This originally appeared on Eat The Damn Cake. Republished here with permission.
After I pushed an entire baby out of my poor, shocked vagina, I lay around feeling starving and relieved and stunned and abruptly motherly with Eden on my chest. She was attempting to wrench my nipple off with her tiny, adorable mouth.
I had this silly idea that breastfeeding was going to be really easy. It was the birth part that freaked me out. But the feeding part—here’s a boob, here’s a baby, so we’re basically already done.
“Good!” said the various helpful people who were there to make sure things went correctly. “She’s latching on!”
Eden never had a problem getting milk, so everyone said, “You should be thankful. Some babies have a problem getting enough milk.”
I tried diligently to be thankful for that. I was sitting there crying because it hurt so much, those first few weeks, and my nipples were bleeding, and my mother, the La Leche League leader, had switched from rapid-fire instructions and constant hands-on intervention to the mantra “It will get better. You’re doing fine.” Which was really the only thing that helped after a while.
“I WILL give this baby a bottle,” I threatened to Bear. “I swear! I will do it! One more week and I am giving this kid formula!”
I made sure my mom was out of earshot.
Why, I wondered, were my baby and I bad at the most basic thing in the world? The basis of survival. Was she not meant to survive? Was I not meant to be a mother? Yes, of course, I got too existential too soon.
“What would happen to you in the wild, baby?” I asked her accusingly. The wild, by the way, is a place where there are still wolves and also Neanderthal women expertly breastfeeding, I think. It is really far away from suburban New Jersey, where I grew up, and possibly even farther from Brooklyn, where I live now.
I never had a shirt on in those days. (The early breastfeeding days, not my childhood. Although maybe also my childhood.) It was hard enough to coordinate my nipples without one. I always had to be in the same position for every feeding. The idea that women could go out into the world and sit in random places, like on park benches and in restaurants, and just casually breastfeed was ridiculous to me. The idea that women could sit around casually breastfeeding while talking and maybe even eating was insane. Those women were like Olympic athletes. They were like tenured professors. They were amazingly skilled.
Before I had Eden, I used to get really annoyed by the whole breastfeeding campaign thing. You know, the enthusiastic pamphlets that exclaim, “Breast is best!” And the chapter of whichever book about dealing with a baby that mentions bottles and quickly reiterates, “Of course, it is highly recommended that you breastfeed. By doctors and scientists and your neighbor and God. They all agree. The WHO recommends it for up to two years, for the best results! For the breast is best results!”
I heard my LLL mother on the phone all the time when I was a kid, highly recommending it. Coaching women about their nipples and their let down and their baby’s flange.
Alright, already, I grumbled to myself. We get it. Breastfeeding. It’s great. OK. It fights disease, it instills superpowers, it cures cancer, it makes you a better person because of all the better person hormones you release while you’re doing it. Whatever.
But I understand now, why breastfeeding requires a campaign like that. Because at first, when your little vampire baby is trying to suck your boobs to death and you are actually bleeding, and you are also still bleeding from your poor, shocked uterus, and you need three people to help you sit up in bed, and you can’t remember the last time you wore a shirt or what it felt like to have ankles, you need to believe in SOMETHING in order to keep trying.
Breastfeeding got easier about three weeks in, though it wasn’t really reasonably good until maybe the second month. And these days, I’m a champ. I victoriously nurse my baby at restaurants, in the park, and sometimes standing up.
My milk erupts like a triumphant fountain, baptizing Eden’s upturned face, the floor, my breakfast.
Actually, that part doesn’t feel so victorious. I live in fear of spraying some guy sitting next to me on a park bench or something.
But I am not afraid of people seeing my breasts. That is one thing I’m not afraid of.
And I know that maybe I’m supposed to be.
I know because other women are always apologizing. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I feed him? Is everyone here OK with me breastfeeding my baby right now?”
I’ve said things like that sometimes. At first, I said, “So you guys are gonna see my boobs now, I hope that’s OK.” And I laughed. And I paused.
But really, I don’t care what you think.
I mean, that’s not totally true. Once a woman looked at me with disgusted eyes and a tight mouth, and I felt suddenly terrible, my face hot with hurt. I saw these guys on the steps of Borough Hall watching me nurse her once, and they were kind of nudging each other and gesturing at my exposed breast. I looked down the whole time I nursed Eden on the subway the other day, not wanting to see anyone’s reaction. I don’t want to know, I am just trying to feed my baby so she’s full and doesn’t throw her head furiously back and roar with all her baby might.
Sometimes people get embarrassed for me. I get a little embarrassed too, then. But I’m not embarrassed in a real, lasting way. Not ever embarrassed enough to deal with one of those nursing tent things—that’s too complicated.
Breastfeeding is not political for me. It’s not a statement. It’s not a battle that I’m fighting in the mythic mommy wars. I don’t even have to tell myself it will cure cancer and make my baby brilliant. I just do it because Eden needs to eat and I need to feed her. It’s a basic thing. Like in the wild.
Actually, I sometimes for a moment can’t remember why people get so awkward about my breasts being out when I’m nursing my baby. It’s not really a big deal. The big deal is that I can do it now, without crippling pain and my one trustworthy position (“wear the baby like a bra!”) and my shirt off. It’s a big deal that I have most of my shirt on right now, people. My version of being considerate to you is to keep most of my shirt on. I want you to see as little of my breasts as possible, I swear.
But maybe because it was so hard at first, and the hard part lasted so much longer than my labor that I eventually began to think that breastfeeding was actually harder than giving birth, I feel as though I’ve earned the right to pop a boob out randomly and spray a little milk. I feel as though I’ve earned the right to do it anywhere. Many times anywhere, since Eden, my very fat, mostly angry baby, requires a lot of milk.
Bodies serve so many purposes, it’s nice to see my breasts in action in a way that doesn’t involve anything about the way they look. I don’t know if I can really go this far, but maybe I just will: I think it’s probably good for the soul.
The soul, I suspect, likes to see a lot of boobs.
Or, you know, just the top, and a bit of nipple.
Kate Fridkis blogs at Eat the Damn Cake. Her new book about her pregnancy is now available. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Tablet, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn, where it’s not totally weird to be as obsessed with sandwiches as she is. You can follow her on Twitter here.