02/08/2014 10:48 BST | Updated 01/10/2014 06:59 BST

In Breastfeeding, 'Good' Beats 'Perfect' Every Time

When I was in business school, I had a classmate and friend named Josh, one of those people who will always tell you the truth about yourself. He called me Captain, and if I were sugar-coating it I would say this name came from my demonstrated leadership abilities, but in honor of Josh, I'll shoot you straight and tell you it was probably because I'm bossy.

Anyway. One day, we were arguing about what needed to be done on something we were working on, and I wanted to do more, more, more. And Josh looked at me witheringly and said, "Captain, your problem is that you let perfect be the enemy of good."

I'll admit it took me a solid 36 hours to understand what he even meant by this. Because in my mind, perfect has always, ALWAYS been the thing to strive for. Especially when it was something measurable, with grades, scores, rankings, or numbers of any kind. But when I did finally get it, it changed my life.

This tendency toward perfectionism and neurotic need-to-measure-itis came into full flower when I had my first child. Breastfeeding was something I could be perfect at, if I just worked at it hard enough. And it was something so rife with measurables, I was practically giddy with anticipation. Ounces (of milk pumped or fed, and gained by the baby, and frozen in the freezer). Feedings per day. Hours of sleep at a stretch. Weeks until baby slept through the night. Count count count. Measure measure measure.

And then there was the "Exclusive Breastfeeder" badge.

Sometimes people would ask me, "Oh, are you breastfeeding your ba--"

"--YES I AM," I would interrupt. "EXCLUSIVELY. Not ONE ounce of formula has crossed his lips." I would then puff out my chest and wait for a medal to be pinned to it. (I've said it before and I'll say it again - I am really fun at parties, you guys.)

Fast forward to 9 months in. I had fought and won (but really, just barely) against the demons of post-partum anxiety, mostly related to breastfeeding and going back to work. I had traveled internationally without my son, storing up 300 ounces before I left and pumping and dumping six times a day while I was away (more on that insanity here). My son had gained weight well and was sleeping through the night by 12 weeks. I was a champ. I had achieved perfection. And I was stumbling, crumbling, falling apart at the seams. All that perfection was killing me.

9 months in, I was just done, done, done. No gas left in the tank. I looked at my husband and said, "I just can't do this anymore," and that was the end of breastfeeding my first child. My biggest measurable - "making it" (a peculiar phrase breastfeeding mothers use, one that suggests we all know we are just barely surviving this) to a year - was lost forever.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I thought about perfect and good. So this time around, I called three friends and made them promise: when my daughter was three months old, they were to call and ask me if she'd had any formula. I would not lie. If the answer was no, they had to come over and give it to her themselves.

What I realized was this - my perfectionism won't shut itself down all by itself. That golden goal of "exclusive" breastfeeding - a term I have come to hate - is so alluring to my particular brand of crazy. So, when my girl was a few weeks old, my husband and I gave her one ounce of formula. (Organic, made by virgins on the north facing hill of a volcano during a solstice, crazily expensive, but still - formula.) That was it - one ounce. Now, I HAD to stop striving for that "exclusive" thing, because it was gone. And when my girlfriends called, I could make them proud.

This little trick had a few additional, unexpected benefits, beyond removing that one crazy-making goal from my life:

  • I knew my daughter tolerated formula well, so when I amused myself by lying in bed freaking out over what would happen to my kids if I were hit by a car or something, what my baby would eat was not part of the doom scenario.
  • I no longer stressed about milk when going on business trips. The milk in the freezer was what it was - if it ran out, my husband would supplement with formula. I also stopped calling my husband every evening while on a trip, making him tell me how much milk the baby had had that day, and then comparing to what I'd pumped to see if I'd "won".
  • I had not one glimmer of the post-partum hell I went through the first time.
  • I became much more village-like in my parenting. When my neighbor had a baby and had to go back to the hospital a few days later, without the baby, I handed her dad several bags of my frozen breastmilk to last until the mama got home. When my co-worker's stash ran low, I handed over 60 ounces without flinching. I donated 180 ounces to my local milk bank. And I loved all of it.

And the biggest result of all? Quite the paradox: Because I hadn't killed myself in the process, I didn't end up weaning my daughter until 13 months. (More on that journey, and the meanies who still told me it was too soon, here.) "Making it" to a certain number of months had ceased to be a goal, because I realized it was unhealthy for me, but we "made it" pretty far all the same.

Every woman is entitled to her own breastfeeding experience, and to set her own rules - and, importantly, break them, in a way that works for her. For me? Take perfect away, and good was a beautiful place to be.