Why I’m Glad I Can’t Breastfeed

I'm due with my third baby in less than three weeks and, as some of you know, I have cancer. My chronic leukemia has been in a deep, dark remission for a decade but I still take a pill every day to ensure it doesn't come back. During my three pregnancies I've had to stop that treatment, which is a little risky, and so going back on my meds as soon as possible is a priority. Especially this time with so much more at stake. That means nursing my baby isn't an option and (please don't punish me for admitting this) I couldn't be happier about that. Let me explain…

With my first, my oncologist let me stay off treatment post-partum so I could breastfeed. I thought I had prepared myself--I took a class, I hired a lactation consultant, I read all the books--but it was still hard. Really hard. And painful. And exhausting. I got severe mastitis (a common breast infection that causes high fevers and excruciating pain) three different times. I was pumping around the clock because my nipples were so mangled I couldn't put the baby near them. I honestly didn't understand how something that was supposed to be so natural (and come so naturally) was making me so miserable.

Turns out I had picked up MRSA (a type of antibiotic-resistant staph) from the NYC hospital where I gave birth (there was an outbreak in the nursery--lovely, right? You can read that whole story here). That's what was causing the continuous breast infections. So, yes, I did have some exceptionally bad luck with my first nursing experience. But I also had regular, run-of-the-mill issues like many moms do. Yet despite that--and the fact that I had cancer meds to get back on---I felt guilty when I thought about stopping. Everywhere the message seemed to be: Breastfeed or else! When I finally went to see a breast surgeon (I was that messed up), she took one look at me and said, "I'm a woman, I'm a doctor and I'm telling you it's OK not to breastfeed." It was exactly what I needed to hear. I had endured five long weeks and I was done. I switched to formula and my life as a new mom did a complete 180.

With my second, I nursed in the hospital (for the colostrum) then switched to formula and my cancer meds. I will do the same with this third and final baby. And I refuse to feel guilty about it. But it's not always easy to rise above the breast-is-best messaging in the ether (and on the blogs and on facebook and in the hospital where I will be giving birth). Lord knows a new mom's hormones can wreak havoc and the last thing I need are implications of inadequacy--or, worse, thinking I should risk my life just to give my kid breast milk. That's why I'm glad the decision is made for me. I don't even have the option and that's a relief. Because (and here comes the real confession): Breastfeeding is hard work and I don't want to do it. Trust me, I happily make sacrifices for my children on a daily basis but I don't want to be my baby's only source of comfort and nourishment. I don't want to endure the requisite pain and frustration. I don't want to be attached 24/7. The fact that my husband can give our baby a bottle and I can be with my older two (or be getting some sleep) is paramount to me.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great when women breastfeed. And I'm glad that more and more women are doing it. If it works for them and for their baby, awesome. I have friends who love it. I get that when it all clicks it can be a wonderful experience (and that it gets much, much easier). Even though my time as a nursing mom was harrowing, I'm glad I had the chance to do it. Knowing what women go through to make it work I will say that I am totally impressed by breastfeeding moms. I root them on. I see what a huge commitment it is. I advocate for them. But I don't think that women who are miserable doing it should feel guilted into continuing. And I do not think that nursing moms are better mothers than those who formula feed, as some would like us to believe.

I think I've always known that breastfeeding wasn't going to be tops on my list of "things good moms must do for their kids." I was breastfed for an entire year, my sisters breastfed/feed their kids, most of my friends nurse long-term, but it's just not something I was ever super gung-ho about. And while it may make me unpopular, I'm OK admitting that. Growing up my older sister would pretend nurse her baby dolls while I threw elaborate dinner parties for Barbie and Ken in their dream house. Everyone is different and everyone should be allowed to make their own choices. It frustrates me so much that there is even a controversy around this (and we all know there is). Shouldn't it be a personal decision? Shouldn't I feel confident saying I choose not to breastfeed (without having to play the cancer card)? Shouldn't we support each other no matter what we feed our babies? Parenting is hard enough without piling on the judgment and guilt from day one. (Check out the REDBOOK feature I wrote on the topic.)

I know some of you will read this and think I'm selfish for admitting these things or call me names for even insinuating that a woman doesn't have to breastfeed. I hope you'll allow me to have my opinion because that's all it is--my opinion based on my personal experience. I've seen new moms literally go bat-shit crazy trying to make the whole breastfeeding thing work. I was one of them. And knowing I never have to put myself through that again is truly a gift. Now that I'm a mom to a six- and almost-four-year old, I have way more perspective on the whole thing which helps. Being a cancer patient/survivor helps, too. I know that while the first food is important to our kids, there are a million other decisions we'll make down the line that are more important. I know that my health and sanity as a mother is essential to my kids' wellbeing. I know my limits. And I know I have nothing to prove to anyone, including myself.