The Truth About Breastfeeding

March 22nd, 2014

My sweet Bird celebrated her first birthday this week.

Willow with Frosting

She is twenty-nine inches long, twenty pounds…

…and still nursing.

Not a lot – just at night – but she still nurses at least twice every day. This fact is my single greatest accomplishment of motherhood. It is what I am most proud of and what brings me the greatest joy.

It is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Don’t get me wrong.  Giving birth is not a walk in the park.  But breastfeeding for twelve months has required sustained effort – both physical and mental – that eclipses the hours I’ve spent in labor.  (The fact that I was medicated for all three births is probably a factor, there!)

This post attempts to encapsulate some of my feelings about breastfeeding.  It’s long.  It’s a bit whiny.  You may not want to read it if you’re pregnant with your first because you should surround yourself with positive vibes.

But for me, I ultimately find it affirming because I MADE IT.  I wanted nothing more than to breastfeed my babies for at least a year.  It took me three tries to get there (Miss Mouse nursed for five weeks, Buggie for eight months) and I feel a truly visceral sense of triumph as I look back.

Because breastfeeding is hard work.

Breastfeeding is a nuclear topic these days. Uber crunchy moms (including me) rail against the machinations of formula companies, lamenting the “free gifts” they dole out in the hospital and their mixed messages.  But parents who bottle-fed their children (including me) are increasingly tired of being made to feel like lazy, inept, and borderline neglectful parents.

I suspect that part of of the reason that the issue of breastfeeding sparks such intense emotions is that it is just So Darned Hard.

The authors of all the books about breastfeeding who pepper their tomes with pictures of serene new mothers blissfully nursing their newborns while floating on puffy clouds (or something) and offhandedly mention that there “may be some tenderness, at first” are secretly Minions of Satan because they set up unreasonable expectations about the experience.

Within two days of Little Bird’s birth, my nipples were bleeding and I cried every time I fed her.

Yeah, that’s Too Much Info for some of you reading but deal with it.  I’m the one who had to experience it!

It’s hard to breastfeed.  I don’t care if women have been doing it successfully for thousands of years – without the help of breast shields, gel packs, and a dizzying array of textbooks on the subject.  That knowledge doesn’t actually make it any easier, physically.  (Though it does add to the emotional struggle!)

Eventually it got easier.  For a while. Then Birdie got teeth.  And thrush.  And an interest in the world around her.

Then it was hard again.

Plus there’s the emotional toll.  Breastfeeding is stressful because you can’t tell how much food your baby is eating.  As a new mom, you spend many hours of your life worrying that the reason your beloved wee creature is crying is because they’re hungry – even though you’ve been nursing through the pain – and you’re probably not making enough milk (or maybe you have low flow, or maybe they’re tongue-tied, or maybe something you ate doesn’t agree with them, or maybe they’re jaundiced and sleepy, or…) and you’re probably damaging them forever and maybe you should just give up and give them a bottle because at least then you’d know that they were eating enough.

This goes on for months.  I EARNED the grey hairs on my head, people.  Earned them.

So like I said, breastfeeding is hard.

It is also amazing.

I have never experienced anything in my entire life that filled me with such a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment than nursing my child.  Childbirth brings with it radiant soul-shattering joy.  But breastfeeding brings something that is deep and connected and intensely life-giving. The knowledge that you are sustaining a human – a human that is growing and stretching and changing every second of the day – solely with your own body brings with it a ferocious amount of pride.

Breastfeeding is hard.  And it is so very worth it.

6 responses to “The Truth About Breastfeeding”

  1. G'MOM says:

    But you made it look easy – you really did. You weren’t self conscious and didn’t hide under a tent when you nursed Little Bird. But you were so discreet that sometimes I didn’t even notice you were nursing.

    I wish I had had the stamina and knowledge and courage to keep nursing my one and only baby longer than six weeks. (She turned out OK though.)

  2. Emily says:

    Kate, a beautiful and real post. I am so proud of you as a fellow mom and I can empathize with every single word you wrote. I am force weaning Madeline at 2 years. She has only done 2-3 times a day (morning, nap and night) for the last at least 8 months or so, but it was her comfort and nourishment for so, so long. I made it trough formula supplements and feeling like a failure because my body couldn’t do what it was designed to do, low milk supply, building my supply after hours attached to a pump, etc. it’S hard. It’s painful. And it’s so, so worth it. Congratulations, mom.

  3. K.C. says:

    I made it 6 months (only part-time at the end) and felt that was a HUGE accomplishment at the time, mostly because I was working full-time for 4 months of it. It was so difficult, because of time, but so very rewarding. I’m so thrilled I had that opportunity to bond with my baby, because it is truly a one-of-a-kind opportunity and pricelessly rewarding. I was awed by your 8 months with #2 and am thrilled you made it for a year (or more!) with Birdie! Your joy and sense of accomplishment are completely understandable — go, mama!!!

  4. Jenny says:

    Congratulations, Kate; it sounds as if you were prepared to go through A LOT to fulfill your expectations for yourself and your babies. I don’t think it is as difficult for everyone as it was for you. I remember breast pumps were the hardest when I fed my babies — sometime in the last century! But they have improved now, I think. And other than that I had no mental or physical difficulties at all — so I am wondering how widespread your tribulations are. Clearly there must be a significant number to rule the market for books on how to overcome them. Or, (here comes the conspiracy theory;-)) maybe Nestle publishes them!!

  5. Jenny says:

    Not “rule” but rather “fuel” (See post above)!!! Where was my editor when I needed her?

  6. Jenny says:

    Oh, and by the way, Little Bird is amazingly beautifully and cuddly and cute — and very like her Mom.

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