Take a moment to peruse the mommy blogs, and you’ll find an abundance of highly sentimentalized accounts of women’s breastfeeding relationships with their children. You’ll read about gut-wrenching, tear-inducing (for the mom) weaning processes; of middle of the night, oh-so-peaceful nursings; of moments spent smiling down on your baby’s shiny locks, just the two of you nestled away from this big, loud world.
There aren’t a lot of accounts, however, that fit my experience with breastfeeding. My experience? Breastfeeding: it’s just what we do. How’s THAT for a t-shirt slogan? Probably not going to win any La Leche League contests with that one. If I’m breastfeeding in public without a cover, it’s not some political statement, nor is it because I’m a perv. It’s just the way my son eats. I would venture a guess there are a lot of women in this same boat.
But before I hurl myself headlong into this particular topic, I have to first acknowledge how incredibly thankful I am to have been able to breastfeed my son for the last 11+ months. Breastfeeding, I DO love you, I swear. Let me count the ways:
- I am (or, rather, my milk is) literally all the nourishment my son needs in his first year on this planet. Let’s ponder on that for just a moment. Seriously, I love being a mammal. We are amazing beasts.
- No bottles to scrub, no pumping sessions many times a day, no formula measuring. Just whip out a boob, and voila: breakfast (lunch, dinner, second breakfast, elevensies, supper, etc.) is served. I am incredibly grateful, too, because, while many a lactation consultant would have you believe that the vast majority of women can OF COURSE do the whole exclusive breastfeeding thing, this is really not so true. I would say at least half if not more of my mom friends have supplemented with formula or pumped regularly or pumped exclusively or any combination of the above for all sorts of reasons. And that is not only totally okay, but normal! It annoys me that a woman might feel guilt or “less than” because she’s been told the lie all her life that breastfeeding is easy and foolproof. But I digress…
- Antibodies are freaking awesome. And I quote: “When a mother kisses her baby, she ‘samples’ those pathogens that are on the baby’s face. Those are ones that the baby is about to ingest. These samples are taken up by the mother’s secondary lymphoid organs like the tonsils, and memory B cells specific for those pathogens are re-stimulated. These B cells then migrate to the mother’s breasts where they produce just those antibodies that the baby needs,” says Lauren Sompayrac, author of ‘How The Immune System Works.'” HOW COOL IS THAT?!
Breastfeeding, it’s not you I have a beef with, but rather the (well-meaning but, in my experience, misguided to the point of detriment to the mother) “breast is best” community and the very odd, pervasive message that breastfeeding should be this beautiful, profound experience – and that experience is actually one of the primary motivators for a woman to breastfeed in the first place (or hold off weaning, extend breastfeeding, etc.).
So what has my experience been, you ask?
- First two weeks: Sheer awfulness. Absolutely horrid, complete with toe curling pain and, ahem, damaged nipples. That’s right. DAMAGED. NIPPLES. Two words that should never go together. I made it through thanks to my own stubbornness and the promises from many friends that it would get better. There is nothing more demoralizing than sad nipples, particularly combined with exhaustion and insano-peppers post-partum hormones. It was during this time that I was told by various lactation professionals that, “We are just fine tuning here,” “Your latch looks great,” and, “I’ve seen worse.” Super helpful, right? I would have a lot more respect for lactation consultants as a whole if they could admit that BREASTFEEDING DOES HURT for many, many women. The insistence that it SHOULDN’T hurt if you’re doing it right (insert many new mothers’ first introduction to a lifetime of mommy judgment and mommy guilt, thanks a lot) is insane. If you applied 30 minutes of suction every two hours to ANY part of your body – like, say, your elbow – it would probably be pretty raw after a week or two, too.
- Next three months: I started metering out the pain killers I was prescribed for the pain of giving birth, instead using them so I could have at least a couple of nursing sessions a day that didn’t induce toe curling pain and the urge to cry. I was healing, but it pretty much hurt like crazy for months. MONTHS. And that, my friends, puts a serious damper on any warm, fuzzy emotions you might have about breastfeeding.
- Three months until about 11 months: This was when breastfeeding really became… just what we did. And it was lovely. We started getting it down, aided in part by the fact that nursing sessions were slowly decreasing. We got on a better schedule, and Willem nursed in the morning, after each nap, before bed, at night a couple of times… and soon he was sleeping through the night (or at least not needing to eat when he needed some help getting back to sleep).
- And then we hit 11 months (aka last week): Willem and his four top teeth suddenly started marathon, half-hour nursing sessions again. He got his first cold, so I’m guessing his little body recognized that it needed some extra antibodies. Within days I was having flashbacks to those first awful months. We will not go through that again. Oh no, we won’t. Enter in the first thoughts and efforts toward weaning.
So what’s next for us? No clue, but I think we’ll know when one or both of us are ready to go cold turkey. I know I have an almost one-year-old who’s eating solids, drinking milk, and clearly thriving (hello, 25.5-lb. baby!).
In truth, I shy away from highly emotional representations of breastfeeding, partly because I just don’t relate and partly because they leave me feeling guilty for NOT having this crazy personal breastfeeding relationship with my son. But I’ve decided this is one particular thing that I refuse to feel guilty about on this whole parenting journey.
I hope coming clean with the fact that breastfeeding is not always some divine experience makes it that much easier for the next person to just FEED HER BABY however she chooses, without guilt or judgment. And some of us will even be honest about the fact that breastfeeding is HARD AS F*CK and sometimes REALLY, REALLY SUCKS and, for a lot of women, is just NOT POSSIBLE. And also that all of that is completely normal.