It is 5:30am on one of the last days of March. The sky is still dark and the rain falls lightly in the early yawning of this morning here in Hendersonville on the outskirts of Nashville. I sit in the room we created for our son well before he was born. A changing table made from an old dresser with wipes and diapers and creams within reach. A new nursing chair (the splurge), my writing and reading station in these late night sessions. A crib he won’t sleep in for a while. An old tall shelf with books and stuffed animals along the wall. His name painted on reclaimed fence wood his uncle and grandmother made. A framed prayer that hung in my mother’s childhood room and a framed needlepoint that my mother made when I was born. The Prayer of St. Francis hanging on the wall behind where I rock him to sleep. In the months before he was born, I spent hours in this room meditating as the sun rose, hoping to connect with him in utero, singing, making up lullabies, hoping to reach through the hum so that when he arrived he’d know me by my voice.
But this morning, I don’t meditate. I pump. Which is what I do every 2 hours. Which is what I’ve been doing now for the past week. Meditation has gone the way of a 7 hour sleep, a daily shower, any clothes that are not fleecy soft and baggy, cooking, shoes with a heel, a 2 hour movie, making out with my husband, driving, thong underwear, my collection of long chunky necklaces, care about the music business, etc. You get the picture. I am a milk producer. I am 2 feedbags hooked to a medieval torture chamber called an electric double breast pump made by Medela that our insurance covered (thank goodness: these things are expensive), pumping out about 2 ounces of milk every 2 hours.
I knew I’d be pumping. I didn’t know I’d be pumping this much. Here’s the thing I’ve learned after being a mother for 12 days: it may be natural, but it isn’t easy and that’s normal.
Can we all talk about boobs without giggling like 3rd graders?
You hear a lot of the blissed out stories of birth and breastfeeding. The lovely, peaceful moments breastfeeding your newborn — mother’s milk. How incredible. How wonderful. How free. But nobody talks about how hard breastfeeding is unless you’re backed up against the wall yelling “uncle” and then the collective amnesia breaks. The new mother, broken, in a puddle of tears in the dark, begging another mother, surrendering “I give up. I can’t do this.” And the truth seeps out. This. Shit. Is. Hard.
Clearly, no one is trying to be misleading here. But it’s like the magazines kind of miss the mark in the retelling. Kind of like that time my mother explained sex to me and my sister with some vague runaround language — “beautiful…natural…God’s way…” — till I was completely baffled about the science of what really happens and I misconstrued intercourse to be an optional act which, at 8 years old, I deemed gross, and I made a firm decision — at 8 years old — that I would just skip the “man puts his private part in the woman’s private parts” thing because I still thought, after The Talk, that babies came from a Stork or God or eating broccoli, until one day, in 7th grade, I was with my new friends in my new town and we are all on a pink canopy bed reading Judy Blume’s “Forever” outloud and giggling at the dirty parts and when Teresa, who already was wearing a bra and probably had let Nicky Caringi touch her boobs, read the word “cum,” and the room grows still and reverent, and I ask what that is, revealing, to the cool girls, that I’m clueless about the chemistry and that I had been misled about the whole sex act and babies and all, thus becoming the butt of a year-long shaming campaign, betrayed by my mother who was probably caught off-guard all those years ago when my younger sister broached the subject after school one day by asking: “Mom? Did Dad have to pee inside your pee place to make babies?”
Similarly, I thought breastfeeding would be beautiful, natural, wondering. And easy. I was not prepared for the darkness that I’d quickly spiral down when things went south in the boob department.
It was easy at first, I thought. I was lulled into complacency. After my surgery, after they’d cleaned and swaddled Huck and laid him on my chest while sewing up my abdomen, they wheeled me into a recovery room for a few hours. I was bleary with overwhelming emotions of awe and joy and gratitude and disbelief. I was dizzy with the narcotic that had been given to me in the spinal. I was freezing cold, teeth-chattering and slightly afraid still of my own health. Jamey sat beside me. I barely remember this part, but a nurse put Huck to my breast immediately and, like a nature documentary, the baby crawled toward the nipple and put his gummy mouth over top and began sucking. Just like that. Without any instruction manual. He knew where to go. It was that easy. It felt like a tingle. A bit uncomfortable, a tugging, a gnawing. It didn’t hurt, but it was strange. More like an evolutionary pleasure – a warming of my entire chest and abdomen. I felt Useful. I felt like a Mother Goddess, like Kali, powerful and fully attuned to this new sense of purpose. Nobody showed me, at that point, what to do or how to do it. Huck found his way to food and latched on. I covered his head with my hand, Jamey held my own in his, and we watched. Incredulous.
During the 3 day hospital stay, we had many nurses, rotating around the clock. Mostly, Huck stayed with us in the room. My doctor came in every day. Our pediatrician came in every morning. We were well taken care of and I felt very lucky to have good health insurance that afforded us this opportunity for round-the-clock care. Jamey stayed in the room with me on the couch. Our friends and our families came to visit, bringing food, bringing balloons and flowers, sitting on the bed and crying tears of joy with me. We felt surrounded by a village of love.
Our hospital really encouraged breastfeeding and provided Lactation Consultants. Each nurse that took care of me had information on breast feeding and I soaked it up and asked a billion questions. But after a day, I noticed each nurse’s information was slightly different than the last, sometimes in direct contradiction. Of course, I was on pain meds, foggy and emotional, and it was a lot of information to take in when I was still reeling dizzy from the newfound awe of just having birthed an actual human being that looked a lot like my husband and who needed me to survive. I don’t remember being told when to breastfeed, but it felt like I was on a schedule, especially at night. Every 2 hours. It hurt and I’d ask each nurse for advice, soaking information in like an eager student. I wanted to get this right. A night nurse named Courtney, who I’d joked looked 12, was extremely knowledgeable and a great teacher. Courtney was incredibly helpful, showing me different holds, talking to me about what a good “latch” was. Another nurse wasn’t. She barreled into the room, elbowing her way through my friends Kira and Stacie, with a squeaky high-pitched overly cheery (I mistrust overly cheery people) “Royal We” way of communicating to me: “How are WE doing with breastfeeding today? How is OUR latch?” I kept my New Yorker in check (as Kira calls my bitchy side) and said, “I think I’ve got it. Courtney just helped me out” and demonstrated, utilizing the exact hold that I was just taught. This Miss Smiley Pants literally lunged at my breast saying, “well, WE aren’t really doing this right, are WE?” as if she was going to reposition my son on my flesh and I flinched and stopped her from touching me without permission. I can’t be sure I didn’t threaten her. I don’t know if I said “back the f away from my breast, girlie” or just thought it. Who knows. I was on painkillers and after 2 days of conflicting and confusing information, I was exhausted, I was frustrated, and I was angry. About an hour after Miss Congeniality left the room, the second Lactation Consultant came into the room with a more believable friendliness and asked how I was doing with breastfeeding and if I had any questions. I literally fell apart crying into her arms. I told her through incomplete babbling sentences “I’m…I don’t…I mean I think it’s right…but she said this…and then she did this…and then I felt…and then…I don’t know…and…” before I lost it again, snot dripping down my face, she watched me breastfeed Huck and said, “You’re fine! He’s feeding! You’re doing amazing!” She high-fived, me and left the room. I felt confident.
Now, I have had dark days in my life. I have dark nights of the soul where watching the clock pass the early morning hours was maddening, where the crying feels like falling into your own grave, where the hours from midnight to sunrise are a hell in a jail in a spiral maze without beginning or end. I have never experienced anything like the hell that is the first two nights alone in our house with our newborn. He screamed. I fed him. He sucked. He screamed. We changed him. I fed him. He screamed. I took him away from our bedroom (he is sleeping in a bassinet by the side of our bed) to the baby room to nurse him away from Jamey. He screamed. Jamey got up and tried to walk him through the house. We fought. I sweated through my clothes. We didn’t know what we were doing wrong. We were told at the hospital if we were breastfeeding to NEVER EVER give him a pacifier and to NEVER EVER feed him from a bottle as those would make a lazy latch. So we didn’t. We endured the longest two nights of our lives. At one point, I was sitting up in bed, Huck on my lap screaming, and I was just bent over him sobbing until I was wheezing. Jamey was worried about me. I felt like a huge failure. I didn’t know what was wrong. I was in pain everywhere. My belly hurt. My incision hurt and every time I’d move from side to side or sit up or sit down or roll over in bed, I’d feel a wet hot burning sting across my incision in my abdomen. And now, my nipples hurt. Not just hurt. They were on fire. On day 3, I inspected them to find a dark reddish purple line horizontally across the tip, cracking, bleeding and I could barely touch my breasts. Every time Huck put his mouth on my breast with his “perfect latch” (as I was told), it felt like he was biting me and I’d clamp a hand over my mouth so as not to scream outloud.
Our hospital offered group breastfeeding classes, but I needed someone to help one-on-one. I was losing it. No sleep and feelings of complete dissociation and failure. I was worried that Jamey thought I was exaggerating (he didn’t) and I didn’t want to bother anyone, thinking “I’ve got this” or worse, “I should have this” (always a dangerous sentence for me to even think). I called someone at La Leche League, who talked me off the ledge, then called a Lactation Consultant to make a home visit. She came the next day, took one look at my breasts and said, “Oh honey, of course you’re in pain. You have severe trauma going on there. Whoever told you that was a fine latch was high. It’s a shallow latch and of course he’s tearing you up.” I cried with relief this time: someone heard me and was going to help me. Turns out, my son had a tongue tie which was making for a shallow latch which was tearing up my nipple, creating an infection that needed treatment. The solution was to get the tongue tie cut and to pump exclusively for about a week to give my breasts time to heal and then to retrain Huck’s latch with the help of the coach. Thank god I posted a few little hints about my troubles on Facebook, and opened the onslaught of “Me Too” posts and advice that led to me calling someone for help, as I would have stayed in the dark, trying to feed a little boy who was only screaming because he was starving and not getting enough milk. During those few excruciating days, we were taking Huck into our pediatrician to get weighed as he had lost 11% of his birth weight. Each day, he gained nothing and the doctor’s tone took on a warning, “he has GOT to gain weight” which I heard as “You suck as a mother. What are you doing with those inadequate empty sacks attached to your chest. You should never have tried to do this at your age, you selfish selfish woman.” Jamey, worried as well, would very gently ask me, “I mean, how long did you feed him on each side?” (a reasonable question) and I heard “You suck as a mother. Anyone else could get this job done.”
Ok. I know this is all completely irrational thinking and I was even able to argue with my subconscious (she doesn’t mean it; he doesn’t know what his tone sounds like; you are doing your best). The Mean Girl voice shaming me met my Lioness voice who said, “Hey, back the f off…we’re trying here” but the critical voice would get louder and she sounded a whole lot like my scared 8 year old self who hid in the closet, sucking her thumb and cried a lot. Looking back only a few days later, it strikes me how fast down the shame spiral I went after having the best and most joyous day of my life giving birth to a healthy son. I know now I’m not alone in this rapid descent. After I received comfort, reassurance and real information from our coach, I reached out to all the mothers I know and the stories started pouring in. The “me too’s” started unfolding in front of me and I realized how many women had the exact same problem. Inadequate information given to them when they were barely conscious after a long, hard labor or in the hours after surgery. False warnings about pacifiers and formula (our consultant said, “supplement with formula if you can’t pump enough, he needs to gain weight until you can get him back on the breast and if you can’t, there’s nothing wrong with formula feeding”). Even men I knew shared stories of the dark days right after their wives gave birth, quietly offering their side in a semi-public forum. It helped.
I honestly thought I was losing it for a few days and those days felt like forever. The nurses were doing their best, I’m sure, and to be honest, I think Miss Congeniality may have been trying to give me the best advice of all of them, probably reaching to show me my latch was shallow, but I just wasn’t in a place to hear her and at that point, I was frustrated and just wanted to get on with it and get home.
The truth is: breastfeeding is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And many women try and then give up. Which is perfectly fine. Most of us are just winging it, reading as many books as we can, asking everyone for advice, getting the apps, buying the gear, etc. But even armed with a PhD of information, nothing prepared me for the hormonal seesaw of the week post-birth, just as nothing prepared me for the whiplash of feels when I saw my son for the first time, whole and healthy, emerging from my own body. It took a village to get me to week 2, where I’m not crying every few minutes, where I feel confident again, where I’m able to say “I don’t know” without trapping myself behind old patterns.
And so tomorrow I will begin again. And if it doesn’t work, my nieces and my nephews are formula babies and they turned out fine. There is no right answer. We are all just finding our way in the dark. But when the moon is low, we need flashlights. With decent batteries. And a few people who have walked that forest path before us to help us avoid the gnarly roots that could trip us up, and show us which direction to choose when the trail splits in two.
(Photo: Stacie Huckaba)