I breastfed my newborn son in the Target dressing room today. My tiny boy, the one who lost ounce after ounce in the hospital, is now over ten pounds. Why? Because I have nursed him in restaurants, in the front seat of my car, in the recliner, in bed, on the floor, curled up on my friend’s couch, and in the Mommy Room at Babies R Us. I have nursed him in the preschool library and at the picnic table next to the garden. I’m like the “Got Milk?” version of a Dr. Seuss book. “I can nurse you here and there, I can nurse you everywhere!”.
I have nursed my son for 5 weeks and 4 days. That is long enough to know that I owe all of you breastfeeding moms an apology. I am sorry that I hated you because you had it so easy. I’ve been to the other side, and I’m back to report that there’s nothing easy about breastfeeding. Shhh….real breastfeeding advocates aren’t supposed to tell you that, but I’m only a tourist. An imposter. So you can trust me when I say that sometimes breastfeeding is magic, and sometimes it well, sucks.
I used to be a formula mom. When my first son was born, I tried desperately to nurse him. I pumped, I used supplements, I sobbed in the shower and cursed the breasts that were filled with shame and regret, but not a drop of milk. Max’s belly suffered from GI issues that made him vomit and choke. Formula ended up saving him, and I learned to stuff my sadness into my back pocket and take pride in feeding him with love. Max was my first baby, and my first lesson in how mommy guilt could strip your confidence and make you doubt everything that you thought was true. I fed Max with formula, because it was my body, my mental health, and my choice. But the pain never went away. I was proud to be a formula advocate, but I couldn’t let go of the hope that I might be able to nurse my next baby.
Somewhere at the intersection of failure and regret, I started to hate moms who breastfed. I hated that it was easy for them. I hated that they didn’t have to lug around a huge diaper bag with bottles and powder. I hated that they could feed their babies for free, that their pregnancy weight just fell off, that their babies never had to wait for the bubbles in a bottle to dissipate or for the formula to reach the right temperature. “You have it so easy” I thought. “Damn you, because formula is so hard for me.”
And then Ben was suddenly in my arms, and sucking like a tiny piranha at my breast. Our doulas spent the first 48 hours of Ben’s life sitting next to me on the hospital bed. They cupped my suddenly ginormous double D’s, squished them into “sandwiches”, pulled his tiny rosebud mouth on to my breasts and held him there as he figured it out. They gently nudged my shoulders back, put pillows under my arms, and made sure that I was eating and drinking. My mom and my husband encouraged me to keep going, and took care of everything else so that I could simply sit and nurse. But even with all of the help, even with all of the determination, even though I fought like hell to see straight through the fog of my pain meds, Ben still lost weight. I was failing at the most natural thing in the world, before we had a chance to even begin.
When the lactation specialist arrived on the third day of our hospital stay, the pediatrician had already told her that I would need to supplement with formula. I started crying before she even opened her mouth. Fuck you, I thought. Fuck you and your pump and your weight charts and your fake concern. Just leave me and my baby alone. My tears were hot and fell fast down my cheeks and onto my chest, dropping like rain on Ben’s soft little head as it burrowed into my empty breasts. Even though I could barely speak, I told her my plan. I would nurse Ben. Just nurse him. And then I would give him any colostrum that I had pumped, but I would only do it through a supplemental nursing system, so that he would still be at my breast. And then, only then, we would give him formula. Only through the supplemental nursing system. And only until my own milk came in. The lactation specialist looked down at my tiny boy, and back up at me. “It’s going to be fine” she said. “Formula isn’t the end of the world”. The formula mom in me wanted to jump up and hug her for realizing that feeding with love was the most important thing. But I wasn’t a formula mom anymore. I was a breastfeeding mom. I was a mother who was still hoping and praying that milk would fill my breasts, so I squeaked out “No, you see…you don’t understand. I couldn’t breastfeed my first son”. This is a big deal lady! Didn’t you read my article on the Huffington Post?! I wanted to scream at her, to will my body to jump from the bed and throw the adorable little formula bottles in the trash. But I simply cried. And thanked her. And watched her walk away.
I don’t hate formula, I’m grateful for it. It saved Max’s life. He is brilliant, and strong, and beautiful, and healthy, and formula was the right choice for us then. But moms have the right to choose. I wanted to try. I wanted a chance. I wanted to be in charge, and why couldn’t I be? I was finally brave enough to say that I would make the decisions for my baby, and I was absolutely sure that I could get Ben back up to birth weight on my own terms. I would nurse him. I would do my best.
And so it began. Our nursing dance. I put Ben to my breast around the clock. His latch was terrible, we worked on it. My technique was terrible, we worked on it. We kept going. I can’t tell you exactly when my milk “came in”, but I can tell you about our leaky ceiling. I was standing at the sink in my bathroom, peering at my reflection in the mirror through a haze of postpartum Vicodin. Something was leaking from the ceiling and onto my feet. Damn our landlords, I thought. This house has been one disaster after another! I hate this house. I hate that everything goes wrong here. I hate that we can’t fix it because it doesn’t belong to us. I hate that…
And suddenly I realized that the leak in our roof was milk. Watery white, it ran like a tiny river that came from my breasts. Running down my swollen belly and dripping onto my feet. I was making milk. Milk! If you have never struggled with breastfeeding, then you can not possibly understand this moment. If your milk was plentiful, if you never had a panic attack in the formula aisle at Babies R Us, if you never looked longingly at a mom sitting in a café feeding her baby with ease, then you might snicker a little when you hear me say this, but…..I started laughing. Laughing like a crazy person, high on Vicodin, watching my breasts leak all over the floor. I tried to figure out how to make the milk stop , because I needed every last drop to feed my baby and I wasn’t sure if I’d have any left after this. I didn’t want to waste it, I wanted to save it in a Medela bottle or wake my sleeping son and let it drip in his mouth. I felt slightly insane. Because each drop that fell was a drop more than I had ever had before, and suddenly I understood the magic of watching your body produce something that allows your baby to live and grow and thrive. Breastmilk really was magic, even though it was making my bathroom tiles a sticky mess. There was magic in my boobs, people. I had a superpower. I could sustain life, and nourish my child, with just my body. I was all that he needed. Just me, my leaky boobs, and maybe seven nursing pillows.
Do I sound familiar yet? Don’t mistake me for a lactivist. A lactivist would be doing a much better job of this breastfeeding thing. Her nipples wouldn’t be cracked and swollen, and she wouldn’t cry every time that her baby loses his latch. Please don’t think that I have a political breastfeeding agenda or a desire to normalize nursing in public. If I was a breastfeeding hero I would know how to properly lift the damn “hooter hider” nursing cover so that it didn’t smother my baby yet still draped perfectly over my exposed nipple. Instead, Ben practically sweats to death underneath it, and most of the time it falls to the ground as I try to use one hand to push my breast in his mouth and the other hand to wrangle my 4 year old. Breastfeeding is kicking my ass. It’s not easy, it doesn’t always feel natural, and for me, it hurts like hell. Where were the rainbows and unicorns and happy nursing fairies that you all kept telling me about?
Somewhere in between a 3 am nursing session and surfing the internet for “nursing camisole size large” I realized that I had misunderstood all of you breastfeeding moms. When you chanted “What’s your superpower? I make milk!”, I used to secretly scream at you to go fuck yourself. “Oh look! My little angel is milk drunk!” you’d coo. And I’d want to puke. There was nothing cute about posting a picture of your baby drooling milk out of their mouth while fast asleep. It all just seemed so self-congratulatory and boastful to me. Until I realized how damn hard it is to actually succeed at breastfeeding. It’s not easy to nourish your child with every last calorie that you make. It’s upsetting to feel the weight of being responsible for a tiny human being 24/7. To not share that burden with anyone else. To be afraid to leave the room, more or less actually go out of the house alone, because your precious child could starve to death when you are the only one who knows how to feed him. Three billion things can go wrong when you breastfeed. It might be free, but I’ve paid more money to lactation consultants, doulas, and Babies R Us in the last month then I ever spent on formula. But even with a bad latch, tongue tie, thrush, a clogged duct, and a crazy oversupply, I still think that nursing this little boy is the most amazing magic that I’ve ever felt in my life. I am the only thing that is keeping my child alive right now. You’re damn right that’s a superpower. And it scares the hell out of me.
For the last 5 weeks, I have felt like a tourist in a foreign land. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is my guidebook. My suitcase is packed with nursing tanks and bras, loose shirts and disposable nursing pads. I’ve been watching closely to see how the locals do it. Do they use a nursing cover? Do they lower their shirt to cover the top of their boob, or let it all hang out? Do they burp their baby in between sides, or at the end? I don’t speak the language, and I’m a first-time visitor. I have no idea what I’m doing, and most of the time, I’m not doing it well. But I’ve mastered the art of faking it. When we ventured out as a family for the first time a few weeks ago, Max suddenly yelled from the back seat “Mom! You can’t feed brother at the restaurant!!”, and my heart sank. Was my 4 year old really going to be embarrassed that I was about to nurse in public?? “Why not honey?” I asked, holding my breath. “Cause you forgot your PILLOW!” he yelled, and I started to laugh. Out in the world, I do not have My Brest Friend. I do not always have an extra set of hands. But I do have courage, and I never thought that the downy head and fluttery smile of a ten pound baby would give me such a stockpile of strength.
Five weeks in, and our doulas still visit at least once a week to help me work on breastfeeding. We’ve had dates with lactation consultants and my OB. I’ve crowd-sourced the cause of my ongoing breast pain on Facebook and Twitter. My nipples are thrashed, and my breasts ache constantly. Don’t tell me that means I’m not “doing it right”. I know that already. We’re a work in progress.
But when the pediatrician looks up from her checklist at Ben’s well visit and asks “Are you bottle-feeding?”, I proudly reply “No. He’s exclusively breastfed.” I shout it from the rafters, just like all of you did. This time, I don’t have to give qualifiers. My cheeks do not flush with shame as I stumble over excuses like “He gets some breastmilk and some formula, I mean, like half and half…or maybe 25% breastmilk…I mean, I try to pump, but I don’t really get anything when I do.” This time, my breasts make milk. That is my superpower. I have worked too hard at this to keep quiet. I have endured too much pain and too much sadness, to ever feel shame about feeding my son in public. I have come too far to quit. I have fed Ben with love, and I am proud of every ounce that he has gained. I did this, just like all of you breastfeeding mamas. And I will scream it out loud so that everyone knows how much we’ve overcome. That’s not boastful. That is climbing a mountain and doing a fist pump when you turn around at the top and realize that you made it.
Tonight, I will be awake at 3 am, feeding my baby. The light of the Super Moon will cascade through my window and dance over the outline of my tiny boy wearing 0-3 month pajamas. I will listen to the noises that he makes as he smacks and slurps and squirms at my chest. I will run my hand slowly across his forehead and down his back, pulling him closer to me just as I did with his big brother. I might not know what I’m doing, but I am confident that I am feeding him with love. And when he pulls his head away from my breast and his little body relaxes against the pillow that still helps me to position him, I will watch the river of watery white milk cascade down his soft cheek and onto the collar of his jammies. “He’s milk drunk” I’ll laugh, and I will say a silent prayer of thanks that it was my body, my breasts, and my choices that made him that way.