Courtesy of Ej Dickson

Breastfeeding Is So Hard, & I'm Really Not Sure If It's Worth It

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"Tell me if this hurts," the lactation consultant said. She grabbed my right nipple and twisted it repeatedly in a counterclockwise motion as I made a mental note that if someone asks you to tell them if something hurts, it almost certainly will. I had just given birth a few days ago, following a c-section that, while planned, had led to an excruciating recovery process, to the point that I could not reach for the remote control to change the channel to Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian without shrieking like a wounded bat. I hadn't slept in days, because the nurses kept waking me up to take medication and pump and try to breastfeed (even though it was hard), and to top it all off, I hadn't pooped in 72 hours. And now, here was this lactation consultant, who was trying to get my milk to come in by treating my nipple as if it were a stubborn lid on a jar of maraschino cherries.

"Yes," I managed to eke out, trying to ignore the sharp swaths of pain shooting through my breast. "Yes, it hurts." I then collapsed into her arms and started sobbing, thus marking my ignominious entry into the world of breastfeeding.

During my pregnancy, I had been relatively laissez-faire about whether or not I would try to breastfeed my son. Like most expectant moms, I'd heard "breast is best" ad nauseam and read all of the research about the purported benefits of breastfeeding. But as a natural skeptic, I also decided to read all of the research indicating that some of these purported long-term benefits, such as higher IQs and immunity against various health issues, were inflated by well-meaning public health experts. Ultimately, my attitude toward breastfeeding was similar to my feelings when I went to SoulCycle for the first time: I was skeptical about its benefits, but because everyone else was so nuts about it, I was willing to try it.

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Courtesy of Ej Dickson

Then my son arrived, and everything changed. The second I laid eyes on his squalling little body, I knew that if there was even a sliver of a chance that breast milk was the best choice for him, I was going to give it to him, straight from the tap, and nothing else.

"Are you going to breastfeed him?" the nurses asked me, almost immediately after he was born.

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"You're goddamn right I am," I told them proudly. But of course, much like my feelings on SoulCycle, which evolved from extreme skepticism to full-on mania the second I did my first handlebar crunch to N'Sync, the reality was more complicated than that.

Contrary to what those blissful mother-baby tree-of-life breastfeeding selfies might tell you, breastfeeding can be incredibly uncomfortable.

For starters, my son arrived a month early, which meant that even though he was in relatively good health for a preemie, he spent the first days of his life in the NICU. A few hours after he was born, a NICU nurse asked me if it was OK to start feeding him formula.

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"What's the alternative?," I asked.

"That we wait for your breast milk to come in," she said. Since that wasn't happening anytime soon, and I wasn't about to let my premature son starve to prove a point, I gave her my blessing. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little concerned that he would become so accustomed to eating from a bottle that he'd be wary when it came time to transition to the breast.

Courtesy of Ej Dickson
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As it turned out, that's pretty much exactly what happened. Every few hours, I'd come into the NICU to try to breastfeed my son, only for him to start shrieking and beating his tiny red fists against my chest, as if I were holding his testicles to a hot stovetop.

"This is totally normal," the lactation consultant repeatedly assured me. "It's pretty common for premature babies, particularly babies born via c-section, to struggle with breastfeeding for a few weeks. Just keep trying and you'll get the hang of it." I'd nod gamely, trying not to take it personally when he'd have a fit over the sight of my exposed breast, or when, at one point, he tried to latch onto my husband's nipple instead of my own.  

The first few weeks of a new mom's life are invariably a struggle, filled with diaper blowouts and bleary-eyed hourly feedings and shoveling cold mashed potatoes into your mouth because your baby won't stop crying long enough for you to eat a proper dinner, but they're also supposed to be filled with tender moments, like first trips to the park and reading picture books in rocking chairs and lying very, very still and listening to lullaby versions of Pixies songs. I knew I was supposed to be using this time to bond with my son, yet I found myself more attached to my breast pump than I was to him.
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After I brought my baby home from the hospital and my milk officially came in, I'd try to remind myself of the lactation consultant's words every time I tried to get him to breastfeed. Yet he steadfastly refused to latch. I tried everything that all the Facebook lactivist mommies and La Leche League forums recommended: nipple shields, mouth exercises, dribbling formula on my nipple like I was in a preschool version of the candle wax scene from 9 1/2 Weeks. Occasionally, I managed to get a few perfunctory sucks out of him, which were usually accompanied by high-pitched wailing or my own yelps of pain. Contrary to what those blissful mother-baby tree-of-life breastfeeding selfies might tell you, breastfeeding can be incredibly uncomfortable.

Courtesy of Ej Dickson

It can also be incredibly time-consuming. Eventually, I decided to go to another lactation consultant, who, after checking us both out and verifying there were no physical issues (like a tongue tie) on either of our ends, put me on a strict regimen of both pumping and breastfeeding at least 10 times a day, in addition to his regular feeds.

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Considering I was only getting two to four hours of sleep as is, this struck me as more than a bit impractical. "So when do I get to sleep?" I asked.

"You can sleep when the baby sleeps," she told me, a tried-and-true aphorism that, as most new moms know, is only really useful if your baby actually sleeps, which most do not.

Nonetheless, I persisted, the words of the lactation consultant at the hospital and the moms on Facebook breastfeeding groups ringing in my ears. It's totally normal for him to have trouble, I reminded myself. Just keep trying. But considering how many moms on the internet appeared to have no issues with breastfeeding, and considering how many of my baby books seemed to take it for granted that all moms breastfed without any difficulty, I found it hard to believe that my struggles were really as "normal" as the lactation consultant said they were.

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Courtesy of Ej Dickson

It was when I started ignoring my baby's cries from his bassinet to start my umpteenth daily pumping session that I started to wonder: Was it really worth this much trouble to breastfeed? Sure, I wanted the best for my child, as any mother does, but I certainly didn't want the best for him at the expense of my sleep cycle, or my sanity, or the structural integrity of my nipples.

Most of all, I didn't want to try to breastfeed him at the expense of forming a bond with him. The first few weeks of a new mom's life are invariably a struggle, filled with diaper blowouts and bleary-eyed hourly feedings and shoveling cold mashed potatoes into your mouth because your baby won't stop crying long enough for you to eat a proper dinner, but they're also supposed to be filled with tender moments, like first trips to the park and reading picture books in rocking chairs and lying very, very still and listening to lullaby versions of Pixies songs. I knew I was supposed to be using this time to bond with my son, yet I found myself more attached to my breast pump than I was to him.

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I do, however, blame a cultural climate that teaches new mothers, and women in general, that the experience of being a new mother is invariably marked by pain, guilt, and above all else sacrifice — of their bodies, of their sleep cycles, and above all else, of their time, which will never be more valuable than it is during the rapidly waning moments of a child's infancy.

Ostensibly, breastfeeding is supposed to be an ideal way for mothers to bond with their babies during the first few weeks of life. I'm sure for many breastfeeding moms, this is true, but for me, it has been anything but. For me, breastfeeding has been marked by frustration, discomfort, and an acute awareness that the time I have spent trying to breastfeed and bemoaning my inability to do so could have been much better spent in other ways.

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In the weeks since I gave birth, I've learned firsthand just how insidious the pressure to exclusively breastfeed is, and the pain it can cause for new mothers, who are already physically and emotionally vulnerable enough as is. But even though I do believe that the "breast is best" message is harmful, I don't fault breastfeeding advocates and lactation consultants and sanctimommies for perpetuating it. (OK, maybe I do blame the sanctimommies a little bit.) In fact, I'm incredibly grateful to the lactation consultant I worked with at the hospital, who, when I started crying, took me in her arms and rocked me gently and told me not to put pressure on myself, that as long I was taking care of my baby I was doing a great job.

I do, however, blame a cultural climate that teaches new mothers, and women in general, that the experience of being a new mother is invariably marked by pain, guilt, and above all else sacrifice — of their bodies, of their sleep cycles, and above all else, of their time, which will never be more valuable than it is during the rapidly waning moments of a child's infancy.

That said, I'm not going to give up on breastfeeding. That's partially as a matter of pride and partially because formula is just really f*cking expensive, but it's mostly because, like eating sushi or going to SoulCycle or wearing flared pants or any new experience that might arouse skepticism but that people say is totally worth it, I've heard enough good things about breastfeeding that I'm not quite ready to deprive myself or my son of its benefits just yet.

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But I suspect there will come a time when it's not worth it to "just keep trying." I suspect there will come a time when I'll look up from my Boppy and realize that my son's first months of life have flown by, at which point I'll throw away my nursing bras and pick up the Similac without any semblance of regret.

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