After I pushed an entire baby out of my poor, shocked vagina, I lay around feeling starving and relieved and stunned and abruptly motherly with my daughter Eden on my chest. She was attempting to wrench my nipple off with her tiny, adorable mouth.
I had this silly idea that breastfeeding was going to be really easy. It was the birth part that freaked me out. But the feeding part -- here's a boob, here's a baby, so we're basically already done.
"Good!" said the various helpful people who were there to make sure things went correctly. "She's latching on!"
Eden never had a problem getting milk, so everyone said, "You should be thankful. Some babies have a problem getting enough milk."
I tried diligently to be thankful for that. I was sitting there crying because it hurt so much, those first few weeks, and my nipples were bleeding. I never had a shirt on in those days. It was hard enough to coordinate my nipples without one. I always had to be in the same position for every feeding. The idea that women could go out into the world and sit in random places like on park benches and in restaurants and just casually breastfeed was ridiculous to me. The idea that women could sit around casually breastfeeding while talking and maybe even eating was insane. Those women were like Olympic athletes. They were like tenured professors. They were amazingly skilled.
"What would happen to you in the wild, baby?" I asked her accusingly. The wild, by the way, is a place where there are still wolves and also Neanderthal women expertly breastfeeding, I think. It is really far away from suburban NJ, where I grew up, and possibly even farther from Brooklyn, where I live now.
Before I had Eden, I used to get really annoyed by the whole breastfeeding campaign thing. You know, the enthusiastic pamphlets that exclaim, "Breast is best!!" And the chapter of whichever book about dealing with a baby that mentions bottles and quickly reiterates, "Of course, it is highly recommended that you breastfeed. By doctors and scientists and your neighbor and God. They all agree. The WHO recommends it for up to two years, for the best results! For the breast is best results!"
Alright, already, I grumbled to myself. We get it. Breastfeeding. It's great. OK. It fights disease, it instills superpowers, it cures cancer, it makes you a better person because of all the better person hormones you release while you're doing it. Whatever.
But I understand now why breastfeeding requires a campaign like that. Because at first, when your little vampire baby is trying to suck your boobs to death and you are actually bleeding, and you are also still bleeding from your poor, shocked uterus, and you need three people to help you sit up in bed, and you can't remember the last time you wore a shirt or what it felt like to have ankles, you need to believe in SOMETHING in order to keep trying.
Breastfeeding got easier about three weeks in, though it wasn't really reasonably good until maybe the second month. And these days, I'm a champ. I victoriously nurse my baby at restaurants, in the park and sometimes standing up. My milk erupts like a triumphant fountain, baptizing Eden's upturned face, the floor, my breakfast.
Actually, that part doesn't feel so victorious. I live in fear of spraying some guy sitting next to me on a park bench or something.
But I am not afraid of people seeing my breasts. That is one thing I'm not afraid of. And I know that maybe I'm supposed to be.
I know because other women are always apologizing. "I'm sorry, do you mind if I feed him? Is everyone here OK with me breastfeeding my baby right now?"
I've said things like that sometimes. At first, I said, "So you guys are gonna see my boobs now, I hope that's OK." And I laughed. And I paused.
But really, I don't care what you think.
I mean, that's not totally true. Once, a woman looked at me with disgusted eyes and a tight mouth, and I felt suddenly terrible, my face hot with hurt. I saw these guys on the steps of Borough Hall watching me nurse her once, and they were kind of nudging each other and gesturing at my exposed breast. I looked down the whole time I nursed Eden on the subway the other day, not wanting to see anyone's reaction. I don't want to know, I am just trying to feed my baby so she's full and doesn't throw her head furiously back and roar with all her baby might.
Sometimes people get embarrassed for me. I get a little embarrassed too, then. But I'm not embarrassed in a real, lasting way. Not ever embarrassed enough to deal with one of those nursing tent things -- that's too complicated.
I read about women whipping out their boobs as a lifestyle thing. Like they're doing it because they have something to prove. Like they are trying to make everyone around them feel awkward. Around these parts, people make snarky comments about Park Slope, the upscale Brooklyn hippie neighborhood, and how the mommy mafia has taken over and breastfeeding is strictly enforced and hordes of lactating women are constantly throwing their milky boobs around in coffee shops and even bars, when everyone else is just trying to have a goddamn muffin in fully-clothed peace. I read something like that in a New York Times article about Park Slope recently. And I want to call BS, now that I'm a lactating woman.
I am not being defiant and proud and bold and political. And this is not about you, with the muffin.
Because breastfeeding is not political for me. It's not a statement. It's not a battle that I'm fighting in the mythic mommy wars. I don't even have to tell myself it will cure cancer and make my baby brilliant. I just do it because Eden needs to eat and I need to feed her. It's a basic thing. Like in the wild.
Actually, I sometimes for a moment can't remember why people get so awkward about my breasts being out when I'm nursing my baby. It's not really a big deal. The big deal is that I can do it now, without crippling pain and my one trustworthy position ("wear the baby like a bra!") and my shirt off. It's a big deal that I have most of my shirt on right now, people. My version of being considerate to you and your fellow muffin-purchasers is to keep most of my shirt on. I want you to see as little of my breasts as possible, I swear.
But maybe because it was so hard at first, and the hard part lasted so much longer than my labor that I eventually began to think that breastfeeding was actually harder than giving birth, I feel as though I've earned the right to pop a boob out randomly and spray a little milk. I feel as though I've earned the right to do it anywhere. Many times anywhere, since Eden, my very fat, mostly angry baby, requires a lot of milk.
Bodies serve so many purposes, it's nice to see my breasts in action in a way that doesn't involve anything about the way they look. I don't know if I can really go this far, but maybe I just will: I think it's probably good for the soul.
The soul, I suspect, likes to see a lot of boobs.
Or, you know, just the top, and a bit of nipple.
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Kate's new book, Growing Eden, about being pregnant in her 20s in NYC, is now available. Click here to check it out and maybe even order a copy.
This piece was excerpted from Kate's blog, Eat the Damn Cake.