Although we all have the right to choose how to feed our babies, without having a few privileges — like the option to stay home and support from a partner — breastfeeding is a hard choice to make and to stick with.
“No, I don’t want to quit. This is just a lot harder than I expected,” I told my partner that night. “I need support.”
If I had been alone, I might have quit. If I had no choice but to pump so I could go back to work, I probably would’ve quit.
If my life had been as it was when my first two were born, quitting would have been inevitable. It’s only because I had a few privileges on my side that I was able to make the choice to breastfeed and stick with it well into the second year.
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About the author: Navarre Overton is a freelance writer working at home while parenting a toddler and two teens. You can follow her on Twitter.