Nerd alert: I was a very conscientious student, and really, really, really liked having my efforts validated with good grades. When I started working, I could count on promotions and raises to measure my success. Parenting was a wake-up call for me, though, because there weren’t clear metrics determining how well I was doing as a mom. That’s when I realized I couldn’t just rely on my brain. Thankfully, breastfeeding teaches you to listen to your heart, and while it took some getting used to — the whole letting my inner voice, and not my academic brain, guide me thing — I’m so grateful I was open to looking in places other than books for the right answer.
Breastfeeding taught me many things, including the power and value of the body I spent so long railing against as I worked through lifelong image issues. It also taught me that sitting down and doing nothing but feeding my baby was OK. And it taught me that not everything goes as planned. I had undersupply with my first baby and oversupply with my second, and that definitely wasn't what I imagined my nursing experience to entail.
I’m most appreciative of the practice of inner reflection that I learned from having breastfed both my kids for two years each. If I hadn’t been spending time with them in that way — with them tucked up against me, relying on my body for them to keep growing — I might never have had the opportunity to tune in to myself. The quiet moments I spent breastfeeding were periods of self-discovery. I was figuring out who I was, as a mom.
So with that in mind, here are some of the ways breastfeeding taught me to listen to my heart:
I tried to follow the fast-talking recovery room nurse in the hospital as she cycled through the different positions I could hold my newborn to feed her. None of the textbook holds really worked for me, so I just had to follow my heart and improvise. Somewhere between the football hold and me in a half-reclining position, we found our breastfeeding mojo.
I read all the baby books and listened intently as moms shared their experiences with feeding their babies, but no specific words actually helped me. It was through finding my own way in the early stages of motherhood, studying my baby and getting to know her cues, that I, not only boosted the confidence in my parenting skills, but was shown how trusting my instinct is so valuable to being a mom.
Watching other parents in the playground taught me more than parenting books or even just digesting other moms’ war stories. I learned that just because I had never been a mom before didn’t mean all my life experience was meaningless. Breastfeeding in particular showed me how I apply my own logic and patience and intuition — all things I relied on before having a baby — in this new stage of my life. Enjoying some relative breastfeeding success proved that I could rely on instinct and years of experience. Following my gut, and my heart, often made more sense than following the instructions in a book on newborn care.
I would get so frustrated when the phone or doorbell would ring when I was home alone and nursing my baby. It would stress me out that I had to interrupt the feeding session to tend to someone else’s needs. I started to let go of the feeling that there were other people to please in the moments where I needed to focus on my child. I quit subscribing to the notion that multitasking was a good thing. Letting breastfeeding dictate how I managed my time was a blessing, and it taught me to identify what my priorities truly were at any given moment and not fall prey to being a chronic people-pleaser (to people who did not rely on my breast milk to survive).
Though I’ve been a mom for a decade now, I still don’t feel like I’m constantly doing a good, or even OK, job. That feeling of failure is pervasive, because just when I started to think “I’ve got this” the kid enters a new developmental stage and I’m starting all over again, trying to figure out how to parent this new iteration of my child.
But then I think back to when my kids were very little and breastfeeding and how just holding them was so therapeutic for me. They were comforted, and I was comforted, knowing they felt OK. And now I continue to find opportunities to cuddle with them, knowing that very soon, as they enter adolescence, they’ll probably push me away. I’ll keep asking for hugs, though. I want them to always know I am there for them, and I need to know they are there for me too.
I’ve always been competitive, and becoming a parent didn’t change that (at least not in the beginning). I was constantly comparing myself to other moms, and then getting convinced everyone else was doing it right and I was doing it all wrong… no matter what it was. Finding my way through breastfeeding, though, taught me to be more confident in my uniqueness. So what if my baby’s feeding schedule was vastly different that of another baby? If it was working for her, and me, it was the right way to do it.
Motherhood, to me, meant a lot of self-sacrificing. I have always been a people-pleaser, so putting myself first never came organically. It felt selfish… but over time I realized being selfish can be a good thing. If I make sure my needs are met, I am in a better position to take care of others. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can all be taken care of, eventually.
Breastfeeding offered a good lesson in that because I would stress myself out rushing to respond to my infant’s hungry cries, dropping everything to feed her. But taking just the two minutes figure out how I was going to finish whatever I had started at that point (eating, showering, sleeping) was a good plan. I was able to tend to her needs, almost immediately, but I carved out mental space to take care of my needs, too.
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