dear la leche league,
when my daughter was three & a half weeks old, she grew a tooth & stopped latching. her latch was already questionable because she was born two months early. she was intubated shortly after birth & had machines breathing for her for a while. once her lungs became more reliable, her doctors switched her over to CPAP, but she still had a mask over her face to make sure she was breathing & getting enough oxygen. it was a few weeks before we were allowed to start experimenting with breastfeeding, & at five pounds, she was too tiny & weak to get all of her nutrition that way. mostly she was fed through a tube that wound through her nose & down into her belly. i pumped eight times a day to make the milk that went through that tube. even though she was in a level 3 NICU 45 minutes away & i could have conceivably spent those early days sleeping through the night in my own bed, recovering from my emergency cesarean & the severe pre-eclampsia that necessitated it, i got up every night at midnight, 3am, 6am…every three hours, around the clock, every single day, to pump & make milk for her, with the hope that eventually she would be strong enough to breastfeed.
after my daughter was released from the NICU & grew that strange tooth (had she been born on time, she would have been born with it), i kept pumping & giving her bottles of my milk while i tried to figure out what to do. we saw her pediatrician & made an appointment with a pediatric dentist to have the tooth extracted, but my daughter lost the latching instinct while we waited for the extraction. i looked up la leche league on the internet & saw the mission statement, claiming that la leche league supports all forms of human breast milk-giving–not just breastfeeding. i decided to attend a meeting & hope that someone there might have some insight for me on what to expect if i wound up having to pump exclusively for my daughter. how much milk should she be drinking? would i always have to pump eight times a day? could i eventually scale back if my supply remained stable? what was the best way to store all the milk i was producing? how does a person go about weaning a baby that is fed breast milk in bottles?
i packed ramona into her carrier & went to the meeting. ramona hadn’t even been home with us for five weeks yet. i was still feeling sore from the surgery. we hadn’t even yet gotten to what should have been our due date. i explained the situation to the 25 women in the room, almost all of whom were accompanied by happy, chubby babies or playful toddlers. there was one other woman with a newborn, but hers had been born healthy & right on time.
after i shared our story, the questions started, & so did the judgments. “why did you ever let the hospital give her a bottle?” well, because the NICU was 45 minutes away & she had to be fed around the clock. we couldn’t be there to try breastfeeding for every single feeding, & even if we could have, she wasn’t strong enough to eat all the food she needed by mouth anyway. “you could have found a nearby hotel.” we had a premature baby on the budget of a graduate student & a social security disability income. there was no way we could have just stayed in a hotel for three weeks. “well, there’s no way you’re making enough milk for her.” “actually, i’m making about three times the amount that she eats. “then she’s not eating enough.” she eats 30 ounces a day. isn’t that actually a bit more than is typical for a newborn? “well, you’re not going to be able to keep up with her. eventually she’ll start eating more & your supply will tank if you’re just relying on the pump & it just won’t work.”
i asked if anyone in the room had any personal experience with exclusive pumping. one woman had. her first child had also been premature. she exclusively pumped for almost a year. she was breastfeeding her second son. no one else had ever exclusively pumped. most women in the room had never even heard of exclusive pumping before. when i asked how to store milk, no one knew because they didn’t have to store milk. when i asked about bottle nipples, no one knew because they weren’t using bottles. when i asked if anyone else had given birth prematurely, the only woman who had was the woman who had exclusively pumped. everyone else had healthy, pudgy, full-term babies & had never had to see their children intubated, with feeding tubes in taped to their faces. they had never had to leave their babies behind in the hospital after giving birth while they went home, which was the most horrible, unnatural thing i’ve ever experienced. none of them had ever had to think about what they would do if circumstances conspired against them & their natural crunchy mama instincts.
all i heard was a chorus of, “it will never work,” “you need to somehow get that baby to latch again,” “if you can’t get her to latch you might as well give up now & start formula because that’s what you’re going to be using within a month anyway.” all i heard was a chorus of what sounded like, “you couldn’t even bring your birth to full-term. you’ve already failed as a mother & your baby is already screwed beyond redemption. why even bother?” then ramona started fussing & i got out a bottle so i could feed her. a few other moms shielded their children’s eyes from the counter-revolutionary sight of a newborn baby drinking from a bottle.
fast forward thirteen months. ramona will be fifteen months old at the end of february. i still pump for her. i have never, in all this time, had any supply issues. i’ve never had thrush or mastitis or any other milk-related problem. ramona consistently gained an ounce a day everyday until she started crawling at ten months. she remains in the upper percentile for weight–for her ACTUAL age. she’s off the charts for her gestational age. she’s happy, social, playful, & verbal. most of her diet is now table food, which she feeds herself & likes. basically, she’s thriving. no thanks to le leche league. i never went back to another meeting & i would strongly recommend that other mothers of premature babies or babies with health problems give la leche league a great big pass. maybe it’s a helpful & supportive environment for women who had reasonably good births & healthy full-term babies (which, admittedly, is most women). but they did nothing but make me feel like shit, on top of not being able to answer any of my practical questions. they are advocates for breastfeeding. they know fuck-all about other forms of human milk-giving. they even frown upon informal breast milk-sharing networks, even though breast milk banks are few & far between & prohibitively expensive for the average mom that is simply having some supply issues. in my almost-fifteen months (& counting) of exclusive pumping, i have managed to give my own baby nothing but breast milk (i’ve never had to supplement), & i have donated excess milk to a dozen other babies in four states. several of those babies had been struggling to gain weight or overcome pernicious health problems on formula, & blossomed once they were given peer-to-peer donor milk.
i guess i just wanted to say, fuck you, la leche league. thanks for absolutely nothing.