My Long Road to Lactation

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to blog about breastfeeding. After all, this is a food blog, a foodie mom blog, and it seems a bit off-topic and potentially off-putting. But you could argue that producing breast milk is producing food at its most primal, and as I have been spending the majority of my days for the last month and a half pumping and feeding my littlest child, and watching her thrive, I’ve decided to dive into the topic but without any revealing pics.

To say that nursing didn’t come naturally to me would be an understatement. It took me three children to get it right.

Baby Looking Up

I could blame my difficulties with breast feeding on a post-partum encounter with a Nazi-like La Leche coach. I had waited for her for three hours, gently rubbing the bare chicken legs of my beautiful five and a half pound baby girl whose beautiful brown eyes looked into mine trustingly as I pushed her button mouth against my splayed nipples again and again without success. She just did not seem to have the strength to latch on.

When the lactation consultant finally arrived, she was unsmiling and unapologetic. She watched our awkward coupling for a few seconds and, without asking permission, brusquely adjusted my hold and mashed my daughter’s face to my breast. Soon she was grasping my breast and Bella’s tiny head, forcefully pushing them together while making “tsk, tsk, tsk” noises in her mouth. I was shaking with exhaustion and emotion, and all my new mother instincts were telling me just to stick a bottle in the mouth of my feather-weight daughter. To diffuse the tension, I stroked at the long hairs on my baby’s tiny arms, marveling that I had created this creature.

I turned to the breast feeding consultant and offered up the perfection of my first child, “Isn’t she beautiful? Look at her long soft hairs!” She screwed up her mouth with distaste and said, “It looks more like monkey fur than anything. Except even a monkey could latch on with more skill. You have a lot to learn little one.” I sent her away right then and there, appalled to have received my child’s first negative evaluation so quickly. But the truth is that the undiplomatic witch was just an excuse to give free rein to my terror of my breast feeding.

In my first few days of motherhood, I was terrified. Terrified of falling into post-partum depression. Terrified of developing cracked and bleeding nipples like the experienced mothers I knew. Terrified of confronting my naked body, day after day, inhaling all the primal post-labor scents my body was emitting under its nubby hospital gown. Terrified of starving my near-term infant to death, because, after all, how could I possibly create something nourishing enough to keep my child alive? The fact that I would be able to keep from dropping my baby on her head already seemed like too much to hope for.

I reached for the bottle almost to spite her, but really, it was to comfort myself. The label was right there, guaranteeing the nutritional content my child needed. I shoved my breasts back into my bra and began focusing on the mechanics of bottle feeding. I spent the next year regretting my decision, crippled with guilt that I had permanently eliminated any chance of admission to Harvard by withholding that magical IQ-enhancing, immunity-boosting elixir from her tiny mouth. I wished that I had tried harder, been more thick-skinned. When she strained to breathe during a vicious bout of RSV a few months later, the swollen nipples of the lactating mothers in our infant playgroup all seemed to be pointing at me, the weak and unworthy mother in the room.

Yet, even after all those guilt-ridden months, when I gave birth a second time, to a son this time, I chose not to breastfeed him. “Give him some formula,” I told the hospital nurses, “and you can keep him for the night.” I wanted to rest up, to get as ready as possible to split myself in two, to pay attention to the potty training of my jealous two year old while nursing a newborn. A few weeks later, when he turned colicky and started screaming from 10 to 2 every night, I regretted my decision, but my locked up breasts had dried up in their under-wire prison. I spent three long months trying to soothe his desperate cries, wishing I still had milk that might have eased his discomfort.

It wasn’t until I relinquished all control and had a third child that I finally experienced the peace and joy of breast feeding. When I walked in from the hospital with the baby, our homecoming couldn’t have been more chaotic. Instead of being lovingly placed in her carefully arranged bassinet, my daughter was unceremoniously deposited still in her infant car seat in a corner of the room while the older two children jumped and danced all around me, filling me in with all the events of the past three days. But the chaos put everything in place, giving me the confidence I needed to do what was right for each child.

Breastfeeding became my only escape, my time to bond with my third child. I nestled deep into our family room couch with my perfect little girl baby and other distractions faded to the background as I felt the ancient sweet pull of her tiny mouth. More often than not, our peace was interrupted by my other children, demanding that I pick a winner in some desperate toy dispute. Blissfully trapped amidst the couch cushions, all I could was shrug and smile, pointing at the nursing baby until they wandered off to play a different game. We all adapted to our new dynamics as a family of five during those first few months, the baby fitting into our family as naturally as she fed from my breast.

Now that Juliette is five, it is those quiet moments spent nursing her in the autumn afternoon glow that I remember with the most nostalgia. My children are a dizzying whirl of activity, only willing to slow down and settle close to me for a few short moments at night when we snuggle up to read before bed. I look at her mouth, filled with baby teeth that just started wiggling, and wish I could still cup her tiny little head in my hand as she draws milk rhythmically from my breast. I’m sure those baby days were more hectic than the idyllic moments I nostalgically long for, but those moments of breastfeeding bonding that it took me so long to achieve are my most treasured memories of early motherhood.

Every time I caressed my belly during this fourth and final baby, I looked forward to continuing our bond through nursing, but it has not come easy, even with all my motherhood experience. Sophie’s tiny preemie mouth was too weak to latch on, and I spent our first six weeks together juggling pumping and lengthy bottle feeding sessions. Instead of cradling with tiny Sophie in the corner of the couch, I hooked myself up to a machine while my older kids looked on with alarm. At the beginning of every feeding, I let Sophie fumble at my breast until she cried with frustration. I felt like letting my tears flow too: tears of exhaustion, of stress, of temptation to just give up and simplify things. But stress keeps the milk from flowing so I breathed deep, really deep, and bottled my tears.

Then suddenly, last week, the stars aligned and Sophie latched on. No crying, no screaming, just strong, quiet, deep pulls of her mother’s milk. Thirty minutes later, she fell asleep, full and peaceful. As REM sleep took over, her mouth relaxed into a broad, gummy smile, and finally, I let a tear flow.

21 Responses to My Long Road to Lactation

  1. It is amazing how some simple paragraphs can evoke such distant memories as if they were yesterday. My oldest girl is 31 and I was determined to breast feed her. I did not have the issues you did but I sure had that lactation nurse! Somehow we managed to get through a week in the hospital (back then, that’s what a C-section got you) and settled into an easier routine once in the comfort of our home.

    I nursed both of my girls until there were over a year old; neither ever had a bottle and for that I have some regrets. Their father should have helped and I should have had a bit more freedom from those demands but the one thing I will never forget. When I finally weaned both of them I think I was the only one who missed it!

    So glad to hear your Sophie is on track. She is absolutely gorgeous!

    • Why would someone go into lactation counseling and be mean? I’ve wondered about that for years and am sad you had a tough experience. Perhaps if a little more money was devoted to funding lactation counseling, these women would not be so strapped for time and would be able to get new mothers off on the right foot at the hospital.

    • Thanks Amy! I always hesitate before pushing send on these more personal posts and I’m so glad that this one resonated with you.

    • Rachel, I love the idea of Sophie’s lifetime of great meals. We’ll see if she’s as adventurous an eater as Juliette, there might be another benefit to breastfeeding: fostering an adventurous palate!

    • Thanks Caroline! I’m glad that wrote about it on the blog. I miss writing with you guys so much in NJ, taking a step back every Tuesday to write about motherhood was the most amazing experience.

  2. When my daughter was born, we struggled for three months to breastfeed. When she was three months old, I had to return to work. Because I could not express milk, I was forced to switch to formula. My son and I had a more successful experience, though it took three months for us to learn the process and for the pain to subside. I am glad we stuck it out; it proved to be a peaceful, joyful experience.

    • These feeding decisions are so intense and personal which is why it bothers me when so much pressure is put on moms to breastfeed. I’m glad that Sophie is now getting the hang of things, but I wish that I hadn’t felt so guilty when I didn’t breastfeed my first two kids. Finding a balance and a way to be a zen mom is the most important thing, without ratcheting up the pressure.

  3. I’m so glad things are working out now. What a relief you must be feeling. I nursed all four of our children, and your story of Nazi milk lady brings back memories for me of when my first girl was born. She wasn’t even an instructor…she just came in the room as I was trying to nurse, and she grabbed my breast and Gina’s face (HARD!) and jammed us together. It was horrible! But I must say that after that I was hooked on breast feeding. There is just something so special about when they get to that true smiling age, and they look up at us and try to smile, making all the milk run out of their mouths. Precious! LOL Those are among my fondest memories of nursing.
    I hope you will have many great quiet moments with Sofie, soaking in her innocent, beautiful magic.

  4. Amazing !! This is such a beautifully written post…and a great reminder that everyone’s experiences with breastfeeding are very, very different.

    I had such as easy time nursing my 4 boys, that sometimes I forget how hard it can be for some women. Thank you.

    Breastfeeding is such a beautiful and memorable experience, it makes me sad when I hear stories of women who struggle so much and don’t get the chance to have that connection with their baby…glad to hear that you were able to persevere and obtain the goal of nourishing your baby in the best way possible.

    Cheers to you !

  5. Beautiful story! I had a similar experience with the lactation consultant with my first son. Thankfully, I had a very compassionate nurse who on the third day was able to help me figure the whole breastfeeding thing out. Thankfully I have been able to breastfeed my children, but my youngest is 4 1/2 months old and I am already losing my milk supply. I have been hard on myself about this situation, but I have decided to not let it stress me out. My grandmother had 19 children and was only able to breastfeed a couple of them, so I think I am doing okay. I also feel that moms are too hard on each other. My three children were all born via cesarean. The first was emergency, the second two planned based on my doctor’s recommendation. I had a mother once tell me that I took the “easy way out”. Really? I would have LOVED to be able to give birth naturally!

    • Julie,
      It’s been a whirlwind two months, but a great one. So nice to be going through all of it again with Sophie. Even with the sleep deprivation, it feels like a really wonderful gift. Great to hear from you!

  6. I should have had a bit more freedom from those demands but the one thing I will never forget is the day that God gave so much blessing.

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