When it came to breastfeeding my son, it seemed it would be him or me. I chose him.
The thing people never tell you about when it comes to breastfeeding is the pain. I suppose if you search through enough breastfeeding blogs and recommended products, you would start to get the hint. There are endless amounts of ointments, pads, and salves out there, all promising to soothe and heal blistered, cracked, and sore nipples. But most of my breastfeeding reading before my son had been cursory, examining the studies and articles debating the benefits of nursing. I had given the mechanics of it very little thought.
So the first time my now 5-month-old son latched onto me, I was shocked by the jolting sting of it. Like a needle pushing slowly, relentlessly into my breast, it was a piercing, sharp pain against which I quickly learned to brace myself.
Lucky for me, I had a hospital lactation consultant who told me it was OK to stop. She recommended bottle feeding formula and pumping milk so that I could avoid the pain while giving me time to figure out what was wrong. I conceded, still determined to unlock a skill that everyone had assured me would come naturally.
It would be a challenging journey. Due to complications, I was hospitalized again within a day of being discharged after delivering my son. Initially admitted to a non-maternity wing, I insisted the staff bring me equipment to pump. I woke myself every three to four hours to pump and store the milk for my baby back at home, still ending up with my right breast hardened with unreleased milk and threatening a potential infection. Of course, mastitis was a new term to me, as was thrush, and clogged ducts. I hadn’t known about all the potential risks associated with nursing, but I was learning fast. (Go ahead, google image search “poor latch nipple damage,” I dare you.)
After I returned home, I continued to try feeding my son, even as I mostly pumped. I grew to cringe at the sounds of a hungry cry, bearing down to prepare for the pain. “Just do it for a week straight and it won’t hurt anymore,” a friend assured me. After a few rants online, Facebook friends began to send me messages admitting how difficult breastfeeding had been for them. The pain, it seemed, wasn’t just mine.
The mommy blogs also filled me in, as did other friends in real life who were also new moms. One had a duct so clogged, the doctor had to use a needle to pierce through the old dried milk into her nipple. She was also having feeding issues and her lactation consultant led me to a doctor who promised to fix my son’s poor latch. The diagnosis was that he was tongue-tied. After a procedure in which she sliced under his tongue and the front of his lip, she gave me my screaming infant, blood gurgling from his mouth. “Nurse him,” she told me. With tears in my eyes, I complied, his blood dripping down my chest.
The latch felt immediately improved. But the numerous daily mouth stretches required to maintain the incisions that allowed him to feed better made my tiny baby scream and shudder in pain. I decided to stop pressing his wounds, even if it meant his poor latch would return. When it came to breastfeeding my son, it seemed it would be him or me. I chose him.
After his initial latch adjustment, I began exclusively breastfeeding my son. He, in turn, started to refuse bottles, making his preference for nursing clear. Over time, as his mouth healed, some of my discomfort returned, too. I’m not sure if the soreness became less or if the damaged nerves that had previously radiated pain up my chest and through my arm had simply stopped firing, but the pain, while consistent, became tolerable.
I continued working with the lactation consultant on my son’s latch, attended breastfeeding meetings, and posted questions in local mom’s groups. I learned to appreciate some of what breastfeeding offered. I grew to love consoling my son easily with nursing, giving my tiny person something he wants and needs. I was proud of myself for getting the hang of breastfeeding, for gathering resources, and for figuring out how to nurse while cleaning, cooking, and even walking the dog. It was satisfying to see my kid top all the growth charts, to see him giggle and cuddle close when he realized he was about to be nursed. There have been, for sure, moments of delight and gratification. But, despite these positive parts, I still resented so much about breastfeeding. In fact, resentment has probably been my most persistent feeling regarding breastfeeding.
I resented the pressure placed on women to do this. I resented the pangs of guilt any time I tried to spend time away from my baby, who now refused pacifiers as well as bottles. I resented the feeling that my body still wasn’t my own. I was mad about the relative who expressed shock and disdain early on when I told her I was feeding my son formula (only to find out later that she exclusively formula-fed all four of her children).
I had an overwhelming sense of anger at breastfeeding advocates who spend their time posting glorious breastfeeding photos of themselves on social media rather than warning every woman what a grueling, challenging experience this can be. I was irritated at the way family members seemed to begrudge the baby’s total dependence on me.
I went into this suspecting that the cultural push to breastfeed was part of an elaborate patriarchal plot to keep women at home attached to their children in the most conventional way, and after nearly six months of doing it, I believe it even more (especially in light of the chauvinistic roots of famed breastfeeding advocate, attachment parenting guru, anti-vaxxer and evangelical zealot Dr. Sears, who has never lactated a day in his life).
And, of course, there is the persistent feeling that you’ve been scammed. You learn that while pumping is an option, storage becomes a challenge because freezing breast milk eliminates the immune system benefits, which were the entire reason I wanted to breastfeed in the first place. You learn that feeding “evil” “corporate” formula to your baby early on does not, in fact, deter him from consuming breast milk or make him prefer bottle-feeding over nursing. You find out that breastfeeding can make you nauseous, suppress your libido, and upend your menstrual cycle. You discover that there is an ever-present concern that breastfed babies might not be getting enough food because you need to weigh your baby just to know how much food he has taken in (and you learn babies have died because of this). You remind yourself that you and your partner, both Ivy league PhDs with high test scores and college scholarships, were each formula-fed. You come to accept the truth that most studies declaring the advantages of breastfeeding over formula actually reflect the socio-economic background of parents more than anything else.
I could come up with some more positives. The accessibility and ease of nursing while traveling with an infant is great, especially on a plane (though dealing with breasts full of milk without a baby can be its own pain). I suppose it’s cheaper to breastfeed, except I spend a bunch of time and money trying to find things that make this whole thing more comfortable. Gel inserts? Check. Expensive nursing bras and tops? Check. Breast pads for leaks? Check. Special breastfeeding pillows for support? Breast pump so I’m allowed to leave this kid for more than 20 minutes at a time (which will likely no longer be covered by insurers if Trump has his way)? Fancy soothing nipple cream? Check, check, check. And while nursing might be saving me time and energy in terms of preparing bottles, I know the more frequent feedings are costing me sleep.
I tend to think of my journey with breastfeeding as mirroring the stages of grief. I’ve moved past the anger, bargaining, and depression. I accept that this is temporary, that it comforts my son, that it is, in many ways, a privilege that I have the time and ability to have turned into this breastfeeding, co-sleeping, attachment parent I barely recognize. I accept that the (in)conveniences and costs of formula versus nursing seem to balance each other out, and that it’s not so clear that I’ve benefitted my son or myself by taking this path (the random woman commending me for publicly breastfeeding my son at the mall aside). It’s likely that my baby would be happy, fed, and well taken care of either way. And, me too (maybe more).
As I write this, my son is latched and sleeping comfortably next to me. I wince a bit as he finishes eating and pulls away, and I watch him breathe contentedly. He gives me joy and I am grateful for this time with him, even if I’ll never be sure I made the right call for my family when it came to providing him nourishment.
Breastfeeding is so much more than one choice — it’s about family support, work flexibility, income, time, one’s health needs, physical ability, access to medical care and resources, and deciding what works best in light of all the structural constraints that intervene. I think more truth-telling from the front lines means better informed and happier moms (and maybe better policies, too). While breastfeeding has been a terrible experience for me, it has been beautiful and wonderful, too — and it’s mine all the same.
Khadijah White is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently writing a book on the rise of the Tea Party brand in news.