It was 3:20 a.m. and, right on schedule, my five-day-old daughter was wailing in hunger. (It was like clock-work: Every two hours Elaysia-Grace was starving.) Also right on cue, as soon as I heard her cry, milk starting leaking from my breasts. Rushing to make her a bottle with formula, huge wet patches appeared on my over-sized t-shirt. I felt terrible that my milk was going to waste, but I didn’t have time to cry — my baby was waiting. Shaking the formula to dissolve in the bottle, I tried to ignore my body’s response.
As mothers, we’re built to give our babies all the nutrition they need. Breastfeeding your child is the biological norm. It’s what I did with two of her older siblings. When you can’t provide this because your child could be at harm from the food you produce, it’s heart-wrenching. Just five days in, it felt like I was failing.
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The formula was streaming out too fast from the bottle and Elaysia-Grace kept choking. If only I was able to breastfeed, she wouldn’t be having this problem. I felt even guiltier. I needed to do whatever I could to make it easier on her — and me. So, at 4 a.m., I left Elaysia-Grace with her father and rushed out to the 24-hour grocery store to find another bottle. I was in in full mama-mode — my baby needed help — but my body ached with exhaustion. I stopped at the coffee drive-through.
The woman at the window cheerily asked, “Are you going to work?” Clearly not: My hair was in a messy ponytail, my eyes were swollen from the acute lack of sleep and my rumpled hoodie was straining over my postpartum, half-engorged chest. But, I smiled as best I could and said, “No. I just had a baby and I’m headed to find a different bottle for her.”
She looked at me puzzled. “Oh…you’re not breastfeeding?”
I’d already fielded this question countless times since Elaysia-Grace was born. But it didn’t make it any easier to answer. “No, I’m unable to…”
I was tired of being judged, but I was also too tired to explain.
After experiencing a serious mental breakdown two years ago when my mother became severely ill, I take Cipralex for depression and lithium for bi-polar disorder. My psychiatrist advised me that I was at risk for a relapse. And the risk would be even greater for post-partum depression or even post-partum psychosis for a year after giving birth. The meds would ensure that didn’t happen. The only catch: I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed because of the possibility the medications would stream directly to my daughter through my milk.
Although recent studies have concluded that risks to breastfed infants whose mothers are taking anti-depressants are low, both my ob-gyn and psychiatrist strongly advised against it. The combination of medications I take simply make it too dangerous.
I’d been completely debilitated by depression and severe anxiety to the point where I needed hospitalization. It was terrifying to go through, and the thought of it happening again — when my baby is so young — was more terrifying. In some ways, the choice to put my health first was a no-brainer.
But as an Indigenous woman of Métis descent, breastfeeding carries an even greater significance. It represents a way to reclaim our roles as mothers. My ancestors’ children and babies were stolen from them, ripped out of their arms when colonizers arrived to clear and claim the land. And this was repeated again with the creation of residential schools. When the children were returned home, many devastated mothers and fathers had lost the ability to parent because of the trauma they’d experienced. To me, breastfeeding is a powerful way to reconnect with our bodies and the sacredness as “life givers” that’s woven into our Indigenous identity.
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I had breastfed two of Elaysia-Grace’s older siblings, so I know just how powerful a bond breastfeeding can create. At the same time, I hadn’t breastfed my eldest daughter and our relationship is just as tight. (Motherhood sure does a number on us — we worry about what we do and berate ourselves over what we can’t do, all in the name of what’s best for our kids.)
I had months to accept that I wouldn’t be able to provide my daughter’s basic needs in the most natural, cost-effective, convenient way. But I hated having to deal with the realities of my mental well-being. It was stealing part of my experience as a new mother, and I kept wishing there was some way around the situation.
But I had to swallow the reality and at least be thankful for the meds.
Elaysia-Grace was born four weeks early. While she was tiny — 5 pounds, 1 ounce — and she was strong, feisty and healthy. A few minutes after delivery, I decided that I would take a moment to bond with her, mother to child, skin-to-skin. I put my daughter to my breast. She latched immediately and began feeding vigorously as if she too knew that this was a moment that wouldn’t last long. Together we had 15 minutes and my beautiful baby girl took in every minute. It was a special, spiritual moment.
And then it was over.
Almost six weeks later, my breasts sometimes still leak every time she cries. Part of me wants the milk to dry up, so I’m not reminded of what I can’t do. But the other part wishes it would stay so that I “feel” like more of a mother.
I realize, however, I can’t languish in these feelings. I need to put my health first, so that I can be the best mother I can possibly be. And, so far, things are going well. I am feeling great, with no symptoms of post-partum depression.
Multiple times a day when I’m out and about with my baby, I’m asked by family, friends, even strangers if I’m breastfeeding. Almost always there’s a look of confusion or disapproval on their faces when I explain I’m not. And then I feel obliged to explain why.
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But I’m no longer letting that get to me. Mental health issues have already taken enough from me — I’m not going to give my anxiety any more power. Instead, I’m choosing to find the positive in this situation.
This is a unique opportunity to raise awareness about mental illness. I have the chance to talk about something that all too often is silenced or shunned. By breaking the stigma, I can potentially help another mother. So, I’m talking about it.
It’s getting easier day by day. I am providing for Elaysia-Grace, and she’s growing like a weed. And while perhaps breast is best, feeding your baby however you can is what’s actually important. I’m finding other ways beside breast-feeding to incorporate our culture, such as speaking Cree to her and taking her to first pow wow. This summer she heard the beat of the drums and took in the colours and untamed spirit of her Indigenous roots. We’ve found our own way to bond.
To those mothers who chose formula over breastfeeding even if you’re not at risk or experiencing PPD, and mothers who have adopted their babies and are unable to breastfeed, I salute you. Know that we as mothers know what’s best for us and our babies and no one has any business judging anyone for what we decide. We as mothers need to be supported, encouraged and celebrated for the glorious givers of life that we are.
Now Elaysia-Grace eagerly looks forward to her feedings, which are now about four hours apart. As I hold her close against my body, studying her perfect little face, her eyes glance up at me and she smiles so genuinely. She grasps my finger with her tiny hand and goes back to drinking her bottle. She’s as close as can be; my heart is content.