Below is the logo for MGH Mother & Child Center. Note the loving, protective lines of the mother’s arms and neck arching over the baby, her leg cradling his tiny body towards what you assume is her milk laden breast. The image evokes the serenity and beauty you imagine nursing is like.
The truth is breast feeding is a bitch.
You’d seen puppies and piglets on Discovery Channel, born for all of five minutes, blind and unable to walk, wriggle, crawl, tumble over each other to a teat and suckle like they were made to do it. The mothers lay semi-conscious on their sides, happily exhausted, letting her little ones do the work encoded in their genes through millions of years of evolution. So natural and (thus, you mistakenly, naively concluded) easy.
Breast feeding is natural, oh sure–natural like menstrual cramps, diarrhea, gravity on a man falling from a tall building, flesh eating disease, tsunami, death.
It’s natural, for instance, the excruciating pain of chaffed nipples. Being sucked mercilessly day in and day out, they begin to feel like they’re being skinned. You look down at your baby and wonder how something so sweet and small can be so sadistic. The pediatrician’s off hand, impatient response to your nipple complaint is, they’ll toughen up. Toughen up, you say to your husband who is acting as the pediatrician’s stand in once back in the car. Toughen up? Why don’t you see how tough you are pushing a baby out of your vagina without an epidural. Oh, you don’t have a vagina? No breasts? Then what do you know, you insensitive, misogynistic turd? Your husband sits very quietly and keeps his eyes glued to the road.
Until your boobs toughen up, you continue to suffer. It’s worse than labor, which lasted a few days and then it was over. A week and another week and another week, you suffer with no end in sight. Sometimes, feeding the baby late at night, you fantasize about yanking off the torturous creature you love more than life itself (you finally know what that bromide actually means) and running away from him.
The sucking is relentless, so much so that you develop blood blisters and milk blisters on your nipple. It’s repulsive. You treat them by applying hot compresses five minutes before every nursing session so that the baby’s sucking, the very thing that caused the blisters in the first place, can drain them. The irony makes you weep–literally because it hurts and the postpartum hormones make you take everything personally.
You worry incessantly about your milk supply, which can only be kept up by continuing to nurse and drinking four liters of water a day. This is more water than you thought could be consumed without leaching all the ions out of your body. Because of the sheer volume of water you consume and the startlingly weakened postpartum kegals, you wet your pants on a regular basis: when you are in the grocery store, when you’re out for a walk with the baby, when you’re doing the dishes. You think you can hold it for five more seconds, but no, your body says, nah. You change your underwear as often as you change your nursing pads.
Nursing pads: maxi pads for your boobs. They line the inside of your nursing bras, which are basically sports bras with more hardware and just as sexy. You will wear these 24/7 for the next year until you stop nursing. You’ve never worn your bra to bed you say? You’ve never worn a bra while having sex (well not the whole time)? You haven’t worn a bra without under-wire and some sexy padding since you were thirteen? Insert sympathy chuckles here.
Let’s go back to the blisters. Once they drain, you face another problem: blocked ducts. This happens when milk solids clog up a duct and the milk behind it can’t drain, thus, building up and resulting in engorgement. Engorgement feels like you have a rock lodged in your boob, a rock that throbs and grows. The only way to relieve the pain is to nurse every two hours to dislodge the offending plug. Fortunately, your engorgements never go beyond 24 hours, which could have led to mastitis. One mom inflicted with it recounts having to have her boobs drained by a doctor who inserted a needle into her boob and sucked out the old, infected milk. You managed to keep your face still and felt your chest wanting to crawl into itself.
After a month of this your boobs are challenged once again, this time by the introduction of the breast pump. By pumping the milk into bottles, the pump is meant to offer you more independence from the baby. But pumping puts your already battered nipples through yet more punishment and adds the chore of cleaning the pumping equipment and bottles on top of everything else newborn related. So much for independence.
Pumping carries the added indignity of making you look bovine. Picture yourself at the kitchen table with your (baggy) shirt raised up to your armpits, holding the plastic bottle and shield contraption against your chest, the pump wheezing rhythmically like an old donkey, your one month postpartum gut with all its, shall we say, redundancy in full inglorious view, being milked. Maybe your husband saunters in, looks at you with a startled expression that is a mixture of confusion, fascination, and regret and says, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, “You look like you’re having sex with a machine.” It won’t be his best joke.
Looking less than spectacular goes beyond the pumping sessions in the kitchen and to your closet because as long as you’re breast feeding, the nursing hormones keep you from losing those last five to ten pounds of pregnancy weight even though you’re (supposedly) burning 500 calories a day just from nursing. The prego fat insulates your ass and thighs and belly like several dozen security blankets. No slipping into your old jeans, your pretty summer dresses dresses, anything even remotely form fitting for another long while. You discover motherhood–like private schools, fast food chains, post offices, prisons–requires a uniform: leggings that stretch over your chub and roomy button-down shirts that make your breasts easily accessible. A post-maternity-leave mom once said that the clothes she wears to work makes her a shoe in for the show, “What Not To Wear.”
Then there is sex. Getting turned on makes you let down and end up leaking. And there’s the strange head space you have to negotiate. Are they sexual erogenous zones? Or udders? Sexual erogenous zones or udders? You want to have sex. You want to nurse. Sex. Nurse. It’s confusing.
Later as your baby starts sleeping longer through the night, your boobs play catch up to their new supply demand. Too slowly. They don’t understand right away that you don’t need the milk anymore. So you end up getting engorged, so much so that you leak onto your nursing pad, your bra, your pajama top, even your sheets. In the middle of the night, you have to get up to change your clothes while resisting the overwhelming temptation to pump and release the excruciating pressure. (For the uninitiated, you need to not pump so that your body learns the new feeding schedule.) So while your baby sleeps, finally, you can’t. You try to lie still because any movement jostles your massive breasts, breasts so milk laden and turgid that they look like a boob job gone very very wrong. After you’ve been lying in bed wide awake and whimpering for two hours, you can’t take it anymore and you end up pumping fifteen ounces. That’s nearly two cups of breast milk. A pint of boob juice. The experience is like when you go hogging over a whole apple pie and end up with a blissful sugar high and a guilty conscience.
On a corollary note, months go by and you still haven’t gotten your period. You actually miss it because you want a sure sign that you’re still fertile. And not pregnant. Just in case. Not likely, but the idea of being pregnant at this moment terrifies you. You get a pregnancy test. You’re not pregnant.
The worst part of nursing isn’t the physical discomfort, which is clearly significant. The worst part is the immense pressure you put on yourself to do it. For reasons evolutionary and cultural, you believe deeply that nourishing the baby by the nutritive power of your own body is the proof of your fitness as a mother. As if gestating the baby inside your body for nine months wasn’t certification of your maternal commitment enough. You feel you need to be that mother in the MGH Mother & Child logo. If you don’t, then you’re less of a mother, less of a woman, less.
Why do you do this to yourself? Why endure the physical discomfort and the daily psychological pow wow?
There are the peripheral reasons: because you were told that the American Pediatric Society recommends nursing; because your mother insists that the reason you were a rebellious, hot tempered mess was because you weren’t breast fed and you irrationally believe her; because your natural birthing class instructor wouldn’t stop talking about colostrum; because all the other mommies in the new parent support group are doing it.
But here are the three main reasons. One, like you said above, you feel that it’s your maternal duty. Think Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree: parenthood begins and ends with one happy sacrifice after another. Whether this is misguided and sexist and colloquial is irrelevant because when you’re postpartum hormonal and in love with your baby, you will gladly immolate yourself for this little life. Nursing feels like a small sacrifice, enormous offering.
Two, when you see your baby growing, you know it’s all because of you and you feel proud.
Three and the primary reason you love breast feeding, nothing feels quite as charmed, joyful, and primal as holding your baby in your arms and watching him being fed by the power of your body. Your baby has a need and you fill it. Completely. Satisfying is too shallow a word. At no other time in your relationship as mother and child will you share a connection this simple and pure and close, not even, it seems to you, when he was inside your body.
And so despite all your bitching and moaning about the demands of this natural “natural” act that includes so much tutoring and maintenance and time to get right, you love it.