Elisa Donovan's Blog: The Boob Lesson
In her latest blog, the actress shares her struggle with breastfeeding and recalls the day she finally decided to stop.
Courtesy Elisa Donovan
Best known for her roles as Amber in Clueless and Morgan on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Donovan stars in the ABC Family franchise The Dog Who Saved….
She is the narrator of the audiobook for Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller, Lean In.
Donovan, 43, is also a writer and yogi. A recovered anorexic, she assists in counseling and supporting young women struggling with eating disorders.
She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Charlie Bigelow, and their 2-year-old daughter Scarlett Avery.
It’s been quite awhile since this was a topic of concern for me, but let’s be honest — is it ever too late to talk about your boobs?
Well, okay yes. There probably is a pretty clear point at which one should definitely stop talking about their breasts. But if you’re a mom, that point is very elusive so … here we go!
To reiterate for the record — I’ve been an organic and non-processed-food-eating, eastern-medicine-practicing, zen-yogi for over 13 years now. I’m a firm believer in acupuncture, and that GMO corn and cow dairy will kill you faster than running in traffic on the freeway at night. So it went without saying that I would breastfeed my kid.
It also goes without saying then, that I was utterly and completely unprepared for the reality that I couldn’t do it. Not only was it not working, and excruciatingly painful for me beyond anything imaginable (yes, even beyond the pain of labor), I also realized that (wait for it, this is gonna be a doozy) … I HATED IT.
There. I said it. I didn’t like it.
I thought it was weird and I couldn’t wait to stop. But the tremendous guilt and shame that I felt compelled me to continue. I realize that I have now already alienated a large percentage of the reader population, but — please, hear me out.
Everyone is well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, and there is a plethora of information out there in support of it. There are literally step by step how-to guides and hotlines and nurses and professionals at the ready to assist you.
Yet there is zero info on what to do if you are one of those women who can’t — or who chooses not to. In the boundless reading I did while I was pregnant, there were pages and pages on the advantages to breastfeeding: from the nutritional, to the hormonal, to the bonding, to the physical assistance in losing the baby weight (this one is a bit of a misleading fallacy. While this is true for some women, many women report that it made them hold onto an extra 10 pounds because they were so hungry all of the time and had to eat more to continue to produce the milk).
But when it came to information on formula feeding, there would be one or two sentences that read something like this: For the small percentage of women who are unable to breastfeed, formula is fine.
And that was it.
Courtesy Elisa Donovan
Without straight-out shaming, the presupposition was clear: Every woman can and will breastfeed. Suggesting that in no time I would be an elated fairy-goddess, with my baby happily hanging from my boob, as beautiful jewels of milk spilled from my bosom while I smiled in maternal ecstasy.
In the hospital after Scarlett was born, the lactation specialist (who was no fairy godmother and offered no smiles of encouragement) assured me that I was fine. That breastfeeding just took practice. She said that Scarlett was latching on perfectly, and we were looking great.
When I told her through my blubbering tears that the pain was pretty severe, she said I should get used to it, that this was “just how it was going to be” for me. She told me I was a mother now and that this was just something I had to tolerate. She went on to admonish with me with stories of how she had breastfed her three kids with no help at all, and that maybe there was something wrong with my generation and our desire to just be handed everything.
(It’s not my intention here to berate the insanely insensitive lactation specialist that I had the misfortune of being assigned. But I will say, as a soft suggestion to anyone reading this that may work in the pre/post-natal arena, especially as a LACTATION SPECIALIST: Remember that first-time moms are very vulnerable, impressionable and hormonal. So please, treat us with with compassion.)
When we left the hospital, I was terrified. I thought I just had to “try harder” and learn to withstand the pain for the sake of the well-being of my child.
I spent every minute in between feedings dreading the time I would have to feed Scarlett again, which was always only in a couple of short hours. It was a vicious cycle, and it was awful.
Yet somewhere inside me there was a tiny voice that knew instinctively — something is very wrong here, it isn’t supposed to be this hard. I had been so excited and ready to be a mom, and I knew it wouldn’t all be easy, but … was I supposed to be this miserable and in such perpetual agony?
The next morning we went to see our pediatrician. She informed us that Scarlett was in fact starving, and immediately put us on a militant program that we would have to follow until my breasts cooperated and produced enough milk.
This perplexed me. My boobs were gigantic — they looked like swim floaties. How much more milk could I possibly produce without bursting? (I have a photo of my breasts from this period of time, which Charlie took for posterity because they were so unbelievable. It looks like I’m wearing some sort of twisted Halloween costume. Although the photo is funny to look at now, that’s only because it’s over. But it still makes me quiver a little.)
So the new program consisted of me feeding Scarlett for 10 minutes on each breast, then passing her to Charlie, who would give her several ounces of formula from a bottle, while I continued to pump for another 10-15 minutes on each breast.
This process took almost an hour in its entirety, was painful beyond words, and only yielded the tiniest amount of milk. Scarlett was feeding every 2-3 hours, so this was a 24 hour-a-day endeavor. After five more days of this with no improvement, I finally had to consider that maybe breastfeeding was not for me.
Courtesy Elisa Donovan
We went back to the pediatrician on the following Monday. My guilt was so enormous and so complete, that I literally felt like I would spontaneously combust and be catapulted into the special place in hell reserved for bad mommies who don’t breastfeed.
I couldn’t even bring myself to verbalize to the doctor that I had decided to stop. I was so saddened and ashamed that Charlie had to say it for me, as I stared at the marble floor of the examining room with tears running down my cheeks. (So listen up all of you breastfeeding militants: We formula-feeding moms are adept at providing ourselves with an unearthly amount of grief and guilt all on our own, so we don’t need you and your militant opinions to rub it in … thanks, and bless your hearts!)
Then the doctor mercifully and angelically put her hand on my shoulder. “Many, many children grow up to be healthy, successful and smart adults, and they were never breastfed,” she said. Then added with a wink, “Even many pediatricians’ kids…”
She reassured me that yes, Scarlett would be absolutely fine. She reminded me that one of the most important things I could do to be a good mom was to be healthy and happy myself; and that it was clear that breastfeeding was making me less and less of both of those things.
She also pointed out to me that regardless of how long I breastfed — whether it was for two minutes, two days, or two years — I would have these same feelings of guilt. She told me that all women feel this conflict when they stop, that everything I was feeling was absolutely normal, and that it would eventually ease.
And from that moment forward, everything got better. For me, for Scarlett, and for Charlie.
If you had told me in the past that I would one day feed my child out of a can for the first year of her life, I would have told you in no uncertain terms that not only were you very, very wrong, but that clearly you didn’t know me at all.
Now, I might say something like … Well, I guess you never know.
What I’m trying to say here is this: All of our planning and preparation and attempts at control will take us only so far. Aside from a fierce and unconditional and complete dose of love, there is no recipe for perfection in parenting.
I believe the best thing we can do is to honor the truth of what is happening, without judgment, and move on from there. To trust. And no societal pressure or community pressure or familial pressure should ever overtake one’s own instincts and knowingness. We are the moms. We know ourselves and our own bodies, and we are all different. So do what works for you.
Scarlett turned 2 in May, and her days of drinking formula are far behind us. She’s a vibrant, healthy, happy, reflective, expressive kid. She is kind and smart. Although I’d LOVE to take all of the credit for this … I’m pretty sure that would be nothing short of grandiose and delusional.
But whatever positive influence I have had on her thus far, it is definitely as a result of making choices that are right for me and our family; choices that allow me to be as happy, healthy, and fully present for her as I possibly can.
Courtesy Elisa Donovan
— Elisa Donovan