I will never forget one of the first emails I received after announcing the upcoming (surprise) adoption of my daughter.
“You know you can breastfeed her, right?” it said.
I read those words again and again, unsure of how exactly to respond. Yes, I knew that breastfeeding was an option for adoptive mothers, and I imagined I would pursue it if I ever did adopt – but I also knew that inducing milk production could take months, and currently I had only one week before my daughter was due to be born.
Adopting a child on such short notice is stressful, no matter how many years you have spent mourning the fact that you may never be a mother. There was so much to do, so much to prepare for, that the idea of finding out what it would take to induce lactation for me seemed incredibly overwhelming.
But there was also a little voice in my head whispering to me that breast is best – that a good mother would do whatever she could to make this happen.
So, I made an appointment with my naturopath; the woman on my medical team who I thought would likely be most on board with helping me to figure out if breastfeeding was even an option at this stage in the game. She surprised me though, explaining that she wasn’t comfortable with trying to induce lactation for me – as pro-breastfeeding as she was, she believed it was far more important for my daughter to have a healthy mommy than to have breast milk.
By this point, I had a history of hormone regulation issues that contributed to a severe case of endometriosis – a disease that had earned me five major surgeries and a lot of pain over the course of several years. But I was healthy now. Happy. Functioning. And my hormones were, more or less, on point. My naturopath didn’t think it was worth risking the stability we had worked so hard to achieve, just to induce lactation. She said there were plenty of formula options that would give my daughter what she needed without also risking my health. And so, our conversation switched gears and we began discussing what the best formula option would be.
Still, I struggled with my decision to not even try. I knew my naturopath was right, and that plying myself with hormones and herbs in an attempt to trick my body into thinking it had just given birth wasn’t the greatest idea ever. But all I kept hearing, over and over again, was that mantra. Breast is best.
Didn’t I want to be the kind of mother who would give my daughter the very best?
When she was born, her other mommy blew my mind by offering to breastfeed her. Here this woman was, already making a sacrifice deeper than anything I could imagine, and yet she was willing to give more – emotionally beaten to her core, she was willing to sacrifice even further, purely for the good of our daughter.
I cried as I watched her give our little girl the colostrum that I knew would be so beneficial to her. I watched in agony as she fed her for the first three times of her life, knowing that each feeding was a little more emotionally difficult for her – as she bonded with this little girl she was resolved not to raise herself.
Eventually, I was the one who said “no more.” I knew she would have continued to feed her for the duration of our hospital stay if I didn’t say anything, and I knew she would have continued to give up more pieces of herself with each and every feeding. I just couldn’t do that to her. It wasn’t worth it, not when formula was a perfectly viable option.
Sitting alone in the hospital room with my daughter that night though, I flashed back to a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with a friend of mine – a hippy-dippy friend who has been known to dance naked in the moonlight and lecture me about ways to improve my life and health as naturally as possible. And on this subject in particular, her advice had been for me to just bring my daughter to my breast as soon as I had her in my arms. To allow her to latch and work at my nipples as though they were producing milk. She told me that for some women, that was all it took to induce lactation.
I was so torn. On the one hand, I didn’t trust my body at all to be that compliant. After all, this was the same body that had let me down again and again over the preceding years. Even beyond that though, I worried. There was this discomfort I felt over the idea of attempting to breastfeed when I had no reason to believe my breasts would ever produce any milk at all. I feared what others would think of such an attempt; would they see it as dirty? Perverse? Wrong?
But then, there was that mantra again ringing in my ears, “Breast is best.”
I wasn’t willing to try in the hospital, unsure of how I would explain myself if the nurse or my daughter’s other mother walked in. But when we got home the next night, as I cuddled in bed with my little girl, practicing the skin-to-skin contact I had read about as being so important for adopted babies especially, I decided it couldn’t hurt to just try.
For five minutes we laid there, my little girl at my breast not getting a drop of anything, but not acting displeased with the situation either. She seemed to have decided I was a bit like a pacifier, and as a result – she was more or less content.
I was the one who was uncomfortable. I felt stupid for even trying this, and unsure of what I expected to happen. I truly did not believe it was going to work, so why were we even doing this? Why was I even allowing myself so much false hope?
This negative self-talk continued until the point when I pulled her away. We tried one more time, just a day later, but my own personal feelings of failure won out – and I knew deep down that if I didn’t believe it was going to work, it wouldn’t. So I never tried again, convincing myself that formula may not be best, but it would have to be good enough.
I never told anyone about my two failed attempts at breastfeeding, not even my closest friends. I truly was fearful of judgment, and afraid of what people might think. Even writing it out now, there is this part of me that cringes, concerned about the people who just won’t get it – or who will decide that as an adoptive mother, I didn’t even have the right to try.
I wish now that I’d had more confidence in myself though, and in my body. I have two friends who were able to accomplish adoptive mother breastfeeding. One had months to prepare, and as such – she was able to utilize hormones and herbs to bring her milk in. She was never able to produce a full supply, and had to supplement with formula, but – she made it work. She was able to give her baby that liquid gold.
Another friend confided that she didn’t even have to supplement. She was able to produce milk in exactly the same way I had failed trying – simply by bringing her baby to her breast. Her body had known exactly what to do. In explanation of her success, however, she does acknowledge that she had given birth and breastfed before – so it’s possible her body was simply more primed to respond as it should than would be normal or expected of a first-time mother, like myself.
If I had it all to do over again, I’m not sure what I would change. I still think that attempting to alter my hormones would have been a bad idea, and I’m not even sure that if I had been able to induce naturally, it would have been a good thing for me in the long run. My daughter is almost two now, and she thrived on formula. She is healthy, incredibly smart, and so funny and interactive. We are also unbelievably bonded, just as we have been from the first moment I held her in my arms.
Being a formula-fed baby doesn’t seem to have hindered her in any way, and realistically – having a healthy mommy really does seem so much more important than having breast milk, now that I am removed enough from the situation to see it clearly.
Still, I would have loved to have breastfed her. Then again, I would have also loved to be able to be the one to carry and birth her.
I guess the reality is, we don’t always get what we want. But never being able to feed my daughter with my breasts doesn’t make me any less of a mother. As it turns out, breast isn’t ALWAYS best.More On