When I got a breast reduction at 24 years old, having a baby was not on my radar, let alone nursing. In 1996, confident that kids were not for me, I didn’t listen to the plastic surgeon about whether or not my nipples would ever serve their biological purpose. At the time, I cared more about my ability to go braless in a halter top or if a one-night stand would notice the scars.
Sixteen years later, the information mattered. I met Mr. Right at 37 and began dreaming of a life that my impulsive adolescence never allowed for. Some combination of a midlife biological clock and marriage to my perfect mate botched my lifelong disinterest in being a mom, and a month after my 40th birthday we had a baby boy named Ziggy.
As impulsive as I liked to think I was, the truth is that my whims usually came with a checklist. Planning gave me comfort, which I believed would serve me well in parenting. I followed instructions from the fertility book and got pregnant on the first try. I started reading parenting books and had parent friends who helped me prepare. I painted the nursery the perfect non-toxic colors and made confident parenting decisions months before a baby existed. We wouldn’t childproof drawers or drive him around to fall asleep. My boy would never eat sugar cereal and I would breastfeed him, because every book and website told me the same thing: breast is best.
Even Mayor Bloomberg encouraged the bonding and the nurturing of breastfeeding. My son’s immune system would be stronger, and he would be a better person for drinking his mother’s milk. La Leche League, Dr. Sears, a handful of my best friends, and strangers I met on the street preached the same.
“Are you going to breastfeed?” one woman asked in the IKEA customer service waiting area.
“I’m going to try,” I answered hopefully.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “You have to do it. You’ll love it.”
A doula visited me at my house a week before Ziggy was born.
“Do you mind?” she asked, indicating toward my milk-makers.
“Not at all.” My pregnant body felt like public domain by then.
I took off my bra and she squeezed my right nipple to see if milk would be expressed. A creamy white substance leaked out. Hallelujah! My 20-something recklessness didn’t destroy my baby’s well-being.
After Ziggy was born and it came time for his first feeding, he latched on immediately, and we got into a rhythm of breastfeeding and sleeping. In those first two weeks, he fed in the living room, on my bed, and in our cozy glider. I listened to Ray LaMontagne in Ziggy’s peaceful room while he fed. Sometimes it felt sweet, sometimes relaxing, but mostly like I was a human IV sustaining life.
Over the course of the third week, Ziggy’s behavior gradually changed. He no longer latched with ease, got frustrated often, and cried. What began as 15-minute feeds increased to almost an hour. It began to feel like labor all over again. I pumped bottles, reaching only 0.5 oz, 1 oz, 1.5 oz. (If I was lucky) — amounts that barely covered the bottom of a bottle. I scoured the Internet to see if this was “normal,” but got mixed opinions that made it impossible for me to judge my yield.
I felt like a prisoner to my baby only a few weeks in. Battling my hormones, I began to hate breastfeeding and secretly question the choice I made to be a parent. Planning for a baby felt more rewarding than the baby himself. By then my checklists felt like a waste of time; I was too tired and frustrated to consult them. My baby blues grew hourly, and I cried while pumping in the bathroom, mourning the loss of my pseudo-impulsive, predictable life.
At our one-month pediatrician visit, Ziggy’s weight remained at the 7 lbs., 3 oz. he was at birth, bringing him from the 13th percentile in weight to the 11th. I spent the next few days in a tizzy, gathering advice from the Internet, a lactation specialist, and friends. I tried everything: mother’s milk tea, meditation, and even pumping while bouncing a crying baby on my lap during his feeding time.
“Is he gaining weight?” an experienced mom friend asked when I called her for advice.
I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do what was expected of me.
“Feed him formula. Stop worrying about it. The kid needs to eat. He’s probably starving!”
“I know, everyone is telling you that you have to breastfeed. There’s so much pressure. But you have to do what is right for your kid.”
Was I worried about Ziggy or about the finger-wagging in our direction? My friend coaxed me out of my anxiety. My baby needed to eat.
“When you pumped, how much came out?” I asked.
“The women in my family are like cows,” my friend said. “I had about 8 oz. from each boob every time.”
That was all I needed to hear. I simply could not breastfeed.
Ziggy’s next meals were from a bottle until he ate solids. At the start of formula-feeding, I snuck bottles around, making excuses, letting the world know about my reduction and my desperate wishes to breastfeed. I squirmed around other moms as I poured bottles instead of unlatching my bra strap, imagining that they pitied Ziggy and his mother’s selfish nature and poor judgment. I felt ashamed, having already failed my family in the first few months. But as I watched Ziggy satiated from full bottles of formula, I saw that I tortured myself over a decision that was not my choice. Like my friend had said, the kid needed to eat.
A few months in, I fully embraced the benefits of our new system, like getting sleep while my husband did 3 A.M. feeds and reclaiming my body. My sanity returned as Ziggy was growing to his intended height and weight. With my checklists in the garbage and baby books away on the shelf, I learned to listen to my son instead of my plans — and began to genuinely enjoy the responsibility of caring for my boy.
At 18 months, Ziggy is a healthy 26 lbs. and 35 in. tall (95th percentile!). He has been driven around in the car to fall asleep and been unable to open baby-proofed drawers.
Ziggy is not the only one who grew when he started drinking formula.