It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. In my dark bedroom my phone silently lights up with a text message from my friend Koren. “We are headed to dinner now. See you there?” About 45 minutes ago I ducked out early from a girls’ night out with her and another friend so I could run home and quickly nurse my three-month-old baby who was having a hard time eating/falling asleep/keeping her shit together with my husband.
“I’ll meet you at dinner,” I called over my shoulder as I paid for my pottery project and rushed home. Now approaching an hour later, it was clear that my little darling was in for the long haul – stuck in that half-asleep/half-awake phase of dream nursing. There would be no Mexican food for me. I was going to be here for awhile.
As I silently texted Koren back with my regrets, I could feel the tears welling up. Maybe it sounded shallow, and selfish, but the thought of getting to go out and paint pottery and binge on chips and salsa was the only thing that had kept me going that week. I was tired. I was back to work full time, spending every waking non-nursing hour trying to catch up on the clients I needed to make happy so I could pay my medical bills. A few of my older kids were having a rough week behavior-wise and my husband had gone into the office more than usual.
I felt completely pushed to my breaking point – physically, emotionally. I needed that extra hour of girlfriend time, alone, and let’s be honest: I needed a burrito. The weight of my warm baby suddenly felt suffocating, trapping me inside the awesomeness of my own body.
“Maybe it’s time to wean her,” I texted my husband, who was in another room.
“Sure. If you’re ready, you should,” he responded.
So typical. Giving me an out, when he knows I’m not actually going to take it. Sometimes I think it would be better if he just guilted me into continuing to breastfeed. Then I could blame him and move on. Instead, the decision lies with me and I’m too tired, too worn out to really make a change at this point.
Breastfeeding is Challenging, Y’all.
This is the third baby I’ve breastfed and it doesn’t get easier. I know that I could stop at any point and she would be just fine. At three months, she is older by a month than my first one was when I stopped nursing and she is younger by 10 months than my second, who clung to my breast until she turned one and then quickly lost interest. No one would blame me, I reason. A lump in my right breast from pregnancy has caused that side to stop producing milk (or never really start), and my one milk-producing side is broken out in a nasty bout of dermatitis/eczema from a six-mile race I ran the week before. When my daughter latches on, the pain of one-thousand tiny daggers penetrate the entire left side of my body, causing my legs to kick and the rest of my body to squirm in pain. She’s starting to take breaks when nursing, too, so latching on is happening a few times each session.
I can’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror because the lopsidedness of my boobs freaks me out and I try not to take my shirt off in front of my husband unless its dark. The few times he’s caught me changing for a run, pressing my DD uber-boob into my sports bra while the A-cup side slides in with no issue, and he’s commented on how great I look. Ugh. Typical.
In between texts to Koren and my husband, I pull up Amazon on my smartphone and search for “baby’s first sippy cup.” I find one that worked with my oldest daughter. One click, and it’s mine, with free two-day shipping. I feel relieved.
When I finally lay the baby down that night, she sleeps through until the morning. I get a lot of rest as a result. When I pick her up from her sun-soaked crib, she smiles at me before she nuzzles in to feed. I smile back and pull her closer to me. This isn’t so bad, I think. I barely had to get out of bed to grab her and 30 seconds later I’m back under my covers, with this warm lump pressed against me and my half-asleep husband reaching out to rub my arm. Even my red, scaly skin doesn’t seem as painful as she suckles. Everything, it seems, really does look different in the light of day.
She ends up falling back to sleep and I have a few hours baby-free to spend with my older kids, making them scrambled eggs for breakfast and listening to every story about every first-grader that my oldest daughter has been saving up for me from the last week. Dalton got new glasses. Elaina lost two teeth (TWO TEETH, MOM!) and Mrs. Lukens has a new barn cat name Gray. My toddler focuses most of her attention on the eggs in front of her, quietly humming her ABCs. I make an egg burrito for myself, taking the time to slice fresh tomatoes and avocado for it. As I eat it without interruption, listening to my daughters talk to each other, it tastes like clocking out before a two-week vacation feels. Ahhhhhhh…..
That night my stepkids will come back from their mom’s and we will all have Sunday dinner together before starting the work and school week. They always miss their sisters when they are gone, and my stepdaughter sometimes cries if too many days pass when she hasn’t seen the baby. It will be nice to have them back, I remark to my husband who seems to overthink my statement, likely wondering internally if this is some sort of test from me. His look makes me realize I’ve been cranky lately — like, for a year — and I give him an unsolicited hug. I feel my misshapen boobs press into him and I press harder. He pulls me in even tighter than that. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy our toddler watching us and smiling.
As anyone who’s tried it knows, breastfeeding is difficult. The physical side is tough. There is not much that is as uncomfortable as the initial engorgement and pain in the first few days and the contraction-like cramps that take place every time baby latches on. For the next few weeks, you get to wake up in a pool of breast milk until your supply finally stabilizes. If you’ve known the pain of mastitis, you’re my hero. The breast stretch marks that come with the much larger, then much smaller, milk makers are real and unsightly.
Perhaps even more difficult than the physical, though, is the mental toll that breastfeeding challenges takes on mothers, particularly in the United States. Think about it: as young women, we are told to develop our individuality and to be independent. We are encouraged to seek out career paths that make us beings all unto our own and to find our self worth in what we, and we alone, can accomplish. Even in marriage, we hear the message to never lose our individuality and to cling to those parts of ourselves that make us truly unique. Then we have a baby and it seems that everything we’ve ever been told about being a woman is flipped on its head. The “breast is best” mantra. Babywearing. Attachment parenting. All of these completely natural tendencies run contrary to what we’ve always been told about ourselves and our existence as autonomous humans.
Never lose yourself.
Except, you know, when you have a baby and your body does what’s natural to feed it. Then you should excuse yourself from dinner to feed that baby in a bathroom stall. The other grown adults at the table, after all, shouldn’t have to see that.
Throw in the exclusively American idea that women should bounce back quickly (their bodies, especially) after giving birth and the idea of leaky breasts beyond the first few weeks seems downright archaic.
The formula companies take a lot of flack for the reasons behind why the majority of moms in the U.S. aren’t breastfeeding by the bare-minimum recommended length of six months. I think that blame is misplaced, though. Formula companies are only filling a demand that is based on societal norms. I’m sorry but not EVERY person who formula feeds does it because her “milk didn’t come in.” So why do we, as women, feel like we need to use that excuse? What’s wrong with just saying “breastfeeding wasn’t for me?”
I know the answer to that though and its a double-edged sword. Women are expected to endure the mental and physical strain that often accompanies these breastfeeding challenges but are treated like second-class citizens in the process. The burden of feeding “appropriately” and in a way that masks-but-fools-no-one falls on the already tired, already starving nursing mother. Breastfeeding moms are often on the defensive, instead of being praised. Just because something is natural does not make it easy yet I’ve heard the argument that breastfeeding is somehow selfish. That confuses me. What part of handing your body completely over to another being who then lets you know what to do with your body, and when, is based on self-centeredness? For me the most selfish thing I do for myself these days is go to the grocery store alone, and shop quickly, so I can get back to my nursling and older siblings.
I also think that there is a misconception that all nursing moms are “breastfeeding Nazis” who judge formula feeders. That group of moms DOES exist but there is an entirely separate group of us who waffle somewhere in between, often jealous of the freedom that the formula feeders experience and living in full support of that decision. A friend of mine recently apologetically told me about quitting breastfeeding early on when she experienced headaches, depression and resentment towards her husband.
“Good for you!” I said – and I MEANT IT.
I’m still nursing my youngest but not married to the idea of doing it for as long as humanly possible. In many ways I will be relieved when I’m able to have my own body back and know that it is mine for good this time. I don’t yet know when that day will be but I’m going to listen to the cues of my body, and follow the lead of my baby, when making that determination. I won’t be guilted into one way or another, knowing full well that no matter what choice I make and when will be the right one for me — and my baby too.
What breastfeeding challenges have you faced?
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