On your child’s and partner’s well-being, personal sacrifice, and breast- vs formula-feeding (plus Parshat Vayeira)

Oh hey there! Long time no see. Been a little busy over the past 11+ weeks, you see. Getting around to birthing (well, supporting the birth of) and then caretaking for the little one whose existence is behind the whole raison d’etre of this blog. It’s been all the things: amazing and wonderful, challenging and exhausting, joyful, stressful … all the things we’re told to expect in the lead up to new parenthood.

Yes, here you go: obligatory photos of our new Red Panda Cub, born August 11 at 4:30 am, weighing 7 lbs and measuring 20 inches.

And here she is now at 11 weeks (give or take) and somewhere between 10-11 lbs.

She is distinctly awesome.

There’s so much to talk about. Starting next week, I’ll resume part two of my parental leave — I’m very lucky to work for an organization with a phenomenally progressive leave policy, for which I get an amazing 8 full weeks of paid leave (with extension up to 12 with sick and vacation), so I’ll be taking over from Mama Bear as primary caretaker as she goes back to work. Theoretically (pending actual time available for sitting at a computer and typing) I’ll be updating more frequently throughout my leave.

For this week, I want to focus on one of the biggest and most challenging decisions we’ve had to make to this point: how and what to feed our child.

This topic has of course been covered in a gazillion motherhood-oriented blogs — and recently in this excellent article in Time on, among other things, the “Goddess Myth” and its extreme, almost occult breastfeed-at-all-costs paradigm — so I’m going to focus on what it’s been like as a father to be part of this decision.

When RPC was born, we spent our first few nights in the hospital learning how to breastfeed between short bouts of uncomfortable sleep. Mama Bear at least got a bed (as she should) but new Dads at NYU Langone only get a reclining chair (and somehow they were short so we didn’t get one until just before bedtime our first night).

We were both on board with breastfeeding as our preferred method of feeding as science seems to agree that it’s the healthiest and most beneficial feeding method *when possible for mother and baby.* We also knew it can present challenges at first but were relatively prepared to give it a go.

RPC had trouble first learning how to suck and later how to latch. We had some good support from our nurses and during “latch hour” and were feeling somewhat confident upon discharge.

What happened over the next several weeks was a combination of continuing to have trouble and then getting support — either coming back into the city for latch hour at NYU, calling or arranging visits with a lactation consultant, and finally a two hour visit to a local doula in our neighborhood. We’d seem to have it figured out, but even once RPC seemed to have a good handle on things and we got our positions worked out, it continued to give Mama Bear pretty intense pain. And all I could do was try to give emotional support, learn how to support getting into different positions for mama and baby, and try to help troubleshoot and brainstorm solutions.

Long story short: by about four and a half weeks of trial and tribulation and pain pretty much every feeding, Mama Bear was ready to call it quits and begin the transition to formula.

It didn’t help that when we began this conversation (this was hardly the first time we’d spoken about it, but I mean the conversation where it was clearly time to make the change) I was down in the Baltimore area for a week-long work conference, which meant we were speaking over phone / Facetime. Regardless, Mama Bear told me she had pretty much decided this is what she needed to do, and it was now a matter of figuring out how to start the transition.

On Mama Bear’s end, she had been thinking through all of this day in day out for days or weeks (and of course experiencing the pain of breastfeeding firsthand). For me, it was really only at this conversation point where the need for switching to an alternative to breastfeeding (ie formula) became really real. So on the one hand, I did what one partner in a relationship does when it’s time for difficult decisions: do some research, talk through all the factors and options, and make a decision together. Except that a) Mama Bear had already spent ample time doing all of that; and b) this is a potentially major decision that’s not just about housing or work or whatever but the future health and well-being of your child.

So while I felt the need to talk and think through all of this and come to terms — knowing on the one hand that Mama Bear was clearly in pain, emotionally and physically, and needed to make a change; but on the other hand that “breast is best” and “science says to breastfeed as long as possible!” — Mama Bear was ready. So while I’m saying “ok, I think that makes sense but I just want to make sure we’re doing this in the right way and have you thought about x and y and here’s what this site says etc” Mama Bear is just hearing “I’m questioning whether you’re making the right decision for you and our baby.”

I realized at this point that I needed to a) make my full support for Mama Bear’s health and well-being completely clear and unquestionable; and b) catch myself up emotionally and knowledgeable-y real quick, and on my own time.

So that’s what I did — I told Mama Bear that I fully supported her decision, and let’s talk through what this looks like for us.

What did it look like? First off, Mama Bear started pumping and we started bottlefeeding almost exclusively (except for nighttime feedings when it was just easier to put RPC on the breast). The relief for Mama Bear was beyond palpable and feeding time became an enjoyable bonding time rather than a dreaded torture-on-repeat nightmare. Plus, Papa Bear got to start feeding the baby too! This move alone — switching mostly to bottlefeeding — was huge.

After a couple weeks of that, we started trying out different formulas and working them in. First one bottle a day, then two, and now usually three out of five. We’ve settled on a reasonably priced organic brand (fyi one of the downsides of formula is the added expense, whereas breastfeeding is “free,” but so it goes – well worth it the cost in our case) and expect we’ll be exclusively on formula in the near future once Mama Bear has fully weaned her breastmilk and is no longer pumping.

In the end, even though we were initially ready to make the switch to exclusively formula-feeding by around 5-6 weeks, we’ll have continued to give RPC breastmilk (and all the associated benefits) for at least 12 weeks and possibly longer—but with Mama Bear no longer in pain and in a significantly better place to enjoy being with our little cub. It was absolutely the right decision.

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeira (Genesis 18:1–22:24). You can read more about it here or watch the fun BimBam animated video here. In short, this is the one where Abraham first banishes Hagar and firstborn son Ishmael to the wilderness (they’re saved by an angel) and later tries to kill secondborn son Isaac on Mount Moriah (Isaac is also saved by the timely appearance of an angel).

Hey Abe! Newsflash! It’s pretty hard to be father to an entire nation if you keeping trying to kill your offspring.

I’m thinking about what there is to be learned from this story besides literally don’t kill your children. Clearly Abraham is a person that we (the universal Jewish “we”) admire. He did, after all, entrepreneur the heck out of Start-Up Nation: Israelite edition, and we owe him for that.

As a father, though … not so great. But while clearly taken to extremes, maybe the rational behind his actions aren’t so difficult to resonate with. In both cases, Abraham is pulled in different directions — first by his wife Sarah, who we’re told was jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and didn’t want Isaac to have to share his inheritance (he also, FYI, has the reassurance from G-d that Ishmael will himself father a great nation, so ostensibly Abraham really thinks he’s doing the best thing for them, despite the difficulty); and second by G-d, who of course tells him to sacrifice Isaac.

No less in the 21st century are fathers pulled in different directions. Work, social pressures, finances — how many decisions do we make every day that we think are the best for not only ourselves but our family? Some surely are, but some surely aren’t. When do we succumb to pressure from someone else or indeed sacrifice either the true well-being or at least the health of our relationship with our children for a “higher calling” or “greater purpose?”

Abraham was indeed a visionary. But midrash suggests that his relationship with Isaac was forever damaged after this incident (which you would kind of expect). And the trauma continues — as far as patriarchs go, Isaac doesn’t really end up doing much of note. He’s mostly a pawn in the games of other family members — first with his father and mother, and later with his wife Rebecca and sons Jacob and Esau. Perhaps Isaac’s passivity was simply in his nature, or perhaps he was permanently traumatized by this incident (or, likely, a combination).

Of course there are no clear answers. But I believe there is value in recognizing the complexity and naming the challenges.

Usually we’re not so blessed as to get an angel at the last minute telling us what to do. This was just the first of all the innumerable and sometimes even more difficult decisions we’ll have to face as parents. And I think this one turned out pretty well! Red Panda Cub is healthy and happy and eating and growing; and Mama Bear is happy and healthy too.

Meanwhile, Papa Bear gets to take turns holding the bottle, and that’s pretty great too.

What about Norman Jellybean in all of this you might ask? Great. Let’s end with that. Until next time, enjoy the beginnings of the best fuzzy friendship ever.

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