This post is a Public Service Announcement. Breastfeeding NEEDS to be demystified. So I am going to share some of my experience with it, to hopefully spread some much-needed awareness. When I had Olive, I was shocked by how little I actually knew about breastfeeding, and was frustrated with the messages I had received about it previously. It seems like the information out there about breastfeeding is of two camps. The breastfeeding supporters focus solely on the positive aspects: breast is best, it is awesome, everyone should do it. All the difficult parts are sort of glossed over “some women experience pain, sometimes it is hard, but YOU SHOULD DO IT ONLY BREAST IS BEST SO DO IT DO IT DO IT YOU’LL DO IT, RIGHT?!” Gosh, yes. I always planned on breastfeeding, but I was suspicious of this bizarrely militant attitude about it. They were hiding something, I just knew it.
The other side is just as strange — “oh, breastfeeding is too hard, so I formula fed my baby, which I feel insanely guilty about so I won’t really go into why I came to that decision.” I wish there were a way we could enter into honest, straightforward conversation about it, accepting what is difficult about it and not pasting a happy face on something women are rightfully inherently ambivalent about. So I suppose this is my attempt to start such a conversation. Yes, it’s difficult, and below I explore some of my experiences with that. But I have never been one to shy away from a challenge. The breastfeeding supporters would not have turned me off by giving me this information. I just would have been more educated!
Even if you are a man, if you never plan on having kids, if you already had your kids, if you formula feed, if you will never ever have a baby to your breast — you need to become more knowledgeable about breastfeeding. It will really help the women who choose to do so to have people around her that understand it. And if you do have a baby, I don’t care if you choose to breastfeed or not — I have no judgment either way. I do want you to feel better about whatever you choose, and possibly more supported. I want a culture that supports women’s choices and can discuss them in ways that make us feel less isolated, more accepted.
My decision to breastfeed was similar to my choice to have a natural birth — I had concrete proof that those choices were ideal, but it was deeper than that. It was a chance to do something closer to the “design” of how my body would work if I lived closer to the natural way of things. In my modern urban life, there are few chances for this. It is not really more “natural” for me to walk than take the bus, for me to brew my own coffee than get a latte at the cafe, to wash my clothes in the sink rather than take them to the laundromat. Sure, you could make a case for the “eco-ness” of these choices but that does not mean they are more natural, more in tune with how our bodies are actually made to work. They are modern choices, often removed from judgment. But here I was with boobs full of milk for a baby. Even though figuring out how to get that milk to said baby was a very difficult task, I figured that since that was how God designed it to work under ideal conditions, I could learn something from it, EVEN if it didn’t work. The trying and “failing” would be a lesson in and of itself. Sure there would be pain, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time here on earth, it is that there is no way out of pain but through. There’s no need to bulldoze your way through, but you’ll go through eventually, at whatever pace is meant to be.
So anyway, breastfeeding hurts, and is very complicated. Anyone who says otherwise has either completely forgotten, or is lying. Olive couldn’t latch to me at all without a nipple shield for the whole first six months of her life. A nipple shield is a thin piece of rubber that draws your nipple out to make it easier for your baby to latch, or to protect your nipples if they are cracked and bleeding. We used it for the former reason, and all the lactation consultants I used were absolutely desperate to get us off of it. “Your milk supply will decrease!” Their doomsday cry was never-ending. Figuring they were the experts, I castigated myself for having to use the shield, and tried any number of their suggestions to wean her off of it, in the meantime injuring my nipples and frustrating my hungry baby.
Then finally I went to a breastfeeding group at Kaiser, and was confronted with reality. I sat there in the group, with my GIANT baby compared to their little ones, who had been totally unable to breastfeed, had trouble gaining weight, were fed by all manner of supplementary measures. The moms were still trying to breastfeed, even when some of them had had surgeries, had been unable to breastfeed their first children, or were feeding them solely pumped milk. When it got to my turn to share, Olive had been chomping away at my breast for a full hour, happy as a clam and gaining ounces by the minute. I sheepishly admitted, “Well, our only real problem is we’re using the nipple shield, and all the lactation consultants tell me I need to stop using it to secure my milk supply, but she can’t latch without it.” The mothers looked at me like I was some kind of simpleton. “Your baby is eating, right?” “Yes…” “And she’s gaining weight?” “Yes.” “The baby needs to eat! Just keep doing what works!” It was then that I realized that I’d been chasing perfection. The picture I had in my head of some kind of Earth Mama who just latches the baby to her breast blissfully and goes about her day needed to die a quick death, preferably by my smothering her smug face with hemp diapers. I was so humbled by these mamas who were persisting with breastfeeding despite serious obstacles. It was a further lesson in something I have been learning since pregnancy — the “experts” do not always know best. I need to listen to my body, and take my cues from my baby.
You may have noticed something in that last paragraph that seemed alarming. Yes, my baby ate for an ENTIRE HOUR EVERY TIME SHE FED, for the first six months of her life. For a whole half-year, I breastfed for 60 minutes, a gazallion times a day. In the beginning, this was particularly mind-boggling, because she ate every two hours. Let me break this down for you — I fed her for 30 minutes on one breast, then 30 minutes on the other, then I had one hour to burp her, change her, go to the bathroom and try to eat something (God forbid I attempted sleep) before I needed to feed her again. For another hour. You will therefore not be surprised that I went through an inordinate amount of TV series on Netflix streaming, and read many many library books, balancing them on the edge of the Boppy pillow (and oftentimes dropping them and cursing loudly).
When I was a month in to this whole breastfeeding lifestyle, I found myself laughing at my breasts on a regular basis. Olive would make a little noise, or I would think about her, or even just look at her and they would go “NOW WE FEED HER” and fill, painfully, with milk. I’d tell them “No, calm down, it’s not time yet” and they’d say “YES WE FEED HER NOW” and start squirting milk. “She’s not even hungry, dawg, chill out”, I’d reply (somehow I was Randy Jackson in these moments, adjusting my glasses and shrugging). “OK BUT WE FEED HER SOON SO WE GET READY”. Okay, Boobs. Hmm. I never thought I would be having conversations with my tits, but this was the New Rhea. Like Old Rhea, but with huge talking boobs and very little sleep.
Now that all I did was breastfeed, I was shocked at how rarely I saw women breastfeeding in public. Any time I saw a mom and baby, I wondered how on earth they weren’t breastfeeding, right there, because it was all Olive and I ever did. I did see some moms do this — the moms from the Birth Center, the moms at Yoga, and the Latina moms who came to the Family Resource Center where I work. But, overall, in San Francisco where there are more dogs than children (an actual statistic), you do not see people breastfeed in public very often. I resolved that I would do it, whenever I could, to hopefully desensitize folks to it, and to pave the way a bit for women to be able to do this without shame. Maybe we’d all leave our houses a lot more. So, that being said, here is a list of people I have breastfed in front of, to varyingly awkward degrees: my priest, my in-laws, ALL my co-workers, my entire church congregation, all of my friends and family, and lots and lots of strangers. Let me be clear on this — I am as discreet as can be, but I don’t use a nursing cover. I have no desire to be self-exposing, and I pretty much hate nursing in public. But since babies eat ALL the time, if I always breastfed in the privacy of my bedroom, I would seriously never leave that room. Isolation is the enemy of community, and I really needed my community.
I feel like I could go on and on about this topic, it is so huge and finding straight talk about it is so rare. But I will consider this a start, and leave you with my top tips for breastfeeding mamas:
1. Buy a crapload of stretchy tops and dresses that pull down. I was SO excited to get into post-pregnancy clothes, and was super bummed when I realized I’d be wearing deep V-necks for at least a year. Purchase pretty nightgowns that you can nurse in and wear them as regular clothes, styled up with sweaters, tights, belts and boots.
2. If you need advice, listen to your baby, and if your baby’s cues are confusing, listen to girlfriends and sisters that have breastfed babies recently. The older generation has usually forgotten or they formula fed. There are exceptions, but seriously, experts are sometimes so caught up in the “rules” that they don’t see you and your baby as individuals. Listen to your body, and feed that baby in whatever way gets the baby fed. If this means you supplement or switch to formula, use a nipple shield, pump and feed your baby bottled milk, or whatever you and your baby come up with that falls outside the common picture of “successful breastfeeding”, don’t feel that everyone is judging you. I’m certainly not. Babies need to eat!
3. Mamas need to eat, too. You’ll crave fat the whole time you’re nursing, and don’t deny yourself that chocolate bar because you’re worried about losing your baby weight. This is the time in your life to be round and cuddly and to make all kinds of fatty milk for that babe. As s/he gets fatter, you’ll slowly shrink. But I found that milk supply actually went way down when I stopped eating ice cream on a regular basis. Salted caramel, here I come!
4. Pump, pump, pump. It’s so awful. Pumping is literally my least favorite part of parenting. But I do it every day, and on days that I work, sometimes 5 times a day. This is NOT something you need to do in public, btw. Pumping is totally unglamorous and it hurts. But it will save your ass if your milk supply does wane when the baby starts solids AND still needs tons of milk, as mine did. I had 30 bottles of hard-earned stored milk and it was that that kept me breastfeeding past the 6-month mark. It also gives you a chance to leave and let the baby be fed by someone else every once in a while, even though the double-edged sword is that you will then have to come home and pump for that feeding you missed!
5. To borrow from the amazing project to support gay teens, It Gets Better. Eight months in, I’m so glad I stuck with it. She still nurses every 3 hours, but it is for shorter periods, and she almost always comes off and gives me the most amazing smile, one that is totally particular to breastfeeding, as if she is saying “This is just the best Mommy.” It is similar to the smile she gives when she has plastic wrapping paper in her clutches: