When I was pregnant for the first time, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would be a breastfeeding mother. I was a nurse working in OB and in my mind, it was breast or bust. I had no idea what I was in store for, or that my clogged milk duct would threaten my life. Yet two days after I had my first daughter, I woke up with a raging fever, literally throwing punches in the air. I don't remember much of that time, but I know my husband thought I would die. My fever topped 105, which for an adult is pretty dangerous. Eventually he was able to drag me into the car, and I was treated for a kidney infection that could've killed me. I was discharged from the hospital, and a week later, I woke up again with a delirious fever, this time strangely not throwing punches but refusing to put on pants. The source of my infection this time around was mastitis and because of a doctor who was too nervous to perform a full-body assessment on me, no one actually discovered my mastitis until it had practically eaten away half of my breast.
I'm grateful and proud that I made it so far with breastfeeding despite the extreme challenges — and I really did love the bond of breastfeeding and the convenience it offered — but when I'm left looking sad and lopsided in my bathing suit or bra, I wonder if I did the right thing.
Because it had gone undetected, my mastitis had completely damaged many of the milk ducts on my right side, and I didn't even realize the extent of the damage until I had to nurse my second, third, and fourth child. Each baby got progressively harder and harder to nurse, and I dreaded feeding them so much on that side. In order to get through it, I'd have to bite down in pain because it hurt so much. Cracked and bleeding nipples just became the norm for me. Looking back, I can't believe I put myself through that, but when you're in the thick of breastfeeding, I didn't realize there was something "wrong." Giving up on breastfeeding wasn't an option for me, and despite the fact that my kids were drinking blood-tinged milk, it never once crossed my mind to stop.
There aren't even words to express what that felt like for me: I couldn't stop breastfeeding because I wanted to give her the best start in life, but doing so was practically killing me.
Because of the damage to my right side, my left side tried to overcompensate by producing extra milk, and the unequal distribution of milk, combined with the damage to my milk ducts meant that constant clogged ducts; and that meant constant bouts of mastitis. From the time I had my first baby to the time I had my fourth, I had over 20 bouts of mastitis. It was just as awful as it sounds and to this day, the moment I start to come down with any sort of fever whatsoever, my body goes into full-on panic overdrive mode, like it has PTSD from so many unforgiving rounds of sickness.
Clogged ducts pretty much ruined my life, and I was riddled with guilt for being so sick all the time. My partner had to take time off because there were days when I couldn't even stand up straight. Because I was on antibiotics around the clock, we worried that it'd pass on to our baby through my milk. I was on so many antibiotics with my youngest due my mastitis that I'm convinced it damaged her bacterial system, too. She has ear infections all the time, and I can't help but wonder if it's because I wiped her body of all its "good" bacteria. There aren't even words to express what that felt like for me: I couldn't stop breastfeeding because I wanted to give her the best start in life, but doing so was practically killing me.
To be totally honest with you, stopping nursing didn't even feel like an option for me at the time. For one thing, I wanted to breastfeed, but I also felt like giving up on breastfeeding didn't seem like it'd solve my mastitis. My body would take a while to stop making milk, and to further complicate that, I couldn't even get my daughter to take a bottle of breast milk, let alone try formula. It literally didn't seem possible to switch to formula feeding, even I wanted to.
Every time I had mastitis and a clogged duct, the flare up permanently damaged my milk ducts, filling them with so much scar tissue that it was like I had a tumor in my right breast.
With my fourth baby, months in to nursing her, it was like my right boob finally gave in and couldn't take it anymore, so I actually stopped nursing her from that side. Almost the entire year I nursed her, I did so only one from one side, which helped reduce the frequency of the mastitis somewhat, although initially it caused a lot of clogged ducts as my supply readjusted. But I never struggled with having enough milk. Thankfully my daughter was well-fed and happy and off the charts for weight.
After I was done nursing, however, I noticed that my nipple had become inverted and after properly panicking and freaking myself out about the fact that introverted nipples are a sign of cancer (because they are), I had them checked out. Turns out, Every time I had mastitis and a clogged duct, the flare up permanently damaged my milk ducts, filling them with so much scar tissue that it was like I had a tumor in my right breast. The scar tissue pulled down all my breast tissue and caused the inversion.
Sometimes I even wonder if I was so brainwashed into thinking that the only way to be a "good" mom was to breastfeed that I was willing to sacrifice my own life and health to do it.
On one hand, I am so relieved that there's nothing seriously wrong with me. I couldn't stop thinking about all the women who've gone into an ultrasound room wondering the same thing that I did, and being terrified of what they'll hear. So in some ways, that day felt like a gift — a new perspective on life — because holy sh*t, am I lucky. Yet on the other hand, after working so hard to do the "right" thing and struggling with so many other issues about my body, I was devastated to have yet another post-baby change to get used to. I'm not vain or shallow by any means, but I'd still like to feel desirable in front of my husband instead of embarrassed by a change that's kind of hard to explain. I'm still navigating how to figure it out.
In the end, I felt a bit betrayed by breastfeeding and my body. I'm grateful and proud that I made it so far with breastfeeding despite the extreme challenges — and I really did love the bond of breastfeeding and the convenience it offered — but when I'm left looking sad and lopsided in my bathing suit or bra, I wonder if I did the right thing. Sometimes I even wonder if I was so brainwashed into thinking that the only way to be a "good" mom was to breastfeed that I was willing to sacrifice my own life and health to do it.