Just before my milk let down, I felt a wave of sadness swell from the pit of my stomach. It was a feeling I described to friends as wistfulness, even homesickness, a scooped-out, hollow feeling. A short, but powerful unmooring.
Because my pregnancy had been hard, I decided I would only breastfeed my baby if it was easy. Uphill struggles—challenges, my mother would optimistically call them—have never much appealed to me. I’m either good at something or I’m not, and when I’m not, I give up readily. Math. Cooking. IKEA furniture. These are a few things I just don’t do.
Gestating a child came with plenty of discomforts—nausea, backache, moodiness to rival winter in the upper Midwest, and, in my third trimester, gestational diabetes—and as the months ticked by, the anticipation of more discomfort depressed me.
The way I deal with dread is to try to anesthetize myself to it. I sought all the stories I could from other mothers, who were largely enthusiastic about detailing their pain in comprehensive terms. Next to tales of 72-hour, drug-free labors, breastfeeding stories were the most popular among my crunchy social circles that preferred homebirths to hospitals, co-sleeping to cribs, baby-wearing to strollers, and cloth diapers to disposables.
“My nipples bled for weeks. It felt like knives at every latch,” one friend told me. Another had low milk supply. She took fenugreek and blessed thistle, and attached herself to a breast pump every hour for three straight months. “I listened to a lot of podcasts,” she said.
Blistered and bleeding nipples. Marathon pumping. Nipples sucked into tiny mouths or flanges that stretched and chewed them beyond recognition. This is what they meant by “breast is best?”
My father had died five months before I became pregnant, and grieving him had been a full tackle sport—onslaught and retreat, adrenaline and exhaustion, fullness and emptiness. Life with a baby would be like that, too, another experience lived in the highest emotional registers. Feeding the baby, it seemed, should be one of the more straightforward things about motherhood. I promised myself to give breastfeeding a try, and if it didn’t come easily—if the baby had a lousy latch, or my nipples turned to wadded-up gum—I’d pour myself a double whiskey and switch to formula. I told myself that doing so would be a feminist act.
Because of the gestational diabetes, my labor was induced. It lasted three days and culminated in a c-section. I ended up having every drug on the docket, and was feeling fine—euphoric, even, because I was no longer pregnant—when the nurses wheeled my newborn daughter and me out of the OR. Maybe it was the Demerol, but when asked if I wanted to try feeding my daughter, I immediately pulled down the front of my hospital gown and watched, amazed, as she hauled her seven-pound body up my chest, opened her mouth, and latched. Perfectly.
The hormones involved in breastfeeding—prolactin, oxytocin, and dopamine—can make a potent cocktail for postpartum mothers. One of the much-touted maternal benefits of breastfeeding is the feel-good hormonal reaction that can temper the difficulty of those first weeks, when pain, anxiety, and depression materialize for many women. I was lucky to avoid full-blown postpartum depression, but as my daughter and I got better at nursing, sometimes spending 12 hours a day attached, I noticed a consistent and interesting phenomenon: Just before my milk let down, I felt a wave of sadness swell from the pit of my stomach. It was a feeling I described to friends as wistfulness, even homesickness, a scooped-out, hollow feeling. A short, but powerful unmooring. Lasting only 30-90 seconds, the feeling would pass, and in its place, a sense of peace and contentedness would rush in—the warm, fuzzy joy I was promised in breastfeeding class.
After some Googling, I found it: Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER. In order for prolactin levels to rise, dopamine levels must temporarily drop. In some women, the suppression is hyperactive, and a surge of unpleasant feelings is the result. For some women, like me, the feelings are mild. For other women, the feelings are more severe—sharp anxiety, powerful anger. Very little is known about D-MER, though some treatment options are available. The feelings themselves are usually brief, but it’s understandable why some mothers with D-MER might choose to stop breastfeeding; in the beginning months of motherhood, nursing is a round-the-clock job. Those feelings can quickly become a major feature of the day, and exacerbate existing depression and anxiety.
During pregnancy, grief had been my constant companion, a way of keeping my father close as I tried to live without him. I wondered what would happen to my grief once my daughter arrived: Would I be a sorrowful mother, unable to give her the love and energy she deserved? Or would her presence eclipse my father’s absence? Both possibilities seemed devastating. I didn’t want to give up the pain of missing my father, for the pain was what I had in place of him. But neither did I want to miss the immediacy of my child’s life and what it would need from me to flourish.
A dear friend told me I probably didn’t have to worry. “Children are very good at separating this from that,” she wrote to me. And once my daughter was here, in the world with me, I saw the truth in my friend’s words. I did not think about my father every time I changed a diaper, or even when my daughter’s first milestones appeared—first smile, first laugh. I was amazed to find that I could, nearly every time, fully participate in those moments.
That might sound an awful lot like healing, but it was the very highest form of distraction, an intense concentration on something else that demands it. Only in those seconds when my daughter latched and relaxed into my body could I slow down long enough to remember what was missing, what would always be missing, what I never want to stop missing. I began to look forward to that swell of sadness. Grief, my old companion. My father. This was another way my daughter had given him back to me.
My friend also once wrote that the difficulty of raising children is, perhaps, the best reason for having them, if you feel the call to be a parent. Because, of course, it is when we are challenged that we are also changed.
This is not a pro-breastfeeding campaign disguised as a personal essay; I still believe in the righteousness of choice for all women, all mothers, no matter what. But the pain of my breastfeeding experience was a sublime kind of pain, and when my daughter began to wean herself at 13 months, I reluctantly let go of my daily meditations with grief. My milk dried up at 14 months. My daughter is now an active toddler who gives her dad and me very few pauses throughout the day. We still nurse at bedtime, but it’s only for comfort—the D-MER left with the milk. What remains is my new life, barreling ever forward. But inside my daughter are pieces of the past. I hope we will find new ways of summoning it.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.