The first clue that breastfeeding might not happen easily for me came moments after I delivered my son.
A cluster of women — nurses, a midwife, my doula — worked above me, trying to get the baby to latch. Their struggle seemed within the bounds of normal: a fussy, freshly birthed babe, still covered in schmutz, wearied and weathered by their extremely recent, intense transition — I couldn’t imagine that this scene ever unfolded seamlessly.
“There he goes,” one of them maybe said. Or, “He almost latched!” Or, “he’s getting there.” One way or another the baby connected with my breast. My uterus hurt. I was exhausted. Anxious to learn his weight. He had come sooner, quicker than I expected and I was in shock. Someone was stitching up rips in my labia. There was a lot going on.
Twenty-four hours later, a thin, ponytailed pediatrician presented me with a choice: the baby had lost almost ten percent of his birth weight. My breasts weren’t cutting it. Did I want to use a bottle, or a supplemental nursing system? The latter involved tubes and didn’t make sense. I chose bottle.
Three miserable months, one tongue and lip tie procedure, two lactation consultants, one craniosacral therapist, hundreds of dollars and countless hours of crying and pumping (sometimes at once) later, I resigned myself to the fact that the baby, in fact, preferred the bottle to my breast.
Our culture valorizes parenting. We view child-rearing as an inherently good, even noble thing to do — and not having them, to put it crudely, as sad and strange.
And yet, those of us who choose to have children inevitably do so for selfish reasons. We live in a (relatively recent) time and culture where people have kids for no practical purpose: whatever drives someone’s choice to have kids, it’s about them.
And yet, while we can (maybe) accept that the choice to procreate is selfish, then, we’re still attached to the idea that the act of good parenting equals selfless parenting. We define motherhood, in particular, as an exercise in ongoing self-sacrifice.
But if what drives most of us to have kids is our own yearning, how are we expected to let go of that as soon as they’re born? How can we possibly have kids because we want an experience of parenthood, and have no attachment to what that experience will be like?
Forty eight hours after birth, my breasts engorged — but a couple of days later, they’d softened, and only drops came out when I pumped. I had been prescribed the nightmare regimen known as the “triple feed” — nurse, pump, bottle feed, repeat every three hours.
A week later, I finally went in to see a lactation consultant. The pump I’d been using was broken. The baby was using a “nipple shield” that the nurses had offered as a crutch. Neither, it seemed, was stimulating my breasts enough to produce milk.
The LC sent me home with a hospital-grade rental and instructions to pump as often as I could, but that I might not be able to recover my supply. I cried the whole way home.
Later that day, we saw our pediatrician. She rolled her eyes. It was still early, she said. “Just keep bringing the baby to the breast,” she told me.
I ate oatmeal and avocado. Downed capsules of GoLacta. Massaged my breasts with warm cloths. Chugged electrolytes. Endured “power pumping” sessions, pumping for an hour straight. Pored over my phone, looking up ways to increase milk supply, and stories of women who gave up and stories of women who struggled for months and then figured it out. I googled things like: can you bond with your baby without breastfeeding and how to get your baby to nurse.
I felt desperate and ashamed of my desperation. Why couldn’t I just give up?
While the benefits of breastmilk are abundant, I knew the baby would be perfectly fine on formula.
Why, then, was it so hard to let go? In hearing other women’s similar stories, one thread sticks out: none of us expected to try so hard. None of us were prepared for how ferociously we would want to nurse our babies. None of us anticipated the extraordinary lengths to which we would go to try and make it work. All of us thought we would just move on if it didn’t happen easily. All of us turned into people we didn’t recognize. None of us can say, exactly, why.
I can name particular desires I felt: for the baby to bond to me. To burn calories. To have the experience of something I had assumed would define early motherhood. To give him my antibodies. To make use of the assorted items I’d acquired for nursing — bras, pillows, polka dot pajamas. To feel needed. To avoid feeling that the energy I’d expended had been wasted. But the sum of these wants don’t total to the weight of what I experienced. It was beyond reason.
Eventually, a friend recommended a private consultant. A Christian grandmother, she watched me breastfeed via FaceTime. “He’s not transferring,” she announced. “We’ll figure this out.”
At her suggestion, I drove to a distant suburb where a straight-talking dentist lasered his tongue and lip.
Now, suddenly, he didn’t want to nurse. He would fuss when I tried. I wrote a poem called, “My baby cries at the sight of my breast.”
The consultant came over to visit. He latched immediately. “This baby wants to nurse!” she pronounced, and left.
I felt a sliver of hope. Then, he stopped again. When I brought him to my chest he would just look around, as though I’d brought him there for a tour.
I’d set the end of my parental leave as my ultimate deadline. It loomed.
I anticipated how much relief I would feel before I actually felt it. I longed to connect with my son without seeing him as a stubborn, hostile project I needed to conquer.
Immediately, the period of time in which I tried to breastfeed morphed into a murky nightmare. I felt like I had just woken up: bewildered, defeated, and wildly hung over.
Throughout that period, people advised me to go easy on myself. I wasn’t sure what they meant. I was sleeping a maximum of two and a half hours at a time, stuck on a hamster wheel regimen I couldn’t escape. Go easy, exactly…how?
Here’s how, looking back, I might have been: I might have had more self-compassion.
Because I recognized that my desire to breastfeed was about me more than my baby, I viewed myself as selfish. And this, I thought, was the way in which I was failing as a mother.
What children need most fundamentally from their caretakers is unconditional love. But loving unconditionally is not the same as loving selflessly.
What I wish I had understood earlier was that going easy on myself meant giving myself more tenderness, more understanding.
I wish I had understood that meant seeing how, whatever motivated my longing to breastfeed, that longing was big and real and really, really hard to let go.
I wish I had understood that I wasn’t a bad person, or a bad mom, for having it.
Elizabeth Tannen is a writer, educator and organizer born in Brooklyn and based in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico and has published essays and poems in a range of publications including The Rumpus, Salon, Copper Nickel, PANK, NPR and Passages North. Find more of her work at elizabethtannen.com.