Lauren Rabinovitz feeding baby.

“While breastfeeding can be beautiful, it can also be painful, lonely and so very stressful.”

Published: 08/17/2022

Content Warning: breastfeeding, cancer, anxiety, miscarriage

During the hasty cleanup to put our old house on the market before a pandemic-inspired move, I furiously began the emotionally charged job of donating all the baby gear in our entire attic, a job I had been dreading. Oddly, like most tasks I procrastinate completing, sorting through and putting almost everything in the donation pile, while keeping a few favorite clothes and toys, was not as hard as I feared.

Until I opened a dusty bag and found my trusty breast pump. I was not prepared for how this seemingly innocuous pink and white object with some odd tubes coming out of it was able to rewind time. I couldn’t resist turning it on for a minute. Hearing that bizarre rhythmic whirring noise actually made my breasts ache. Which is not a small feat given I no longer have breasts.
Like many new moms, I had a lot of expectations around breastfeeding. These expectations were a combined result of knowledge (I work in maternal and child health), social media (breastfeeding is SO beautiful and natural) and my own mother (breastfed three children for nine years). So when breastfeeding was a nightmarish experience because of a premature infant, my feelings of failure and dismay were profound. I responded in my typical fear-of-failure way and exclusively pumped for my sweet girl from the time she was 4 months old until she was exactly one year. I logged over 1,000 hours on that pump and stopped counting after the first 50 gallons of milk produced.

My body didn’t want to produce that kind of volume, but I forced it to cooperate. I joined a Facebook group of exclusively pumping women and learned every possible trick. From marathon pumping sessions (an hour or more at a time), eating disgusting lactation cookies, drinking 120 ounces of water a day, massaging my breasts until my wrists ached, ignoring horrible blisters, binging supplements and more. I learned how to make “bricks” of my bagged milk, learned which milk storage bags leaked and that it is absolutely okay to cry over spilled milk. I did all this at the expense of quality time with my daughter and my own mental health.

I lost count of the times I heard, “why don’t you just try to nurse her?” as if that wasn’t my desperate wish. As if I didn’t drag my freshly c-sectioned body out of my hospital bed every three hours to visit her in the NICU, where I would try to breastfeed. I did this under the glaring eyes of the NICU nurses who literally set a timer. I had 15 minutes and if they weren’t satisfied with what she was able to get (which they never were), they told me my time was up and I needed to pump or give her formula. When we got her little 5 pound body home, I was so scared she wouldn’t gain enough weight, I offered her bottles of pumped milk, sobbing when a little of that precious milk dribbled down her tiny chin.

The first lactation consultant said I just wasn’t pumping enough. The second said I was pumping too much. The third said I just needed to co-sleep and bond more. I went to breastfeeding support groups and watched other women feed their babies like it was so easy. I learned about the dreaded “triple duty.” For two months I attempted to nurse, then gave her a bottle of pumped milk and THEN pumped. Then cleaned, stored the milk and started over. EVERY. THREE. HOURS.

By the time I took her for a feeding evaluation with a speech language pathologist, she was four months old. The SLP found a serious lip and cheek tie. Her reassurance that, “of course she wasn’t able to breastfeed, this isn’t your fault,” made me weep with relief. It was too late for surgery and so the handsy pediatric ENT said, as she was squeezing my boobs and shooting milk all over the office, I better get used to pumping, because it was too late for my bottle-loving baby to go to the breast exclusively. Because did I mention that my tiny, not-on-the-charts baby was a voracious eater? Once we did the exercises that angel SLP gave us, she learned to drink from the bottle like a pro.

Thus began my exclusive pumping life- where nearly every moment of every day was focused on pumping. If I wasn’t pumping, I was thinking about my next pumping session. Did I drink enough? Did I eat enough? How many ounces did I produce that day? Why was it less than yesterday? Why is my left boob such a slacker? Am I LOSING MY SUPPLY? I was counting down the days until my baby turned one, because that meant I could stop. Stopping before she turned one wasn’t an option. Formula fed babies have ear infections! They get sick more! (Side note: my exclusively breast milk fed daughter had so many ear infections she needed ear tubes and basically was sick her entire first year of daycare.) My best friend came over one day and saw what I was doing to myself. She whispered in my ear, “you can stop.” I sobbed and said I just couldn’t.

After I weaned from the pump and those pregnancy hormones subsided, I told myself I would NEVER do that again. The next baby would nurse from my breasts or be a happy, content formula fed baby. I had a PLAN for the next time. What I didn’t plan for was a stage three breast cancer diagnosis 9 days after a miscarriage at 36 with no family history of breast cancer and no genetic mutations. (Everyone is always really disappointed to hear that last part). I didn't plan to lose my breasts and my ability to have more biological children, thanks to medically induced menopause. I certainly didn’t plan to have even more reason to regret those hours tethered to a pump instead of cuddling my (only) baby.

While breastfeeding can be beautiful, it can also be painful, lonely and so very stressful. The cancer part of my story is relatively uncommon, but my complicated feelings around breastfeeding are not. While I am always in favor of supporting moms who wish to breastfeed, I have an even stronger desire to make sure women know there is a choice.

It’s not an easy choice–the media, co-workers, family and even well intentioned friends place enormous pressure on breastfeeding. I have such vivid memories of pouring my pumped breast milk into a bottle and sobbing, thinking it was inferior, that I was a horrible mother. I desperately wanted to stop, but didn’t know how. I was terrified my daughter wouldn’t eat anything but my breast milk. It didn’t help that every professional out there had something to say–“just latch more” or “have you tried fenugreek?” or, my favorite, “Tarzan feeding-baby on one side and pumping on the other.” No one ever said, “how about formula?” No one ever said, “how are you doing?” or “When did you last sleep?”

I remember having lunch with a new mom friend when both our babies were tiny. Before even sitting down she said to me, “we are exclusively formula feeding.” I said, “you are brilliant” and I knew I had made a lifelong friend. She told me she felt such anxiety around choosing not to breastfeed that she made sure to feed her daughter before a mom’s group, lest anyone think she was an inferior mother. I know exactly what she meant. My baby was fed via a bottle–but it was BREASTMILK and I wanted to shout that as loud as possible whenever feeding her in public.

Breastfeeding ruined my first year as a mother. It’s not a dramatic statement, but sadly, it’s true. I have hundreds of cute videos of my daughter as an infant, and in nearly all of them, the pump is whirring away in the background. We barely left the house, and my anxiety over having enough milk was clinical. Yet, no one noticed, and I was cheered for my efforts. “Way to go, mama!” “wow!” “you are amazing!” when I posted pictures of the gallons of frozen bags of milk. In hindsight, each pumped bag of milk is equivalent to at least 20 minutes of lost bonding with my daughter or, dare I say, taking care of myself. So an entire freezer full of frozen milk? That is a lot of lost time. Time I will never get back.

My daughter was a few months past her third birthday when I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. By the time she turned four, I had been through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, more chemo and began 10 years of hormone therapy. Not only was the chance to have another child, and perhaps experience less trauma around breastfeeding, taken away from me, but the privilege of assuming I’ll see my daughter grow up was also taken away.

I will never say cancer has been a gift, but it sure does give a new perspective. When I learn of new moms struggling to breastfeed, all I want to do is say, “Your baby just wants you. Your baby doesn’t care where the milk comes from. Nothing is worth stealing those early cuddles.” If I could go back in time, I would take that breast pump (along with my obsessive spreadsheet of pumped milk quotas) and BURN them. I would hold my daughter, I would kiss her sweet cheeks, and I would happily pull out a bottle full of formula and make beautiful memories.

I don’t want to take anything away from the experience of breastfeeding. It is a wonderful choice for many. I simply wish we did a better job of making sure all moms and dads and caretakers (adoptive, biological, kinship, foster) know that breastfeeding is not what makes you a good mom. Just love your babies and love yourself. The thing you can’t do is get time back. The rest falls into place eventually.

Lauren Rabinovitz and daughter.

This story was written by Lauren Rabinovitz for our Hello Parents series. Our mission is to create a community of extreme inclusivity. Appreciating what makes us different and what we all have in common. No judgment. Just a village of support.