Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me? How Breastfeeding Rocked My World and Helped Redefine 'Natural' ~ A Personal Essay
by Stacey Libbert
I was so exhausted that even my stress and anxiety could not keep me awake, and I finally dozed off a little past midnight. I was able to sleep for three hours before I rolled over onto something hard in my bed. It hurt, and I as groggily sat up to see what was beneath the covers, I realized it was my breasts. Two days had passed since the birth of our daughter, Harper Lee, and my milk had come in.
Like my vision of pregnancy, labor and delivery, I had a very rosy picture of what breastfeeding would entail. I had already determined that I would breastfeed and had read up on all of the benefits for both mother and baby. To me, there was no other option. I had taken a class, studied the different techniques for getting a reluctant newborn to latch on, and I had armed myself with a very small, handheld breast pump just in case.
By that afternoon, Harper Lee was still refusing to nurse and the handheld pump had long since been tossed into a corner. It took well over half an hour to get less than one ounce of milk with the pump, and it made this maddening grinding whir that sounded like a miniature car with engine trouble. Meanwhile my breasts continued to swell, and the real misery set in. I had heard the term “engorgement,” and I understood intellectually what was happening, yet as my usually AA breasts grew to C cup proportions, turned red and began to throb, logic went the way of the breast pump.
The more they grew, the more Harper Lee fought me. I spent an hour to an hour and a half trying to feed her. Most of it was spent removing her clothing, rubbing cool cloths on her body trying to rouse her, and then soothing and calming her down all while attempting to coax her into latching on. By the time one feeding had ended, usually with a small bottle of formula and many tears from both of us, it was time to begin the whole process again. This was not what I had bargained for.
Before the birth, I had imagined lying peacefully next to my baby in bed letting her nurse when she wanted and just enjoying the moment. What I got was a never-ending battle, relentless sleep-deprivation and the reassurance that I was indeed not fit to be a mother.
I had read so much on the benefits of breast milk and the horrors of formula feeding that I was not prepared for anything less than a picture perfect breastfeeding experience. When things did not work out, I almost lost my mind. My husband actually found me one afternoon sitting topless in the middle of our bed rocking back and forth with glazed, lifeless eyes like an escaped lunatic while Harper Lee screamed in my arms. Unfortunately, I am the kind of person who does not wander from the pre-conceived path very often. Until I had a child I didn’t realize it, but I do not “go with the flow” as easily as I had once imagined. I had built breastfeeding up in my mind to be one of the most perfectly natural and fulfilling things I would ever do, and instead it had turned into a nightmarish fight. There was nothing serene or peaceful about it.
Over the next couple of days, things continued to go downhill. My breasts had become so hard that the handheld pump did not work at all. Harper Lee was a wailing, red-faced mess, and I could only express the tiniest bit of milk by lying in a hot bath and pressing firmly on my breasts with the palms of my hands. I began to run a fever.
My mother, who had come to stay for a week, took me to Wal-Mart to buy bigger bras, nursing pads and these strange little plastic tubes that were supposed to be worn around my nipples to increase flow. We also stopped by the supermarket for fresh cabbage. The cabbage was frozen and the leaves slipped inside my bra. It did not smell particularly attractive, but it lessened the pain. My husband, who like most men, had probably been anxious to see my new abundance of cleavage, took to staring at me in horror and disbelief and saying things like, “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” And it was. My formerly waif-like chest had exploded into that of a porn star, but there was absolutely nothing sexy about it. I was beginning to think I might die.
One particularly painful morning, I dragged myself from the bedroom, my eyes swollen from crying and lack of sleep, and said to my mother, “Is this normal?” She took one look at my inflamed red breasts, and shook her head. “Honey, I don’t know,” she said helplessly. My mother had given birth to me at a time when breastfeeding was not the norm and at a time when she herself was still a girl and thought the whole thing was “sort of gross.” Finally, I called a nurse.
“Sweetie, what you’re describing is perfectly normal. Just keep at it, “ she said cheerily.
Ordinarily, I would have accepted this and hung up the phone, but now my voice began to quiver, and I said, “But you don’t understand. I’ve done everything. I can’t get it out, but it’s still coming in.”
“Well, if you’re worried about it, you can come down, and we’ll see if we can help,” she said. I immediately began bundling Harper Lee, and we drove to the hospital.
Nurses see every situation imaginable, and I’m guessing that it would take a lot to raise even an eyebrow among obstetric nurses, yet as I carefully removed my shirt and let one of them hook me up to a “hospital grade electric pump,” she shouted out into the hallway, “Ya’ll, come and look at this!”
Two hours and many bottles of milk later, I left the hospital feeling somewhat relieved. Along with the relief, however, came that gnawing fear that Harper Lee would still refuse to nurse, and I’d be swollen and in pain again within twenty-four hours.
I tried to relax, to take the easy-going, mellow approach. After all, that’s what everyone kept saying. “Just relax. The baby senses your tension.” But as a new mother, relaxing is easier said than done. Even my friend Sandra, who is usually the picture of laid-back coolness, had to visit the dentist six months after her son Samuel was born. She had clenched her jaw so often she had actual cracks in her teeth.
To be honest, the next few weeks are a bit of a blur to me now. I remember two additional visits to lactation consultants. Of course, both times, Harper Lee latched on like a champ, but they were the only two times over the first seven weeks of her life. I remember crying in the pediatrician’s office as milk ran in rivers from my breasts, soaking the waistband of my pants. I remember calling several friends who tried to be supportive, and who probably knew exactly what they were talking about, but by that time, I had sunk so far into the abyss of self-pity and loathing, I thought no one could ever have experienced the same thing. Mostly, though, I remember my sweet husband driving at top speed along twisting rural roads in the dark of night to pick up the single available “hospital grade electric pump” in a three county area. He arrived back at our house around 9:30, breathless and frenzied, and I had never been so grateful to see anyone in my entire life.
Over the next five weeks, I pumped around the clock and fed the milk to Harper Lee by bottle. Sometimes I tried to anticipate her waking time, set my alarm and pump before she began to cry, so that it would be fresh and warm. Other times, I simply heated one of many bags of refrigerated milk, fed her, put her back to bed and then stayed up for another half hour to forty minutes pumping. It was not the best plan for adequate sleep, but it allowed me to breastfeed.
When Harper Lee was seven weeks old, she was lying on a blanket in our bathroom floor, and I was seated beside her as I dried my hair. She became increasingly fussy, so I said, “OK, we’ll try this just one more time.” I picked her up and put her to my breast, and she latched on like she’d been doing it for ages.
I continued to breastfeed for her first year, but Harper Lee, much to my dismay, weaned herself. I went through a low period that I could not quite figure out, and it was only after a couple of weeks that I realized how important nursing had been to me. This thing that had caused me such physical pain and mental anguish had become one of the most cherished experiences of my life.
I know now how important it was that I keep going. It was not an ideal beginning, and there were times that some acquaintances and professionals made me feel somehow inadequate and inferior because of it. Everything I read screamed at me for my failings. “Breastfeeding is easy if you’ll just follow these steps…” they all seemed to say. I followed the steps, but it was not easy, and quite frankly, I almost went crazy during the first two weeks. Only when I was able to let go of my vision of the way it was “supposed to be” was I able to calm down and do what worked for my baby and myself.
I had every intention of pumping as long I could endure it and then bagging the whole thing. I had decided that some breast milk was better than none at all, and I was OK with it although I suffered from a tremendous amount of guilt. Doctors, nurses, experts of every kind, and even friends made me feel as though I was making the wrong decision. There was always the friendly sigh and, “Well, I guess you’ll have to do what makes you happy, but breastfeeding really is best.” In between tears I felt like screaming, “No kidding! Why do you think I’m up twice as long as any other mother of a newborn and spending half of my life attached to a pump that’s sucking the life out of me!” Of course, I didn’t. I just let them make me feel guilty and more unsure of myself than ever.
I’m extremely grateful that I stuck it out and that I decided to give it one last shot that afternoon in the bathroom floor, but the whole thing made me realize that we, as a community of mothers, need to be more open to the idea that every child and every mother is different. Things are rarely what we expect when it comes to motherhood, and breastfeeding probably tops the list. If we want to encourage new moms to breastfeed their children, we shouldn’t bombard them with messages that breastfeeding is easy if they will just stick to it and follow these simple steps. Sometimes even the most iron-willed woman will cave in the face of smiling, well-rested individuals who say, “If you’ll just relax…, if you’ll just hold her like this…, if you’ll just hang on for two weeks, everything will be fine.” Sometimes it isn’t, and unconventional methods must be employed for the sake of one’s mental health. We need to remember this when dealing with our newest sisters. Children need a mother with a peaceful mind and a calm spirit as much as they need her milk. New Mamas, relax and find your own way. No matter what you do or how you do it, if it’s done with love, your baby will latch on.
Stacey Libbert is a mom, teacher, and coach. She writes, runs, and plays on the farm in State Road, NC with her husband, her two-year old daughter and their many cats and dogs.