Breastfeeding for the first time was more terrifying for me than actually giving birth.
Except for pushing, the doctors and nurses do nearly all of the work for the birthing process. I appreciate this. Reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in which the hero’s wife gives birth all by herself was a scarring experience for my then-12-year-old self.
Breastfeeding, however, is all on you. Perhaps, like me, you’ve read about it exhaustively during pregnancy, as though the medical professionals are going to quiz you before they grant you an epidural. You know that your body is biologically prepared for this. Perhaps, like me, you feel prepared.
Just like anything else about having your first child, most of us really aren’t prepared for breastfeeding until we experience it. The first time is so awkward. You are pretty sure that Mother Nature made a grave error not making babies capable of eating steak, or sashimi. Plus, the pressure is intense, because you have this cute, red and very hungry bundle of joy that will be understandably upset if you can’t get the hang of it on the first try.
I certainly wasn’t a natural. The night nurse took pity on me after watching my initial attempts.
“Here, honey,” she said, batting aside my hands and positioning me differently. That brings me to another tough thing about breastfeeding: It’s a very personal, sometimes uncomfortably so. It utilizes body parts we ladies generally don’t display for the world at large, so talking about it can feel somewhat taboo. Also, there are no euphemisms for it. Why is this? I adore euphemisms, so I tried to think up a few, but they all sounded dirty.
Just like anything else about having your first child, most of us really aren’t prepared [to breastfeed]. The pressure is intense, because you have this cute, red and very hungry bundle of joy that will be understandably upset if you can’t get the hang of it on the first try.
To be candid, I will probably never be the sort of person who is comfortable breastfeeding in public. I certainly respect the mothers who do. If your baby is hungry, your priority is to feed him. I am more comfortable finding a quiet room, a car with tinted windows, or even a decently shadowy corner. Call it aftershock from the hospital, where I felt as though at least two doctors and five nurses ended up knowing me more personally than anyone else, including my husband. (Birthing suites are weirdly intimate anyway. Someone is always repositioning your limbs and poking you with things, but you’re so catatonic from adrenaline and drugs that you think it’s normal.)
Priority: A Fed Baby
When I was discharged the day after giving birth, I couldn’t care less about public versus private feeding. I just wanted to be able to feed Jack, period. It wasn’t looking good. I tried all the different holds – including the ones that sound more like positions for making a child than feeding one – and ended up with a sore back rather than a full baby.
It was my own mother who saved me. On her first visit to meet her grandson, she found me weeping in my bedroom, helplessly frustrated in my ongoing attempt to find a position that would be effective for Jack.
“Just try one way until you get the hang of it,” she advised, showing me how to cradle my son’s head in the crook of my arm. To my relief, practice slowly made it seem natural. Plus, it left my other hand free to hold a book. That was the real victory.
Keeping myself stress-free was an important part of the learning process. If I let myself worry about whether the day’s feedings would be difficult or painful, my body reacted by tensing, which stalled letdown. Jack seemed to sense it too, and reacted by fretting. It’s embarrassing, but watching trashy reality TV was my remedy. Brideshead Revisited may have been sitting on the end table, but that required thinking. Thinking is hard. Especially when you are trying not to think about being stressed.
I ended up with a staggering and mostly useless amount of knowledge about South Carolina’s rich and shady socialites. I also tried watching the Bachelorette for the first time, but had to give it up because it made me too excited.
“You’re not really in love with him!” I would shriek at the TV. “Strip volleyball is a terrible way to pick a life partner!”
Jack would unlatch and give me the stink eye, and I would have to start over.
After the first week, breastfeeding was at least accomplishable, if not pain-free or stress-free. Despite one particularly nasty detour into mastitis, Jack and I kept learning together. It was difficult not to be hard on myself for a bad day, though.
Your worth isn’t measured in ounces. A well-fed baby is the best kind of baby. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much how he’s fed so long as he is fed.Maggie S.
I discovered that other mothers I knew were also inclined to blame themselves for breastfeeding difficulties. Fellow new mother Maggie S. experienced severe pain when she first began to nurse her newborn son. Baby Eoghan had a strong sucking impulse but struggled to get the hang of latching, which was initially excruciating for his mother.
“The main thing that was stressful was the amount of pain,” Maggie said.
On the advice of a lactation consultant, she experimented with latching techniques and chose to pump from the sorest side and nurse from the other whenever possible. Gradually, she was able to ease into nursing from both sides once she and her son got the hang of latching.
“I really wanted to breastfeed, and the fact that I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed from the get go was really frustrating,” Maggie said.
Fortunately, her story has a happy conclusion – and not just because she was able to nurse exclusively. Her experience was also helpful in creating a healthy perception of herself as a mother.
“Your worth isn’t measured in ounces,” Maggie said when she shared her experience with me. “You might feel like, ‘Oh, man, I’m not producing enough,’ or it really hurts, but you’re going to be fine. If you have to substitute with formula because it’s really stressful, that’s okay to do. A well-fed baby is the best kind of baby. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much how he’s fed so long as he is fed.”
Leah R. came to the same conclusion in her breastfeeding experience. She also struggled to feed her newborn daughter due to latching issue. As the days progressed, the problem worsened, and her little girl began to lose weight. Lactation consultants were unable to definitively pinpoint the issue.
Support and encouragement may not completely fix a difficult nursing experience, but it can remove self-imposed stigmas and remind us that love, not lactation, is our only true measuring rod.
“It was really challenging,” Leah said, who had extensively researched the benefits of nursing prior to her daughter’s birth. “The hardest thing about it was not having something to point at and say, ‘This is the problem.’”
After experimenting, Leah decided to exclusively pump to feed her daughter. The decision was made easier because she was preparing to go back to work – where she would have had to pump frequently anyway – but she had to talk herself out of discouragement.
“I felt like I was a failure, like I wasn’t doing things right or trying hard enough,” Leah said.
Her husband was crucial during this time, encouraging her to do what worked best for her, regardless of her initial vision. Her father, a pediatrician, also helped by reminding her that having a well-fed baby was more important than which feeding method was used.
“Once I made the choice, I felt a lot less personally impacted by it,” Leah said. “I do have a very healthy, happy child, and I thought it was really an accomplishment for me to be able to pump for her as long as I did.”
She was also surprised and pleased by an unlooked for benefit of pumping: Her husband was able to feed their daughter more frequently, allowing Leah to get more rest and her husband to bond with their child.
Maggie and Leah’s stories certainly aren’t unique, although I have found that many women feel alone in their struggles to breastfeed. They often think that initial or ongoing nursing problems make them bad moms. To my mind, this is something that having a personal “mom community” can positively impact. Support and encouragement may not completely fix a difficult nursing experience, but it can remove self-imposed stigmas and remind us that love, not lactation, is our only true measuring rod.
Perhaps your mom communities can also find a PG-sounding breastfeeding euphemism. If yours does, let me know.
The Amateur Motherhood Hour is a regular column by Katie Roiger in which she shares her perspective on the joys and struggles of first-time parenting.