John is officially over a month old now, and to say that these past four and a half weeks have been a roller coaster would be an understatement. On good days, John sleeps from about 10PM to 9AM, waking up only two or three times to nurse. He takes multiple naps throughout the day, each lasting over an hour, and when he’s awake, he’s content to just sit in his vibrating chair while he stares at the dangling animals overhead and occasionally hits one by accident. His extended sleep schedule gives me ample time to shower, clean, eat, and do work, and when the weather is cooperative, take short walks around the neighborhood. On good days, I feel well-rested, productive, and like I’m actually getting this whole “motherhood thing.” On good days.
Then there are the not-so-good days, the days that are downright exhausting. On these days, John refuses to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time until 1 or 2AM, and then after giving us a two hour break before waking up again to nurse, refuses to go back to sleep for another hour. He sleeps fitfully throughout the day, taking 30-45 minute naps before waking up again. Inevitably, when he does wake up, I’m either in the shower, or eating lunch, or about to fall asleep on the couch. I can barely get any work done, and even though I know that he’ll sleep in his stroller, the thought of leaving the apartment makes me want to take a nap. On the not-so-good days, I feel beyond tired and incredibly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the good days generally outnumber the not-so-good ones.
All in all, I knew that I was really lucky. Most of the time, JT slept like a champ, ate like a champ, and dirtied his diapers like a champ. By his two-day appointment with the pediatrician, John had gained back most of his birth weight, and by his two-week appointment, he had gained over a pound. He could go three-and-a-half hours between feedings day and night, and I was averaging seven non-consecutive hours of sleep. And yet I never felt rested. As the days passed, a sense of dread would begin to accumulate around dinner time, as bedtime loomed closer. I would cringe at the thought of falling asleep, already anticipating the demanding cries for food that would inevitably wake me up again. I would lie in bed for thirty or forty minutes before finally settling into an uneasy sleep, listening to his quiet moans and whimpers as he hovered between wakefulness and sleep. I knew that the sleep deprivation would take its toll eventually, but I had no idea how to put an end to the sleepless nights.
And the days weren’t much better. It was much easier to handle the fussy periods, rocking John back and forth as I watched another rerun of “House, M.D.” And he really slept wonderfully during the day, actually forcing me to wake him so that he could nurse every three-and-a-half hours as the pediatrician had prescribed. Even better, after he was done eating, more often than not, he fell right back asleep. Nevertheless, I could barely get any work done while he slept because I spent the entire time fearfully watching JT and waiting for his little whimpers to become full-blown cries for food. Objectively speaking, I knew that there was no reason for me to be so stressed. John was truly the perfect newborn. I was able to eat and sleep, and I had plenty of support during those first few weeks. When I compared my situation with that of some of my friends, I assumed that there could be no justification for the way that I felt. My friends had babies who refused to sleep, who screamed constantly for hours on end, who couldn’t gain weight no matter how often they nursed. They had every right to be stressed and frustrated; I did not. And yet I couldn’t ignore how I felt.
After several weeks of denial, I finally admitted the truth to myself- I was miserable because I dreaded nursing my son. All of my stress and frustration revolved around one activity- nursing. And when you spend more time feeding your child than anything else, that could be a major problem. In the first two and a half weeks of John’s life, though I knew that I loved him, I really didn’t feel it. When I looked at him, all I felt was a sense of dread. Dread that he would wake up and demand food. Dread that I was just two hours, one hour, half an hour, from our next nursing session. Dread when I thought about nursing in public. Dread when I thought about the year ahead, about the thousands of nursing sessions that stood between me and the light at the end of the tunnel.
The only feeling that was stronger than the dread was the overwhelming sense of failure. All of my friends breastfed their babies. Formula was an evil, even if it was occasionally a necessary one. A good mother breastfed her baby, only using formula when there was no feasible alternative. That was all there was to it.
When I learned that I was pregnant, everyone assumed that I would breastfeed. I assumed it too, if only because everyone else was doing it. I had read enough articles to know about the health benefits. I knew that it was more cost effective than formula. I knew that formula was not a perfect alternative to breast-milk. I knew that children who had been breastfed tended to have less allergies than those who had been formula-fed. I had plenty of excellent reasons to breastfeed, but if I’m going to be completely honest, the biggest motivation was simple peer pressure. Even if I hadn’t read all the pro-breastfeeding articles, I still would have chosen to nurse- because that’s what all my friends were doing.
I fully expected to breastfeed when JT was born. I didn’t expect to hate it so much. I didn’t expect the mere thought of nursing to fill me with such a profound sense of dread. I didn’t expect to look at my son and feel only frustration. Here was finally the child that I had waited nine long months for. Here was the little boy who had stolen my heart the moment that I laid eyes on him. Here was the son that I had prepared for, decorating his nursery, pre-washing all of his clothing, and praying for nightly. Here was the little boy that I had fallen in love with as I held him in my arms, and now I felt nothing. Not because he wasn’t everything I had always dreamed he would be. Not because he had done anything to warrant my frustration. I felt nothing because it was a better alternative than the depression and anger that loomed ahead, a warning and a threat to my post-partum existence. I knew that I needed to do something before things got any worse. I even knew what I needed to do, but I was too afraid to do it at first.
But in the end, I made the choice that brought me peace. After three weeks of struggling with breastfeeding, I made the switch to formula during the day, and I could not be happier with my decision. I will always remember the first bottle that I gave John. We had just gotten the thumbs-up from our pediatrician, and so when we got home, I mixed up a bottle of formula for JT. My hands were practically shaking- a mix of nerves and excitement- as I sat down on the couch and got comfortable. With John propped up in my arm, I tipped the bottle over and watched in awe as he closed his mouth and began enthusiastically sucking. I prayed a short, silent prayer with every gulp that John took. I knew that many breastfed babies refused formula. I knew that we were not in the clear yet. I knew that John could be miserable because of the switch. I knew all of this, and as I sat there, all of these thoughts ran in circles in my head. And then John looked up at me, and as I stared into his big dark eyes, I couldn’t help but smile. And before I knew it, John had finished his first bottle, and all my fears disappeared.
I’m not going to lie- the transition from nursing to bottle-feeding has not always been easy. Sometimes John tries to resist nursing at night, showing what might be a preference for the speed of the bottle (he always gives in eventually, and I find that the calmer I am, the better he nurses). Sometimes he tries to resist his bottle during the day, showing what is most likely a preference for warm milk (this difficulty is more easily remedied with a bottle warmer or a faucet). Sometimes I still get frustrated, especially when things are not as easy as I had hoped. But the sense of dread is gone. I don’t dread bottle-feeding like I dreaded nursing. In fact, I don’t even dread nursing as much anymore, if only because I know that the sun will rise again and his first bottle of the day is already measured and ready to go. And I know that when morning comes, my little boy will look up at me with his big eyes, and I will fall in love with him all over again.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!