I think one of the main issues women face is the contradictory messages we receive about motherhood in general. For example, we spend a ton of time preparing and learning about the birth of our first child and very little time learning about breastfeeding and what life is like after having a baby. We are told that our lives will change dramatically but also get the message that if our life changes too much (especially our bodies, work, hanging out with friends) then obviously we aren’t coping very well. We are told ( and sold a ton of junk) by parenting “experts” that life will be easier if you do “x” “y” or “z”. It’s frustrating because, truthfully, parenting takes time and a ton of effort.
I took a breastfeeding class before my daughter was born because I wanted to be well prepared. It helped enormously. After the birth, I was numb from the c-section and had a hard time recognizing if she was latched on correctly. So my nipples took a beating—they were cracked and sore for the first week or so. I remember trying to tell myself that they weren’t that bad and then my mid-wife said “ooh-ouch” when she saw them and I finally realized that they were pretty bad. It was quite painful to feed during this time and my partner would hold my hand each and every time Maeve latched on and help me breathe through the pain.
My daughter has always been a quick nurser and I was worried that she wasn’t getting enough milk because she often barely nursed for 5 minutes at a time. She was gaining weight well though and I remember feeling so relieved when the midwife said that Maeve broke a weight gain record in their practice! It really helped to hear that—especially since my nipples were so sore at that time. I also got a prescription for Dr Newman’s nipple ointment which was a total godsend. It really allowed my nipples to heal and helped with our underlying thrush issue.
Nursing for some people is intuitive and I can say that it was for me too—after about the first 6 weeks (ha ha). Before this, I would often feel like I had “forgotten” how to nurse overnight…I couldn’t get comfortable, my arms ached, the hold that worked so well at the last feed now was totally unwieldy, Maeve would splutter and choke. It took me a long time to understand how my own nursing body worked. I had a serious oversupply issue and all the advice I was getting only made matters worse. It seemed like all the breastfeeding information focussed on under-supply issues rather than oversupply issues. Dealing with an oversupply can be really challenging (and painful). It took a while for me to learn how to manage the amount of milk I made (I had a hard time eating or drinking certain things that made me produce more milk) and the way my daughter liked to eat (voraciously but very short periods). I would suggest that anyone with an oversupply try block feeding which is what eventually worked wonders for Maeve. She would feed from one breast during the day and the other at night. It was tricky (and lopsided) getting used to it, but it really helped to regulate my milk supply. So, after a while, and a ton of research, it finally ‘clicked’ and I have felt very confident in my abilities since then, despite having faced pretty much every nursing issue: clogged ducts, thrush and mastitis over the last 2.5 years. Wow, that sounds awful as I write it but it has honestly been one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. When I think back, I barely remember these problems and instead remember my daughter’s smiling eyes looking at me while she nursed or the way ‘mama milk’ soothed and calmed her. When she was a toddler, nursing was often the only time I had to sit and snuggle with her before she was off being a little whirlwind again.
I feel like I did get enough support, looking back, except perhaps at the beginning, when I needed it the most. The nurses at the hospital seemed to each have a different idea of what I should be doing and it wasn’t until I got in touch with the Newman clinic and found a variety of websites (like Kellymom.com) that I began to really educate myself and be an advocate for myself. My partner was amazing in supporting me through that rough time in the beginning. He held my hand every single time my daughter latched on in those early painful days. I will always be grateful for that.
I was pretty amazed at how quickly I got over my initial reservations about breastfeeding in public. Once Maeve was born, I just didn’t care who saw my breast when my baby was hungry (my stomach was another matter-yikes)! As my daughter got older, I would experience occasional feelings of awkwardness about breastfeeding in public, but it always seemed to work out ok. We moved to a small, fairly conservative town in Pennsylvania, when Maeve was a toddler and I was definitely more reticent about nursing in public there.
I breastfed for a long time—right up until my milk dried up during my second pregnancy. I have experienced a lot of weird comments from people about extended breastfeeding, even those who consider themselves staunch breastfeeding advocates. I am always surprised by them, but I try not to let them bother me too much. After all, before I started breastfeeding, I also thought it was not something I would do for long (1 year tops). Realizing that breastfeeding is about a relationship between you and your child really changed my view of the whole thing. I became a firm believer that child-led weaning was the best thing for Maeve and I. That said, I do wish people were more careful about the words they choose. I think people’s negative attitudes about breastfeeding (in public, extended, at all) really stem from a negative attitude about women in general and women’s bodies specifically, and to some degree we all carry that baggage around. But, that some (perhaps many) people find breast milk disgusting or gross is so insulting. I can’t quite understand how something produced in a factory can be seen as ‘cleaner’, healthier or just less gross than human breast milk. That said, I also think we need to have a broader conversation about women’s reproductive freedoms when we talk about breastfeeding. When we make breastfeeding about a woman’s choice, as an individual, divorced from context, then we aren’t really addressing the social, cultural and economic reality of most parents face.
Breastfeeding has been more than I imagined—but I could say the same of my entire parenting experience—more difficult, more rewarding, more painful, more time-consuming, more transformative, more educational, more exhausting, more loving, more acrobatic and more satisfying than I ever thought. I was older when I had my daughter and fairly set in my ways—breastfeeding changed the way I think about my body and it’s abilities (and frailties).
I also think that by viewing breastfeeding as merely a way to feed babies and children, we do a great disservice to children and parents. For me, breastfeeding has been about so much more–it is really a relationship between Maeve and I. It really is about two people (or more if you are doing tandem breastfeeding!) and we often don’t stop to ask kids what they think about breastfeeding. I think we should do that more.
My daughter learned to sign milk pretty early and would make the funniest, most desperate looking face when she wanted to nurse and be opening and closing her hand wildly. She needed milk right now!! When she learned to talk she called it ‘mee-o’ then ‘milt’, then ‘mama milt’ and finally ‘mama milk’. When I was pregnant with my son she would tell “the baby” (my belly) that he or she was “really gonna love mama milk!” She would also tell me that mama milk tasted like whatever her favourite food was at the time–so she’s said it tastes like cookies, blueberries, chocolate chips and my favourite, walnuts (that cracked me up).
I think maybe changing our attitudes around breastfeeding “goals” might help. We hold up the 1 year of breastfeeding as a yardstick and that can seem, really, really daunting to many people, especially when things are not going well. Maybe having smaller, more personal breastfeeding goals might be more useful—taking it one week at a time, one month, maybe even one day at a time. When I had trouble at the beginning just getting through the day (and er, night) was all I could focus on. Once that was over, I could think more long-term.
My advice to new moms? The postpartum time is so trying in many ways and for many reasons. You are dealing with recovering from birth, a totally changing body, getting to know your new baby, changing relationships, maybe money issues and work and family stresses. Be kind to yourself and keep asking for help until you get help that feels right. And, get some Dr Newman’s ointment! But, really, in the end just be kind to yourself. You’re a great mom.