In 2008, Lisa Sniderman wrote a compelling piece for Postpartum Progress about how she quit her bipolar medications so that she could breastfeed after the birth of her daughter, and ended up being hospitalized for severe postpartum depression. She wrote about what a painful decision it was for her to stop breastfeeding so that she could get the care she needed. Lisa has recently had another baby and is sharing with us how, this time, she let go of her guilt about not being able to breastfeed.
I’m a postpartum depression survivor who braved it and had another kid. Along the way, I even survived two years of fertility treatment and three miscarriages. And guess what? NO depression this time around. I am deliriously in love with my kids and my life. Turns out newborns are enchanting. Who knew? The first time around, I was too consumed with postpartum depression and guilt to notice. Now my stomach does giddy flip-flops whenever I cuddle my son. I could do without the sleep deprivation and 20 extra pounds, and I wish a trip to Costco didn’t take all day, but I’m able to take these things in stride. That amazes me.
I don’t attribute this outcome to dumb luck. We went into pregnancy #2 with a solid plan. I stayed on my full dose of antidepressant throughout the pregnancy, and started on a mood stabilizer immediately after giving birth. As a result, I bottle-fed my son from the beginning and never looked back. I made this decision peacefully before I even got pregnant this time, even though I strongly support breastfeeding in general. I did my best over the years to find other treatment options, and they just didn’t work for me. As I watched my first baby become a toddler, then a highly verbal preschooler, I discovered that it is a mother’s guilt– far more than her chosen feeding method– which presents the true barrier to emotional bonding. Once I resolved that guilt, I began to mother my child from my heart, if not from my breasts. It would have been nice not to have to choose between the two, but I made the right choice.
In fact, I’d venture to say that getting effective treatment for serious mental illness is always the right choice. For the baby as well as the mom.
Four years ago I was locked into a recursive loop of self-hate that left me unable to respond to my baby. Medication and therapy helped unlock the loop and reclaim my maternal wisdom and instincts. Getting my own needs met has enabled me to gladly and willingly make sacrifices for my children, instead of experiencing those sacrifices as misery and depletion. For example, in January I used up all my vacation time to help my daughter with a potty-training “immersion” program for kids with bowel conditions. We stayed at home and practiced over and over again for three weeks. Some days we both fell asleep after dinner, totally exhausted, and started again at dawn. I never once yelled or showed impatience — I provided the supportive presence she needed to work through the challenge. When she finally got the hang of it, I was so proud of us both that I cried. My therapist remarked, “This was your version of the breastfeeding experience.” She was right!
It really bugs me that our culture tends to view a mother’s self-care and mental health as some sort of luxury, when in fact true selflessness cannot occur in their absence. You have to possess a whole self in order to set it aside. In the throes of PPD, struggling to make a decision about my meds, I thought comments such as, “A happy mom means a happy baby,” and, “You have to put on your own oxygen mask first” were just well-intentioned platitudes. Four years later, I see how profound these statements really are. My daughter doesn’t stay up nights wondering why she wasn’t breastfed, but she sure notices when I am emotionally unavailable. My infant son can already tell the difference between a forced smile and a genuine one, between a feeding that is rushed and one that is attuned. Kids are amazingly perceptive that way. They learn how to regard themselves and their world by watching our faces and witnessing our actions. What we say doesn’t matter much if we’re hypocrites about it.
I still do feel sad at the loss of the breastfeeding relationship. But sadness is different than guilt. It’s a productive emotion that can be worked through. It doesn’t paralyze me. While I support a pro-breastfeeding culture, I don’t see anything positive about creating guilt in women who fail at breastfeeding, for whatever reason. This guilt is unproductive, and can be very disabling. I know that breastfeeding– when it works out– is an incomparable gift to both mom and baby, something that is worth a lot of sacrifice and time. However, a mother’s mental health is not an acceptable sacrifice, and that’s where a lot of depressed women get confused and stuck. It’s not hard to understand why.
In our society, “breast versus bottle” can be shorthand for “mother versus mother.” Breastfeeding has become an issue of individual morality, not just a policy and public-health concern, and I think that’s a mistake. Total strangers malign each other’s character, both in the media and in real life. No matter what a mother does, she can be sure someone will disapprove. Added to this, of course, is all the stigma and misunderstanding that surround postpartum mental illness. The fallout from this combined storm is the private suffering of individual mothers. If you are suffering with postpartum mental illness, I hope my words give you the courage to make the best treatment decision for yourself, whether or not it involves exclusive breastfeeding. Each mother is the expert on her own subjective experience, and she is the one who has to live it. Once I recognized this truth for myself, I stopped caring so much what other people think.
I know in my gut that my kids are lucky to have me as their mom. At its core, parent-child attachment is based on the parent’s responsiveness to the child’s needs, respect for their unique personhood, and ability to assume their point of view. Because my mothering has these qualities, I consider myself an attachment parent even though I bottle-feed. (Heck, I still use a sling and cloth diapers, because for me it isn’t all-or-nothing. I do what I can, and I don’t do what I can’t.) I am in love with being a mother. For me, that begins and ends with taking care of my mental health. Oops, I hear my son beginning to cry, so I’m going to hold him close as I feed him a bottle. What a wonderful experience for us both!
Photo credit: © onoky – Fotolia