Breastfeeding Aversion: My Story
© Hailee Wilburn-Ervin 2019
[I want to acknowledge that there are many roadblocks set up by society to discourage breastfeeding parents—especially women of color. I know that is why many are so adamant about "breast is best.” This post is simply my own journey.]
My journey with my boobs has been uncomfortable from the start. I was raised in a conservative Christian household where even at 5 years old, spaghetti strap tops were considered inappropriate. When I hit puberty around 12 years old, I was absolutely overcome with shame about my growing chest, which felt like it exploded overnight. One day I was a sun-kissed, flat-chested wild child running through the backyard, and the next day I had C-cups and my dad could no longer hug me without feeling awkward and sad about his baby growing up.
In high school, when I would make out with my then-boyfriend (now husband) and he would run his hands under my shirt, I’d flinch away from him. Not because what we were doing was “sinful,” but because I literally could not handle the thought of anyone touching my breasts.
As an adult, having sex dug up a lot of intense feelings. We all have things we like and don’t like sexually. One of my “100% don’t likes” is any boob-touching (just let me say “boob” instead of “breast”, okay? Boobs are funny and I need to cover my feelings with humor right now). If you touch my boob, I will rip your head off. It feels like nails screeching down a chalkboard.
3 years ago, I got those two little pink lines on a pregnancy test saying our wonderful son was on his way. We were ecstatic as we were trying to get pregnant. It didn’t take long before I started to worry about breastfeeding. If I couldn’t handle even touching my boobs myself for breast-exams in the shower, how was I supposed to feed a baby with them?
Before you judge me about being “immature” let me tell you this: I don’t have a problem with boobs or breastfeeding in general. I can see breastfeeding in public and not bat an eye--hell, I’m a birth photographer! I see my clients breastfeed all the time! I think it’s beautiful. But the thought of someone latching onto my breasts? The thought made me get a brain freeze, like sucking down an icee too quickly.
Still, I decided I was going to push through it because it would be what was best for my baby.
Months passed, my belly grew, we registered for breast pads, nipple cream, and got a pump through our insurance. My husband reassured me I should at least try because it would save us money in the long run (and money was very tight). My mother-in-law lent me a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding to read with the purest of intentions.
Underneath it all, I was dreading it. I couldn’t wait to meet my baby, but the thought of breastfeeding felt just as bad as someone making me eat shards of broken glass. Still, I persevered, because now I had this idea that if I failed at breastfeeding, then I failed some huge, beautiful, womanly test that measured my intrinsic value as a mother.
My son was born on March 24, 2017, at 10:45am via emergency c-section. His birth story is long and traumatic and a blog post for another day. I didn’t meet him for the first 6 hours of his life, and when I did, I was out of my mind on medication. I was in so much pain that it felt like I had been hit by a truck. I even cried and begged my nurses not to remove my catheter after 24 hours when they told me I had to get up to walk and go to the bathroom.
I was not in a healthy mental or physical state, but I tried my best to breastfeed my baby. He was fat and perfect. He seemed to know exactly was to do. He loved the boob. However, tears dripped down my face as I held him to me because all I could feel was fury towards this little being who needed so much from me when I didn’t have anything to give.
Those first few days my husband held him most of the time. I didn’t have any interest because I knew he would try to find my boob. Whenever he started to whimper, my anxiety shot through the roof because I knew I’d have to whip my boob out for him. I felt angry that this had to happen dozens of times every day. It got to the point where it didn’t even feel like life was worth living because breastfeeding was a prison. A prison that I had built myself and that everyone told me was the most beautiful, natural thing. I wanted to shake them and scream, “Can’t you see me? Can’t you see how I’m breaking? HELP ME, PLEASE.” But no one came.
Within those first two weeks, I came to a compromise with myself. I would stop trying to force exclusive-breastfeeding and I’d pump for my son. But those of you who have exclusively pumped know how hard it is.
I would pump an ounce or two from each breast and then have to stop because of how horrible it felt. It was barely better than breastfeeding because now I could actually see the milk dripping from my body. I felt like vomiting.
Every time I changed my clothes, my nipples stuck to my breast pads or shirt, little stabs of pain reminding me of how much I hated this. Dried milk crusted everything--it might as well have been neon signs flashing, “You are DISGUSTING” or “Wow, you must really be a piece of shit mom.”
I can’t really remember what my breaking point was. The exhaustion fog was thick and overwhelming and my son was around one month old. I wasn’t pumping often enough to keep my supply up, causing us to have to supplement with formula.
When I finally gave in and decided I was done, we were done, with breastfeeding, it was magical. It was like the clouds opened up and angels started singing. Suddenly, my son was this cute little guy who I could actually enjoy bonding with. We snuggled together, with him in the crook of my arm and making tiny piggy noises while he sucked that bottle down. Me, looking into his beautiful eyes turning from deep ocean blue to an earthy brown, and just taking him in.
Breastfeeding is right for so many families. A lot of issues can be solved with the help of a great lactation consultant. BUT breastfeeding is not one size fits all. If I had listened to my gut and started with formula much, much sooner, it’s very possible I could have bonded with my baby from the beginning.
My husband and I have talked about what we’ll do when we eventually have our next baby. I already feel the pressure to try to power through breastfeeding again because maybe I just didn’t do it right the first time or try hard enough. When I say that out loud, though, it sounds ridiculous! I know there are people out there who will judge me for feeding my brand-spanking-new infant formula but I just have to come to terms with that.
Formula saved my relationship with my baby and I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful for my husband who supported the decision once he realized how miserable I was. I’m thankful for my mom and dad who often bought us formula because we had trouble affording it. I’m thankful for my midwives who reassured me that I was still a badass and doing what was best for myself and my baby. And, finally, I feel like I can look back and thank myself for surrendering and admitting that I wasn’t okay.
Are you struggling with a breastfeeding aversion? Please reach out for help. You can email me at email@example.com if you don’t have someone in your life that understands. It’s okay if you need to end your breastfeeding journey. It’s okay if you want to push through your aversion and continue breastfeeding. It’s okay if you don’t even want to try breastfeeding and decide to formula feed right after birth.
The way you feed your baby doesn’t define you as a person or as a mother. You are doing an amazing job and your baby loves you.
Hailee Wilburn-Ervin is a birth photographer and writer from Lexington, Kentucky. She lives with her husband, two-year-old son, and a menagerie of rescue pets. You can see her birth photography work at www.webirthphoto.com. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, she is currently in therapy to work through her birth trauma and postpartum depression. Not that it’s any of your business. ;-)
To read more about breast feeding aversion click here.