From Boob to Bottle: Postpartum Depression & The Unnecessary Shame of Quitting Breastfeeding

Catherine Connors at the blog Her Bad Mother has taken up the big honkin’ subject of breastfeeding with a wonderful new post called “Shame & the Mom: A Boob Story”. I know what a HUGE issue breastfeeding and postpartum depression is for Postpartum Progress readers, so I’d like you to read her piece. Catherine ended up quitting breastfeeding one of her children after a long struggle. Here’s a bit of the story:

“With no formula-friendly lactation godmother, I was subjected to the repeated assertion that if it hurt, I was doing something wrong (I wasn’t. I know this) and that if I quit, I – and my child – would regret it. It made me crazy – literally. My post-partum depression worsened under the constant pain and intensifying anxiety, even as I reminded myself that someone, at some point, had told me that it would be okay to quit. Even as a few sane voices in the blogosphere quietly urged me (off the record, always) to consider quitting, for my sanity’s sake, I was gripped by the conviction that it would not be okay if I quit. It would be wrong. I should be able to do this. A good mother could do this, would do this. I was a lactivist, for God’s sake. And so I persevered.

It never really stopped being painful, with Jasper. He nursed round the clock, and my nipples bled, and I almost never slept. I was sparing with my PPD meds, for fear of contaminating my milk. But I battled the gathering dark, and persevered. I nursed publicly, and proudly: on planes, in front of TV cameras, standing in front of a crowd while speaking at BlogHer. I nursed another woman’s child. I persevered. For ten months. Ten dark months. And then I quit. Exhausted from the lack of sleep, and the pain, and on the verge of falling headlong into the dark, I quit.

And I felt ashamed.”

I can just imagine all the bobblehead-like “uh-huhs” going on at this moment. I know I’m nodding up and down furiously. Things started out great with my son in the hospital, but then he started refusing the breast. I found out later the nurses in the hospital nursery had been giving him bottles because of his jaundice. I freaked out. I felt rejected. I tried nipple shields. I tried all those other curious contraptions that you wrap all around your boobs so that you can succeed at doing THE-ONE-THING-EVERY-MOTHER-MUST-DO-NO-MATTER-WHAT! I read the how-tos and followed them step by step. It didn’t matter. Plus, what little breastfeeding I was able to eke out had me so worried about how much milk he was getting I practically had anxiety attacks. So I quit. And I felt enormous relief. And I felt guilty that I was so relieved.

I have written about this topic many times before, and shared with you some amazing stories written bywomen with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders who struggled with breastfeeding — some who quit, some who kept going. There is NO right answer.

In 2008 I shared a beautiful story written by Lisa Sniderman that I still find very poignant, at least as it relates to those of us who either choose to or have to stop. Lisa had always suffered from bipolar disorder and chose not to breastfeed in the end because of the medications she took for that illness. Here’s a tidbit:

“Was bottle-feeding really a ‘choice’ for me? Only if I could somehow have ‘chosen’ instead to spend my daughter’s first year either in unbearable torment or dead. The rhetoric of personal responsiblity that surrounds breastfeeding, despite the very real barriers so many women still face, disturbs me in general. When it is applied to severely mentally ill mothers who need uninterrupted sleep, mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, it absolutely stops me cold.”

Another piece, written by Sophie from Sophie in the Moonlight for the Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health, also brilliantly captured the painful upheaval women go through. In her case, her body’s inability to produce enough breast milk contributed to a suicidal postpartum depression:

“’But what about breast cancer prevention? What about his immune system? What about the lower IQ that he will have because of the formula? What about breast is best!!!’ I’d believed all the pregnancy books. I thought the What to Expect When You’re Expecting lady would personally track me down and sear me with an Unfit Mother brand if I failed to provide breast milk.”

And from that same event, Therese Borchard from Beyond Blue, wrote about her experiences:

“I tried so hard to do the right thing for everyone else but me. I weaned myself off of my antidepressant because I wanted to breastfeed, to give my infant the best possible start … the golden stuff right out of the boob. So my lactating breasts and I were on call, with no substitute available, for months and months and more months … long enough for me to make the walk of shame from the maternity ward to the psych ward.”

Ugh. Why do we do this to ourselves? I love that Catherine is so honest about the competing thoughts in her head. When you read the gazillion comments on her post you will see how many women have the same struggles.

Not everyone needs to quit, of course. Some people find breastfeeding is the only thing that helps them hang on to what’s left of their sanity. Others, like me, find quitting helps them on the road to sanity. Just make the right choice for you and know that we are on your side, whatever side that is.