My first child was easy. Breastfeeding him was exactly the way I'd imagined it would be—wonderful, bond-forming, natural.
When my second arrived, I assumed it would be the same, but instead it was hard. He'd angrily, pitifully, hungrily scream while I adjusted and readjusted. I’d pour out my frustration in a torrent of tears. Mouth wide, he'd search and, just when I thought he'd finally figured it out, he'd pull away and the cycle would begin again. But I am nothing if not stubborn, so day after day, cycle after cycle, latch after latch, we'd struggle. Finally, we found some tentative peace with the process.
Even then, it was not the way I’d imagined it would be. When he wasn't eating, he was crying, and when he was eating, we weren't bonding. I was holding him with one arm while chasing a toddler, and he was holding on for dear life while getting his first taste of milk-shake. There were moments of wonderful, but just when those moments were becoming more frequent, there was blood where it shouldn't be and there was nothing natural about that.
There were doctor visits. I stopped drinking milk, eating ice cream and cheese but the blood remained, so I stopped eating anything with any kind of dairy. Then I cut out soy. We were at the doctor's office nearly every week and every doctor we saw said something slightly different from the others until I didn't know up from down or left from right. So I stayed the course and cut out eggs, then wheat. I became a master of label reading.
I subsisted on oatmeal and fruit and was reassured that he would take what he needed and leave me whatever was left. It quickly became clear that what was left wasn't much as my clothes grew looser and looser and my weight dropped lower than it was in high school. Then, finally, the blood disappeared. Overjoyed, I wondered if perhaps wheat was the only culprit, so in a deprived lack of wisdom, I drank a coffee with real half and half.
The next day he screamed in pain and his body broke out in a terrible case of eczema and it was all I could do not to turn him over to someone far more qualified for the job. My body, me, the one who was supposed to nourish him, to support his growth and help him thrive, was hurting him.
We continued on, the dairy gone again, but the eczema remaining. I continued to lose weight and energy, but how in the world could I ever forgive myself if I gave up nursing him? I read the articles, I heard the arguments. At the time, I believed formula was tantamount to poison. Switching to it would doom him to a life of poor health and low IQ.
Finally though, the persuasions of those concerned about me wore me down. “A healthy mom to care for her children is just as important as breast milk…He had a solid start; over five months of nursing…Formula is not the devil..Your husband was formula-fed and is as smart as they come…”
After hours, days, and weeks of agonizing, we made the switch. And it was just as at the beginning; him, crying at the unfamiliar taste, and I, sobbing at my failure.
Now here we are, four years later, and I still feel the sting. The defensiveness that springs up with every pro-breast milk, anti-formula article. The need to explain, to justify, to anyone and everyone who finds out my son was formula-fed. The guilt, oh the guilt, always accompanied by a thousand unanswered questions and statements. Are his allergies my fault? What if I had given up all those food groups sooner? Would it have made a difference? I could have lasted another six months on that diet. How could I be so selfish? Why can't he identify all his letters yet? Sure, he's the most creative kid I know, but how will he do in school? Good moms sacrifice everything for their children. I must not be a good mom.
Will I always feel the judgment? Always wrestle with the doubts? Always try to tell myself I did the best I could while wondering if it's true? Will I praise his strengths as innate while blaming myself for his struggles? Does anything in motherhood come without the overwhelming sense that every decision I make has staggering, eternal consequences?
But perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the most important question of all is this: Will the nourishment I provide him now—the healthy food, the security, the opportunities, the love—support his growth and help him thrive now and in the years to come? Can a lifetime of that nourishment make up for a year that was not what it was supposed to be? Despite my guilt, I can readily say yes.
He will be okay. He will be more than okay. He will thrive.