The Reality of Breastfeeding
It was two am, and I was silently sobbing as I tried hopelessly to get my daughter to latch. The pain intensified with each try as her tiny body flailed against my chest. Her cries were desperate. She was hungry, and I was failing.
Trying to distract myself from the searing pain and screams, my mind drifted to two days prior- when my daughter made her grand entrance into the world. Her delivery was fast and furious, six hours from my first contraction to a baby girl resting on my chest.
It was magic, and I was floating. But that was then. Tonight I was in the dark- literally and figuratively.
I spent the first two weeks of my daughters’ life, chasing her birth weight. Unbeknownst to me, babies lose weight in their early days of life. And so, a mother’s first monumental task is nourishing a baby back to their birth weight.
A feat, for me, that felt seemingly impossible. As my body recovered from the trauma of childbirth, we toted my daughter almost daily between her pediatricians’ office and our lactation consultants’ office.
My nights were sleepless. My nipples were bleeding. And the tears were endless.
By day four, our pediatrician sat us down and gently told us that we needed to start supplementing with expressed milk or formula as my daughter’s weight had now dropped to a concerning number. I am a nurse by trade, so clinically, I understood that my daughter needed nutrition, and we had reached a point of worry.
I felt defeated. I had one job, and I couldn’t hack it.
I started pumping that afternoon. My thoughts battled with one another, as I sat and tried to figure out how exactly to express milk.
I was angry.
Angry that no one showed us how to use my breast pump. Angry that my daughter couldn’t open her mouth wide enough to latch right. Angry that my husband turned the suction up on the pump too strong.
I screamed out in pain. My body was on fire.
My daughter collapsed in my arms after finishing her first bottle, finally resting with a full belly. The pain, guilt, and anger melted away. My thoughts became still as a wave of relief washed over me.
Once we made it back to her birth weight, I continued to try and breastfeed in addition to bottle feeding. Each feed was different. Some feeds, while never thoroughly enjoyable, were more comfortable than others. But most ended in crying, and my yearning for the satiated collapse of my daughter against my chest after drinking from a bottle.
I had spent the latter part of my daughter’s first two months of life dreading nursing. Yet every time I wanted to stop breastfeeding altogether, someone somewhere would convince me to keep going.
Women online pleaded at the end of their blog posts to simply hang on for one more feed. Friends, colleagues, and yes, even strangers, ensured me that it would get better.
“Keep trying,” they would say. “Your baby is new to this, and so are you.”
“It’ll be worth it,” everyone promised.
My social media feed was filled with a distorted reality. Or was it? Perhaps, I was the only one struggling to enjoy this so-called natural phenomenon. I saw women breastfeeding among wildflowers and at the beach, the sun kissing their babies just right as they smiled for the camera. The infamous photo of the mother shaving her legs in the shower as she breastfed her child? Well…that one punched me right in the jugular and left me gasping for air.
I wanted to be them, and I despised them at the same time.
My version, at its very best, was me naked on my couch, barking orders at my husband to hold my daughter’s head this way, stuff my nipple that way, move a pillow here, refill my water faster…That man is the real MVP let’s be honest, but I digress.
The idea of breastfeeding with the wildflowers was replaced by an epic Google search on how to heal cracked nipples, clogged milk ducts, and natural remedies for mastitis. One infection, multiple nipple shields, two nursing strikes, and oodles of lanolin oil later, I found myself exclusively pumping.
I wish I could tell you that this is where our story ends. That breastfeeding didn’t work for us, and pumping was our game changer. But I do not feel as though that would be fair to you.
The truth is, not only was pumping one of the most time-consuming aspects of my postpartum experience, it became one of the most lonely.
I spent hours alone at parties, in the middle of the night, and in the backseat of my car tethered to a pump. I have pumped while driving, in a public bathroom and dressing room, and on the floor of an empty house. Every four hours, regardless of the situation or the time, I pumped, and I pumped, and I pumped.
While pumping freed me from the difficulty of nursing my daughter, it opened a whole new door of anxiety and worry. Were we bonding enough? Was she getting enough skin to skin? Did she love me? My mind wandered back and forth between guilt and despair.
As I was meditating one night, I walked through my emotions about my postpartum journey. Instead of fighting the feelings arising, I acknowledged their presence as they floated in and out of my thoughts.
I hated pumping. My daughter didn’t like breastfeeding. I felt guilty for bottle feeding. I was sad that I couldn’t breastfeed. I felt alone every time I pumped. I felt pain and trauma when she nursed. I loved her.
As each emotion passed, I realized that while our journey was difficult, it was our own. And regardless of how or what or when my daughter was fed, at the root of it all was love.
I heard my daughter begin to cry. As I scooped her out of her bassinet, she nuzzled against my chest and started rooting. Bleary-eyed and tearful, I put a bottle to her lips.
I felt relief and a sense of calm. There was no fight. No distress. It was her and me silently in the night.
I connected my breath to her’s. Inhaling the present, etching it with ease into my mind forever.
My daughter is now five months old. Breastfeeding, to date, is the most challenging thing we have ever done. Perhaps because our experience did not align with my expectations for how the journey should have gone. Or maybe because no one is actually talking about how physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing it really is.
To the mama reading this at two am scouring the black hole of the internet for answers: this article does not end by telling you to hold out just a little bit longer, to not give up. Those words were far more damaging to me than they were helpful.
Instead, I will finish by saying this: honor your experience. There is no wrong or right way to do this. There is only one way – and that is your own.
Take a break. Start. Switch. Begin. Pause. Or End.
And when you find yourself desperate and alone in the dark, inhale deeply and find the strength to let it be.
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