I want to say upfront that I know there are a lot of “Breastfeeding Is The Worst” articles out there, and I don’t want this to be one of them. There’s a place for the former: they have important, very true things to say, and a large and knowing audience. Breastfeeding is difficult or even impossible for so many people, and there’s unspeakable value in voicing those struggles and experiences. So I’m glad those articles exist. But I have to write about what I know and, honestly, I really dig breastfeeding.
I was tremendously fortunate when it came to nursing. I didn’t have medical issues that made breastfeeding harder than typical; I had a cooperative baby (no tongue tie or poor latch or underdeveloped reflexes); I had generous maternity leave (for the U.S. anyway) to get the hang of things; and I had lots of support from lactation consultants, doctors, my husband, and friends. On top of all that, I was just lucky and managed to basically get the hang of things within the first couple weeks of my son’s birth. Once my daughter came around (complete with all the same support systems I enjoyed when I had her older brother), I had about 17 months of nursing experience under my belt, so breastfeeding her was sort of like riding a bicycle.
But even under the absolute best of circumstances (like mine), breastfeeding can be treacherous business. The human body, as they say, is fearfully and wonderfully made… but even fearful and wonderful isn’t perfect and pain-free. Between physical and emotional turmoil, there’s a lot that breastfeeding moms deal with that most people don’t really know about.
Yeah, remember those? You may have repressed any memory of them because they sucked so much, but you probably had them for a while right before your baby was born. Once you start breastfeeding, you will start to have them again. (You will actually probably have them whether or not you breastfeed, but nursing makes them stronger.) Why does this happen? Well, that kid you just popped out made your uterus expands from the size of an orange to the size of a watermelon and it needs to go back down back to an orange. The contractions (which feel more like really bad menstrual cramps than labor contractions, for the most part) are what your uterus shrinking back to normal feels like. You may not notice them after your first child (though I did; lucky me), since your uterus is still pretty spry and doesn’t have to work as hard to get back into shape. Second time around? Yikes.
As natural as breastfeeding is, rest assured that most of the time, it does not come naturally. This is true of lots of things, right? Think about the first time you did lots of perfectly natural, instinct-driven acts: walking, talking, dancing, sex. How well did those go for you? When it comes to breastfeeding, there is a lot of trial and error for both mom and baby and the results can be… kind of disasterous. Getting the baby to latch properly takes lots of time, patience, and practice. A baby hooking on to the wrong place with the strength and force of a crocodile sinking its iron jaws into the neck of an unassuming gazelle can be… ouchy. Both my kids were famous for latching on to the side of my boob. The nipple is absolutely nowhere around there, kid! What are you thinking?! You do these things just to hurt me?
Ever see X-Men? Know how Wolverine has those crazy long, extremely powerful, adamantium claws that can cut through absolutely anything? Baby nails are like that. It doesn’t matter how recently you cut them either. By the time their next feeding rolls around, their nails will have grown back to three times their original length and scratch the everloving hell out of your poor, tender boobies. When they first reach for you, you’re like, “Aww! She loves her mama! She wants to cuddle up!” And then they start digging their claws into your supple flesh and it’s like, “No. I think she’s actually trying to nick an artery.”
I am not a small-breasted woman. Under non-nursing circumstances, I’m at least a DD. When engorged, I can get up to a GG. Engorgement can make your boobs hard, huge, heavy, and hurty. It is most noticeable when you’re still regulating your milk supply (starting a few days after your baby is born, for the first few weeks of his life), but can strike at any time if you go too long between feedings. Like, when I went on vacation away from my still-nursing daughter for four days (I had to pump to keep from exploding), or when she sleeps particularly long stretches at night. Engorgement is like, “Oh, were you completely enjoying this time to yourself? Here, let me help you with that.”
Now, this may never be an issue for a nursing mother, but when it is, it’s a doozy. Plugged ducts, milk blisters, and mastitis are all different variations of the same thing, which is essentially an obstruction of milk flow. An obstruction of milk flow close to the nipple results in a milk blister or bleb (think a pimple full of milk, essentially… I know. Charming, right?) There are some things that can bring relief — hot compresses or showers, extra fluids, nursing on all fours (this actually helped me — it feels embarrassing and undignified, but the gravity helps), but if that obstruction gets infected then, my friend, you have full-on mastitis, which feels like death. Nursing under any of these circumstances usually hurts to varying degrees, and the worst part is that the only thing that will truly make it better is nursing, ideally more than usual.
When you’re nursing a wee one, access is pretty essential. Clothing has to be able to accommodate the exposure of breasts while allowing for at least some coverage of the rest of you. As such, I have been unable to wear a fitted or tailored shirt in the presence of my children for about 5 years now because during most of that time I’ve been nursing or pregnant. AND I LOOK SO GOOD IN FITTED AND TAILORED SHIRTS! Of course even baggy stuff gets all stretched out and even saggier because it gets pulled about constantly. When I finally wean my youngest, I’m going to buy all the high collar tops I can get my hands on. Speaking of hands…
Do you remember that scene in The Bodyguard where Whitney Houston falls off the stage and gets manhandled by all her fans and then Kevin Costner comes in to save the day? Nursing is like that, only there’s no Kevin Costner to kick people’s ass with a fire extinguisher and whisk you away.The life of a nursing mother is the life of someone constantly pulling, grabbing, and harassing you. Yes, sitting contentedly nursing gazing into one another’s eyes is nice, but it’s not always quite so serene, and feeling like you don’t have any space of your own can get tiresome.
I give immeasurable and awe-inspired credit to the moms who regularly pump, especially those who exclusively pump. Because I know I could never in a million years sustain that. I was a working mom when my son was little and had to pump three times a day to provide him with enough milk for the day, and even then, I usually fell short (a combination of my poor pumping output and his voracious appetite) and supplemented with formula. (Thank God for formula, seriously.) That pump became my sworn enemy. It was a quality breast pump, but it had the same horrible attributes all of them have: it was noisy, it wasn’t nearly as efficient at getting milk as my son, it was cumbersome to lug around, and it required both hands. So I just had to sit there, staring off into space for 15-20 minutes at a stretch as this monster machine went to town on my boobs like an overzealous prom date. The. Worst. Eventually I just quit pumping all together and gave my son formula while I was at work and continued nursing when we were together.
I have been assured that one day my kids’ stubbornness will be a good thing, like when they’re CEOs of a Fortune 500 company or something. But for now it can be trying, perhaps never more than when I attempted to wean them. They say breastfeeding is a relationship, and if it doesn’t work for both people involved, it’s not working at all. After 16 months, I was done nursing my son, and as I write this, I am totally ready to start winding down my daughter. But my dear children are what I like to call “boob goblins”: They are like wild, jonesin’ little fiends for breast milk. So all the good advice people give about redirecting, “don’t offer but don’t refuse,” changing your schedule, dropping one feeding at a time… yeah, they don’t always go so smoothly. Oh, and plus if you succeed you’ve got hormones and maybe even some engorgement headed your way so… woo hoo.
Obviously, breastfeeding moms don’t have a corner on this market. That’s the beauty of motherhood, guys: We all get judged! (And you get judged! And you get judged! Every. Body. Gets. JUUUUUUUUUUUDGED!) But we face a distinct brand of annoying. Whether someone doesn’t understand why we’re breastfeeding as long as we are, or whether they think we didn’t nurse long enough, or whether they dislike the fact that we’re not covering up in public, or are covering up in public, or whatever, there’s an obnoxious amount of side-eye to deal with from so many different angles. Even if we were inclined to accommodate other people’s judgements, there’s absolutely no way you’d be able to make everyone happy. So I recommend just doing what makes you and your baby happy.
Images: Various Brennemans/Flickr; Giphy(10)