There are three things I remember from the first three months of motherhood. The first is that if a baby has pooped through his or her diaper, attempting to remove the child’s onesie over their head is a bad idea. There will literally be poop everywhere.
The second is that sleep deprivation became incredibly real, and I needed a moment to say goodbye to all those leisurely weekend naps I used to take before having a child.
And the third, which was the hardest, is the struggle and self-imposed shame I felt while trying to breastfeed.
The interesting part about this is that I am a pediatrician who spent the majority of her days talking to parents about breastfeeding and the benefits of it.
To be quite honest, I didn’t really understand the struggle that some mothers talked about until I experienced it myself. In my head, I had pictured breastfeeding as this incredibly natural and beautiful bonding experience that I would have with my baby (as experienced by so many mothers). My idealistic vision involved soothing classical music playing in the background as my child and I basked in the glory of what women have been doing for centuries and I, too, would join them.
After all, I spent hours talking with parents about how to breastfeed, so it should come naturally to me right?
What happened, instead, was the exact opposite.
My daughter was born in the early morning hours. When her skin touched mine, I knew that this was one of those transformational moments that would separate my life into the before and after. From now on, I would be talking about my life in sections: before I had children and after children.
My “after” started beautifully. I was excited, grateful and so enamored by this little human that I could not believe emerged from within me. I wanted to give her the very best start in life, and I could not wait to breastfeed.
When the nurse brought her to me and I tried breastfeeding for the first time, I was surprised to find that it was incredibly painful. So we switched positions. We did this again and again and yet the pain continued. Eventually, my daughter started to wail because she had realized that she was not getting any milk, and then, I cried too.
I would love to say that it got better. But it didn’t.
I went to lactation consultant after lactation consultant. I talked to other physicians and my colleagues. I tried teas, cookies, chugging gallons of fluids, and countless different techniques to increase my milk supply. I spent all my time scouring the internet for hidden secrets on the art of breastfeeding. I could not understand why this wasn’t working for me. I began to dread the next feeding because I put so much pressure on myself to make it work. And when it didn’t, I felt defeated.
My internal dialogue began to change. I had spent years waiting for the gift of a child, and now I felt as if I wasn’t good enough to handle it. It was now one month into my daughter’s life, and I had started to tell myself that I was a failure as a mother. My poor husband and parents looked helpless as I continued to beat myself up daily. I would constantly compare myself to other mothers whose breasts magically had become instantaneous machines pouring out milk on demand.
“Why couldn’t I do that?” I thought.
Sometimes, in the midst of a crisis, the universe gifts you with a moment of clarity. My moment came in the form of Anderson Cooper.
Let me explain.
As I was sitting on the couch one evening feeling defeated and watching Anderson Cooper on CNN, I began to think about how intelligent and funny I thought Anderson was (we are on a first-name basis in my head).
“I wonder if he was breastfed?” I thought.
Somewhere in the middle of typing “was Anderson Cooper breastfed” into Google, the universe intervened.
It suddenly hit me that I had officially lost my mind. Was I actually typing this into Google?
For a few minutes, I became an observer to my life. I was on the outside looking in. I saw a new mother sitting on the couch who had spent the first month of her daughter’s life beating herself up emotionally. If this was my daughter going through this experience, what would I tell her?
I would tell her that in this life, she is given one soul to take care of—her own. And to truly nurture and help her soul to grow, she must have self-compassion. I would tell her that the greatest quality that she can have is to accept herself with an open heart and to allow herself the same compassion that she would give to a good friend. There is truth in the saying that you cannot give what you do not have yourself. How could she love another when she did not love herself?
And there I was, sitting on the couch, doing exactly the opposite. I had become so caught up in the cycle of my negative thinking that I had missed being present. While I was beating myself up, my daughter had been adjusting to a wondrous new world, and I had missed it.
I decided that evening I would forgive myself. I accepted the fact that I was doing my best, and I let go of my self-doubt.
My struggle with breastfeeding gave me the gift of self-compassion that I have often reminded myself of many times in the last two years that I have been a mother. It is those times that I feel inadequate as a parent that I give myself the advice I would give a good friend.
As a pediatrician, I am still an advocate for breastfeeding. But even greater than that, I advocate self-compassion. I do not hold judgment for how a mother chooses to safely feed her child as long as she is fully present to love her child.
After all, being a human is hard enough, let alone being a parent.
Thanks, Anderson Cooper.