Dear Mama:

I need to confess, sister.  I have judged you. 

When I saw you with your bottles at the park, when I spotted cans of formula at your house, some small, mean part of me judged you. Honestly, I hated that part of myself. After all, I love you.  I listened to you tell me of the reasons why you were here, sterilizing bottles, and even cried with you when you cried over guilt and helplessness and pain, sympathetically reassuring you, I understand.

But I lied. I didn’t understand.

I was angry on your behalf because you had no support or education, no one fighting for what you wanted for your babe and so you gave up little by little to pressure from parents and friends and marketers.  Or because you were a victim of a hard birth and then I blamed your epidural and the medicalization of birth.  And then society as a whole and its lip service to ‘family values’.

But some part of me thought you hadn’t tried hard enough. That you gave up too easily. I was blaming you. 

You know that I write and talk a lot about breastfeeding and that I am passionate about the experience –  for babies and for mothers. True, there are 101 reasons to breastfeed but I sing more of the fact is that it was a transformative experience for me in every way.

I breastfed my two older tinies for 18 months each, only weaning as they lead. We easily nursed right from the start to the end.  They were exclusively breastfed and we have never owned a bottle, never given a supplement of formula, never stored milk in bags or needed to pump. I had enough milk for a Russian orphanage.  I easily nursed in public all over the Lower Mainland and beyond – malls, restaurants, church and so on. I became a peer breastfeeding coach through our health unit, correcting bad latches and repeatedly saying to sobbing mothers that breastfeeding does not hurt if you are doing it right and talked of supply-and-demand and commitment from my lofty perch.

I must have been a fearsome creature for the formula-feeding mama to behold. 

Then, just 9 days ago, I gave birth to my third baby. And when she was two days old, I made a simple mistake.  I nursed her all night with a bad latch. I was sleepy (and probably a bit arrogant) so I didn’t pay attention.

By morning, my breasts were in so much pain, I held them and cried for hours. My milk came in full force and then I was engorged. This new baby’s mouth was so much smaller than my other two tinies’ and she wouldn’t or couldn’t latch now. She screamed and I cried and my nipples cracked down the middle. I peeled breast pads back to find them crusted with blood. Every feeding was agonizing, leaving me whimpering. She hit her day 5 growth spurt and I nursed her, back to back, side to side, for twenty four excruciating hours, determined.

I had to go back to the basics of what I knew, latching her on and off 9 or 10 times until we got it right. I gritted my teeth and curled my toes, carefully applying Lansinoh and googling correct positioning and latch videos on YouTube at 3:12 a.m. and praying, praying, praying for us to get it. She nursed constantly, only stopping to sleep fitfully, hungry. My mother came over for two days to watch my other two, allowing me to devote my full attention to nursing. My midwives came over to help and offer counsel, correcting techniques that I thought I had mastered.

I was exhausted. I was in pain. I wanted relief.   I admitted to myself – and now to you – that I wanted to give up. 

After that week, the engorgement eased. Scabs developed. We figured out our latch. It’s still not easy yet, requiring my full attention to positioning and latch every feeding which is new – and humbling – for me. But the pain is gone and she is eating well and fully. Which means that she is sleeping better which means that I am sleeping better now which means that everything is more bearable. She is a happy, peaceful tiny girl at last. We made it.

I know it was only a week of my life and you, my sister, endured months and months and it was a much worse story with so many factors.  This seems so small when I write it down but it felt big and impossible and exhausting and too painful.

I am very thankful I didn’t give up. (And I won’t ever give up.) I’ll still be me, I’m sure. I’ll still seek to educate and support, to tell my own beautiful story of the breastfeeding journey, to encourage and affirm.

But now, it’s coming from a humble, supportive heart instead of a know-it-all with no challenges. Instead, I now understand just a small bit – a very small bit – of how it feels when it hurts and it’s the middle of the night and you’re just so tired and you feel so inadequate for everything.

I respect you and your story, sister. This is mine. And we are both mums that do our best and sometimes that has to be enough.

I have no blame, no judgment left. It’s finally gone.

Will you forgive me? 

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In which it's enough and not enough and somehow a miracle
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  • Krista

    beautiful. thank you for writing this. as a mother who, 6 years ago, was condescended to by a well-meaning (maybe) but very insistent and unsympathetic breastfeeding consultant, and ended up leaving the office in tears and RUNNING to a drug store to buy formula to feed my starving child… thank you. the world needs more of you 🙂

    • I’m so sorry, Krista. Bless you, friend, And thank you.

  • Paige

    Oh Sarah, I feel your pain! And I remember your words to me on a blog about a year ago – encouraging me to not give up. Thank you then & know that you are loved now! I didn’t give up – in large parts to encouraging words from people like you. And you were right – it was worth it!

    Praying for you and your new baby, my friend!

  • Breastfeeding is a really personal journey. I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand unless you live it. I had inverted nipples. Now no longer inverted thanks to weeks of excruciating pain when my first child literally sucked the nipple out to a normal position. It was months of agony and I made it to the other side. That experience gives me a lot of understanding of some (just some) of the difficulties other mamas can have.

    • Ouch! You’re so right, M – it’s intensely personal.

  • Saramccord

    Oh sweetheart, please be kind to youself right now. xoxo

  • Thank you!
    I have never understood the “it doesn’t hurt if you are doing it right”. I’ve nursed all my kids. But, it always hurts in the beginning.
    I’m saying a little prayer for rest for you right now!

  • Nish

    Thanks, friend. Forgiveness & grace here, from my heart.

    Not being able to breastfeed my Rowan was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. The pain medications for the gallstones & the removal of my right ovary at 20 wks (yeah. major abdominal surgery at 20 weeks pregnant. fun times.) kept my milk from coming in. I never produced a drop. Then, the depression came.

    I’m so grateful that you & sweet Evelynn are figuring each other out & that you’re able to feed her joyfully without pain. Praise God!

    Love you. Wishing many more sleep-filled nights to you, my friend.

  • thank you for writing this. We had a similar experience with our youngest, Mahone. You describe it so well. It really was all consuming and overwhelming and yes… I was that judgemental mom at the park who gasped when the mom brought out the bottle-plastic no less-aghast!!! I remember the moment it actually worked for him. It had been three weeks straight of what you described, plus a trip to the emerg with terrible mastitus (spelling-who knows!!)and I finally gave Mahone a small bottle of my breastmilk. All it took was one bottle-the anxiousness left me and then-wow-I was able to nurse…

    There is nothing like the experience of nourishing your child, but like you, my judgement is now gone.

    Why are we always so hard on each other…

    • indeed. slowly learning but i wish i offered more grace sooner.

  • so sorry to hear how rough it has been, but thankful things are going well now for you and your sweet babe. proof again how God uses trials for his glory and our refining.

    do you have any wool breast pads? they are so good at protecting sore nipples/skin.

    • I do, yes. I found some bamboo ones that are working wonders for mr (Lime Daisy designs). And thank you for your understanding, friend.

  • I just discovered your blog recently … such good writing! your post reminds me of my first weeks breastfeeding my little guy (who was in the NICU for 5 days and I wasn’t even able to attempt breastfeeding until 48 hours after birth) although I didn’t have quite as much cracking/pain/bleeding – but I understand completely the exhaustion-please-just-eat-and-go-back-to-sleep in the middle of the night that can encourage a bad latch. And then breaking suction 10 times during each feed until we suddenly .. found it. But sometimes in the bliss of feeding with ease I can forget the pain and difficulty of getting to that place… and all the support/encouragement that I had along the way.

    Grace to you and your little one, Sarah and it will be amazing to see how this new depth of empathy is able to encourage others!

    • thank you so much, becca. I am thankful for the grace being offered here.

  • Emily Wierenga

    oh, i love your heart, dear sarah.

  • mylestones

    First, I agree with Sara–please be kind to yourself. And no need to apologize, none at all.
    For whatever reason, with both my babies, nursing was painful (VERY PAINFUL!) for a solid month, even with a proper (dare I say perfect?) latch. With my first, I had first mastitis and then thrush within the first four weeks, and I remember my OB telling me… “No one will say this to you, but it’s okay to give up. I see how hard you’re trying, how badly you want to do this, and that’s wonderful–but just know, if you give up, that’s okay too.”
    Obviously, I haven’t forgotten those words uttered six years ago. I needed to hear them–desperately. I didn’t give up, and it did get much easier after that first month, and we weathered going back to work and pumping and freezing and all the not-fun-not-fun-at-all parts of nursing, and we made it to a year. And I’m glad.
    But the thought of doing it again? And just reading your painful account? Gives me a bit of PTND (post traumatic nursing disorder) 🙂
    Hang in there, friend. All of this–every last bit–will be used by Him, as I know you’ll take this experience with you and use it to encourage the new mamas who cross your path.

  • I am always floored at the raw honesty with which you post! Thanks you for sharing your story, I guess we never really know anyone’s whole story unless we take the time to ask, and share. I remember people raising an eyebrow when I said I had too much milk, I work with NICU nurses…this is generally a thing to aspire too. Nobody believed me that this was causing problems and pain, not even the midwives. The common response was “I wish” or most mothers wish they had that problem. As in “shut up and stop complaining”! I’m so thankful for the good friends whose ear I could cry to and lean on, I can’t imagine doing it without them and so many women don’t have that.

    • You’re right, jenn – community is key even here. And grace to offer a listening ear.

  • Oh Sarah, I’m so sorry that you were hurting so much. I know how much you love breastfeeding. So, so glad you made it through.

    • thanks, jennie – it is so much better. and i am so glad.

  • Okay, so this is totally the last possible post a man should be commenting on, but I feel compelled. I totally support your passion for this aspect of mothering, but here’s the rub: my wife and I are adoptive parents. Breastfeeding was not a possibility in our situation. We used formula, and our daughter is healthy, athletic and whip-smart. While I agree that your method is best, your zeal for it comes across somewhat like we failed our daughter by not being able to do this, and my wife is somehow less of a mother for not experiencing and providing that. I know that is not your belief or intent, but it can come across that way. I love your blog, and I know that you have a generous and kind heart, but it can come across somewhat abrasively on this issue. I can be the same way sometimes when I talk about adoption, because I believe very strongly in proactive rather than reactive adoption, and I have had people tell me I need to tone it down. It’s wonderful that you’re able to provide this for your kids, but not all families can do the same. And we’re still good parents in spite of it.

    • I’m so sorry if that is ever how I’ve come across, David. I’m heartbroken to think that anyone would feel ‘less’ for their time with me. Of course you’re good parents. Thanks for speaking your piece.

      • Sarah, I love your writing and thinking. I do not feel “less” at all, and I know the way it was coming across was not how you intended it, which is why I wanted to speak up. You have revealed yourself to be kind, generous and tenderhearted in this space. Thanks for being open.

  • Forgiven.
    I had a similar experience with my son. I cried through most of breastfeeding. The pain – mastitis, thrush, cracked & bleeding nipples lasted for about 5 weeks. I paid for a lactation consultant to come to my house, called her a lot afterwards (she ran out of suggestions) and exchanged emails with Dr. Jack Newman
    By 6 weeks it started to get better, but I had already started to wean. We still lasted 4 months. And I did not like it. It did not help with bonding with my son.

    I had had similar problems with my next kid – a girl. But somehow I fought through it and we lasted about a year – until she refused. Next daughter – still a lot of pain in the beginning but no infections! We lasted about a year as well until she refused. I am a big supporter of breastfeeding, but I know it does not work for everyone.

    • Thank you Wendy. And thank you for sharing your story with me.

  • I love the humility of this post. I believe in balance, and I encourage all mommas to work with their little ones and find the right route…my dear friend felt such guilt when she decided to exclusively formula feed, until she realized that she never bonded with her first during breastfeeding because of her need for medicinal treatment for severe depression and anxiety. As a woman who has chosen a different path for my family, I felt nothing but love and compassion.

    We’re all mommas, and we all need love and support from one another, thank you!

    • You’re right – we do need to love and support each other better. You’re so right.

  • Gina

    Yep. And me.

    My #3 was a terrible nurser. Would not latch on properly for the world. We made it through those first months (remember those? you knew me then) only due to a handheld pump and free formula that showed up in the mail.

    When Little Em was born (what is it with my girls??) it was the same, but I knew better this time and didn’t force it too much to avoid damaging myself. rofl I knew we’d figure it out at home, and we did. The last day of my engorgement…we stayed up all night nursing, and she did beautifully. And of course, 2 days later I hemorraged and was never able to latch her on again because I was too physically weak to even lift her to my breast.

    So I pumped as much as I could (shocked at my decimated production because of the hemmorage!) and got formula and an electric pump! from WIC. I wished I could nurse as I was up sterilizing bottles EVERY SINGLE NIGHT at 10pm, but it was completely out of my control. Especially with 3 other small ones, a working Dude, and no fam around to ease the burden. Sometimes you really just can’t nurse, or reclaim your milk supply. (And you know, I even got cracks from pumping with that baby…and I know pumping! Odd.)

    Sorry you suffered so dearly with little E last week, but glad you are shining through, love. 🙂

    • Deborah L

      I hemorrhaged after my fourth, too! It was eight days postpartum… Tough times, eh?

    • I do remember those days. You were/ate such a rockstar. That haemorraghe was terrifying.

  • Awhhhh! I’m just practically crying now – I have no words, just wanted to share this lump in my throat. I am so glad things have eased for you!

  • Thank you for writing this. You will be a much better teacher for this experience. 🙂

  • With tears in my eyes, this is beautiful.
    Your words are a comfort.

    I tried to breastfeed both of my children. And for numerous reasons, it didn’t last.

    Continue doing what you’re doing, Mama.
    Give yourself Grace.

  • Deborah L

    This is a tremendous post. There are SO many reasons why some women are unable to or choose not to breastfeed. We really have no idea. There is such a fine line between advocating for something one feels strongly about, and appearing to be superior and pushy. I work casually as a postpartum RN and have taught many women how to breastfeed. It can be extremely difficult or impossible for some.

    It’s ironic, isn’t it? Women are criticized for NOT breastfeeding their babies, and criticized for breastfeeding “too long”. ( I’m in the midst of the latter category now!) We need to let go of these judgments and support each other as mamas – it’s a hard enough job as it is without that extra criticism. (And I wholeheartedly admit that I’ve been on the judgmental side of things – I cringe when I think of it.)

    So sorry you have had to bear such pain. You’ve probably tried this, but I found that nipple shells (not shields) in conjunction with lanolin ointment helped a lot. The shells let air flow through to your nipples whilst keeping them from sticking to your bra. (But, maybe you don’t need this anymore – I just re-read and saw that you are healing up.)

    • You’re right – we have no idea. And yes, am nicely healed up now and going well.

  • Canita

    As a bit of a “milk nazi”, I am very grateful to read this. I often worry about putting off people with my passion & verve when it comes to breastfeeding, natural childbirth, and attachment parenting. This is a good reminder to myself to be compassionate and understanding to those who do not follow the same path as me. Thanks, Sarah. Your posts are some of the highlights of my day!

  • I’ve been a lurker for a while, but this post made me want to delurk. I had my first baby, a little girl, in China this past January. (My husband and I worked at a foster home for special needs children until recently when we moved back to the USA.) For a solid 8-10 weeks after she was born, both of my nipples were deeply cracked, blistered, bleeding, infected, and oozing. Even the air hurt. I have a strong pain tolerance, but I’ve never experienced anything like that… and no one ever told me it could happen. I had gone to classes, read the books, etc. but everything I saw minimized the pain or acted like it would end soon. I cried through every nursing session and would curl my toes from the pain. I was far from family, but thankfully surrounded by friends at church who had experienced similar things and just kept promising, “it will get better.” And then there was the angel lactation consultant from Australia who offered lots of helpful tips for healing and then looked me in the eyes and promised it would get better in 6-8 weeks. (She was right!!) I’m just so thankful for the people who encouraged me. I know I would have stopped – and that would have been ok! – if it hadn’t been for the encouragement. But if I had stopped, my memories would only be traumatic… now that pales in comparison to the joy I feel now that the pain has ended.

    I guess in closing I want to say I’m sorry this happened to you… but I imagine it will be redeemed into a way to bless more women. In my experience the women who said “it wouldn’t hurt if you do it right” were unhelpful and discouraging… mostly because they couldn’t tell me what to “do right.” But the ones who could look me in the eye, say “I know what it’s like and it will get better” — those were the ones who kept me going. And that’s who you are, now.

    • Thank you so much, Carrie – so glad you de-lurked to share your story and it has encouraged me.

  • Sarah R

    This is such a good reminder for all of us. I was fortunate that I was able to breastfeed my son. I had a hard time when he was first born, but when he was 10 days old, I saw a Lactation Consultant who helped us with the latch, and then everything was okay. I was really sad when he weaned himself.

    However, I have a close girlfriend that had breast cancer in her early 20’s. She had a double mastectomy and now wears protheses. Of course, the mommies at the park don’t have her medical charts and can’t tell that she’s wearing her protheses, and they feel absolutely free to make comments about how “breast is best.” She would have LOVED nursing but couldn’t, and it was heart-breaking for her to deal with these judgmental moms who had no clue. Her experience really taught me that I can’t be too quick to judge.

  • Anne J.

    So sorry to hear of this rough go…and so glad to hear that it is all improving and you came out with a new perspective!

    Before I had B, I also wondered if people hadn’t “tried hard enough”…and then I didn’t make enough milk for my baby…or his mouth was too small to keep the milk coming? Despite a supportive midwife and great breastfeeding clinic doctor, after lots of tries with latch, fenugreek, Domperidone and weighing before and after feeds, it was decided that we had to supplement with formula to keep our little boy growing. I cried all the way to the drugstore for formula, feeling I had failed at my new job of mama. I hated pulling bottles out and feeling judged. We kept nursing first, supplementing second and by 4 months he was off the supplements and exclusively nursing. It felt like a miracle!

    The thing that made the biggest difference? My husband. He watched closely at the appointments for the tips on latching and would stand over my shoulder and help make sure we had it right. He would find a quiet corner for me when we were out and about so I could nurse discreetly and concentrate wherever we were. He could have just said to whip out a bottle but he never did. He was our biggest cheerleader and I can honestly say “we” breastfed in our family.

    I love to meet new mamas and tell them to hang in there, IF they can, and try to encourage them. I had no idea what hard work it would be to learn to breastfeed,or how truly rewarding it would be either. B ended up continuing on til he was 2. I wouldn’t trade it for a minute.

  • Jenn

    i could write a book about this from being a mom on the other side. i am so supportive of breastfeeding and figured it would be no big deal for me. 3 kids and thousands of tears later, it was obviously a big deal. you name it, i had every issue in the book. mastitis, cracked & bleeding nipples, poor milk production, severe pain, problems latching, etc. i was an unhappy mom who felt like a failure. it took a lot of tears. the ugly cry…weeping, bawling, blubbering. when i did finally throw in the towel, my heart was still so sensitive to being judged. but by not breastfeeding, i was a happy mom. and being a happy mom (and happy wife) made a world of difference for my family from being an unhappy mom who was an emotional wreck and dreaded feeding her babies. i don’t pass off my children to have other people feed them. it is still my time with them, to cuddle, talk to them, look them in the eyes, bond. my kids have all been healthy and strong, and i feel as close to them as humanly possible.
    but there is something to be said to be crying about it and realize that yes, i’m crying for feeling like a failure and for it being so dang hard. but i found myself crying the most because i was so afraid of all the judgment i would get. and i did get judged. in my face. many times. but this is imperfect me. i love being a mom. i love my kiddos. and i love the idea of breastfeeding but not the reality of it. you apologize for judging. i should apologize for being jealous. cause seeing how easy it is for you and others…i never understood that. it was never easy for me.
    and one thing that has emerged from all of it… when i had 3 miscarriages, i never knew i would be “the one” that other moms would turn to when they also had a miscarriage. miscarriages are rarely talked about and no one seems to know how to deal with it. i was able to turn my pain into a comfort for others. and the same with the issue of breastfeeding. women struggling with breastfeeding versus bottlefeeding. i never swayed them one way or the other. but i was a nonjudgmental friend who empathized with their issues and said, “no matter what you choose to do, it’s okay.” sometimes we just need someone to be real with us. seriously, we moms need to stick together.

  • The power of empathy is a remarkable thing – thank you for sharing it with us – what a gift your words and these women and the journey of motherhood. Just beautiful. In all its painful glory 🙂

  • Stephanie

    Nursing was SO painful for me the first 2-4 weeks for both of my babies – the bleeding, scabbing, screaming kind of pain. I can understand why people give up…especially without good family support and examples.

    I also know that it’s so worth it in the end…it’s hard to convey that message enthusiastically without coming across as being a “loony lactivist.” I do think a large reason that our culture has so few breastfeeding moms is because moms don’t talk about (and do it) openly enough. As such, I try to share my story w/ grace and gentleness whenever I can.

  • Jenn

    Thank you so much for posting this.  It’s a battle I seem to face constantly, and frankly, am gearing up to have with the nurses at the hospital when I deliver this next little one.   For some of us, it’s not about fighting through the pain of nursing, (although feeling like glass was shooting out of my nipples every time I tried to nurse my son was not fun) but rather it’s about not having enough (or any) milk to feed our babies with.  All the oatmeal and fenugreek and herbal teas are not going to change the fact that I simply do not have the milk ducts available to sustain a child, and while that broke my heart, I became a better mother the day I realised that feeding my son was far more important that blindly holding to the “breast is best” mantra.  For my son, it wasn’t best simply because there was no nourishment there.

  • Jennifermluckett

    I know this comment is coming 10 months late, but I’m new-ish to your site, and have been reading every post. My husband and I are trying to have a baby, and I recently saw a midwife about preparing my body for pregnancy. I have Crohn’s disease, and my body has to be in tip-top shape when I finally conceive. I am currently taking a drug that put me in remission (thank you, Jesus), and I will be able to take this drug during pregnancy without any adverse affects to my child. However, I won’t be able to breastfeed on this drug. My GI doc gave me the option of formula feeding and taking this truly-life-saving drug, or breastfeeding without it, and risking my health and life. Obviously, the decision was not difficult logically, but was difficult emotionally. However, I choose life. The midwife I visited with had a different opinion – if I couldn’t breastfeed my baby, perhaps I was not meant to have children, and I should re-think the idea of pregnancy. She told me it was “tragic” that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. I left in tears, thinking that I was inadequate and selfish, and I’m not even pregnant yet. And then I got angry, thinking that no, it was not “tragic.” It was a disappointment, yes. But “tragic” is starvation, war, poverty, crime. Maybe it’s time women stopped judging each other – my Crohn’s disease is invisible to a stranger. I know that I, and the women in my life, have stopped looking at women bottle-feeding in disdain. As long as I am blessed to have a child, and that baby eats, grows, and is healthy and happy, I don’t care how she eats. I will not be a failure as a mother for not breastfeeding.  Thank you for this post.

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  • dippiddeedoo

    Thank you for writing this! I did feel judged by you. Every time I pulled a bottle out in public, I felt judged. Every time a can of formula was in my shopping cart in the baby section at the supermarket, I felt judged. I felt as though you looked at me like an uneducated hick. I possibly could have tried harder, but the harder I tried, the more I resented having to endure it, which was NOT helping me bond with the amazing child I had just given birth to (via c-section which was also NOT what I planned). Once I stopped, I finally fell in love with my son. It is NOT for everyone. Thank God for c-sections or I wouldn’t have my son. Thank God that formula is NOT poison.