I grew up with a fairly utopian view of breastfeeding. My mom nursed me until I was three, long enough for me to creatively name her breasts “Nippy” and “Nipple.” She was a La Leche League member and always talked openly about the physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both baby and mama. My mom describes her “perfect moment” as the day I was born, mid-November 1983. She was the only patient in the tiny small-town hospital in Idaho and spent the day nursing me as the first snowfall of winter drifted down outside, insulating us from the world. Apparently I was an eager eater from day one. That image of us, skin to skin in snow-muffled silence, has taken root – and even though it’s a story that’s been told to me, not an active memory, I trace the narrative of my life back to that moment.
Of course, the beatific picture of breastfeeding has been countered by less romantic experiences gleaned from other women, stories about cracked nipples, chronic pain, engorged breasts – and, perhaps most horrifically, one friend who had mastitis and looked down during a nursing session to see her baby choking on a mouthful of blood.
I went into labor with these two extremes in mind – either I was going to be one of those lucky women who entered seamlessly and painlessly into breastfeeding, or I was going to have to suffer through it, teeth gritted, for the good of The Child. Of course, like most things in life, reality runs between these poles. At this point, one month in, I am beginning to genuinely enjoy breastfeeding – but those teeth-gritting, expletive-muttering moments have not yet completely vanished.
So, here is my candid assessment of breastfeeding thus far: the good, bad, and ugly.
Breastfeeding was a total rollercoaster at first. I’m not someone who has very, um, hardy nipples, so the first couple of weeks were like boot camp for my boobs – my nipples needed to toughen the hell up. Left Boob was a quick study; I had some soreness and a milk blister on that side that healed quickly, and nursing was pretty painless after a week or two. But Right Boob… well, Right Boob is lagging. Right Boob will not be recruited for Special Forces. Right Boob will be cleaning the latrines.
Sometime in the first week, my right nipple cracked, and the lovely fissure that formed there has yet to disappear. It keeps almost healing, taunting me with its progress, only to suddenly gape open and begin hurting again, especially after Julian has one of those squirmy feeds where he goes after my breast like a frantic little lap dog with a squeaky toy. I’ve tried copious amounts of lanolin, expressing a bit of milk on the nipple after each feeding, those “soothie” gel pads – pretty much anything you can google, I’ve given a shot. Most recently, I’ve been doing these saline soaks after breastfeeding, followed by a little Neosporin and some Monistat, to make sure I don’t get a fungal infection (yum!). This seems to be helping, so I’m hopeful. Maybe Right Boob will finally pony up.
Googling about breastfeeding gets annoying, though, as most websites proclaim that breastfeeding should be “absolutely painless” only a few days in, or you’re doing something wrong dum-dum. Well, I’ve met with two lactation consultants who have told me Julian has a good latch. One of them was a little purple lactation pixie (purple hair, purple earrings, purple scrubs, purple glasses, purple shoes) who said that, with the amount Julian was nursing, if we didn’thave a good latch my nipples would look like raw hamburger. Oy vey. So, it’s a little frustrating to have the internet gods constantly tweaking my new-mom insecurities. Maybe they just have a different definition of “painless.”
Aside from that doggedly persistent fissure, the other worst part about breastfeeding is thankfully over: engorgement. A few days after giving birth, my milk came in with a vengeance, transforming my breasts into giant, rock-hard torpedoes. My last day in the hospital, I took a few slow waddle-walks around the ward, and I noticed that it was suddenly difficult to breath deeply. Of course, my mind initially jumped to worst case scenario land and wondered if something was wrong with my circulation or my heart – until I finally figured out that it was just because my breasts were so damn heavy. My lungs were having to do battle with the boulders on my chest in order to inflate.
That hardness made it difficult for Julian’s tiny little mouth to latch on, so I spent a couple of incredibly frustrating days trying to feed my hungry baby from breasts that were too full to function correctly. Those were the worst moments: Julian wailing with his hunger cry, confused by the aching brick I was trying, unsuccessfully, to maneuver into his mouth – and then I’d lose it, too, and just start sobbing, feeling utterly inept and desperate. (It doesn’t help that engorgement coincides with the sudden hormonal abyss that women careen into a few days post-partum.)
But, like I said, that part is over, and Julian latches like a champ now, most of the time – except when he gets all dainty on me, puckering his mouth in a small “O” as if he expects to be served tea and ladyfingers. I much prefer when he claps both fists around my breast and goes to town like he’s chowing down on a giant hoagie.
I’ve always had a bit of a boob complex – at least since puberty, anyway. I was one of those lucky ones that “developed early.” I was certainly the first in my female circle to deal with armpit hair and probably the only girl in the entire sixth grade who needed to wear a bra. And, just so you know, it’s not cool to have breasts when you’re the only one. (Luckily, in seventh grade, boobs starting sprouting around me willy nilly, some even larger than mine, so I could breath a sigh of relief.)
Complicating my early admittance to puberty was the fact that I grew up in a religious context where boobs are basically seen as tantalizing bags of sin that should be concealed at all costs. I must have internalized that mindset to some extent, because I always wished I had the small, discrete breasts of a long-distance runner than, well, the ones that I’ve got. So, as you can imagine, it’s been unsettling to see my breasts double (triple?) in size throughout and after pregnancy. When Julian was first born, his head seemed completely dwarfed by one of my breasts, which just seemed a little excessive on Nature’s part – how could that little guy possibly need that much boob?
Yesterday I went for my first postpartum “run,” which was comical on many levels, most notably my attempt to cram my generous new ta-tas into a pre-pregnancy sports bra.
Of course, although I feel awkward about the sudden tightness of my shirts these days, breastfeeding has awakened a new brazenness within me. I am not shy about feeding Julian in front of people. Modesty? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Sometimes I wonder how many of our neighbors have witnessed my now standard Amazonian attire, as I shuffle around the kitchen in pajama pants, letting injured Right Boob get some air. Answer: No idea and I don’t care.
Even though I’ve spent most of this post kvetching, I have to say: the good of breastfeeding is really good.
I mean, my body is spontaneously producing a miraculous substance that meets all of the nutritional needs of my newborn – how amazing is that? A nasty stomach bug recently made the rounds in my family over the holidays – of the twenty-two relatives who were visiting, only four remained unscathed, including Julian and me. It was a relief to know, as loved ones dropped around us like flies, that my milk was pumping my baby full of all kinds of immunity-boosting goodness. And the fact that my wee snacker needs to eat so frequently meant that I basically spent the holidays in a comfy little nursing bubble, which probably helped keep the sickness at bay.
And the best of the good? My gooiest mama moments happen during breastfeeding. I look down, hypnotized by his face-at-rest, his eyes closed, as he makes little hums with each swallow, those pudgy cheeks earnestly working away — and then he’ll let out this shivery sigh of contentment and I just melt. And stare and stare and stare.