I woke up to a familiar sound at 3:00 AM, 72 hours after giving birth to my first child. These were the longest of long days and nights. 3 days into motherhood, and it felt like an eternity already, tears shed by both of us and my baby’s high pitched cries for milk echoing in the tiny bedroom we shared. Still high on adrenaline at this point, barely sleeping anyway, I stumbled over to my daughter’s bassinet to scoop her up and lower my tank in what felt like one sweeping movement. We were already so familiar with this dance, the two of us. But this dance… it wasn’t romantic or beautiful or even natural. My milk hadn’t come in (though it would by the following morning); my nipples were red, chapped, sore, and I cringed at the feedings that went on for 45 minutes and restarted every 90 minutes. WTF was happening here?
My husband, supportive and loving, cringed with me, unsure of how to help, what to say… particularly as some postpartum anxiety was setting in. My mom, in town to help for the week and the most stubbornly self-sufficient person I’ve ever met, went way out of character, searching message boards during nighttime feeds while I cried, hoping to reassure me (and herself) with accounts of other women’s struggles breastfeeding. It hurt. It sucked. Nobody told me. The waves of pain and frustration caught me totally off guard.
I found myself recounting the previous 12 months. This was supposed to be the easy part. Our doctor had looked at us in uncertainty only a year before, searching for a heartbeat, then rushing in for a quick sonogram, and ultimately forced to report grim news when it was clear our baby was gone at 22 weeks. Of course, we saw the sonogram, too. We already knew. And when my milk came in 2 days after my D&E and I applied ice packs and wore sports bras, cursing my body for betraying me, for this added insult and reminder of what could’ve been, I admit, I also thought… “Well at least this part of me works. One day…”
So here we were. The big healthy baby I hoped for was here. By every account, I was ‘doing it right.’ And the friend who shuttled with my husband and me to the hospital at 4:00 AM for the D&E the year before, then coached me through an induction, labor, and delivery just days before, knew a thing or two about breastfeeding, as well. This assurance meant a lot to me during the early days, and all the experiences leading up to this point - sitting alone in the middle of the night, blindsided by motherhood and what I thought was a natural thing, feeding my baby with my body - are my full circle.
We muddled through the early, searing pain of week one, followed by thrush in week two and a new brand of pain, frustration, and annoyance emerged. I looked at the bottle of formula I’d purchased ‘just in case’ pre-delivery and considered it. For lots of reasons, I decided to stick to breastfeeding, mostly because it was what I wanted for my baby, and she was thriving despite my nipple pain and frustration, so I had the luxury of choice in the situation. It was a transformative time...feeding my now born, healthy, live baby, the way I intended, my body finally doing the work I wanted to do. Eventually, my daughter and I emerged an unstoppable duo, breastfeeding in Prospect Park, on picnics, at our local hang for pizza and beer where my husband and I held our wedding reception, also the year before, the party we needed after our loss, which cemented our partnership in ways we never imagined. This baby and I, we were Brooklyn breastfeeding cliches, shrugging off any pensive feelings and getting it done in public, wherever, empowered by a supportive community. No doubt I was also bolder given the trials that got me here.
Before I knew it, it was time to go back to work. A new wave of uncertainty washed over me as I prepared to leave my daughter. My husband held my hand, listened to my anxieties, and lamented not being able to stay home himself, given leave policies and finances. The reality was that we both made important financial contributions to our household, and we both liked working, but this was a transition with new layers of complexity, navigating new schedules, leaving our baby for the first time in someone else’s care. Uneventfully, I managed to get dressed on THE day and faltered for a moment before being pushed out the door by a loving husband and sister/newly-minted aunt who would help care for my daughter that June.
In some ways, I never looked back. I felt a hell of a lot more like myself talking to adults, solving problems, and getting dressed in real clothes every day. That’s glossing over it, though. I dreaded pumping every day, and eeked out the 16oz/day my daughter demanded while I was in the office by the skin of my teeth every time. I marveled at the moms filling their freezers with milk. I didn’t have a drop to spare, and wouldn’t have spent any more time with my breast pump, which felt foreign and cold and unnatural, if I had.
Still, we all found our rhythms. There was never a freezer stash, but I dutifully marked my calendar and marched to pump milk several times each day. My daughter continued to grow into a chunky, delicious, mush wobbling around with a certain lovely heft when she took her first steps at 16 months, around the same time we weaned. My husband is still the most supportive person in my corner, really seeing me when it feels like no one else sees how hard I’m working to keep all the different pieces together.
Despite these successes, this isn’t a victory lap. I’m not extolling the virtues of breastfeeding (today), and I will never endeavor to diminish the voices or the choices of moms who feed their children the way they want, having informed themselves and making a decision that’s right for their families. I am a little pissed off, though, knowing that like me, moms are largely struggling, juggling, and slogging through this new motherhood transition stuff by themselves. I once took a certain pride in being hell-bent on breastfeeding a year and making that happen no matter the challenges I faced as a working mother. I was stupid. Not stupid to breastfeed, but stupid to think successfully reaching my goals was solely up to me and my own determination. There are structural, cultural, and societal barriers that make this harder than it should be, and instead of offering information and supporting choice, a lack of meaningful support pits women against each other in a bizarre all or nothing war.
Parents often joke about applying hard won lessons from ‘the first time’ to subsequent children. This was my first time. I don’t want to feel like I ‘won’ at breastfeeding my baby, but that I was set up for success and everyone else should be, too.