There were a lot of things I was up in arms over after giving birth. There were horrors no one decided to share with me, like how the first time you go poop is arguably one of the most terrifying experiences of your life, or the fact you're rocking adult diapers for the first few weeks after leaving the hospital, but those are both stories for another day. One of the most groundbreaking WTF!? experiences, however, occurred roughly three weeks after I gave birth to my son: I had mastitis, and I didn't even really know what it was or what was happening to me. Everything was going fine... until it wasn't. To top it all off, I'd never even heard of mastitis until I used my close personal friend, Google, to self-diagnose.
I remember pumping one night before bed and feeling a sharp tingling feeling as my milk was expressed. I looked down and noticed my breast was red and blotchy. I asked my post-pregnancy guru (read: my mom) what to do and she suggested putting a warm cloth on my chest, since she thought I probably had a plugged milk duct. When my son woke up at around 2 a.m., my whole body ached, I was shaking like a leaf, and much to my dismay, I still had to breastfeed. Without hesitation, I whipped out my phone to Google my symptoms because I felt horrid and had a feeling the issue was a lot bigger than a plugged duct. I knew I had to get to the doctor, but the thought in itself was exhausting enough — my doctor was an hour drive from my house. I texted my sister-in-law the next morning, and she told me she had the same thing, adding that she was able to "pump it out." Rather than going to the doctor right away, I spent the next day trying to feed and "pump out" the infection. It didn't work. In fact, it got worse.
I called the doctor’s office first thing the next morning, explaining to the nurse that I thought I had mastitis, which, in my fever-induced stupor, I kept mispronouncing. After she subtly corrected me, she suggested I come in right away to be evaluated and prescribed antibiotics. I felt a little guilty for not being more hesitant at the thought of taking antibiotics. I was usually pretty discerning about what I ate and drank, knowing that whatever I consumed my baby would as well. Had I not been in so much pain and misery, I probably would've researched any possible side effects of antibiotics on breast milk further, but the pain was unbearable.
I held hot-water filled diapers to my boobs, shivered, and ached. I can't even tell you how exhausted I was.
After being poked and prodded at what I felt was an overly aggressive rate, I returned home officially diagnosed with mastitis. According to the Mayo Clinic, mastitis is an infection of breast tissue that causes warmth, swelling, redness, and breast pain as well as fever and chills. Lactating mastitis usually occurs in the first six to 12 weeks after a baby's birth for a breastfeeding mother, the Mayo Clinic also notes. Following the appointment, my doctor recommended I take the full seven days worth of antibiotics, that I breastfeed as much as possible, and that I pump to complete emptiness. Over the next couple of days, when the pain was still in full effect and my butt was glued to the couch as I breastfed my son, I held hot-water filled diapers to my boobs, shivered, and ached. I can't even tell you how exhausted I was. My patience with breastfeeding, which was already minimal because I was breastfeeding with short nipples, was at an all-time low.
Honestly, I was ready to throw in the towel and give up on my goal of breastfeeding for a three months and just call three weeks good enough. My prior frustration with breastfeeding, which started on day two after giving birth, was only compounded by the addition of mastitis. When I gave birth to my son, I was as newly single mom. In lots of ways, that made struggling to breastfeed my son successfully that much harder. I didn't have the emotional support of a partner to help me get through it. Of course, I had my parents to help me share the load by feeding my son pumped breast milk, but when I had mastitis, I needed more than just pumping help.
I had to pretend that mastitis was purely a physical inconvenience and not a deeply-rooted emotional problem for me.
Thankfully, my dad was very much my caretaker all throughout my bout with mastitis, but I didn't want to share with him exactly how I felt during that time. I truly felt I had to pretend that mastitis was purely a physical inconvenience and not a deeply-rooted emotional problem for me. I'd once mentioned that maybe I should stop breastfeeding and my mom insisted that that was "crazy" and the infection would pass. And I sometimes feel like I got through that week out of fear that my mom, family members, or even some of my friends might think I wasn't giving my son the full health benefits of breast milk. But I know if I'd just been honest about how emotionally draining it was for me, I know they wouldn't have blamed me.
I got through that week of mastitis without quitting, ultimately for the benefit of my son, and I felt that that was my first real win as a mom. Although, honestly I look back at it now and I know that I wouldn’t be any less of a mom if I'd decided to quit breastfeeding right then and there.
According to KellyMom.org, Maureen Minchin's Breastfeeding Matters notes that mastitis typically affects 20 percent of breastfeeding mothers and usually only effects one breast. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't sought out help from a doctor right away. I know we're reminded time and time again that "breast is best," but, for me, that week of hell proved that maybe sometimes breast can be the worst, too.