Among women privileged enough—economically, biologically, logistically—to have a choice in their method of feeding a baby, the pressure to breastfeed can sometimes eclipse rational consideration. Breast milk is so superior to formula, this argument goes, that nursing should be prioritized at all costs, over sleep, over freedom, over comfort, over preference. Even women who formula-feed because of a physical inability to breastfeed are judged for it. I reject the assumption that underpins this routine shaming: that physical inability is the only legitimate reason not to breastfeed a baby. We’ve worked too hard to grant women choices, writ large, to codify nursing as the only acceptable one in this case.
My first baby came so early, and I lost so much blood during delivery, that my milk never even came in—an epic breastfeeding flame-out that made me question whether I would even attempt it the next time. By week 35 of my second pregnancy, I was already fearing the all-night feedings and intimate monitoring of my substance intake, with a kind of dread that eventually became hope: I hoped breastfeeding just wouldn’t work again so I’d have an excuse to not do it. (Before you judge me, please recall the political climate of 2017, which made it a terrible year to have to be sober all the time.)
But the benefits of breastfeeding are extolled so heartily that I figured I should at least give it another try, and I was delighted, if a bit surprised, when my second baby latched on just hours after birth. I found beauty in this scene, even if it didn’t thrill me with the oxytocin high I’d been promised. And breastfeeding wasn’t easy, but I seemed to be achieving the right outcomes: The baby was gaining the right amount of weight; his skin was the right color; he shat and pissed mightily. So I settled in for the blur of those early weeks, bonded by boob.
Even though I was soon exhausted and bloody-nippled, the real trouble didn’t arrive until I regained the desire to do, well, anything. This took about a month, once both sets of grandparents and their ability to care for my older child had come and gone, and once the novelty of our little nativity scene had begun to wear. Breastfeeding was cool, I supposed, but what if I wanted to use the space between feedings to, say, cook dinner and eat it? What if I wanted to really wild out and go for a walk for more than 20 minutes, or hit the grocery store? What if I wanted to spend any kind of time with my older child? My precious baby was eating, on average, every 90 minutes, and taking 45 to 60 minutes to complete a feeding. I frayed. My life, my brain, my very sentience were resisting being compartmentalized into 30-minute windows.
It was “working” fine, but it really was not working for me.
“I’m so depleted,” I texted my best mom friends at the end of one of those long, shapeless breastfeeding days. I was drained, sapped, overtouched, desperate for space. I felt as though my baby and I didn’t do anything together except breastfeed. Sometimes as soon as he was done eating, I would practically throw him at my husband, starving for a moment of space.
Breastfeeding was technically “going well,” but I hated it. No matter how often I nursed, I still felt like I was probably doing it wrong: Were the nipple guards interfering with my supply? Did I time that last drink right? Was it safe to take NyQuil for the cold my firstborn had dragged home from preschool? Was the baby’s latch too shallow? I hated the inescapable insecurity, how it ate at me too. I hated how my physical autonomy felt like a distant memory, a coastline too far away to see. I was adrift. I loved my baby, but our feeding method was sucking too much out of me. It was “working” fine, but it really was not working for me.
Full-time formula began to call to me with the fervor of a long-lost lover. I’d seen my first baby sleep through the night months before his contemporaries did, and I missed the independence of being able to share feedings with other caregivers. And from my second baby’s first days in the hospital, I’d refused to do night feeds entirely on my own; I happily handed him over to the nurses while I got two good nights before going home to never sleep again. My husband had done his half of night feedings with our first child, and there was no way I was going to assume responsibility for all of them with our second. He’d give the baby a formula bottle at midnight or 5:00 A.M. after I’d taken the middle-of-the-night shift by breast, giving me back a precious few hours of sleep.
Partially because the baby was doing half his sleeping on my boob, and partially because my supply wasn’t quite keeping up with his voracious demand, formula’s siren call became stronger. So we introduced it for more nap and bedtimes. Oh, how conspicuously well the baby slept! How we slept! And somehow the baby could crush a bottle in 15 to 20 minutes, instead of the hour it had been taking him to nurse. Freedom was suddenly visible.
Physical inability is not the only legitimate reason not to breastfeed; we are allowed, too, to value sleep, autonomy, comfort, and—that hallowed word—choice.
The final death knell for my lactation adventure sounded when, in week six, I had the audacity to, first, take my older son to his swimming lesson (about a two-and-a-half-hour round trip) and then a few days later, take him to a feminist march for about three hours. I didn’t see a feasible way to pump during either a march or a swim lesson, so the combination sent me into a downward spiral of engorgement and supply drop. My breasts ached all week, studded with clogged ducts, which I then had to massage out between feedings, and then to add insult to injury, my baby’s feeding times increased as he tried to urge more milk out of a supply system that had begun to rebel.
This pissed me off. What exactly was biology’s plan here? I had a whole older child to care for! The kid needs a social conscience and the ability to swim, goddamn it! How the fuck did anyone parent more than one child while nursing?
I complained to my mother about this dilemma, and she made a clucking sound in her throat. “Oh, Laura, everything doesn’t have to be so efficient,” she said. “There’s nothing more important you’ll ever do.” I inhaled sharply, my breath disagreeing with her before my brain could. “That’s not—the conclusion I’ve reached,” I said.
Ultimately, I quit breastfeeding at eight weeks, after a week or two of equivocation and some half-hearted pumping. My feeding narrative with my firstborn was defined by obstacle. I wanted to breastfeed and I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried, so I had to embrace formula. That narrative was different with my second. I was capable of breastfeeding; it just didn’t feel like an effective use of my time.
I’m not interested in adding to the world’s store of guilty confessions that I wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t. Physical inability is not the only legitimate reason not to breastfeed; we are allowed, too, to value sleep, autonomy, comfort, and—that hallowed word—choice. The measure of a mother is not in how much she sacrifices. Motherhood is a series of split-second judgment calls, 100 a day, and every one of us has to marshal her best resources toward them. Breastfeeding made sense for my baby and me for eight weeks, and then we moved on to the next choice that made sense. There is no shame here; it’s not a confession but a statement of fact.
A few days after weaning, I was playing with my baby in the family room, cooing over him, tickling him, talking and singing to him. My husband smiled at me from the next room. “You two seem like you’re having a better time together,” he said. And we were.