- By Tina Y (Birthsmarter Grad)
It is 3am and I am holding an ice pack to my left breast. Baby is asleep, blissed out on formula, but I am awake with 37 tabs open on my phone about “breastfeeding.”
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding? More like the Fucking Hard Art of Bodyfeeding.
I latched onto the term bodyfeeding early on, no pun intended. It is more gender-inclusive, not to mention a more apt description of what was involved. My muscles ached. My skin leaked sweat. My stomach yearned for calories. Plus years of emotional trauma that carved gashes in my neural pathways were making themselves known. Every time she chomped down on my highly sensitive nipples, I registered fire, lightning, knife stabs. The breast is the interface, but milk is literally made from blood.
I am a stubborn as hell Leo, and I did everything to make it work. We saw IBCLCs and osteopaths. I took galactagogues, blood pressure meds, antidepressants (thank goodness I have insurance). I did Youtube yoga, pectoral massage, guided meditations. I pumped 10 times a day to coax my body into producing more milk. And yet after every teeth-gritting nursing session, I felt like a failure. As my partner cracked open yet another bottle of Similac and my baby screamed inconsolably for security and comfort, I sobbed. La Leche League had led me to believe this was a basic, simple and natural function of the birthing parent. Am I not fully functional?
I knew it wasn’t her fault, but I was angry at my baby too. I had pictured effortlessly falling into a well-bonded dyad, rocking in our cozy rocking chair, gazing into her sweet face. Instead we fought - her for access, me for control. Each time she latched, she brought lacerations and friction burns. I would claw her tense little mouth loose while yelling expletives. She would cry desperately to relatch but I wouldnt let her. I just held her and cried, too.
Then there was fighting with my own body. At my lowest point, I spent 5 days hell-bent on removing a persistent “clog” because conventional wisdom told me that if I didn’t get that milk out, it would’ve turned my boob into a festering playground for bacteria. I dutifully cycled through all of Dr. Google’s suggestions - heat, massage, pumping, epsom salts, even dangle-nursing acrobatics. It got worse: my boob was positively volcanic with pain. The only thing left to do was see a lactation massage specialist I had heard of, so we drove 4 hours in traffic. She charged me $500 and Hulk-smashed my swollen milk ducts into submission. Milk did eventually leave my body, but at the cost of intensified inflammation. The pain sent my mind into outer space.
I ended up with a flaming bout of mastitis so bad that the radiologist saw something on the ultrasound that was “suspicious of cancer.”
One night I had a dream where my baby was sucked into a tornado. I heard her cries, and went in after her. Like in the movie Twister, we were two beings torn skyward by furious winds, as lost as debris. Somehow I reached her and hugged her close. She was wailing in terror, so I did the only thing I could think of: I latched her. She immediately grew quiet and content, safe in my arms. Eventually, the weather cleared and, still nursing, we plummeted to earth. I awoke on impact.
In my dream I had offered my protection and nourishment until the very end. My dream baby ended her brief time on earth wrapped in comfort and love, and I ended mine in sorrow, terror and resignation. I thought about this for days. The breast was her refuge but my… what? Undoing? Superpower? Puppeteer? Purpose?
I sit here, 5 months in, remembering what those days were like. I nurse her easily now, so much so that I wrote this entire blogpost on my phone, one arm under her head, the other draped over her hip, hands meeting in the middle. One of her little hands rests delicately on my collarbone, pinky up. Sometimes she thumps my chest loudly for more milk, which makes me laugh. She pops off to laugh too, before relatching herself. Her eyes close. We are at peace.
Folks have called me inspiring, determined, courageous. Maybe I am, but I was a coward, too. I let fear and doubt over my worth as a mother shred my mental health—I cried, couldn’t get out of bed, obsessed over bodyfeeding. One day, agonizing over a milk blister, I found myself pricking my nipple with a needle, drawing blood. I’ll never get back the hundreds of hours spent scrolling support forums while my partner played alone with our baby. So many people I know switched to formula early on and never looked back. I wish sometimes i had *their* courage.
Was it worth it in the end? How does one judge, given the kaleidoscopic dizziness of new motherhood?
What I know for certain is I am transformed. I gained practical knowledge of course: I learned that my body needs antidepressants to quiet the nipple pain; that “clogs” are inflamed milk glands that call for ice and Advil, not aggressive massage; that it does get better as baby grows larger; that even a bleb that lasts 3 months will go away if left alone.
But more importantly, I have come to know myself. I know I am capable of great acts of love, as well as irrational acts of fear. I am getting better at telling the difference between the two, and I’ve gained a self-regard I’ve never experienced before, forged in the crucible of caring for a newborn.
My capacity to love, nurture, and nourish was never contingent on successfully nursing my baby. It was there all along, a fierce product of the heart and the body. It would guide me through any decision in life and as a parent. Regardless of whether I succeed in nursing again, I will always know what I have accomplished. I will always know my worth as a mother, a caretaker, and a loving being.
Does any of Tina's story resonate with you? Drop a comment to tell us about your feeding journey and how it's made you feel!
If you'd like to learn more about preparing for your breastfeeding journey, join us in an upcoming Lactation (Not So) Basics Class.
If you've recently giving birth and would benefit from additional support, join us in an upcoming Fourth Trimester Survival Group.