I Love Breastfeeding, But No One Acknowledges The Emotional Labor Involved
Breastfeeding has never come easy to me. My first child nursed for a few months, but my milk supply was constantly dropping since I worked outside of the home. My second breastfed for well over a year, but our story wasn't without its difficulties, either. My third — my son, who is nearing his first birthday — has been my easiest experience nursing a baby. He caught on quickly and, since I work from home, I've been able to keep my supply up by encouraging him to nurse often throughout the day — lucky me. I love breastfeeding my son, but I am finding the mental workload seriously exhausting.
I arrived home from a recent family vacation completely exhausted. Of course, vacation with kids is a lot of work, but it wasn't taking care of my two toddlers or chasing them around the beach that was so hard. At the end of my vacation I found myself absolutely worn out by one my main tasks as a mom — feeding my youngest child. I love breastfeeding, but honestly.
Don't get me wrong, breastfeeding is such a special experience and it has been a beautiful way for me to bond with my children. It is amazing that I can feed my baby anywhere we go. I’ve always felt so grateful that I didn’t have to pack up bottles and formula each time we leave the house, like I used to with my oldest child after she weaned. At the same time, no matter how comfortable you are with public breastfeeding, it isn’t the simplest task. Finding a quiet spot to feed a distracted baby can be hard when you're out and about with multiple kids, and it only gets hard as your baby grows older.
On vacation, I found myself getting irritable at the difficulty of feeding my 11 month old — of wrestling a baby who was clearly hangry but too distracted by the world around him to nurse for more than five seconds at time. I climbed into our car, hoping for some quiet while my husband chased our kids around the park. But there, my son reached for the radio buttons, strained around to look out the windows, and wriggled in my arms, trying to scale the passenger seats. Why won't you just let me feed you! I thought.
If I'm not hyper-vigilant, my baby doesn't get fed, and that reality completely overwhelms me.
Having an easily distracted baby isn’t even really the hard part. The real invisible work of breastfeeding is the constant responsibility to keep track of the baby's feeding schedule, to be the sole person responsible for making sure they are getting enough food and staying hydrated. If I'm not hyper-vigilant, my baby doesn't get fed, and that reality completely overwhelms me.
When my babies were young, I was their only source of nutrition. Even though my husband has always been quick to help with other aspects of newborn care, this is one task that falls completely on my shoulders. Trying to get out of the house or just grabbing a few hours of sleep requires being constantly aware of when he last ate, when he'll be hungry again, and if I need to encourage him to eat more frequently so he'll sleep better at night.
You would think that, as my baby got older, it would get easier to relax about these things, but that hasn’t been the case. In a way, it has gotten harder. My child may be pretty into table food, especially if french fries or fruit are involved, but since he is easily distracted and so into eating real food, I find it difficult to keep him hydrated.
No one else is glancing at the clock, noting it’s been two hours since he last ate or that I’m running out of time to nurse him before we run to grocery store.
On our vacation, it was a constant source of anxiety. We were spending hours and hours of time outside each day in the muggy, August heat. His love of the sand and the water kept him so happy, hours could pass without him wanting to nurse or even taking a few drinks from his sippy cup. I would try to encourage him to nurse every couple of hours but found he was too focused on getting back to play. The only way I could get him to nurse so I could be sure he was staying hydrated was to interrupt the fun and drag him back to our condo to nurse him in the dark and the quiet.
Of course, vacation isn’t the only time the mental workload of breastfeeding is difficult. It simply made me hyper aware of how much of my day is spent planning out his nursing schedule. And, like most breastfeeding moms, I am the only one thinking about it in our family. No one else is glancing at the clock, noting it’s been two hours since he last ate or that I’m running out of time to nurse him before we run to grocery store.
It might makes sense for this workload to fall solely on moms, since we are the ones making the milk, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to keep at it day after day. I try to take breaks when I am absolutely burnt out by putting my husband on bottle duty or sending my son to my mother-in-law's house for the day. These things help, but there are still weeks when I think about weaning all of the time, especially with his first birthday approaching. I'll even start to talk about it with my husband, to toss around the idea of leaving for the weekend to "rip off the Band-aid" and force him to wean.
And then, there is always a magical moment between us, when he pokes at my nose and grins while he eats and I know I’m not ready to say it’s the end just yet.
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