It’s Monday, mid-July. You’ve just finished the tour of the building of your brand new job. The job you’re starting fresh off maternity leave from the job you had to quit because your postpartum anxiety made your chest tighten and your stomach knot up at the very thought of the work you were doing before. You have your breast pump tucked into a bag, and take a deep breath before you tell your new boss that you need a private room where you can pump breast milk on your lunch break. You hope she understands, and doesn’t simply stare at you, wondering why you don’t just give your baby formula.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and you pick your older child up from daycare, and head to your mother in law’s to get the baby. You haven’t pumped since lunch, your breasts are full and sore, and you want to nurse your baby as much as he wants to nurse. You walk through the door, and as your MIL is telling you about her day, she tells you “there’s just a smidgeon of milk left.” You look in the bottle. It’s 2 ounces, and the bottle has been partially consumed so it must be used or dumped. “Well I can just give it to him now,” she says, not understanding why you seem so upset over two ounces. You feel the pain of your milk letting down at the sound of your baby’s cries, and mutter a response through tears.
It’s midwinter, and lack of sunlight is making the postpartum depression unbearable. You make a joke to a friend about going out after work to get your hair cut, or get your nails done. She responds eagerly; it will be nice to do something without the kids. You shake your head and remind her, you can’t. You have to go home and pump, and then it will be time for dinner, and then to get the kids ready for bed.
You’ve been at your new job for six months now. You are invited occasionally to go out with some of your coworkers for their weekly lunch date out of the office. “I can’t,” you say. “I have to–” “Oh that’s right. You’re still doing that?” They’re supportive. But you can’t help but hear the unspoken, why hasn’t she switched to formula?
It’s 6:00am and you are exhausted. Your husband has worked the last four nights in a row, you haven’t had thirty seconds to yourself in two weeks, and your baby will not sleep without your nipple in his mouth. You sneak out of bed, but hear him cry before you’ve even started your pump. And you sit there anyway, trying, knowing you probably won’t even pump a full ounce because he nursed all night long, but one ounce is better than nothing. You grimace at how bad your oatmeal tastes with brewer’s yeast added in, and add a bottle of fenugreek to your pumping bag.
It’s any given night of the week. Your baby is mobile now, and hasn’t seen you all day, and wants mommy now. Daddy takes him upstairs instead so you can pump while he cries for you. Half an hour later, you nurse the baby. And then get dinner started when you should be getting the kids into the bath. You hope that maybe tonight he’ll go to sleep easily, and won’t try and make up for that lost half hour by refusing to let you lay him down.
It’s a week before your baby’s first birthday. Your therapist asks you, “Couldn’t your husband just give him formula, so you can get a break?”
It’s all you can do not to laugh.
I hit a wall with pumping in December, when the PPD and the SAD formed a nasty marriage, around the same time Sebastian starting having trouble sleeping and I started struggling with supply. It felt so pointless. I was giving up sleep. I was giving up my lunch break–the only time in the entire day I otherwise would have the chance to do the Adulting I never can at home. I was letting my baby scream for me from the other room after work while I pumped, because he only wanted to nurse, but if I nursed him before pumping I wouldn’t get any output, and my output was already a constant source of stress.
Pumping moms don’t call it “liquid gold” as a joke. We call it that because that is the value that it has for us. Every ounce down the drain is our time. It’s our baby’s nourishment. I was lucky with my second child in that he has loved table food since we first introduced it, so he could usually be placated with a squeezie pouch or shared food for a bit of milk needed to be stretched to make it through the day. But it’s what we do. It takes our time. With our children. With our spouses. With our social life. With our beds. But mostly with ourselves.
Pumping mamas–I see you. I know you. Up until a week ago when my son turned one, I was you. I have felt the silent (and sometimes not so silent) judgement that comes from all directions. Colleagues. Friends. Family. In many situations, spouses.
Why don’t you just use formula?
I asked myself that. I never asked that with my first, not once. But with my second–I did.
So why not? I can give plenty of reasons, but the biggest is that when I looked at continuing to pump I wanted to cry. But when I looked at supplementing I felt in my heart that I would be more unhappy with that choice. Not because formula is the wrong choice overall. But it was not the right choice for me.
These things helped get me through:
Looking at a full bottle at the end of a pumping session and the complete sense of pride and womanhood that came with knowing I had created a full, perfect meal for my son using only my body. That I could give him some of me to take with him when I couldn’t be there.
A partner who understood my dedication, and picked up as much as he could in taking care of the kids while I was chained to the pump. I absolutely could not have pumped to twelve months without his support.
Supportive friends. One friend even gave me a few bags of frozen milk she didn’t need, and offered more if I ran out. I didn’t need to use them, but knowing they were in there gave me the peace of mind to accept a pumping session here or there where I barely got any output. And the others commiserated, or offered encouragement, and reminded me that it’s a pretty badass thing to work full time and still provide full time food for an infant.
A supportive office. Towards the end I could see the question in people’s eyes, wondering why I was still pumping when my baby was so old. But nobody ever asked, and the women I work with understood that regardless of our day, I needed at least half an hour in a room alone somewhere, and they made sure I got it.
There is nothing wrong with choosing not to pump. It’s hard. And when I say hard I mean hard. All moms have our own unique challenges, and there’s no benefit to playing “who has it worst?” But pumping with a full time job, then coming home and nursing a baby, strips you of your identity in a way no other part of motherhood has, at least for me. It reduces you to a pair of breasts, to a milk machine, to a human pacifier. The only true way I know of to push through when you really, really want to quit, is to look inside, and weigh whether or not it’s the right choice for you, and for your family. And if it is–grab hold of that truth, ask for help anywhere you need it, and dare anyone to ask you why you haven’t switched to formula.
And if it’s not? Don’t. You are not less of a mom. You are not less of a woman. You are a badass for making it this far, and whatever choice you make is the right one for you.