I was happy when I got pregnant. As a disabled person with multiple chronic illnesses I wasn’t sure if pregnancy was possible, but we had tried anyway. I had to go off my medications, when I became pregnant, but luckily the pregnancy hormones helped with some of my symptoms. Eventually I started taking steroids when the pregnancy hormones stopped being effective, but I was just grateful for a safe medication and the relief it brought me.
Having older stepkids, I had already worked through the cult of motherhood. Even though this was my first baby, I had been a full time parent for years.
I had learned there were so many things to potentially feel guilty about when you are raising kids, that it was important to do what you could and understand that you couldn’t do everything. I was pretty laid back and my disabilities meant that I had to roll with the disappointments, like being too sick to attend a school concert, or another day of serving pizza for dinner because neither my husband nor I were able to cook that night (the kids actually liked this one). I usually laughed at my imperfect self and the wonderful kids we were raising and didn’t feel too bad about the disappointments.
I ended up needing a C-section after a grueling 36 hours of labor (luckily I had lots of drugs so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds). In the recovery room they handed me my beautiful nine pound baby and told me to put him to my breast to feed. I thought he had latched on fine and even said “wow, I’m so lucky this was so easy!” Turns out I was very wrong about this.
Even though I saw several lactation counselors while I was in the hospital recovering, he still wouldn’t latch. What I had thought was a good latch after he was first born wasn’t really a latch. I was lucky that I didn’t have issues with postpartum depression or even baby blues, but my husband and I both did have a mini-breakdown in the hospital over breastfeeding.
The lactation consultants had me contorting my body, while my husband held the baby in various positions to try to help with breastfeeding. At a certain point the baby was crying and we, the parents, were crying and feeling defeated and we asked the nurses for formula. They were really nice to us even though (especially because?) we were absolute messes of tears and guilt. They also gave me a breast pump so I could pump instead.
I later found out that my son had a tongue tie (which was undiagnosed by the lactation consultants), which was interfering with his ability to breastfeed.
Even after I broke down in the hospital I still had doctors and nurses insisting that “breast is best” and I should keep trying to breastfeed and it would “all work out.” I had a new baby and felt so vulnerable. I had just had my abdomen cut open and hadn’t slept for several nights. I can’t remember a time that I was more psychologically vulnerable to “experts”. And they were all saying that I needed to breastfeed. (Or at least pump).
If you have never pumped before, let me tell you, it sucks. It’s unpleasant and awkward and I had to wake up every few hours to do it. My chronic illnesses flare up when I don’t get enough sleep and I couldn’t be on my meds while I was feeding my baby breastmilk.
Everyone from pregnancy book authors to my own doctors were saying I needed to breastfeed, so I exhaustedly pumped every few hours and supplemented with formula. I started to feel worse from my illnesses and began thinking about going back on my meds.
At the baby’s first doctors appointment I explained to his pediatrician that I was pumping but supplementing. I told him I had chronic illnesses, was in a lot of pain and was considering stopping breastfeeding and going back on my medications. He said that the best thing for my baby was a happy and healthy (as much as possible) mother and that formula would be fine for the baby. The pediatrician was 100% supportive of me not not breastfeeding. Since I had an okay from him, I bought a cabbage on the way home, put the leaves in my bra (to help with the breast pain) and never pumped again.
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If you had asked me before I gave birth if I would have relied so much on the doctors’ opinion, I would have said “of course not, I make my own decisions.” As a sick person I deal with tons of doctors and do a pretty good job of listening to them, but also taking my own needs and circumstances into account. This time was different; I was so scared as a new mother, I over-relied on everything the doctors said.
My husband was incredibly supportive, but I had to get to the place where I was okay giving up breastfeeding. Even if my son hadn’t had the tongue tie, I still needed my medications to function. Having a baby didn’t change that. If anything it made functioning all that more important.
In hindsight I am angry that until that one pediatrician, not a single medical professional or book I read said that I should consider whether I wanted to breastfeed if it meant more time off my medications. Everywhere I looked the benefits of breastfeeding were being touted with no thoughts to the individual circumstances of the people giving birth. I thought I had a good obstetrician, but there still wasn’t any cost benefit analysis. As a mother it was just assumed that I would put my well being on hold for the sake of my baby.
My experience is very much influenced by the fact that I am white, have private health insurance and generally appear middle class. My specific experience comes from a place of privilege and is not the same experience that someone else would have. Everyone should be able to access the birth and feeding options that they want.
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What really bothers me is this assumption that breastfeeding is what is best for people, especially when a lot of medications are not safe with breastfeeding. Every time I mentioned that I was going to try to breastfeed I was told, “good choice,” by doctors and friends alike. So when I realized my body couldn’t handle breastfeeding, I felt like people around me thought I was making a “bad choice”.
As a disabled person there are many things my body just CAN’T do. While some bodies are able to give birth, there may be other things those same bodies can’t do, like breastfeed. Whether someone is disabled or not, they should be given true choices, so that they can choose whether or not to breastfeed and they will be supported in that decision.