When I think back on breastfeeding, one particular night stands out in my mind: It's well past midnight and I am exhausted. I haven't showered in three days and I can feel the thin layer of sweat covering what has to be my entire body. My breasts are engorged and causing me pain. My back hurts, my arms ache, and I'm cradling my newborn son, breastfeeding him back to sleep. I think back on this moment and though I know what I'm doing is beautiful, empowering, and a true testament to the unending capabilities of the female body, I am struck by how gross breastfeeding makes me feel. In this particular memory and the many others I have like it, I don't feel empowered. I never feel like my body is capable of magic, or that it is beautiful. In fact, it feels anything but. I think back on breastfeeding and I want to to crawl out of myself. I want to be free.
A few minutes after my son was born he latched to my breast and fell asleep in my arms. It was beautiful, peaceful — everything I'd hoped breastfeeding would be. It was also the only time breastfeeding didn't make me feel gross. The decision to breastfeed seemed easy for me at first. I knew the many benefits of breastfeeding and I wanted to experience that bond with my son. And, honestly, breastfeeding was the most financially responsible decision for us at the time (and a choice we were lucky to be able to have). But deciding to breastfeed my son made me feel disgusting from beginning to end. I felt cheated. Grossed out. And for a really long time, feeling this way absolutely skewered my view of motherhood.
I felt gross when my son ate, felt gross when I had to remove my shirt so I could feed him, felt gross every time a feeding session was over, like my body had been used all over again.
At first, and for many months afterward, I equated the consistently gross feeling I had when breastfeeding to the PTSD I experienced every time I breastfed. As a sexual assault survivor, it was difficult for me to disassociate my past trauma from the act of feeding my son with my body. My breasts were, in my mind, still a sexual entity, attacked specifically because of their sexuality, and my inability to see my breasts as functional kept me feeling wholly detached. I felt gross when my son ate, felt gross when I had to remove my shirt so I could feed him, felt gross every time a feeding session was over, like my body had been used all over again. After working through those feelings and my past trauma, talking to my partner, and becoming somewhat used to the feelings associated with breastfeeding, my PTSD became manageable and the triggers diminished. Still, that "gross" feeling persisted.
It took me time to learn this, but I don't have to pretend that breastfeeding was enjoyable or perfect for me.
Eventually, I realized that this feeling was one I'd probably never get over or used to no matter how hard I tried. Every time I sat down to feed my son with my breasts, I felt gross. No amount of rationalization changed how I felt, and with that knowledge came a forced understanding that feeling "gross" would be part of my breastfeeding experience. Not even the fact that I was providing my son with essential nutrition kept me from feeling disgusting. I didn't want my breasts to be touched or even seen because breastfeeding had changed them. They looked foreign and no longer held the shape I'd grown used to seeing. I didn't want to proudly breastfeed in public without a cover, not because I was afraid or ashamed, but because I just felt gross doing so. I never felt powerful and I certainly never felt maternal.
I've struggled with feeling like breastfeeding wasn't a beautiful act for me. Feeling this way has made me feel inadequate as a mother, as if something is fundamentally wrong with me, as if this would explain why breastfeeding made me feel disgusting. I often hope that, if or when I become pregnant again and have another baby, breastfeeding will be different. I've had to learn that feeling gross doesn't diminish my breastfeeding experience, and it certainly doesn't make me a bad parent. It took me time to learn this, but I don't have to pretend that breastfeeding was enjoyable or perfect for me. I can be real about what it was like and still be an advocate for breastfeeding. I don't need to pretend anymore.
Looking back on the seven months I spent breastfeeding my son, I've learned to smile about the complicated emotions and feelings breastfeeding provided me with. Yes, it made me feel gross, but it also made me feel determined. Feeling gross didn't end my breastfeeding journey, and it didn't alter my initial goal to breastfeed exclusively. It didn't keep us from bonding. Most of all, feeling gross didn't keep me from being the best mother I could possibly be.