My son wailed, his mouth searching. “It’s right here,” I muttered, trying to cup my breast like the nurses at the hospital had shown me, but he turned his head away, frantic. In the bathroom next to me, my mom attacked the floors with old towels while my husband dialed the emergency maintenance number—naturally, our toilet flooded our first night home from the hospital (I won’t tell you it was because of my first postpartum bowel movement, but I also won’t deny it).
Throughout our hospital stay, I’d suspected that my baby was hungry. He cried constantly, sucking so fiercely my nipples bled. I watched him for the satiety cues the nurses described—relaxed fingers, heavy limbs—but I never saw them. Every time I mentioned my concerns, the nurses showed me diagrams of marbles and walnuts, telling me my baby’s stomach was so tiny that he hardly needed any milk. “He’s just having a hard time transitioning,” one nurse said. “It’s really common in C-section babies.”
But during his weight check at the pediatrician’s office the morning after we’d returned home, my baby had lost a pound. “You should supplement him,” the pediatrician said. He passed a bag of formula samples to my husband. “But I want to breastfeed!” I choked out. The doctor sighed. “Nurse him every two hours, then, and come back in two days.”
For the rest of the day, I tried to shove my breast into my son’s mouth while he flailed and resisted. Eventually, my husband took him. “Lie down,” he said.
“You’re going to give him formula!” I accused, but I was too worn down by worry and our son’s frantic cries to resist. Deviating from my exclusive breastfeeding plan felt like a moral failing; if my husband gave the bottle, it was out of my hands. I laid awake crying in the other room, straining to hear. Scott came in a few minutes later to lay our sleeping son in the bassinet. “Did he take it?” I asked.
He looked at me steadily. “He gulped it down,” he responded, and I started crying again. My dream of exclusively breastfeeding was thwarted—my baby had already had synthetic milk at less than a week old.
I was hell-bent on breastfeeding. I’d gotten pregnant during my maternity didactic course in nursing school, and I wanted to ace motherhood just like I’d aced my class. Breastfeeding was an obvious measuring stick. My son’s birth had been traumatic--four hours of pushing followed by a C-section. The word “fail” was written all over my medical chart: failed induction, failure to descend. Were “failure to thrive” and “lactation failure” next? I was grading myself on ounces of breastmilk vs. ounces of formula, and I was coming up short.
The lactation consultant arrived with a scale in a carrying case and a bag of odd-shaped tubes and bottles. She set up her scale on my kitchen table and weighed my squirmy, dissatisfied boy—he’d lost another ounce since our visit to the pediatrician’s office. Under her direction,I tentatively took off my shirt and guided him toward my bleeding, sore nipples. He rooted and screamed before latching on. She watched us, asking a litany of questions—did we have trouble getting pregnant? What had happened during his birth? Had my breasts changed in pregnancy?
“Um, not really,” I said. I’d had to buy new bras, but only because my rib cage was wider.
The lactation consultant put her hand on my shoulder. “I think you have insufficient glandular tissue, and you are going to need to supplement,” she said.
I burst into tears and shook my head, brandishing my breastfeeding book at her. “Almost everyone is able to produce enough milk—” I protested, and she cut me off.
“Almost everyone.” She paused. “Think of the formula like medicine, if you need to. We can increase how much milk you’re making and work to keep your son breastfeeding, but you are never going to make enough.”
Never enough. I hated that I couldn’t feed my baby. I spent my days strapped to feeding tubes and breast pumps, sterilizing equipment while my baby cried from the infant swing, and still it was sour-smelling cans of powder that built my son’s body. The words echoed in my mind every time I mixed a bottle—you’re not enough, you’ll never be enough. Anxiety about everything in this newborn life—my stretch-marked, flabby stomach, my exhaustion, the pain searing my abdomen whenever I moved, the sense of ambivalence toward this hungry, demanding tiny person—coalesced into my obsession with breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was the only quantifiable measure of my success as a mother, and the paltry drops I squeezed out were less than a failing grade, a symbol for all the ways I was inadequate.
When I couldn’t soothe my son but he quieted for his dad, it was because I wasn’t enough. When he was sick enough to be hospitalized, it was because I wasn’t enough. When postpartum depression left me limp and unengaged, it was because I wasn’t enough.
I wasn’t a good enough mother, and I couldn’t stop blaming myself for what I perceived as my own failure.
During my second pregnancy, I told myself I expected breastfeeding to go the same way. I told myself that I accepted my body’s limitations, that there was nothing wrong with formula, that I was, in fact, grateful for it. But the truth is, up until the moment I looked at the scale during my second son’s first weight check, I hoped things would be different. Despite the stockpile of donated breast milk in the freezer, despite the rows of bottles and feeding tubes sterilized and ready on the counter, I hoped I would be enough. Still, here I was, with another baby who’d lost more than ten percent of his body weight, crying for me to give him more than I could offer.
My sense of lack continued to pervade my mothering. My babies asked more of me than had ever been asked before. They needed my attention, my hands, my mind, and I constantly feared I was falling short. I felt lost and uncertain in even the most mundane tasks. I never trusted my intuition, instead looking to my husband or the internet for help when chaos struck. I compared myself to my friends, who all seemed so at ease and happy with their babies, while I went to therapy and filled my antidepressant prescription. I didn’t understand why I struggled so much with this fundamental, all-important role when other parts of my life had come easily.
Lacking sleep and shaken with depression, I was sure I would never be able to feed their bodies or their minds what they needed, no matter how many stories I read or sensory activities I copied from Pinterest. My mind echoed never enough, never enough, never enough through the days of rejected meals and messy floors, the nights of walking and singing and praying for sleep.
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to stop letting breastfeeding define my motherhood. I think in part it was survival—with two children, I couldn’t spend the time I had with my first obsessing and pumping and hating myself. There was too much to do to spend time dwelling on my imperfections. As I stumbled and struggled and learned to let go, I slowly came to believe that my value as a mother was determined by my love for my children rather than my accomplishments. I recognized my sons thriving, and I began treasuring the minutes my baby spent nursing without hating myself for the bottle he guzzled afterward.
As my fenugreek and blessed thistle pill bottles emptied, I stopped replacing them, deciding to save money rather than buy more herbs that might increase my supply by a few milliliters. My pump was relocated to a shelf in my closet. When I nursed my baby, I focused on the moments we were connecting; the snuggles and closeness, rather than how much he was taking in. And when he turned away, I snuggled him even tighter and brought the bottle to his searching lips, grateful that other sources could provide the calories I couldn’t. I came to a place of peace, where I could say I loved breastfeeding, where I could say and believe I was a breastfeeding mother, even if I didn’t fit the mold. I couldn’t give my baby enough, but I had other resources to make up my lack.
I stood shirtless in front of a lactation consultant again a few weeks ago for a prenatal evaluation. In my third trimester with my third baby, my questions and insecurities about breastfeeding are back in full force.
“I agree with your other consultant’s assessment,” she told me. “You have all the physical markers of insufficient glandular tissue, and your history of lactation failure cements it.” There’s nothing like being told your breasts are both aesthetically and functionally lacking to bring back those whispers of never enough, no matter the peace I reached when breastfeeding my second son.
I know as I adjust to being a mother of three, I will feel less than enough in so many ways, not just in the milk I provide. There won’t be enough of me to keep the house clean, to keep every child blissfully happy, to give all the time I want to my marriage. There certainly won’t be enough sleep. I won’t have all the answers, despite the parenting books I’ve pored through and the occasional recourse to that false oracle, Google. There will be moments of lack, moments of doubt. But my worth isn’t determined by the balance of my successes and failures. I may not be able to give my children all I hope for, but my love is offering enough.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys and a brand-new baby girl, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She lives in North Carolina and blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured before on Coffee + Crumbs, and in other publications including Mothers Always Write, Holl & Lane, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.