Tuesday, June 17, 2014

When Breastfeeding is Hard

"There she goes writing about breastfeeding again, silly lactavist."

I get it. There have been lots of posts lately about breastfeeding in public. It's a cyclical subject, coming up at least once a year when some brave mom actually decides not to care what people think and feed her baby, then finds herself ostracized. Apparently we in North America are not all ok with bare breasts being used for a purpose other than being sexy.

My post isn't about that. I'm not going to defend public breast feeding or uncovered breastfeeding - I say, do it, or not, covered, or not. I nurse my babies in the way that is most comfortable for me, and it took me 3 babies to learn to do so. I wrote a post about it already, so let's move on.

Some women don't breastfeed. This, to me, is of greater concern.  There are a lot of good reasons for not breastfeeding, be it medical, financial, or being an adoptive or foster mom.  

But some don't breastfeed because it's hard.  It's recommended and even pushed by health professionals, and a lot of moms.  The lore of the day is that it is the most natural and best thing for babies and moms. It's actually scientific too. 

It concerns me so much because I struggled in the beginning of my breast feeding career and didn't know where to turn.

Nobody told me that if I had a c-section, my milk production might be delayed. Nobody told me that if I was pumped full of drugs (which I needed for the c-section) my baby might be lethargic and less-than enthusiastic about nursing from the get-go, and nobody told me that breastfeeding would hurt. 

All three of these things occurred. And all I heard about breastfeeding was that it was "best for baby", "easy", "should not hurt", and that formula was the devil's food (okay, slight exaggeration with the latter). 

So picture me, four days post-partum after a cesarean, my nipples were raw from constant feeding, and my milk still hadn't come in.  In tears of exhaustion and defeat, I fed my son the formula that had been sent home from the hospital with us, and sent my husband out for more.  I struggled into my bed, took some Tylenol because my incision was still hurting, and cried myself to sleep, feeling like I'd failed at motherhood because I'd failed to breastfeed. I was a pitiful sight. 

Church was the first place I went after the baby's birth and I fed my baby under a blanket - not because of modesty though, but because I was so ashamed that I was feeding him formula.   

I was the first of my friends to have a baby, so I did not have any young mom friends to confide in about my struggles. My own mom admitted she didn't remember it being difficult, and my mother-in-law bragged about how it was so easy that she could stand and make lunch while her babies ate.  The lactation consultant I'd had at my checkup showed me how to latch the baby properly, which I had already learned to do from YouTube, and assured me that it shouldn't hurt.  It still hurt. It turned out I had a yeast infection in my breasts which went un-diagnosed because my baby didn't have thrush.

It would go on hurting for 4 more months, the pain lessening as I breastfed more and supplemented with formula less, and of course, treated the yeast infection. In that time, I read all about breastfeeding in books and online, determined to "get it." As I read more and more, I fell in love with the concept of breastfeeding. Our bodies are truly amazingly made. Comedian Jim Gaffigan talks about how amazed he is that his wife can fully nourish her children "with her body!".  I was equally awed at this prospect. So I passionately fought the battle of misinformation, pain, and the awkward clumsiness that comes with doing something physically new.

By 5 months, I won. I was exclusively breastfeeding my son.  No more expensive formula, no more sterilizing bottles and finally, peace in my heart about my body's ability to sustain my baby.  

While that battle was raging, I was fighting another one on another front. How to nurse in public when I had to actually see my breast and use both hands to latch the baby (to avoid pain and inefficient feeding) was beyond me. Sometimes I'd be with my husband, who would kindly hold up a blanket, or I'd be around only women, and I'd explain my issue to them, and go uncovered. 

It was in front of other men that I felt compelled to cover, because after all the talks on modesty I'd taken in as a young Catholic, I just knew that baring my breasts would counter everything I'd come to "know." I thought that if wearing a low-cut shirt would lead men to sin, then my whole breast would surely send them to hell.  

But my baby hated when I tried to cover him, though I tried and tried. Even a scarf would be angrily wrenched away when it touched his cheek.  Usually I would end up just leaving if there were men present, and I'd sulk in some other room, isolated from the laughter, conversation and fun of being with friends.

But I figured this was my cross to bear as the idiot who couldn't figure out breastfeeding/modesty while doing so.

It was only when my other friends became mothers, and I began to meet and talk with more moms that I realized the lies that I told myself:

1. Breastfeeding should feel natural. 
It might very well feel natural eventually, but not necessarily when you've never done it and have rarely seen it.

2. It should not hurt.
For some people, it hurts a little - or a lot - at first.  Think about it,  prolonged sucking on a body part - it's bound to cause some irritation. 

3. It's easy.
Not always. When you're anticipating pain, wrestling a flailing, hungry baby into submission, because you've missed or don't yet understand his early hunger cues, and trying to be quick about it, it's far from easy.  

4. Formula is the devil's food.
Obviously not. Many babies grow up on formula. Some mothers need to feed formula.  That being said, it's scientific that breast milk is best suited for babies, and in my personal experience, makes for a happier child. Plus it's free. 

5. A Catholic woman must cover to maintain her dignity.

This is up for debate in the blogosphere and in my circle of personal friends. I'm just going to put this thought out there:

I'm personally ok with any woman who decides to simply feed her baby, bare breast or not, because after my struggle, the important thing for me is that she is breastfeeding. She's doing the best (scientifically supported) thing to feed her baby.

I know some moms won't relate to this. Breastfeeding has been easier for the majority of my friends than it has been for me.  But there will be women who have similar struggles to mine, which is why I write this. There will be moms who want to give up when it gets too hard to breastfeed, even though they know about the benefits and beauty of breastfeeding in theory.  These moms are the ones who really don't need to be critized or ridiculed or made to feel like they're stupid and inadequate. They just need love and support.

Breastfeeding is hard enough without the public shaming, so I need to ask, can't we just put all of our opinions about public/private aside, look at the bigger picture and just do what is best for our kids? 


  1. I am so happy that you were able to fight through those months and nurse your baby! My own daughter had the C section issue and then an illness that took her almost to the brink of death, so for obvious reasons, she didn't get to nurse. She even was thinking of trying to get her milk going again, but it turned out she needed to just regain her health. Still with all of that, she felt really bad about it.
    I nursed all my seven, with only a few bumps in an otherwise smooth road, but when I began with my first in 1982, there was a lot less friendliness to public nursing, I became a very stealthy nurser, and my babies, probably rather smothered feeders. I am happy there has been at least some progress in the world for nursing mommies and their babies.

  2. I agree with all of this Jessica! I feel just awful you suffered for so long. I've had babies who breastfeed easily and suffered through months of terrible nursing. It depends a lot on the baby is what I've discovered and that's something that no one tells you either! I also feel like modesty and breastfeeding shouldn't even be in the same discussion because breastfeeding is inherently not immodest. They're mutually different and opposed from each other! Great post Jess!


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