by Jennifer Sey
Where were you Stefanie Wilder-Taylor  when I was wrestling infants into the nursing hold on the bathroom floor, reeling in boundless and unfathomable shame for not being woman enough to flood their little bodies with the mommy produced, golden panacea … breast milk? I needed you! I had no one to tell me it was ok that this wasn't going quite as smoothly as I'd hoped, that the formula I was supplementing with wouldn't poison them. I didn't know! Well, I knew in my head but in my heart I felt that with every scoop of Similac I was squirting the equivalent of arsenic down their gullets, condemning them to a life of asthma, allergies, Aspergers and other harrowing afflictions.
Of course, my boys are just fine now. They are 8 and 6, well past the ages in a developed nation where breast feeding is acceptable. They both thrive in school. They have no allergies as I was threatened they would if I didn't nurse them until they were 18 months old. They are not developmentally challenged, never had ear infections and seem to have bonded with me.
I nursed. I did. Both boys got the breast until they were about 8 months old. But they got formula too, from day one. Here's the deal: many years ago, during college, when anorexia transitioned to bulimia, my weight ballooned. And so did my boobs. There was great shame in that. And discomfort. My body was bloated and out of control. And my boobs had a mind of their own, inflating beyond the rest of my oh so puffy physique. To this day, I'm not really sure how big they were.
I crammed those suckers into the smallest size bra possible to avoid having to claim higher letters in the alphabet. I suffered the usual array of symptoms - permanent strap indentations on my shoulders, a sore back and unmanageable embarrassment due to ogling from crude college boys. I hated myself.
So I got a breast reduction. I told very few people because I was ashamed that I needed one. I was mortified that my body was so grotesque and disorderly that I had to mutilate it in order to feel even semi-normal. And then, once I had those puppies knocked down to size, it wasn't like they were small. Still a generous C cup. I still felt pretty unruly. But it was better.
Of course, I didn't think about the impact this surgery might have on my ability to nurse my children a few years down the line. And even if the doctor had told me – and she might have, I don't recall – that there was a chance I wouldn't be able to nurse, I wouldn't have cared. I would have had the reduction anyway. I was desperate.
Ten years later, as I was trying to nurse my son Virgil when he was just two days old, my youthful and perhaps rash decision brought on by shame was shoved back in my face. My milk had most definitely come in. It was one o'clock in the morning and my boobs were giant once again but this time, they were lumpy, hard and misshapen. I was sobbing and frantic when it seemed as if the milk wasn't able to find its way from the container (me) to the baby. The ducts had likely been damaged during the surgery, I was told by my pediatrician though I could barely hear her over the phone due to the raging regret screaming inside my head. Not all of them, she said. But some. Keep trying. With a hot water bottle and a lot of squeezing, I was eventually able to get something going. I fed my son. But on that night and most others to come, my milk would always run out before he was satisfied.
I never produced enough milk to sustain Virgil, and then later Wyatt, without supplementing with formula. And this just brought on more shame. I felt disgraced and somehow dishonorable. I know I seem like a crazy shame machine but that is how it felt. I was ashamed my boobs got so big in the first place, ashamed I cut them down to size, ashamed I couldn't nurse like a “real woman”. And of course, the fact that I hadn't told most of my friends about the surgery made me feel even more ashamed that I'd kept such a silly secret. Here I was, ten years after the fact, “admitting” what I'd done by way of apologizing for why I had to use formula. Ahhh...it was a ridiculous spiral and it was made all the worse by the cult of breastfeeding that is probably most feverish in my home hippie town of San Francisco.
Of course none of my friends judged me. For having the surgery, for not telling them, for not being able to breastfeed full time. But the bad feelings persisted. And they were agitated each time I whipped out a bottle at the park and got the hairy eyeball from the boobalicious milk machines wondering if I'd even tried nursing. Yes! I tried! I still try every day!!!
Things just got worse when I went back to work and attempted the pumping thing which never went all that smoothly for me given my duct problem. What a fiasco. I crammed myself into a Levi's sample closet, surrounded by stacks of jeans, sat on the floor and milked myself between meetings so that my kids wouldn't have to ride the short bus to school in a few years. The stress of trying to do this in the stolen ten minutes between meetings often left me dry as a bone. Nothing. Not a dribble. Or, after nine minutes of nothing, suddenly, like magic rain, the milk would pour forth. Leaving me leaking and breathless upon returning to my cubicle. Nightmare.
I gave up about four months in. I just couldn't hack it. Work was stressful enough. I didn't need the added anxiety of the lactation pump confirming or denying my worthiness based on how many ounces I brought home at the end of the day. I still nursed in the mornings and at night before bed. Mostly because it eased my guilt and made me feel close to my little guys. But when I gave it up entirely I finally felt free of the vicious self-reproach.
Do I wish I hadn't had the surgery? Yeah, kind of. They probably would've shrunk down to normal size after I stopped eating four bowls of ice cream after dinner in the college cafeteria. And I would've probably been able to nurse the way I wanted to. But maybe not. Many women struggle with it.
My kids love me as much as the children who were nursed through toddlerhood love their mommies. They aren't sick or allergic or love deprived. As obsessed as I was with it when they were babies, it seems so unimportant now. It rarely comes up after your kids can unload the dishwasher and wipe themselves. There's the occasional woman who boasts, long after her kids are able to tie their own shoes, “My little Janie never had formula. Nothing but my milk until she was two!” Yippee for you. You get the booby prize. I get half working breasts, a job I love and two kids that like me plenty just the same.
read Stefanie Wilder-Taylor's"In Defense of Formula"