There is nothing I can say in the space of this essay that won’t have an emotional impact on someone. I need to say that first. This is my story of breastfeeding and I know I can’t speak for anyone else. However, it’s a sensitive and emotional subject for many. Myself included. This is the story of breastfeeding in the current moment. It is so hard to talk about openly and because of that before this past year, nothing. Or next to nothing.
I came into breastfeeding knowing very little. I had a friend who upon giving loads of advice in my late pregnancy told me her wife was unable to breastfeed and she has it much easier. The advice was: don’t stress about it, either way you’ll be okay. The comment was the first time I realized that feeding my child could potentially be a challenge.
Now I know, breastfeeding is one of the most challenging things that women’s bodies can do. That it is a rarity for it to come easily to a woman and her child. But it is easy to forget in the haze of the early months that we struggled to achieve the ability to feed our children with our bodies. Breastfeeding makes pregnancy look easy.
And here we get into challenging territory. My mother, who cherished her time nursing her children, really wanted me to succeed. She gave me a couple of books including one that she said had been very helpful for her. The book basically said that if you don’t succeed at breastfeeding it is probably caused by a lack of education about how breastfeeding works.
And here a binary is set up: you can breastfeed and succeed or you cannot breastfeed and fail. The “Breast is best” campaign started ringing in my ears and I knew I needed to succeed. I wanted to believe that I had the education, that I had the desire and that my body could provide what my child needed. This child I had fed for almost 10 months inside of me could continue to be nurtured by my body.
Every bump we hit I felt as my body failing me and my child. She wasn’t gaining enough weight, my milk wasn’t coming in enough even as my breasts ached and burned. She wanted to eat all of the time but according to the lactation consultant her latch wasn’t effective and even the amount of time she spent pulling on my nipple (pulling to the point that I bled) didn’t amount to much. And so like many women, I had to start supplementing. First with a bit of formula and then as I started to pump more with my pumped milk.
My maternity leave consisted of breastfeeding, feeding her the pumped milk, attempting to get Joan to sleep, or giving her to my husband or another visitor and going to pump. I watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain in those early days. I was pumping and visiting some place around the world where I watched a man execute his privilege over and over. And pumping itself wasn’t easy. As the machine went to work so did I. At the end of twenty minutes of hands on work I was frustrated looking at my ounce or two wishing I could produce more.
At around two months we experienced a shift. I don’t know if it was her or me but she gained fine (still/always a tiny little thing) and no longer seemed to need to supplement. For the last few weeks of my maternity leave things were working the way I had always expected them to. When she was hungry and got fussy I adjusted my shirt, she latched and we nursed until she was satisfied. The nipples healed up and breastfeeding became pleasant.
As a working mother that pleasant relationship was bound to change. For the first few weeks of daycare I pumped five times a day. I woke up, nursed Joan, got us dressed and pumped while she “played” on her mat next to me. At work I pumped three times a day. I got home, nursed and then pumped again after dinner. Now I watched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Agents of Shield, Jane the Virgin or Scandal the dramatic shifting action occupying my mind while my hands pressed into my breasts trying to push out every little bit of milk available. And still I was hardly making enough for her daycare bottles.
I felt like a failure. I was a wreck. My body was pushed to the extreme, I was exhausted (in addition to the schedule above Joan was still waking 2-4 times a night to nurse at that point) and emotionally I was hardly holding on. Andrew in the middle of one of my exhausted crying episodes suggested getting some formula just to have as a back-up to release me of the pressure of having to stress about all of the pumping. Sure, I said but only as a back-up, just in case I can’t make enough one day.
But the truth is that formula released me. One level of the stress went away. It didn’t have to be all on me and my body. Joan would be okay. Formula even filled with chemicals and looking/smelling gross was created just for this purpose to make sure my daughter got fed.
Within a week I gave up my morning pump and life got much easier. I continued on for about five more months. When Joan was about 8 months old, and had started solids, I pulled back to two pumps at work. At about 10 months I stopped my evening pump. And at eleven months I stopped pumping at work all together. With each pump I dropped Joan got another bottle of formula. Each time I felt more free despite the hard-to-shake guilt that I somehow failed.
For those who haven’t breastfed you may not realize that it’s not a choice to pump or nurse. Your body demands it. For most of the past year I couldn’t go three hours without needing to do one or the other. I would be sitting in a meeting, onstage at a discussion or walking down the street and I would feel at first a bit uncomfortable, then a huge anxiety and nervous energy (I took this to be a biological internal monitor letting my know my baby was starving – my monitor obviously isn’t aware of formula) and then pain and at times a release. One night when Joan slept longer than usual, she woke up and I changed her diaper before feeding her. Standing at her changing table I felt something drip on my foot – is our air conditioning leaking? – nope, just my breast dripping onto my foot.
Is this what success looks like? A year of stress, anxiety and even pain? My body connected to the demands of my daughter even if she is happily drinking a bottle miles away at daycare? I left dinners early, I avoided going to the theatre, I got frustrated easily in meetings when I was passed my pump time, I certainly fought with my husband when he didn’t deserve it just because my body was being pulled by its biological obligation. Is that success?
Nursing has really special moments. The first time I realized Joan could see and focus was when she was nursing and suddenly looked up and made eye contact. Thinking about that moment now makes my heart swell. As she got older nursing could be gentle or playful. Her head nestling into me with its soft curls, or her fingers pinching and exploring.
I spent time with mothers who nursed their children until they were well into toddlerhood. I wondered if I would, could. “Stop by the time she can ask for it”– friends would say – not realizing that she started asking for it by pulling at my shirt when she was three months. I had hoped she would wean herself (but secretly I hoped that would happen soon).
Joan is starting to develop language. She can ask for water with a word that sounds like a mix of water and agua: wagua. She still asks to nurse by pulling on my shirt. And in the past week I’ve said no. It was my choice not hers. Part of me still feels bad about it – that I’m somehow failing her that I should keep going until she no longer wants it. And I was nervous I would lose that time of closeness of her eyes in mine, her hair against me, and her fingers taking ownership of my skin.
As far as I can tell this is the point of parenting: to take a helpless being who relies only on you and helping them get to the point when they don’t need you anymore. Joan doesn’t need me for sustenance: she drinks milk, water and eats EVERYTHING. I feel both a loss and a huge gain.
And so we are done with that part of our relationship. In Genesis it is mentioned that Isaac had a weaning party. I love that idea. I want to celebrate Joan’s growth and I want to celebrate my freedom. My body is finally my own again almost two years after I first got pregnant. Instead of having a party last night I bought a ring. It’s a milky white rose and a reminder to me that I was successful. That despite all the self-doubt, the feeling that I wasn’t good enough, and the hours spent pumping, I was successful. My body did what it was supposed to do: it allowed me to make my own choices. That Joan’s body did what it was supposed to do: it thrived.
Bye, breastfeeding, so long.