Breastfeeding is one of the most “natural” things that we as mammals do. But chances are if you ask any mom (especially a first-time one) if breastfeeding came naturally to her, you’re likely to hear a resounding NO! It’s an arduous, often painful, and frustrating journey that women embark on even before they can find their bearings after the ordeal of labor and childbirth.
When my baby was born, he was considered underweight and was a little too weak to breastfeed efficiently. He was given formula for multiple days until his blood sugar stabilized. And the goal of moving from formula feeding to exclusively breastfeeding was daunting.
Breastfeeding was awkward, unnatural, uninstinctive, and worst of all, uncertain. Did he nurse for long enough? Did he get enough? Am I making enough milk? Is he gaining enough weight?
These were the questions that constantly tormented me during every single feed—hour after hour, day after day. We were advised to weigh him before and after feeds to ensure he was getting enough. And every time we weighed him, I was hesitant to look at the scale.
And then there was physical pain! It hurt from the get-go. My nurse teasingly called it the “breaking-in” pain. You know, like how you break into a new shoe? Your nipples have to get used to the manipulation that they have to undergo. Ouch! There was pain every single time. Once they were “broken-in,” the pain did get better. But then came the “nip-lash.” A hungry infant doesn’t have patience. He can go from “Mmm, sure I can eat” to “I am starving, need milk RIGHT NOW!” in..well, seconds. A “hangry” baby will shake his head, bite, and thrash around, all while he has a death jaw grip on one of the most sensitive body parts in his mouth. Lovely… isn’t it?!
Very few places in the body will a blister hurt more than it does on a nipple. And even if your nipples are torn, blistered, or bleeding (which did happen), you cannot stop nursing! What? Seriously, give me a break! But, If you took a break, your supply might drop, or you might get mastitis. And trust me, you don’t want either one of them. So, nurse, you must.
I spent many nights scanning the internet for magic creams and lotions for my poor tormented nipples. In the wee hours of the night (when my baby slept for precious two hours), I stayed up with ice packs on my breast to numb the pain. Until he woke up to nurse, and we started all over again.
Breastfeeding is exhausting. It is unreal how many times a teeny tiny baby eats. My lactation consultant said, “Anywhere from 10 to 20 times a day.” And newborns can nurse for 45 minutes to an hour. So there are 10-14 hours a day when someone is chomping on your nipples. And anytime my husband took the baby to get a shut-eye, I would have to get up to pump. You’re on schedule for every 2-3 hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rain or shine, sickness or health. You will also be called to duty whenever the baby is upset, teething, cranky, or sick. For days, weeks, months, and more. Exhaustion is an understatement!
I also didn’t like what breastfeeding did to my body. Being top-heavy was never my favorite part about myself, as I couldn’t fit in any of my clothes long after pregnancy was over. It was annoying and expensive to maintain this new body. I also wasn’t one of those lucky women whose weight just melted off due to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding calorie burn had nothing on my ferocious breastfeeding hunger. Midnight snacks became a way of life, and I gained weight instead of losing any after childbirth.
Yet, in the midst of all this, I did learn to like breastfeeding. To some extent, It was because I was successful at it. We started with exclusive formula feeding and moved to exclusive breastfeeding over the first four weeks of his life. I was proud of that. It wasn’t easy. Many days I thought of giving up. “One more feed,” I’d tell myself. “One more day. One more night.”
But what kept me going was watching my baby thrive. As his weight gain curve trended upwards, so did my excitement and the willingness to keep this up. After being born at the 7th percentile for weight, he progressed to 85th percentile by four months – courtesy of yours truly’s milk supply. His doctors were impressed, and his mama was happy.
I also liked breastfeeding in the moments when I knew it was the only thing that would comfort him. Whether he was sick, teething, just received his shots, or took a big fall, breastfeeding would often fix everything. And even for a gal who hated breastfeeding, this was a pretty sweet feeling.
But what I loathed with a passion was pumping. Pumping just felt weirdly objectifying and undignifying as I sat half-naked with machinery attached to my chest.
Even though I had complete privacy while pumping at work, it made me feel out of place. When there was no baby in my arms who wanted me and fell asleep in my arms, the whole thing felt ridiculous, impersonal, and logistical and often made me quite irritated.
So when my son developed a solid bottle preference around 11.5 months, I was at a crossroads. On the one hand, I wanted to continue breastfeeding, while on the other, I could not imagine my life exclusively pumping. After spending a few nights over the pros and cons of it, I decided to exclusively pump six times a day to meet my baby’s intake.
Although my milk supply complied, pumping made me truly miserable. It was like breastfeeding a robot. (I still hear the weird suction noise that pump makes in my dreams… talk about PTSD). I also thoroughly hated the sensation that pump suction created, and it was nothing like actual breastfeeding. I tried to look at my phone to distract myself from the sensation but would often stop the session way sooner than I should have because I couldn’t stand it.
My husband saw me suffering and asked me why I was doing this to myself. My baby happily took the formula and only wanted bottles. I told him that I was doing it to provide him protection from COVID since I was vaccinated. I told friends that I had done it since he started daycare and was more likely to get sick. I said to myself that it was because he was teething, and this was his comfort.
But deep down, I knew that wasn’t the only reason. In the dark corners of my mind, I knew that I was questioning my worth as a mother. What good was I if I couldn’t do what thousands of mothers around the world did? Won’t I be a failure if he gets sick? And worst of all, I wasn’t ready to face the fact that he was growing up and didn’t need me in that role (his one-stop-shop for everything) anymore. I kept up with pumping for six long weeks until my baby got sick from daycare.
This was the first time he got sick. As I held him in my arms and changed the cold compress on his forehead, it made me realize two things. First, the milk wasn’t magical, and that he would get sick no matter what. Second and more importantly, my worth as a mother is much more than breastfeeding. I am more than my milk. I am more than nutrition or immunity. And even without breastfeeding, my embrace was my baby’s safe space, and my arms were his comfort. And that my love for him will take my forms in this journey of motherhood.
As I clean and sanitize my breast pump parts for one last time, I have mixed feelings; it’s bittersweet. Breastfeeding drove me crazy but also taught me many lessons. If I had to do it again, would I do it? Absolutely. But I probably wouldn’t look forward to it. I am grateful that I could do it, but I am happy it’s done.