Breastfeeding is a numbers game: How many ounces are you pumping? How many grams has the baby gained? Feed them every two hours, no, every three, feed on demand, feed on a schedule, stay in bed and breastfeed all day.
At only a few weeks into the motherhood gig, it was clear that my numbers were falling short. I was failing at doing the one thing I’d been told my body needed to do for my son.
Failure was a feeling I became acquainted with early on as a first-time mum.
After an exhausting labour and unplanned C-section, the doctors were concerned with my son’s breathing and wanted to run some tests to rule out a potential infection.
We were transferred to the NICU for further monitoring where my baby boy was poked, prodded and tethered to machines by wires. His tiny body was shaky and I watched as his arms flailed in the air, escaping even the most meticulously wrapped swaddles.
I was too out of it to think it was anything other than normal newborn stuff, until I heard the whispers from the nurses standing outside our room: “It’s SSRI withdrawal. The mom is medicated,” they said in voices laced with judgment.
Shame washed over me. I had just become a mother and I was already doing something wrong. We left the NICU a day later with a healthy baby no longer showing signs of withdrawal, but the nurses’ whispers would linger in my mind for much longer.
This wouldn’t be the last time I would hear about the antidepressants. Six weeks later, I sat in a lactation consultant’s office, breastfeeding my son while a stopwatch ran. My son wasn’t gaining weight at the expected trajectory. Despite doing everything they told me to increase my milk supply, we were still struggling.
That day, we were doing a sort of feeding drill – she would weigh him, I would feed him for a set amount of time, then she would weigh him again to see how much he had gained from the feed.
The game felt humiliating.
She placed him on the scale and announced: “He only gained about 30 grams. Could be stress-related, or maybe it’s your meds — you know they’re proven to reduce milk supply.” The lactation consultant started throwing around a lot of f-words: failure to thrive, fed is best, formula. All I heard was failure, failure, failure.
I was taught to breastfeed by a midwife who showed me how to fold my nipple into a shape that resembled a hamburger and forcefully shove it in my son’s little mouth. Nurses brought me hospital-grade breast pumps and said I should be using them around the clock to extract every last dribble of “liquid gold.” Formula was brought up in conversation like a dirty word—if I needed to supplement, the recommendation was to use donor breast milk.
While ”breast is best” rhetoric was supposedly a thing of the past, my experience in learning to feed my son suggested otherwise.
The World Health Organisation states that “breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival.” It also notes that “Breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests.”
While these claims were never brought up in my conversations with health care providers, the push I felt to breastfeed was undeniable. That’s why I drank every tea, took every tincture, ate oatmeal, popped fenugreek supplements and even considered taking domperidone, a prescription drug used to increase milk supply.
“In my fog of depression, it was painful to see photos of other mothers doing what I so desperately wanted to do in a way that looked effortless and idyllic.”
I followed a wildly unsustainable pumping regimen because I was determined to give my baby every last benefit of breastmilk. It was simple really: Breastfeed, then pump, then feed your baby that bottle you just pumped, then pump again, don’t forget to sterilise EVERYTHING, take a shower, make memories, make dinner, lose the baby weight, entertain visitors, repeat the whole thing over again. It didn’t work and it led me to the darkest place I’ve ever been in my life.
After four or five months of existing in a cycle of pumping, pressure and shame, I hit a breaking point. My determination to feed my son in the right way evolved into a crippling postpartum depression that stripped every ounce of joy from early motherhood. I struggled to get out of bed and wondered daily if my son and husband would be better off without me.
Having given birth in the peak of the pandemic, my options for connecting with other mums who could relate to what I was going through were limited, so I turned to social media. I discovered World Breastfeeding Week one sticky August afternoon spent scrolling my phone on the couch while strapped to the breast pump yet again. This annual campaign dedicated to “protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding,” generates thousands of posts featuring women sharing their beautiful and successful breastfeeding journeys.
In my fog of depression, it was painful to see photos of other mothers doing what I so desperately wanted to do in a way that looked effortless and idyllic. I was too sick to remember that social media feeds are highlight reels that fail to capture the pain and sacrifice that sometimes go into creating these picture-perfect moments.
Before having my son, I never would have guessed that breastfeeding would take such a physical and mental toll. I can imagine my pre-baby self telling my postpartum self to just give my son a bottle of formula. What’s the big deal? Under the impossible pressure placed on mothers to do the best for their babies, at whatever cost, it felt like a very big deal.
In 2016, Florence Leung, a first-time mom from the same city where I currently live, went missing when her son was two months old. She had been struggling with postpartum depression and the search for Florence tragically ended when her body was found in the ocean, the police confirming suicide as the cause of death. Florence’s husband, Kim Chen, shared a Facebook post following her death saying that “anxiety over breastfeeding could have been one of several contributing factors to [her] depression.”
Chen’s statement emphasised that mothers who aren’t able to exclusively breastfeed shouldn’t feel any guilt: “There needs to be an understanding that it is OK to supplement with formula, and that formula is a completely viable option.”
I thought a lot about Florence when I was at my lowest. I still do.
It took an emergency referral to a reproductive mental health psychiatrist, new medication, therapy and time to eventually dig myself out of postpartum depression.
Out of necessity, I’d been supplementing with formula since my son was about two months old, but it wasn’t until he was closer to six months, and I was in a better place mentally, that I stopped breastfeeding completely and let myself actually enjoy motherhood.
I quickly saw that practicing self-compassion and forgiving myself for not being able to achieve an impossible standard of perfection gave me the space to connect with my son and give him so many things that are more important than breastmilk.
Three years later, it’s World Breastfeeding Week again, but with a healthy, happy toddler by my side, I’ve learned that loving my son doesn’t have to look like sacrifice.
Love can look like accepting help. Love can look like embracing what I need and want to do, rather than what I think I should. Love can also look like making parenting decisions that protect my peace and happiness. Ultimately, doing these things is what makes me the best mum for my son.
Liz is a freelance copywriter who is working on a memoir about her experience with postpartum depression. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her husband and son. You can follow her at her website or on Instagram.