Breast is best, but my nipple f****** hurts.


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.
 
The Bad

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.

 
The Ugly

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.

 
The Good

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.




Advertisements

4 comments

  1. Mommy V

    Girl, that sounds ridiculously familiar. I wish I could tell you it all magically went away for me, but I spent the first 7 or 8 months with Micah chronically overproducing (boy, am I familiar with the brick… coulda knocked the poor kid clear out… and he was barely over 5 lbs when we brought him home, his poor tiny head was dwarfed so pitifully). Nursed at least every 2 hours for months and months and months and months. (Guess I shoulda started budgeting grocery savings back then…) And every blasted time, I nearly drowned him. Spraying in every which direction with the back-pressure of a fire hose, complete with gagging and choking. Chronic blockages. Chronic eyeful for any neighborly passerby. And, I wouldn't trade a minute of those hidden moments in the back room while the world ran itself amok all around me. And I will never ever forget the perfect little head bob that accompanied his dream-land suckling. My favorite breastfeeding site (which you may have already happened upon) is kellymom.com. I also discovered that I could not wear anything with underwires or anything tight-fitting. (Traded high-impact stuff for yoga.) Also, somewhere right around month 3, his head started to catch up and so did his ability to manage the flow. Adding lecithin supplements helped tremendously with blockages. And, for some totally unexplainable reason, my milk supply leveled out a little bit more with each kid. The nursing relationship with Kessi has been so shockingly easy, I just can't believe it.Thanks for sharing the real, gritty truth. I think that's the best education mommies can give each other!! 🙂 (P.S. This is Noel… from Stef & Jess's neck of the woods.)

  2. Sarah Horner

    I love this piece and that you are sharing your experiences! Honest sharing helps other moms not feel like something is wrong when their experience isn't smooth or easy. Despite my boys being 15 and 18 now, I remember those early days so well. Freddie was born 2 weeks late and was born sucking his lips. Cute for sure but it made nursing impossible since he was madly sucking before he got near the breast and wouldn't open his mouth to latch on. I had to work with a lactation consultant–her name was Binky, no lie–and we finally resorted to a plastic nipple to place over my own to help pry his mouth open. He finally got the hang of it on his own after a month or so. My engorgement was so extreme that Binky wanted to take pictures for her slideshow (she taught a nursing class for expectant parents) to demonstrate the "worst case scenario" of engorgement. No thanks. I felt like a freak show act. For several months I had to nurse him on my side to help alleviate his constant choking on what your friend above described as "back-pressure of a fire hose." Despite the glitches things eventually got easier. I nursed him for 15 months and then I nursed Harry for 2 1/2 years! I loved that time with them. The way their eyes rolled back in baby ecstasy when the milk let down. That soft, tender time that only you and your baby share.

  3. Carol

    Beautiful and so real! Thanks for your candor. Your post takes me back to the days when I nursed my first (now 24); helped me remember all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think the worst part for me was being hidden away in a back bedroom during Christmas at my in-laws house- oh, the shame! I'm so glad we've come a long way from that!!

  4. Pingback: Why I Hate My Pediatrician | Mama Unabridged