Breastfeeding has always been a hard subject for me to talk about.
Let me start from the beginning – the birth of my first son, Brooks. During pregnancy and after delivery I planned on breastfeeding exclusively, though I felt fine about possible deviations from that plan. After all, fed is best.
I was ecstatic that Brooks took to nursing like a pro. But while I was nursing him in the hospital, I noticed that I would get nauseous every time that I fed Brooks. I suspected it was the pain medications or other side effects after having an unplanned C-section, so I didn’t think much of it.
Unfortunately, the uneasy feelings continued after we settled in at home. In addition to nausea, I started having intense emotional reactions when breastfeeding – and not in the soothing, basking-in-the-sunlight, rocking-your-precious-newborn way. Rather, I felt terrible unhappiness and irritability, but only when breastfeeding.
For the 30-45 minutes that Brooks nursed, I was unpleasant to be around. I snapped at anyone who came into the room or dared to speak to me. I would sit on my cozy bed, nurse my perfect baby, and, inside, I would be on the brink of melting down. I was the most irritable version of myself, but there were no external triggers causing this irritability. It was all coming from within.
It became known around the house that, if I was nursing, I was to be in my room alone to save everyone the pain of being around the monster that I became at that time. And then, once Brooks was done eating, I morphed back into my usual, albeit tired, self.
I tried everything I could to try to get a hold on the situation. Was I just hungry? Dehydrated? Hormonal? Was it the pain medication? Was this a completely normal breastfeeding feeling that women just don’t talk about? Is everyone a raging bitch while breastfeeding and are we all just too ashamed to admit it?
As I continued to nurse, I fell into a predictable pattern: I would get irritable when nursing; I would get frustrated that I was getting irrationally irritable; I would then feel guilty about being irritable and frustrated while feeding this precious newborn.
This went on every single day, every three to four hours, around the clock.
It was like an out-of-body experience. I sometimes felt like I was looking down on myself, knowing logically that I was not irritable because of something situational, like a bad latch. But I couldn’t overcome the emotions in that moment. The baselessness of it all plagued me.
I had brought up nausea previously with my OB/GYN, which had been brushed off. So, I figured this new emotional development would be the same. I toughened up and powered through, for months.
Once I made it to six months nursing my son, which was the goal that I had set for myself, I decided to wean and introduce formula. I was absolutely thrilled. I had long associated this insurmountable heaviness with nursing, and that feeling was almost gone.
We successfully weaned, and I didn’t think about it again until I got pregnant with my second son when Brooks was just nine months old. After another relatively uneventful pregnancy, I intended to breastfeed, once again. But, the anticipation of sitting in that darkness for months while nursing haunted me.
My second son, Vance, struggled to nurse a little, but he eventually figured it out on his own within a few days. And, once again, that gloom came every time I popped Vance on my chest for a meal.
I dreaded nursing. I dreaded having to mentally work through the negativity. I resented holding my perfect newborn and feeling anything but pure glee. I felt a terrible guilt associated with my mental state while nursing. Why could I not feel the way I was “supposed” to feel when I was given the gift of a healthy baby and a body physically capable of feeding him?
One morning, three months later, while I was skimming Instagram stories, I heard someone mention D-MER. A blogger was discussing her breastfeeding triumphs and failures and mentioned that she knows that there are some women who feel intense negative emotions when their milk lets down. Her message was that breastfeeding shouldn’t be something that you dread, hate, or that makes you feel any less than.
My ears instantly perked up. She was talking about me. Breastfeeding had made me feel less than the perfect mother. During each feeding, I was filled with an incredible irritation that would later fill me with guilt.
After some power-Googling that morning, I discovered that D-MER stood for Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. It is an anomaly condition that affects a very small percentage of breastfeeding mothers with irregular dopamine activity. This means that this condition is 100% hormonal and is neither a mental illness nor any sort of psychological issue.
I should have talked to my doctor once it was clear that these symptoms were the norm of my breastfeeding experience. However, there is such a stigma associated with any sort of mental manifestations that I was instantly shameful. I had already begun to wean Vance because I felt hopeless. I knew that having a happy mama was more important than having an exclusively breastfed child. It devastated me though – I (irrationally) felt like I was starting Vance out in the world with an instant disadvantage.
I learned from my research that this stigma is a large part of why D-MER is not well known, even amongst medical professionals. Women are ashamed to speak up about unpleasant things in general, too often opting to appear polite and quiet and happy.
In addition to stigma, every sign in the hospital, OB/GYN’s office, and pediatrician’s offices clearly delineate the benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child – decreased risk of certain cancers for mother and decreased risk of allergies and future infections for baby and passing along antibodies made specifically for your child.
I felt overwhelming guilt. I was so lucky to be able to produce milk efficiently and to have a child who was a good nurser. In my mind, I kept thinking, I should nurse regardless of the mental toll it takes on me. I should be strong enough to overcome my side effects in favor of feeding my children in the way that is said to be *best.*
In reality, what I should do is what is best for me, and my family, as a whole.
I am not an island alone whose needs are disregarded now that there are more mouths to feed. I now realize that my well-being contributes to the wellness of the family in a huge way. And, that is something that is not on written on all of those hospital signs.
I hope that this admission of D-MER and all the nasty symptoms that come along with it encourages others to talk to their doctor’s more openly and become their own advocates. It’s important to bring this, or any other condition that makes you feel like your well-being has taken a backseat, to your doctor’s attention. Once more people come forward, there will be a stronger push for research and resources for this condition and many others.
And, to the mom struggling through D-MER:
You are doing your best, I know.
You are trying to breastfeed your child and give him or her the milk that your body perfectly made for him or her. But if you are feeling depressed, angry, anxious, or generally unhappy ONLY when you’re nursing him, don’t overwhelm yourself by ignoring these warning signs.
Speak to a doctor, and develop a plan for your family. If that means medication, good. If that means weaning, good. Prioritize yourself so that you are capable of giving that beautiful child what he needs most – a loving and caring parent.
This is your journey, and it is beautiful no matter what. I know that you are trying your best, and so does that sweet baby staring up at you.