Breastfeeding Battle Scars
Everywhere you turn, people are talking about the recent story in Time magazine entitled “Are You Mom Enough?”
The young mother from the cover photo has been on the daytime talk show circuit discussing the virtues of breastfeeding her toddler while others are gabbing incessantly about boobs at the water cooler.
You hardly need a magazine to ask that question since so many mothers wonder the same thing themselves everyday. I know I do. And when my son was born just over three years ago, I had a particularly difficult time feeling like I measured up, especially when it came to breastfeeding.
The slogan “breast is best” is preached throughout prenatal classes and OB offices, particularly in my crunchy Brooklyn neighborhood.
Breastfeeding is said to protect children from developing allergies, asthma and all sorts of other maladies. I myself suffer from both allergies and asthma and didn't want my child to have either, so I was determined to breastfeed as long as possible.
Yet I cried the day a friend showed me how to use a breast pump. It was all so confusing. It reminded me of a third-grade field trip to a zoo, where we learned how to milk a cow.
I had always pictured breastfeeding would be like a renaissance painting of a cute, soft baby nuzzling his mother. Nothing in my mind involved a vacuum-like machine or an extension cord.
Despite my apprehension, I graciously took her good advice and prepared myself for a flourishing breastfeeding career, but I was soon to learn that it wouldn’t be so easy.
First the milk came in. I was fortunate that so much arrived so quickly; however, the sudden influx of liquid led to horrible engorgement. Already grapefruit-sized, my breasts now became melon-sized and were so hard, my son would have had more luck sucking on a cantaloupe. The lactation consultant gave me a hospital-grade pump, but it hurt too much to use.
After 72 hours and copious amounts of Advil, my boobs adjusted to their new role and shrank down to a more reasonable size, but they were still unwieldy.
Some women can nurse anywhere they please - on park benches, in cafes and discreetly hidden at dinner parties. I, on the other hand, had a complicated system devoted to my new 36Gs. I had a "Boppy," a "Breast Friend" and a crane to hoist those things into place. Just the set-up alone required two people.
Each feeding was a painful 45-minute endeavor, I was nursing around the clock and the episodes were getting longer and more tumultuous. I felt like I was in battle with my newborn. And as the weather warmed, it became a stinky, sweaty showdown.
The lack of sleep, pain and frustration were bad, but the emotional drain was worse. I felt like I was failing as a new mother – unable to give my son the best type of nourishment that money can’t buy.
I joined a lactation support group that met weekly, taking solace in knowing that I wasn’t alone. We’d sit in a circle, ask questions, try various nursing techniques and get advice from a professional lactation consultant.
I was amazed at the variety of nursing problems there were – from mastitis (a painful infection) to low milk supply.
The women in these rooms, like me, proclaimed they never thought it would be this hard. Some of them went to such great lengths to succeed – they attached tubes to their boobs and endured bleeding blisters to try to feed their children naturally. I give them a lot of credit. I wasn’t so devoted.
After six and a half weeks and house calls with three different lactation consultants, I gave up. I planned to wean my son on a gradual schedule, But after an unusually grueling feeding, I threw in the towel and weaned abruptly.
Bad idea. I endured another round of cantaloupe engorgement and dramatic hormone swings. Fortunately, my son didn’t seem bothered by the change, but I was devastated by my failure. Thankfully, I had my support group to pull me through.
I continued going to the group meetings well after I had weaned. I’d sneak my bottle in and feed my baby under a scarf, as if I was nursing. Those close to me knew that I was no longer breastfeeding, but they encouraged me to keep coming. We were comrades with shared battle scars.
I have since let go of most of the guilt over my breastfeeding experience. My son has thrived despite his limited exposure to my antibodies and I have seen other kids who were nursed until their second birthdays sneezing their way through springtime.
I still have mild pangs of remorse when I see a woman who seems to be comfortably nursing her child in a café, but then I realize that being “mom enough” is not just about breastfeeding successfully.
There are a thousand challenges a mother faces every day. The mom in the cafe may have conquered nursing, but she may have faced a thousand other struggles along the way. Nursing is just one step in a very long journey.
It is incredibly difficult to navigate motherhood without all this unnecessary guilt we and others put on ourselves. I believe we would be better served with less judgment and more encouragement.
As long as we do our best to love and nurture our children, we will, undoubtedly, be “mom enough.”
Annette Powers is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post. She has worked as a marketing and communications professional, primarily for nonprofit organizations, for the past 15 years and has moonlighted as an actress from time to time. She has a joint bachelor's degree in English and Theatre from The University of Michigan and a joint master's degree in International Communications and Nonprofit Management from American University. She is a proud mom who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.