I have been breastfeeding for five-and-half years straight. It probably goes without saying that my relationship to my own breasts has changed as I've breastfed my two children. I've learned that they can provide all the nutrition my newborn needs, and that they can provide comfort and security. I've watched them grow during pregnancy, and then somehow grow even more when my milk came in. I've watched them shrink back down when my kids started nursing less, not as full or bouncy as they were before. Of course how I view my own breasts has changed in the time I've spent nurturing, fostering, and feeding another human life. But I have a totally new view on breasts in general, specifically the fact that I'm hyper-aware of how sexualized breasts are in the media.
I'm not denying that breasts are sexual. Nipples are erogenous zones for many men and women. Nipple stimulation releases oxytocin, which is the love hormone, and helps us bond with our babies when they breastfeed, as well as being one of the hormones released during orgasm. Oxtyocin also accounts for the increased sense of trust and closeness people have with their sexual partners. But of course there's a lot of overlap with sex and childbirth and bonding with an infant. These facets can't be neatly compartmentalized. And in my experience, neither can the breast's many functions.
I have never felt so powerful and confident and vital in my body as I have been since being pregnant for the first time. I love that my body can sustain life. That I can grow and expand and give birth and feed a child.
Before having kids, my breasts were a source of pleasure for me and my partner. But since welcoming children, they've been all but off limits in my sex life. And, sure, this is a bit of a disappointment in a lot of ways for both me and my partner. But I found that my breasts are now wired to make me think of my children. And when you're trying to enjoy your partner, thinking of your kids, for me at least, is an unwanted distraction. Especially when my kids were small, all you had to do was expose a nipple or brush up against it and it would start leaking milk. I don't know if that effect will be permanent. Maybe one day, when my days of breastfeeding are behind me, I'll be able to disconnect the sensations with motherhood, but to be honest I'm not wholly sure I want to.
I have never felt so powerful and confident and vital in my body as I have been since being pregnant for the first time. I love that my body can sustain life. That I can grow and expand and give birth and feed a child. Where once I looked in the mirror and would be critical about how others must view my body — whether my breasts were perky or my stomach flat — now I look in the mirror and see the hard work my body has done to give me my beautiful family. And loving and accepting my body is no small thing. Like many other women, I've struggled with this a lot in the past.
I'm not saying we can't find breasts beautiful. I think breasts are amazingly aesthetically pleasing. But their sole purpose is not for the male gaze.
The pressures to be "ideal" in our bodies is intense. Women are most often portrayed as eye-candy, a commodity to be enjoyed, in movies and television and by mainstream media in general. And breasts seem to bear the brunt of this. In a society where no one bats an eyelash when breasts are used to sell beer but where women are asked to breastfeed more discreetly, it's clear to me that our priorities are out of line. I'm not saying we can't find breasts beautiful. I think breasts are amazingly aesthetically pleasing. But their sole purpose is not for the male gaze.
Recently, I was watching an erotic scene in a movie. It was sexy, but I was immediately taken out of the moment when the man started sucking on the woman's breast. Because suddenly he went from looking like a hyper-masculine man to looking like a baby. Though this obviously isn't the case for everyone, I got strangely giggly at how ridiculous it suddenly seemed. And that was a lightbulb moment when I realized my attitude toward breasts had totally shifted.
I just don't find my own breasts that sexual. Somewhere, when I got over the feeling of baring them in public, I started really just viewing my breasts for the job they did in order to feed my children. It wasn't about how sexy of a bra I could wear, it was about how easily I could access my breasts if my kid got hungry. I wonder if one day, with nursing far behind me, they'll become a source of pleasure again.
Now I don't bat an eyelash when I see a woman expose her breast to feed a baby, but there was a time when I wouldn't have known where to look. I would have been torn between wanting to make the woman comfortable by ignoring what she was doing or wondering if I should just look away to preserve her modesty. And I've been around family members breastfeeding for much of my life, but it wasn't until I was feeding my own children, and not caring who saw my breasts, that I was finally comfortable with it. If someone comes right up to me while I'm breastfeeding, even if they look down at how adorable it is when a baby contentedly suckles, I'm not uncomfortable. Because, to me, it is adorable. Of course breastfeeding in public is an intimate act, but to me, it isn't a private one. If a woman is uncomfortable with baring her breasts, she has options to cover up. But that is about the woman's comfort and not society's.
I remember how vulnerable I felt when I was first learning to breastfeed. How odd it felt when my breasts were exposed to the cold air. The moments between uncovering my nipple and the baby latching, I had a distinct feeling of wrongness. I shouldn't be feeling the air on my nipples! Not in public! But that feeling quickly went away, because I was only thinking of feeding my baby and because I got used to it. In any group of breastfeeding women, someone will have a story of answering the door with one breast exposed and only realizing it after the fact. I'm learned that I'm clearly not alone in quickly getting over the vulnerable feelings of early motherhood.
I think motherhood probably shifts a lot of women's sex lives. But definitely the biggest shift for me is that I just don't find my own breasts that sexual anymore. Somewhere, when I got over the feeling of baring them in public, I started really just viewing my breasts for the job they did in order to feed my children. It wasn't about how sexy of a bra I could wear, it was about how easily I could access my breasts if my kid got hungry. I wonder if one day, with nursing far behind me, they'll become a source of pleasure again. I know my partner would probably hope so, which isn't to say he hasn't been totally understanding and respectful, because he has. In fact, one of the greatest ways he's supported me in breastfeeding has been his complete acceptance of how my feelings about my body have changed. However, just because this is the way I feel about my body right now doesn't mean I'll always feel this way.
Right now, I'm in the second trimester of pregnancy and breastfeeding my 2-year-old daughter. Right now, breastfeeding is difficult because of how sore my breasts are. They're so sore that I actually have to brace myself before I take off my bra in the evening. They are off limits to everyone, even my daughter, except at bedtime when I grin and bear it. In a way, even though I don't want them to be touched, they look sexier than ever to me. It's a constantly shifting thing, just like so many aspects of motherhood are, and I'm honestly just rolling with the punches.