This First Person column is the experience of Morag Wehrle, who lives in North Vancouver, B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
The first time I gave my five-week-old daughter a bottle of formula in public, in a busy park in the summer sunshine, I felt like I was breaking the law. I hunched over the diaper bag as I poured the powdered mix into the bottle and added distilled warm water from a thermos — hiding it from view as though I were doing something obscene. I screwed the lid onto the bottle and shook it as casually as I could, glancing around to see if anyone was looking.
I could feel the anxiety gnawing at the back of my mind. You’re being ridiculous, I told myself. No one is watching you. No one is paying attention to how you’re feeding your child.
I lifted Willow from her stroller, settled her in the crook of my arm, and offered her the bottle. For a moment, as her bright hazel eyes widened in delight and she sucked eagerly at the milk, my anxiety faded away in the glow of her perfect rosy lips and the snub of her miniature nose. I smiled down at her hazy expression, the greedy way her clumsy fingers grasped at mine as though to pull the bottle closer.
A moment later, a woman around my age — a complete stranger — approached us. I looked up with a smile, ready to agree that yes, my baby was beautiful, or yes, the sunshine was delightful.
“Why aren’t you breastfeeding?” the woman said instead. “It’s better for the baby.”
She recoiled as I burst into tears. I guess she didn’t realize how much her words cut through me deeply as a new mom. She backed away as I ugly cried in the middle of the park, wiping my tears and snot on a corner of Willow’s baby blanket.
My pregnancy had been easy and comfortable. I used to caress the growing curve of my belly, feeling lush and beautiful, and daydream of the type of mom I would be: the perfect kind I saw on Instagram, who did everything with ease and grace. I would have a drug-free birth. I would use cloth diapers. I would exclusively breastfeed. My daughter and I would smile beatifically at the world, a single unit of perfect motherly devotion and adoration.
But the joy of welcoming my daughter into the world was overshadowed by my unexpected inability to fulfill what seemed to me the most basic of maternal duties. I failed to produce breastmilk. That was the language they used to me at the lactation clinic: failure to produce.
“Breast is best,” said all the posters at the midwifery clinic. “Those antibodies are crucial,” said the doctors at the hospital. “Formula is poison,” said the mothers on the Facebook forums. “Keep going,” everyone said, and I did because I wanted to be the best mom possible. I read article after article about the importance of breastmilk for building the baby’s immune system and how it might have a positive impact on her IQ. I took the medication Domperidone to boost my supply of breast milk, I drank endless cups of weedy-tasting herbal tea, I massaged my breasts with oils and tinctures, and I pumped and pumped and pumped.
“You need to relax more,” said a nurse at the lactation clinic when I asked her what I was doing wrong. I wanted to laugh in her face. My inability to breastfeed my daughter felt like a personal failure. More than that, it marked me as a failure as a mother. If I couldn’t do this for her — this one thing that was supposed to be natural and easy — then how could I be a good mother? This was my job and I was failing at it. How exactly was I supposed to relax?
It took 12 weeks of broken sleep, lactation consultants, pills and herbs and acupuncture, before a friend and fellow mother, visiting for tea, sat me down and took my hands. She looked tenderly into my eyes and said, “Honey, it’s OK to stop.”
“But I’m not giving her the best I can,” I said, my voice cracking with shame. The tears that were always lingering just below the surface welled over. “I’m failing her.”
My friend shook her head.
“Look at her,” she said. “Does that look like an unhappy child to you?”
I looked at my bright-eyed baby, who had learned to smile and giggle and grab my fingers with surprising strength in the weeks since I had been feeding her formula. She was chatty and alert, meeting every infant milestone, and sleeping happily through the night. She gazed back at me, all round pink cheeks and fuzzy tufts of strawberry blonde hair, her tiny face suffused with adoration. Love rushed through me in a dizzying wave.
My friend reached out to stroke Willow’s head. “Breast milk is an amazing thing,” she said. “But fed is best. Willow needs milk, but she also needs her mommy. Your physical and mental health are important, too.”
It took me a few more weeks to let go of the punishing attempt to force breastfeeding, but that was the moment I began to understand that I was allowing motherhood to be defined for me, and it was making me fall apart. My daughter needed a healthy, rested, happy mother much more than she needed my milk. I did not need to be a perfect mother. I just needed to be hers.
Support is available for anyone affected by this issue. You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.
You can also talk with Pacific Post Partum Support Society staff by calling or texting 604-255-7999.
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