After watching a Netflix show that followed stories of two women, one a mother, I was reminded of my painful postpartum journey.
I finally finished watching "Firefly Lane." I binged through the first season in a couple of days, but now that I have a toddler, it took me more time.
The ending was a tearjerker, but the episode that made me sob was episode 11, "The Breast is Yet to Come." As Kate Malarkey battles with cancer, this episode touches on poignant moments in her relationship with her breasts, including trying to breastfeed her daughter Marah Ryan.
Portrayed by Sarah Chalke, the character's experience reminded me of my breastfeeding journey.
An unspoken struggle
Before trying to breastfeed, I didn’t realize how many women struggle with it.
Despite what popular culture, doctor's clinics and marketing have led me to believe, breastfeeding isn’t always the most natural experience. I was not emotionally or mentally prepared for the ways in which trying to breastfeed a tiny human would eat away at my self-esteem.
Once my boobs start working, I will be lounging in a sunroom with my beautiful little baby in the cutest cloth little diapers as she is nestled into my breast, suckling peacefully, while I read a book, bathed in a shaft of beautiful sunlight.Kate Mularkey, "Firefly Lane"
Before giving birth, I wasn't sure about breastfeeding, but post-delivery I was overcome with a desperate urge to breastfeed. In those first few weeks and months, when nourishing your baby and helping them gain weight is a mother’s prime responsibility, I told myself: I should be able to breastfeed my baby.
Unfortunately, it turned out my body wasn’t able to produce enough milk — I didn't even know that could happen. I naively thought every mom has a sufficient supply.
For months, I was advised by shop assistants and baby registry lists to buy nursing pads for leaking breasts, a pump and storage bags for excess milk, and nursing bras larger than my actual size, because my breasts would eventually grow.
Not once was I told about a lack of supply; I was blindsided.
The National Geographic estimated only five to 10 per cent of women physiologically aren't able to breastfeed. However, the article also explains many women find their bodies simply can't make enough milk to satisfy their babies.
Canadian data from 2020 suggested 91 per cent of mothers begin by breastfeeding but by month four, nearly 50 per cent stop. The reason reported by almost half of those who stopped is not having enough breast milk.
Like Mularkey in "Firefly Lane," I imagined what breastfeeding would look like.
The picture I had seen in doctor's clinics, magazines and media was that of moms relaxing, in a cloud of pillows, one nursing bra cup peeled down while cradling a baby.
It looked nothing like my attempts.
Hours and thousands spent
When my baby would cry out in hunger, I would frantically tape a supplemental feeding tube at the right angle to my nipple. This feeding tube was connected to a test tube of formula milk, shoved into a bra cup.
My lactation consultants had suggested this feeding tube method to help encourage milk production, but there was nothing natural about it.
While balancing formula, I would pick up my screaming baby and coax her little mouth to latch on to my nipple and this tube. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time there would be a problem with the tube or the way it was taped, and I'd have to jerry-rig the contraption all over again.
I spent thousands of dollars trying to make my body cooperate.
This is when I learned that breastfeeding is not free. I rented a hospital-grade pump; I shoved oats, lactation cookies, teas and supplements down my throat.
Trying to breastfeed began to cost my well-being and sanity.
I throbbed with anxiety as words like "supply and demand," "glandular tissue" and "prolactin levels" repeatedly etched themselves across my mind.
When I did try to breastfeed, mealtimes ended in tears and I felt like a failure. Rather than resting and holding my baby, following my lactation consultant’s advice, I would spend hours a day pumping.
One day after power pumping for an hour, I managed to express a few ounces and then knocked it over. I cried like a baby that night in my husband’s arms, devastated.
It started to dawn on me that I might not be able to keep this up.
'Fed is best'
The "breast is best" message that has reigned supreme for decades has started to be challenged by the "fed is best" message.
My experience, however, made me feel like we’re still not talking about the realities and struggles of breastfeeding enough. Even when mothers are blessed with an abundant supply, it's hard work.
If I knew earlier, maybe I wouldn't have felt so alone.
I wish my care providers provided me with better information on breastfeeding, or at least given me a heads up about supply. I wish they provided affirmative education on other ways to nourish and bond with my baby.
In "Firefly Lane," when Mularkey accepts feeding her daughter with a bottle, and they sit together on the couch as a family, she smiles. I felt so envious of that moment — because it took me so much longer to find that peace.
About 88 per cent of mothers use formula in the first six months of their babies life, according to a study. The study's findings indicate a gap in messaging from health professionals and policymakers to protect the well-being of mothers vulnerable to negative feelings about formula feeding.
The study also suggests the reasons for these negative feelings often come from external sources like the commentary on social platforms, "mummy‐wars" between breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers.
There's also a perception that health professionals consider formula inferior to breast milk.
Breastfeeding can be a positive experience — when it works. But the way it’s glorified and projected on new mothers desperately needs to be addressed.
As someone who went through the struggle, I wish I’d been exposed to more positive messaging about feeding babies with bottles, and that every ounce of formula milk is also a testament to my love.