My sweet baby Ben recently turned 1.
We did it. We survived the first year.
And against all odds, something happened that was totally unexpected and hard-won and butt-kicking and prayed for and holy and amazing and beautiful.
I became a breastfeeding mom.
We reached our one-year "nurse-aversary." ME. The formula-feeding mom. ME. The one who thought that I would never need a nursing bra, and would never leak enough milk to have a reason for breast pads. ME. The one who used to be afraid to nurse in public. The one who once cursed her body, felt shame in her body, was angry at her body. I learned how to use my body, for good.
I am a breastfeeding mom.
I have seen both sides of this painful, powerful feeding debate, so I think that it's time to tell the truth about breastfeeding. It doesn't always make you popular to tell the truth. But I hear from moms every day who ask what I did differently this time. They are desperate to know the truth about breastfeeding. Is it possible to make milk after not being able to breastfeed the first time? How did you learn to breastfeed? Will it work for me? The answer is maybe. And maybe not. But the most important thing about planning to breastfeed, is that you go into it with your eyes wide open. So here you go. But don't tell anyone I told you...
1. Breastfeeding can hurt. There, I said it. Breastfeeding can hurt like a **bad word redacted**. That doesn't necessarily mean you're doing it wrong. Many people will have you believe that nursing is easy and beautiful and natural and that you will get blessed from the boobie fairy up above and make magical milk that flows out and smells like chocolate chip cookies. Or something like that. The truth is that you have to learn how to breastfeed. You and your baby have great instincts, but more often than not, you'll both need a little Boobie 101 along the way. After we worked through some obstacles and I learned how to help Ben latch better, it stopped hurting. OK, since we're telling the whole truth, you also need to know that Ben had a tongue tie that was clipped by an ENT, and that helped him to latch better. And that I once made a lactation consultant cry. I also recommend buying stock in the companies that make lanolin and nipple balm. Use it! Constantly! For us it took a full two months before I felt like things were "right". Some moms notice a difference after the first few weeks. The key to making it not hurt is...
2. Breastfeeding takes a village. Find a lactation consultant or doula and make her your best friend. I know that people like to say that women innately know how to do this mothering stuff, but not all of us feel confident knowing how to stand up and give birth against a tree in the woods. OK, most of us don't. Same with breastfeeding. Knowledge is power. A great, empathetic, wise lactation professional will grab your boob and show you where it goes. When you are four days postpartum and feeling like hell, have her come to your house. If you can't do that, ask one of your girlfriends who breastfed to come over and show you how to hold your baby and get them to latch correctly. Find a wonderful breastfeeding support group to attend. Find an online support group where you can ask questions and receive "been there, done that" answers. Find someone who knows what breastfeeding looks like, and ask them to teach you. It's awkward at first. It's not a skill that the birthing fairy sprinkles over you like pixie dust the moment that the baby comes out. There is a learning curve, and you will need a teacher. Or in my case, many teachers.
3. If you want to make milk, you have to nurse. Constantly. Itty bitty babies don't need to nurse on a schedule. They need to nurse whenever they're hungry. Or tired. Or cranky. Or happy. In other words, pretty much all the damn time. This is exhausting for moms. Exhausting. Regardless of how you feed your baby, you need to rely on your village to take care of everything else. Let someone else cook/clean/pack school lunches. Your job is to feed and snuggle your baby. The more milk your baby removes from your breasts, the more milk your body makes. Supply and demand. If your body is able to make milk (and not everyone can), it's important to remember that you have to tell your body what you need. If you give baby a bottle, then you need to pump. If you go too long without feeding, you are sending your body a signal that it can take a break from making milk. Communicate with your boobs. Make them work for you. I mean, for your baby. And if you are doing all of these things and still not making enough milk? I'll tell you a secret that I'm not supposed to share... some moms don't make enough milk. They don't. For all kinds of reasons, that have nothing to do with how hard they tried or how badly they wanted to nurse. So please please pretty please remember that if you are NOT making milk, it is not your fault. There are many reasons why women can't/don't make milk. Talk to a lactation consultant. Get some ideas about how to increase your supply. Or don't. If you decide to use formula, take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are an amazing mom, and read this.
4. Breastfeeding is an extraordinary privilege. Gasp. I know. I said it. Now read it again. Ladies, breastfeeding is an extraordinary privilege. I know what it is like to be on both sides of the baby-feeding debate. My first son was fed with formula, and he is a brilliant, beautiful, charming, absolutely perfect child. I'll venture to say that he turned out that way because of our stellar parenting... and because he was genetically predisposed to be wonderful. My second son is breastfed. And just as beautiful, brilliant and charming. Is breast milk fantastic? Yes, yes, yes. A million times yes. Is it the cure-all for every ailment and sickness under the sun? No. (Don't spam me with comments about how breast milk cures everything. For some it does, for some it doesn't.) Is it "easy"? Sometimes. Once I got the hang of it, it was definitely easier than formula feeding, for ME. Is it for everyone? Nope. And it's not my job or responsibility to make the decision about what is right for you and your family. Every time that Ben nestles into the crook of my arm and his big hazel eyes lock on to mine as my breasts let down, I am absolutely floored by how lucky I am to nurse him. I still exhale when I feel the milk start to flow. My heart still races when I'm out running an errand and Sean is at home with a hungry baby who is waiting patiently for me to return. I am overwhelmed by gratitude when my baby gives me the look that says, "I've been waiting for you. You are my lovey. You are what I need." That is an extraordinary privilege, for ME. And I know every minute of every day that to honor that privilege, I must never forget that breastfeeding is not something that comes easy, or is a choice for everyone. Because...
5. Not everyone can breastfeed. Oh mamas... please read that again. Not every woman can breastfeed. And when you are not able to breastfeed, or choose not to breastfeed, or don't have the opportunity to breastfeed, it stirs up a shit-ton of feelings and dumps them on your head. I couldn't breastfeed my first son, and it broke my heart. I still don't feel like I "belong" in the breastfeeding community sometimes, and I've nursed Ben for a YEAR now. Nursing mamas, please keep your formula-feeding sisters in mind when you do your touchdown dance. Or when you complain about leaking or a baby who constantly grabs your boobs. Or when you alleviate your own exhaustion and frustration by telling another mom that she just didn't try hard enough at breastfeeding. You have so much to be proud of, but be grateful. Be grateful. And....
6. Take a breastfeeding selfie. Look at yourself. I want you to see what breastfeeding really looks like. I want you to take a picture of what it looks like to nurse your tiny newborn. Of what it looks like to nurse a 9-month-old who has a stacking block in one hand and is kicking your arm while he hums and nurses. What it looks like to nurse a 1-year-old while his big brother tries to head-butt him (because, why not?).
Then put your phone down, and do a silent cheer for your badass, amazing, breastfeeding self. This time? These moments of watching your baby's eyelids flutter while their hand reaches up to stroke your collarbone? They are seconds that become minutes, days that fade into weeks, and years that will quickly fade away. Look at how amazing you are! Look at the picture! Breastfeeding is hard work, mama! It is one of the most wonderful, heart-wrenching, soul-healing, self-doubting, self-confidence crushing and self-confidence boosting experiences I've ever had. I know that I won't always be the most important thing in my son's life. But for these moments? These minutes between 3:30 a.m. and the time that Ben falls back to sleep, rubbing my arm with his little chubby hand while he nurses? This is the time when we are most at peace. I will never stop feeling grateful, because I was blessed for just this season, to finally make milk.