Parenthood

I Stopped Breastfeeding, and It Saved My Life

How one new mother curbed her descent into postpartum depression and anxiety by revisiting some of her most fervently held values.

When I was pregnant, everyone asked me the same question: Would I breastfeed? I was almost insulted by it. Of course I would breastfeed. It’s well-documented that breastfeeding offers myriad health benefits, not to mention a golden opportunity for mom-baby bonding, and, lest that not convince you — it’s free. 

My daughter Romy Louise arrived a month early on December 3, 2018 via cesarean section, tiny and jaundiced. I had developed preeclampsia and was put on a magnesium drip, a heavy-duty muscle relaxer that makes it entirely likely that you’ll nod out and drop your baby, so I wasn’t allowed to be alone with her. They kept Romy in the nursery and brought her to my room for feedings. That first night, a bombastic baby nurse named Mallory came into my room and helped me feed her. The baby latched, and it was thrilling. 

The first days were sort of hazy, but the parade of visitors included a coterie of lactation consultants, who, at my request, helped me situate Romy just so and calibrate my hospital-issue breast pump to stimulate milk production. (After having a baby, it is slightly unfathomable just how many strangers you might need to come into your room and handle your boobs.) The pump, meanwhile, was painful and unglamorous. I hated it. It was satisfying, though, to see the results. Each milliliter of colostrum was worth its weight in gold. Dan, my husband, was proud of me. “Christine’s gushy!” he overshared to one of our friends. 

We were discharged from the hospital 5 days after Romy was born. My high blood pressure from the preeclampsia was under control, Romy’s jaundice had been treated and we arrived home at last. As they wheeled me to the parking lot, a vase of flowers my uncle and aunt had sent fell to the ground, spilling water everywhere. Dan drove through the darkened Los Angeles streets at what seemed like 15 miles an hour. A car honked. I was inexplicably terrified. Unbeknownst even to me, I was beginning to descend into what would become a bitter morass of postpartum depression and anxiety. 

A car honked. I was inexplicably terrified. Unbeknownst even to me, I was beginning to descend into what would become a bitter morass of postpartum depression and anxiety. 

The pediatrician had advised me to continue meeting with lactation consultants since Romy was premature, to make sure her latch developed properly. One came over the next day, clad in brightly-patterned leggings and a purple shirt. She helped me arrange a barricade of pillows around myself for maximum comfort and proper posture. Romy fed. “She’s a little bit orange,” the consultant commented. “Does she have jaundice?” I called the doctor. It was back. We were admitted to the hospital again that same night, this time to the pediatric ward, and all at once, my milk virtually dried up. 

Romy spent the next 24 hours under a bili light, which looked like an incubator or a tiny tanning bed. I spent the next 24 hours crying and trying to pump to no avail. Not only was she sick, but I wasn’t allowed to take her out from under the light for any reason — not even to feed her. I’d stick my hand into the plexiglass incubator to give her bottles or attempt to change the diapers that accrued at an alarming rate, but that was the extent of it. I listened to New Order on my phone and consumed the hospital snacks — Lorna Doone cookies and Ocean Spray juice boxes — and felt utter despair. 

After pricking Romy’s little red heel for the umpteenth time and pronouncing her — again — jaundice-free, the doctors sent us home. The lactation consultant came back, but upon seeing my now-deflated breasts and the mere droplets that emerged after what seemed like an eternity of pumping, she pronounced the fatal words: “You may never get to 100% breastfeeding.” I felt all the wind go out of me. What did she mean? It could be a combination of the C-section, genetics and stress, but something had stopped working. At the same time, my psychiatrist returned my tearful phone call. “You might want to consider not breastfeeding,” she said. “You have postpartum depression and you need to protect your sleep.” Game over. 

“I feel like a failure,” I sobbed to my mother-in-law. What kind of mom was I going to be if I couldn’t even do the most fundamental evolutionary thing — feed my baby? I called my friend Trinity,  a fellow mom and generally sage counselor, and cried some more. “Fed is best,” she told me gently. But I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. I pictured myself at the park, the judging eyes of other moms as I whipped out bottles and formula while they nursed with impunity. I pictured my baby sick, immune-deficient from an all-formula diet and the lack of the antibodies that derive from mother’s milk. But formula, it seemed, was the way forward. After all, what would be gained by continuing to drive myself insane quite literally trying to wrest water from a stone? 

“I feel like a failure,” I sobbed to my mother-in-law. What kind of mom was I going to be if I couldn’t even do the most fundamental evolutionary thing — feed my baby?

Breastfeeding a newborn is an around-the-clock proposition. In my case, even when it was still working, it involved trying to nurse for 20 minutes (with varying degrees of success), pumping for 20 minutes, and then doing it all over again an hour later. I was exhausted and overwrought. When we made the switch to exclusively formula, my husband was able to take over two of the nocturnal feedings, and I was relieved of the specter of pumping. I began to get more sleep and that — coupled with a light dose of antidepressants — was enough to bring me back to the land of the living. “I’m back!,” I said to Dan. 

Indeed, the constant state of terror I’d been existing in was starting to lift. I looked at Romy and noticed things — how peaceful she looked when she slept, her fuzzy shock of black hair, the insane length of her eyelashes — instead of obsessing over the hypothetical maladies that could befall her. Slowly, the practical elements fell into place too. I no longer feared changing even the wildest of diapers.

The constant state of terror I’d been existing in was starting to lift. I looked at Romy and noticed things — how peaceful she looked when she slept, her fuzzy shock of black hair, the insane length of her eyelashes.

Nine months later, Romy is healthy and joyful and in the 75th percentile for height and weight. She smiles prolifically, loves showtunes and has developed a taste for steak. And I’ve never felt better. For a while, I was ashamed when people would ask me if I’m breastfeeding and I’d have to answer no. I felt the need to explain the entire sob story to them. (In reality, people have not really seemed to care). Now I just shrug and say, “It didn’t work out.” And indeed, breastfeeding might not have worked out, but so many things did: I sleep, I have my sanity back and I get to be a mom to the world’s greatest baby. 

Christine Whitney is a writer, editor, and consultant living between Los Angeles and NYC. She writes frequently for publications like The Cut and WSJ, and most recently served as Editorial Director for Violet Grey; prior to that she was the Senior Fashion News and Features Editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She lives with her husband, set designer Daniel Horowitz, their daughter Romy, and their cat Mittens.