The One Thing No One Says When They Say Breastfeeding Can Be Hard

If your pregnancy was (or is) anything like mine, your friends and loved ones (as well as strangers and acquaintances whose names you can't even remember) will offer you many, many thoughts on giving birth, child-rearing, parenting and, especially on the challenges of breastfeeding. It’s almost as if having a baby bump is an open invitation for commentary and questions from people who may otherwise abide by the common roles of social decency. Still, there's one thing no one talks about when they talk about breastfeeding and the difficulties you could potentially face, and it's a shame, because it's honestly the one thing every breastfeeding or potential breastfeeding mother really needs to hear.

Around the specific topic of breastfeeding, most conversations I had (and warnings I received) focused on the idea that it would be hard. Some of these warnings were whispered in soft tones meant to convey seriousness; others were delivered with a dramatic eye roll and shake of the head; some were casually dropped in conversation like anecdotes about the weather, or contestants on The Bachelorette, or Chrissy Teigan’s general amazingness. Regardless of the method, one thing was clear: breastfeeding was probably not going to be easy for me and I needed to prepare myself.

I did what most logical, reasonable people do when faced with a challenge: I chose to remain hopefully ignorant, or ignorantly hopeful, depending on the day. Surely, it had to work for some people, right? I mean, it couldn’t be hard for every single person who's wanted to breastfeed all over the world, ever, right? Right? Hello? Bueller, Bueller? I do desperately hoped I would be someone who didn't have a single problem because, well, I didn't want to hate breastfeeding. I wanted to love it as much as I was looking forward it, and I was starting to think that if breastfeeding was going to be difficult for me, I was inevitably and unequivocally going to hate it.

Despite my desperate, inner hopes and wishes, I struggled. Oh, man, was there struggle. Those first weeks of breastfeeding were actually tearful weeks of non-breastfeeding, mostly snuggling my baby to my chest in every seat in our house, lamenting about my failures as a mom. The entire narrative I’d heard up until that point was consistent with my experience. Well, almost the entire narrative. I found myself not entirely hating the process, even though it was difficult and painful and I was exhausted and frustrated. Did I hate the fact that it wasn't "fun?" Of course. But did I hate the act of breastfeeding, itself? No, I didn't, and the fact that I didn't was somewhat surprising to me.

It took me months. Painful months. Difficult months. Endless months. So many months where I considered throwing in the towel multiple times, every single day, before I was able to feel comfortable breastfeeding with the ease I had wished and hoped I would have experienced out of the gate. However, I’m really, really glad I stuck with my initial goal of breastfeeding (although I want to acknowledge and respect that fact that there are about a zillion scenarios and reasons why other breastfeeding mothers decide to end their breastfeeding journey earlier than initially planned, and I fully support those choices). I actually couldn’t tell you when it was that this magical state of comfort with breastfeeding actually came into my life.

It was definitely not during the first three and a half months, when I was on leave and also trying to figure out how to put on a diaper that wouldn’t leak, or take off a messy onesie without getting poop in my son’s hair (answer: pull it down).

It was definitely not for the next three months after that, when I was working out of the house and pumping in a spare break room.

My first instinct is to say that it happened around the six month mark, when I transitioned from my office job back to the house, but then I need to consider the infections and mastitis that struck around thirteen months. So, no, that wasn't it either. I honestly can't remember when breastfeeding became "easy," I just know that, eventually, it did.

The fond feelings still come and go, to be honest. We just celebrated my son’s second birthday, and I'm just now realizing what should have been told me all those years ago, when I was hearing about the difficulties of breastfeeding and how hard it really can be:

It's not an all or nothing, love it or hate it scenario. Yes, it's hard and yes, it sucks sometimes, but it can also be worth it and you can also love it, often on the same day and often simultaneously. Just like any other aspect of your life, it will be great and horrible simultaneously, and you'll learn to deal with it just like you do any other aspect of adulthood. Because, yes, it's great to be a grown up, but it's also kind of the worst.

My own son only nurses once a day now, at a regular time. I’m not getting interrupted when I’m trying to function as an adult by, you know, going to a job or running errands or catching up on the sleep he interrupted. Now he's more independent and self-sufficient, so he's less dependent on me for food. Now the difficulties of breastfeeding seem like a dream, even though I'm well aware they were very, very, real.

But like most (read: all) aspects of parenthood, when I look back at breastfeeding and experience it once a day with my son, I love it and I hate it. I love the connection I have with my son; I love the built-in snuggles and time we have in our day; I love the fact that breastfeeding was a challenge that we straight-up overcame together. I don’t love having my breasts tugged and squeezed, or the fact that they’ll never be the same shape again, or the infections and the illnesses and the interruptions that seemed to all go hand-in-hand. Add these complications to the other stresses of normal, adult life; work, relationships, friendships, chores, clearing an entire weekend to re-watch season 1 of UnReal in advance of the Season 2 premier and, well, the complicated relationship a mother can have with breastfeeding becomes all the more obvious.

It's not all or nothing, it's a constant ebb and flow. When you have difficulties breastfeeding but you're determined to continue the experience as long as it is safe and healthy to do so, your experience is a push and pull of juxtaposing emotions, and that is normal. You know, like what's happening to your breasts when you're finally able to breastfeed successfully.