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Boobies and Babies: An Ode to Breastfeeding Week

August 8, 2014

This week is National Breastfeeding Week. It’s been years since my breasts were used for anything other than recreation, but in honor of all the mamas out there using theirs for good, I thought I’d reflect on my experience.

My firstborn was a natural. Sure, it took a bit for both of us to figure things out, but once he latched on he was a pro. When I think of those quiet moments with him in the rocking chair, the two of us connected in the most natural, beautiful way, I swear I feel let-down thirteen years later. That bond was so incredible and though I honestly sometimes felt a bit like a dairy cow, I also reveled in the fact that I was sharing something so pure and nurturing with my child.

I recall nights when we co-slept and I nursed him half asleep. I remember balancing him on a Boppy while reading or eating with my free hand. Most of all, I think of his tiny face turned up toward mine, his miniature hand stroking my hair, our lives so connected it was as if we were the same person. It was like he was mainlining love, straight from my body.

I nursed him day and night for almost three months before heading back to work full-time. Then I bit the bullet and purchased a good breast pump that I faithfully hauled to work with me every day. I met with my boss prior to my return and set up a schedule that would allow me to pump twice a day in the attic of the building where I worked and store the milk in our break room fridge, and use my lunch break to visit my son at his child care center to nurse him in person.

I have vivid memories of posting my little handmade sign on the attic storage room door (“Breast Pump In Use – Knock, Please”) and listening to the rhythmic sound of that pump while I stared at a picture of my son to get things moving along. I treasured my lunch hour more than ever before, racing across town to be with my little guy and rocking in the infant room next to a few other mamas doing the same.

Things went smoothly until around 8 months when he developed thrush and passed it on to me. I tried everything to power through: meds for him, meds for me, changing my diet…nothing helped. After six weeks of misery with no end in sight, I broke down in my doctor’s office. She hugged me and told me she was amazed I’d continued for so long when it was obvious how much pain I was in. The guilt and disappointment was intense as I’d planned to nurse until at least a year (and probably longer), but I realized that I had given him a great start and that it was best for both of us for me to wean him.

Because the thrush was so bad, my doctor actually told me I should stop nursing immediately to avoid a more serious infection, so I quit cold turkey. And…OUCH. At one point I read that chilled cabbage leaves could help ease the pain and pressure, so my husband came home to find me walking around with salad sticking out of my bra. It was like having two live volcanoes on my chest and trying to keep them from erupting. I could hardly stand to take a shower because the water pressure was so painful. After a few miserable days, the pain and swelling subsided and my breasts shrunk like deflated balloons. The agony was gone, and so was my cleavage.

Meanwhile my son happily made the switch to formula and never seemed to notice. While I still wished I could have nursed him longer, I knew I’d done the best I could and that he received the benefits of breast milk for a good portion of his infancy.

Fast-forward six years…I gave birth to our daughter and anticipated sharing that special bond with her as well. This time I would be staying home with her, so it would be much easier without having to pump. I’d done it once so I felt confident in my ability to breastfeed her successfully. After all, it must be like riding a bike, right? Wrong.

Our beautiful baby girl was PISSED. She apparently felt quite comfy in the womb and was not a fan of the real world. She screamed and sobbed virtually every second of the day and night, only pausing briefly if I swaddled her tightly and bounced her vigorously with her head nestled in the crook of my arm. At night I had to keep her swaddled and sleep with one hand resting on her body; the second I removed the pressure she was wide awake and squalling.

Nursing was a nightmare. She couldn’t latch on properly, leaving me sore and her hungry and frustrated. I became a fixture in the lactation specialist’s office, visiting almost daily in my attempt to make breastfeeding work. I tried tubing with a syringe, every position known to woman, changed my diet…eventually resorting to pumping and bottle feeding in an attempt to provide her with breast milk. This went on for months until my supply finally just ran dry. I was heartbroken. I had failed.

Baby girl’s colic (for lack of a better term) lasted for four long months. My post-partum depression lasted longer…the guilt I carried over not being able to soothe or feed my own daughter took its toll. I truly believed she and the rest of my family would be better off without me, and my thoughts regularly veered into frightening territory. Thankfully I shared my feelings with my doctor who got me the support and the medication I needed to claw my way up out of the darkness.

I eventually came to understand that my inability to breastfeed my daughter wasn’t a reflection of my worth as a mother. I could still love and nourish my baby without nursing her. My breastfeeding plan went the way of my birth plan with Baby #2. Baby #1 was delivered naturally, with no drugs or interventions. Baby #1 was breastfed for almost a year exclusively. Baby #2 was delivered via scheduled c-section (due to complications from delivering Baby #1). Baby #2 couldn’t get the breastfeeding thing down. It was my first introduction to the whole Every Child Is Different thing. Duly noted, Life. Thanks for the lesson.

I experienced two very different versions of breastfeeding. I wanted so much to nurse both of my children for as long as possible. Life, however, had other plans. So this week I celebrate the mamas who make it work. The ones who nurse exclusively, the ones who pump, who cover up in public, who bare it all in public, who cluster feed, who feed on a schedule, who nurse until their children are six months, who nurse until their children are toddlers. I also celebrate the mamas who tried their best. The ones who cried when their little ones wouldn’t latch on, who met with lactation specialists, who cringed when the shower water hit them, whose bodies let them down, who felt like failures when they paid for their first can of formula.

I celebrate us all. We are mamas. We are human. We try. We fail. We succeed. We love. And we wake up tomorrow and do it all again. God bless the boobies, and the babies. I raise my nursing bra to you all.

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