Before the birth, I had high hopes of at least being able to try to breastfeed. I realize most people say this- but my situation is a bit different. For one thing- my plan was to breastfeed with formula.

I’m transgender and I had had top surgery- meaning that my chest is flat and my nipples were literally removed and grafted back on. Not generally someone you expect to have an easy breastfeeding relationship. But I had hopes. It was important to me. My mother had breastfed long enough that I actually remember nursing, it was something that parents just did. With the supplement, my partner would be able to breastfeed our baby as well- we actually expected more success as my partner actually has ample tissue to latch onto.

I’d spoken to my homebirth midwives throughout pregnancy about it. I’d spoken to a lactation consultant who’d given me a breast pump and at-chest supplement. (for anyone wondering on the breast pump: Yes, actually, I can produce a tiny bit of milk from my completely severed nipples through the magic of recanalization. I expressed the few drops into a bottle or two a day for about 6 months when I got fed up with doing it. Hey, if my body’s going to go to that trouble- someone’s going to benefit from it.)
I was given all the information on breastfeeding. It was best. Every little bit was a gift. 80% of the value of breastfeeding is non-nutritional, so even if we have to 100% supplement with formula, it’s still valuable. (I don’t know where that statistic came from, one of my midwives quoted it to me) At pre-natal breastfeeding support groups I was told that babies only need “drops”, that it never hurts, that almost everyone produces enough, etc. Nothing about low supply or tongue tie or allergies or elimination diets or any other problems that can make breastfeeding difficult or even impossible.

Then my baby was born at 3:53 am exactly 2 weeks before my due date, and suddenly all of that support disappeared. The midwives never gave me a chance to latch the baby or try using the supplement, instead cup-feeding. This was despite the fact that I’d lost a good amount of blood in birth and breastfeeding causing contractions would have been highly beneficial to my health- rather than having to wait 12 hours until my dad could pick up the prescription for me. They couldn’t tell me how much my baby should be eating or how often, so used to breastfeeding parents despite knowing for months that we likely wouldn’t be able to exclusively breastfeed. We offered the cup every hour, getting concerned with how little the baby was eating. When we had somewhat recovered and felt bold we tried using the supplementer and kiddo actually took a decent amount, latched onto my partner, but it was messy and difficult and stressful.

Then the lactation consultant came and told us to give up because our baby, who had passed meconium several times and was wetting enough diapers and was a healthy weight and showed no signs of ill health or jaundice, who we offered a feed every single hour, “wasn’t eating enough”. She didn’t want to hear that our baby had taken more on the supplementer- she just told us to give up and go to bottles.

So we did- what else are new parents of a 36 hour old baby supposed to do when told you’re starving your child?

The birth alone basically set me up for PPD. It was traumatic for reasons I don’t want to get into here. It left me unable to stand for the first week, with a baby who needed to be walked around to calm- leaving me to spend 2 weeks terrified of being left alone with my baby and feeling completely incompetent. On top of that was piled having all of the breastfeeding support I’d been offered throughout pregnancy ripped out from under my feet by the very people who had went on about how important it was that I try to breastfeed. The only bright side is that my partner was incredibly understanding and supportive, although was also upset that I went from being fine with having two more children to never wanting to give birth again. On the second night, after we got the baby to sleep in the bassinet, I went into the living room, sat on the couch, and just sobbed.

I wish that people had either been honest about not being able to give me support, or followed through with the promises they made. Promising support throughout pregnancy and then withdrawing it the second the baby arrives is a horrible thing to do to new parents. My partner sometimes wishes that we’d never been told it could be possible, it would have saved us a lot of grief if we’d stuck with the belief that we had to bottle feed.

Well, it was an unusual situation. Surely I’d have more support with bottle feeding, which even exclusively breastfed babies sometimes are! After all, formula feeding is the norm in society, right? It’s breastfeeding that’s shunned and shameful.

I got less support to bottle feed than I got to breastfeed. The lactation consultant who told us to give up gave us no advice about choosing bottles, she didn’t make sure we were using the right bottle for our newborn (we weren’t). Throughout pregnancy, the midwives and WIC never once gave advice on formula despite knowing that I had virtually no chance of producing a full supply. So attached to the dogma of “Breast is best; EVERYONE can breastfeed successfully” were they that they completely ignored the reality of my situation. The closest I got to advice was being told to pay $5/ounce for pasteurized breastmilk (which lacks a good deal of the benefit of straight-from-the-tap breastmilk). Despite having information about breastfeeding and latching and pumping and supply and and and shoved down my throat throughout pregnancy- no one once told me about bottles. I was never told that some have additional parts- leading to a 3 am melt down because I thought our Avent bottles were broken because I didn’t realize I’d left the ring off. I was never told about the different nipple flows and didn’t notice that information on the packaging. I was never told about anti-colic bottles. I was never told how to choose the right formula. I was never told about allergies or intolerances or how to recognize them or what to do. My parenting style is primarily attachment parenting, so the people I could most relate at worst demonized formula and at best had an air of smug superiority (they would never use formula, their baby isn’t a cow! … but, well, it’s okay for your baby), either way they had little first-hand information to give me.

It took a month to realize that we were using a nipple with too fast a flow, and we had had to deal with the tummy problems resulting from that. It took another few weeks to discover anti-colic bottles. We had actually gotten a donor that we trusted and had a supply of frozen breast milk- half of which was thrown up due to the nipple problems. We started on formula after using up the supply of breast milk, switching to half and half when we’d gotten low then going down to one bottle a day until it had completely run out by 3 months.

It took 4 months to find a formula that worked.

My baby never turned down a new formula, never had trouble switching to formula to start with, always took gripe water and gas drops without complaint, and the level of trust broke my heart- this baby just trusted us to know best, meanwhile I felt like every bottle was practically poison. Our pediatrician actually said that no babies ever have problems with formula, so there was no point switching and any problems were “just a phase”. The internet just said that constipation was normal for *derisive sniff* formula fed babies, why, breastfed babies never face such problems- if I really wanted my baby to be able to pass stool without hours of tears and massages and hot baths and bottles of water, I should just whip out a boob! We tried the sensitive, the probiotics, the soy, everything but the prohibitively expensive ones that I was praying we wouldn’t need. It wasn’t until I looked into organic formula that I realized just how crappy all formula in this country is- cue a major break down, coming close to trying to make it at home before realizing I was completely out of my element, and finally figuring out what I wanted and my baby needed in formula. For us, this works: lactose as the only sugar, no palm oil/olein.

Those first five months were hell. I hated myself. I hated bottles. I hated the wasted breastmilk. I hated formula (considerably less of which was wasted as we were using the right bottles). I hated that, eventually, we were paying $50/week for something that hurt my baby. I was terrified our baby would have developmental delays due to spending so much time screaming. I felt like I didn’t deserve to have a baby. It is impossible to feel good about how you feed your baby when it causes nothing but pain. The early months, when your baby can’t smile or giggle, were particularly rough. We only managed to survive because, despite the extreme pain from constipation, gas, diarrhea, etc- we actually have a damn happy, sociable, loving baby. We probably could have bullied through on the wrong formula for a whole year without any long term effects- except that we would never have survived emotionally and our baby simply doesn’t deserve that.

Maybe I just got unlucky with having no support to do either- but I’ve found too many people with the same problems on both sides of the fence to think so. People with all sorts of breastfeeding struggles find themselves with inadequate support after spending their pregnancy being promised support and told misinformation- I’m not alone in that- and many people who formula feed feel just as lost and confused as well.

I can’t help but think that, overall, society is basically set up to make new parents, particularly new mothers, feel inadequate and confused. The so-called “mommy wars” mean that no matter what choice you make on any issue, you’ll have people telling you you’re doing everything wrong and hurting your baby, the environment, the economy, the entire human race. How much support you’ll get in your choice is a lottery based on geography, socio-economic status, social group and sheer dumb luck. Some people get huge amounts of information and support to know how to formula feed, and get judged for breastfeeding. Some people get huge amounts of information and support to know how to breastfeed, and get judged for formula feeding. Some people get no information or support either way.

How many people get information and support for whatever choice they make- bottle/breast, formula/breastmilk, any combination thereof? Because the answer should be “everyone does”.

My baby is now 7 months old and has gone from the 10th percentiles in height and weight at birth to the 75th (kid’s also in the 75th for head circumference, but has always had a big head). While we’ve gotten illnesses that kicked our butts and left us sick for over a week, even needing anti-biotics, our baby has gotten over the same things in 2 days and with barely a fever. Clearly not getting our anti-bodies is doing no harm. It’s been 2 months since we had problems with formula, and it’s now hard to understand why people make such a fuss about how awful it was. Aside from the ultimate anguish of having your baby cry for hours at a time, even the “bad” formula wasn’t doing that much harm- our baby was still growing like a weed, hitting milestones on time if not early, and was happy and curious and sociable when not crying from pain. There’s never been any doubt that our baby has bonded to us, and I have a hard time imagining that even breastfeeding could strengthen that bond.

I still feel inadequate sometimes, though. After spending so long having people tell me “breast is best” and still sometimes being surrounded by people who condemn formula (I’ve greatly cut back from other AP’ers for this reason), it’s hard not to. I’m also still upset by how I was treated, the broken promises. I have a hard time handling talk about breastfeeding or seeing someone do it, even though I support it and think people should be free to do so in public.

Next time, I still want to give it a shot. My biggest regret is that I never properly got the chance to try. I know it won’t be the end of the world if we aren’t able to, though, and hopefully next time we’ll have more success on finding the right formula the first time. I’m still not a big fan of formula, those awful five months did nothing to ingratiate it to me, so it would be nice if someone we trust can give us breast milk for the first month or so, but I also don’t think it’s the worst thing ever. There’s still a chance that our baby will randomly decide to give comfort nursing a go- and if that day ever comes, we’ll be happy to let it happen. But the odds are against it, and that’s not the end of the world.

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