I desperately wanted to breastfeed and felt like I had failed as a mother when I couldn’t.


This first-person chronicle is the experience of Morag Wehrlewho lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please visit the FAQ.

The first time I gave my five-week-old daughter a bottle of formula in public, in a busy park in the summer sun, I felt like I was breaking the law. I leaned over the diaper bag as I poured the powdered mix into the bottle and added warm distilled water from a thermos – hiding it from view as if I was doing something obscene. I screwed the lid on the bottle and shook it as nonchalantly as possible, looking around to see if anyone was watching me.

I could feel the anxiety eating away at my mind. You’re ridiculousI said to myself. Nobody is looking at you. No one pays attention to how you feed your child.

I lifted Willow from her stroller, placed her in the crook of my arm, and offered her the bottle. For a moment, as her bright hazel eyes widened with pleasure and she eagerly sucked the milk, my anxiety vanished in the shine of her perfect pink lips and the snub of her miniature nose. I smiled at his foggy expression, the eager way his clumsy fingers gripped mine as if to bring the bottle closer.

A moment later, a woman about my age – a complete stranger – approached us. I looked up with a smile, ready to agree that yes, my baby was beautiful, or yes, the sun was delicious.

“Why aren’t you breastfeeding?” the woman said instead. “It’s better for the baby.”

She backed away as I burst into tears. I guess she didn’t realize how deeply her words shook me as a new mother. She backed away as I cried in the middle of the park, wiping my tears and snot on a corner of Willow’s blanket.

A woman supports a baby's head while he suckles from a bottle.
After several months of trying to breastfeed her daughter Willow, Wehrle began giving her formula. (Submitted by Morag Wehrle)

My pregnancy was easy and comfortable. I used to caress the growing curve of my belly, feeling lush and beautiful, and dreaming of the type of mom I would be: the perfect kind I saw on Instagram, who did everything with ease and grace. I would have a drug-free birth. I would use cloth diapers. I would breastfeed exclusively. My daughter and I smiled blissfully at the world, one unit of perfect maternal devotion and adoration.

But the joy of welcoming my daughter into the world was eclipsed by my unexpected inability to fulfill what seemed to me the most fundamental of maternal duties. I was unable to produce breast milk. This is the language they used on me at the breastfeeding clinic: inability to produce.

Breast is best“, said all the midwifery clinic posters.”These antibodies are crucial,” hospital doctors said. “Formula is poison,” mothers said on Facebook forums. “Keep going,” everyone said, and I did it because I wanted to be the best mom possible. I read article after article about importance of breast milk to strengthen the baby’s immune system and how could have a positive impact on his IQ. I took the drug Domperidone to increase my breast milk supply, drank countless cups of herbal-flavored herbal tea, massaged my breasts with oils and tinctures, and pumped and pumped and pumped.

“You need to relax more,” a nurse at the breastfeeding clinic told me when I asked her what I was doing wrong. I wanted to laugh in his face. My inability to breastfeed my daughter felt like a personal failure. More than that, it marked me as a failure as a mother. If I couldn’t do that for her – that one thing that was supposed to be natural and easy – then how could I be a good mother? It was my job and I was failing at it. How exactly was I supposed to relax?

It took 12 weeks of interrupted sleep, lactation consultants, pills, herbs and acupuncture, before a friend and fellow mother, coming over for tea, sat me down and took my hands. She looked tenderly in my eyes and said, “Honey, it’s okay to stop.”

“But I’m not giving him my best,” I said, my voice cracking with shame. The tears that still lingered just beneath the surface welled up. “I’m letting her down.”

My friend shook her head.

“Look at her,” she said. “Does this sound like an unhappy child to you?” »

I looked at my bright-eyed baby, who had learned to smile, laugh, and grip my fingers with surprising strength in the weeks since I gave him formula. She was talkative and alert, hitting every infant milestone and sleeping happily through the night. She looked at me, her plump pink cheeks and tufts of strawberry blonde hair, her little face full of adoration. Love invaded me in a dizzying wave.

My friend reached out to pet Willow’s head. “Breast milk is an amazing thing,” she said. “But fed is the best. Willow needs milk, but she also needs her mom. Your physical and mental health are also important. »

A smiling woman supports a baby's head.
Wehrle says her mental health improved after she stopped putting pressure on herself to breastfeed her daughter, Willow. (Submitted by Morag Wehrle)

It took me a few more weeks to let go of the punitive attempt to force breastfeeding, but that’s when I began to realize that I was letting motherhood be defined for me and that it made me feel better. ‘collapse. My daughter needed a healthy, rested, happy mother much more than she needed my milk. I didn’t need to be a perfect mother. I just needed to be hers.

Support is available for anyone affected by this issue. You can speak to a mental health professional via Better Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or texting WELLNESS at 686868 for young people or 741741 for adults. It’s free and confidential.

You can also speak with Pacific Postpartum Support Society staff by calling or texting 604-255-7999.

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