Monday, February 29, 2016

Because I Hated Every Second of Breastfeeding

Genmedmom here.

There have been many times when I have struggled to empathize with the patient. There are certain healthcare issues, and certain patients, that I have found consistently frustrating over the years.

I've written about this, and been pretty well chastised by readers. I don't mind, because I know that 99% of physicians have their kryptonite issues, and just don't talk about it. I'll take the heat for being honest.

My kryptonite issue has been obesity. I admit, that for many a patient encounter, I've sat there and counseled (for the millionth time) on diet, and exercise, and priorities, and wondered to myself: Why can't you do this? Why can't you just lose weight?

I know that sounds terrible. Heck, it IS terrible. My bias is based on my own experience: I gained sixty pounds in my first pregnancy, and fifty in my second. The weight didn't come off postpartum, and I found myself obese. BMI 30. I dedicated what precious little time I had as a working mom to eating healthy and exercising, and I lost it all. It took two years. It was hard. There were ups and downs. I've written endlessly about it here, and here, and here....

Of course I know that it is totally and utterly unfair to think "Well, if I could do it, why can't you?" but truth is, that's a pretty natural way to think, and many of us think like that.

So I've been making a conscientious effort to do better, to let go of the bias, and the frustration, and meet people where they are, no matter what the medical issue is.

But it was only when I was sitting with a lovely young patient of mine who was upset, grieving, actually, that she had been unable to breastfeed her infant, that I had a real breakthrough.

This poor woman had had a complicated pregnancy and delivery. Nothing had gone the way she had planned. But she held on and held it together, because she knew that if her baby survived, she would do everything right. She would take THE BEST care of this baby. She was determined to breastfeed for a full year. It had never occurred to her that that might not happen.

There were problems with the latch, with the milk supply, with pain, with baby's growth. Still, she was determined. She got the hospital lactation consultant and a private lactation consultant and every breastfeeding book on Amazon and drank Fenugreek tea et cetera, et cetera... for weeks.

But one day when she had spent an hour and a half with the industrial-grade pump and got only about a teaspoon of breastmilk, with her nipples raw and bleeding, with her infant screaming, starving, with the pediatrician's concerns about his growth, with her consultants saying "Just push through! Keep trying!" for the gazillionth time but without any other real suggestions, and without any progress, she broke down.

She gave up.

So the baby got formula. And did fine. And grew. And she thought this burden was lifted from her.

Until the judgments came.

She was part of a social circle that especially valued breastfeeding. Friends and family would comment, say, "Don't you know breast milk is best?" or "Well, if you had only tried X, I bet it would have worked" or "If you had only HUNG ON a little bit longer" or "Those doctors pushed you towards formula, those doctors always push the formula, you shouldn't have listened" et cetera, et cetera.

It got to the point that she hid bottles and formula, or avoided socializing altogether. She felt like a freak, a failure. She worried what awful consequences there might be for her baby. She waited for some severe illness to befell her son, and for someone to blame it on her.

Oh, my heart went out to her.

Flashback. I was pregnant with Babyboy (now five and a half years old). I had a three-page birth plan outlining my natural vaginal delivery. I had a doula. I had Ina May's books on childbirth and Nancy Mohrbacher's books on breastfeeding. I had secured a highly-rated lactation consultant and booked a consult with her BEFORE the baby was born. I bought Medela breastmilk bags and a plastic organizer for the freezer. I arranged a breastfeeding room in my office.

But there were complications. The delivery- that's a story for another day. Emergency C-section for deep transverse arrest. Bradycardia. Meconium. Mayhem. I was discharged with a hematocrit of 22.

Babyboy was fine, but I grieved the loss of my dream birth. I was determined to get breastfeeding right: I wanted to breastfeed for a full year.

But. There were problems with the latch, with the milk supply, with pain, with baby's growth. I was still determined. I got the hospital lactation consultant and a private lactation consultant and every breastfeeding book on Amazon and drank Fenugreek tea et cetera, et cetera.

Miraculously, I was able to breastfeed for a full three months.

But, I hated every single second of it.

When it got close to feeding time, I would inwardly cringe. With his latch, I would outwardly gasp, and clench my teeth in pain. The doula and the lactation consultants gave up on me. It was a nurse practitioner at Babyboy's pediatrician's office who suggested APNO (All-purpose-nipple-ointment), and it was an OB/GYN who prescribed it for me. The APNO cream helped a bit, and it got me through the three months, though nothing really helped.

Inevitably, what would come to mind with EVERY feeding were images:

Of glass-shard covered twine being pulled out of my breasts through my nipples.

Of someone pouring acid over my areolae.

Of my baby with little piranha teeth and malevolent intentions.

Oh, I hated it, and I hated myself for hating it. Wasn't breastfeeding supposed to be this wonderful bonding experience? I would rock and cry, literally cry, while stroking my baby's forehead and begging forgiveness, because I could not WAIT for this to be over.

So when it came time to go back to work, I started on a combined oral contraceptive and took Benadryl, and let that milk supply dry right up. Worked like a charm. I was done. It was such a relief.

When I told my colleagues I would not be needing that breastfeeding room, I got some eyebrow raises, but no one questioned. Many of them had made similar decisions for different reasons.

Most of my friends were understanding (very different social circle from my patient-mom) and for that I was very grateful. As a matter of fact, people came out of the woodwork with their own breastfeeding difficulty stories. I was not only NOT the only person who had struggled, I was not the only person who hadn't enjoyed it, and I was not the only person who had guilt about that.

Yes, there were a few "judgy" moments. People I didn't know well, and luckily didn't give a rat's ass about. A lady at book club gathering, a friend of a friend.

But my patient, my poor patient. Her "support network" was annihilating her. I was outraged on her behalf. I wanted to reassure her.

So I shared my own story with her, and we discussed ways to manage the hurtful comments and avoid the negative people.

For doctors, sharing our own stories and feelings about medical issues with patients is a tricky thing. Sometimes it's appropriate, sometimes it's not, and sometimes it's a mixed bag. In this case, the patient expressed relief and gratitude. She had been initially expecting me to judge her, too, she said. She was so glad to have found validation, reassurance and open discussion instead.

That's when I had my breakthrough: The patient had been expecting me to judge her, and had instead found validation and reassurance.

Wow. THAT is what I need to bring to EVERY patient encounter. Validation, reassurance, open discussion. Because that is what I would want for me, as well. It's what I want to be able to provide for everyone, especially my patients.


  1. I have found that most often it works to share personal health experiences with patients. I had brain surgery and I'm an anesthesiologist, so I share that when I have a patient who is scared of going to surgery. Or I share my history of miscarriage when I'm going to do a d&e. Patients usually appreciate it greatly. Thanks for sharing yours.

    1. I agree, if we are willing to share, it is a positive for patients. That's wonderful that you are willing to share your own powerful experiences.

  2. What a wonderful post. What relief you brought this patient. And you're right - you can bring relief to some of your overweight/obese patients as well. Maybe you can channel the version of yourself that was in the two-year weight loss process, rather than the version that came out the other end. I am sure there were moments you gained back pounds, thought you'd never accomplish your goal. Maybe you can imagine how that version of you would address your patient who is awaiting a dressing down for his or her recent continued weight gain? Anyway, you are so thoughtful about how you care for your patients, I imagine even your more judgmental moments are mild and largely encouraging. As for breastfeeding - similar to your weight loss story - I was one who gutted it out and succeeded. My baby started out in the NICU and we started breastfeeding right after she enjoyed the luxuries of the bottle in the NICU. My milk supply was low and she was pretty confused about the whole thing. We succeeded and I nursed her for 13 months. And I have NO JUDGEMENT for moms who throw in the towel. I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice to keep pushing. I have a horrid memory of screaming at my baby, really, really screaming. Like I had to put her down and walk away. … These are some of my memories of early motherhood. What a waste. … So I am very supportive of people who struggle with nursing and very supportive of WHATEVER decision they reach. I had a wonderful pediatrician, as it happens, who gave me permission to quit. He mentioned his own four daughters, the different course of their nursing efforts with them, and that all four turned out equally healthy, etc. He was wonderful. Somehow this support helped me make one last effort and it worked out and I also have 8 months of wonderful nursing memories that I am grateful for. But mine was not even an extreme case in terms of the challenges, and I cannot be sure it was worth it, so who am I to judge somebody else. Kudos to you and the good you put in the world!

    1. Thank you for sharing your own nursing story! The experience you had could really help someone who is struggling. And what a wonderful pediatrician, for also sharing HIS story!

  3. Also, I think it's worth noting that the evidence on breastfeeding - and I delved into pubmed, etc - is tenuous and shows only minor differences where there are any. If we gave this much support to proven healthy habits, such as eating vegetables, imagine what a healthy society we would be! … I think there is a lot of self-hating women out there and all our various female-on-female competition and judgment behind this nursing craze. The data isn't there, which makes the judgment even more onerous.

    1. I know. "Nurturing and nourishing" does not have to mean "breastfeeding", and women who aren't breastfeeding should not be made to feel like failures.

  4. What a lovely post, and such a great realization. This stuff is difficult. I hope you can offer yourself the same kindness. I think we judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else does.

    1. Thank you. Women doctors in particular tend to judge themselves pretty harshly, I think.

  5. As a formerly rail thin track star who is now quite obese and very ashamed and self loathing about it, I've had the weight moments with patients where I can share my story with my ashamed overweight patients ready to be judged. I had a suicidal breast cancer survivor a few months ago that finally opened up to me when I told her how ashamed I sometimes felt about being overweight. On the other hand I breast fed for 2.5 years as a surgery resident. We are sort of each other's opposites, but your story totally spoke to me, I started out hating you a little bit about your weight loss "snobbery" but ended up feeling like we were sisters in the struggle. Thanks for this post!!

    1. Holy moly, two and a half years... As a surgery resident... I wouldn't have imagined that was even possible. Impressive!


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