I Had To Stop Breastfeeding For My Mental Health — Literally

breastfeedingRight off that bat, new mother and volley ball coach Linda Johnson says that she wouldn’t describe herself as the most relaxed and laid back person. The self-admitted overachiever and Type A personality considers this tendency in herself when describing her first forays into breastfeeding — long days alone without her husband, panic attacks, and occasions where her chest would tighten up with anxiety. Finally, after being diagnosed with postpartum depression, Linda realized that she had to stop breastfeeding her infant daughter for the sake of her mental health.

From the very beginning, Linda found breastfeeding to be an “uncomfortable” and “anxious” process. Being a modest person, she tells me that the very fact of having her breasts exposed in the hospital was nerve-wracking as she learned how to nurse. The evening before her husband was to return to work following the birth, Linda experienced her first panic attack. The symptoms worsened when her newborn daughter would cry for food, putting the new mother on edge for yet another attack.

“I just couldn’t face the idea that I was going to be alone day after day, the only one tending to my daughter with no break or rest,” she remembers. “It was incredibly overwhelming. I couldn’t take deep breaths and I was itching from the inside — almost like my body was clawing to get away from itself.  I was fidgety, shaky, nervous and unable to form complete sentences and coherent thoughts…nothing was in focus and I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.”

Linda’s husband suspected that his wife was suffering, but she herself remained in denial about her condition for about four months. It was then that Linda suffered a major breakdown while alone at night with her baby girl. After suddenly having visions of hurting her child, Linda called her mother and began sobbing. A concerned friend had a similar experience of uncontrollable visions and feelings and referred Linda to her counselor. She was shortly after diagnosed with PPD.

Her challenges with breastfeeding were weighed specifically with the reality of being her daughter’s sole provider — a fact that kept her from truly enjoying her new daughter.

“I am a Type A, make-a list-and-get-it-done type of person. I hated feeling tied to the bed, couch or chair while the laundry and housework piled up around me. Sure, my husband was helping out but he worked long days and when he got home he wanted to spend time with our daughter as a family. I would be anxious because I didn’t know how much she was eating and I was constantly worried that I wasn’t doing enough for her… I look back at those months and I don’t remember breathing,” the mother recalls.

Linda describes herself as an educated woman who is fully aware of the health benefits to breastfeeding one’s baby. Coupled with massive social pressures to breastfeed, Linda’s sister-in-law is also in the La Lech League, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging women to nurse. Aside from Linda’s gnawing anxieties about breastfeeding, she had been hearing her sister-in-law espouse all the beneficial facts and figures for a decade.

Yet, her ultimate decision to stop breastfeeding her daughter came at the suggestion of her concerned husband. Although Linda planned to stick to the recommended six months for the sake of her daughter,  she found that she was doing no service to her baby by being a wreck.

“In the most loving way possible, he let me know that our daughter needed a healthy mother more than she needed my breastmilk,” she says. “And he was right.  I needed to be present in her life instead of floating through the day in a fog. I wanted to be engaged in her life and enjoying all the new things that babies learn in that first year. After a few sessions of therapy knocked the cobwebs out of my brain and I was able to think more clearly, I realized that he was right. I had to stop breastfeeding in order to be the emotionally present mother that my daughter deserved.”

Linda describes her initial feeling after relinquishing the breast in one word: relief. She tells me that the decision truly lifted a weight from her shoulders and realigned the partnership in her marriage. Able to share parenting duties with her husband, she calls her halt to breastfeeding as a real turning point in her recovery from PPD.

“The day that I stopped breastfeeding was the day that I felt I could move onto the next chapter in my life and start digging myself out of that dark hole.”

Now a year later, Linda is still regularly seeing a therapist for her PPD. She also encounters comments and cultural judgements for not breastfeeding her daughter “long enough.” However, she appears unfazed by the digs at her daughter’s first few months of life, telling me, “I know my truth.” She says that her ordeal with PPD, anxiety, and breastfeeding has revealed a lot to her about the criticisms and judgements mothers are often keen to make about one another, as well as illuminating what’s truly best for her own child.

“Over the past months I’ve realized that the ‘best’ that I can give her isn’t always what can be written down on paper or put in a category like natural birth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc. The best that I can give her is an emotionally stable and content mother.”

(photo: OLJ Studio/Shutterstock)


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