Author’s note: If no one’s relayed this information to you yet, breastfeeding is really, really hard for some people. Luckily, there are plenty of lovely folks out there whose job it is to make it easier—so, please, reach out to them if you’re overwhelmed by the whole thing. Also, if you’re opposed to nipple chatter, you may want to sit this one out.
I imagine the emotional thesaurus to be filled with infinite pages when it comes to the word motherhood, where every noun, sentiment, and tremor sleeps, represented in all its naked grandeur. Love is surely written there, but also chaos, doubt, occasional misery, and wretched happiness. And guilt, the prima donna.
Of all the bottomless items there are to feel guilty about when it comes to maternity, breastfeeding is one of those sparkling topics able to set you on your way to regret and shame well before you’ve even begun. Pediatricians, OBs, midwives, the internet, great aunts—they’re all ready and all too willing to remind you that #breastisbest so, yeah, just make it work.
Frankly, I never much entertained the possibility that breastfeeding may not work out. In my head, I speculated it would look something like a practical matter that my body, brain, and baby would all figure out intuitively. I didn’t romanticize it by any means, but I theorized a simple, effortless, natural transaction.
In reality, it was none of that.
My son was born three weeks early. Not so early that there were any hearty spooks or complications, but early enough that I felt drastically unprepared, relatively unearthed. He was small and hungry (he gets that from his mother) and jaundiced (all him). And because he was small, hungry, and jaundiced, I was advised to feed him as much as possible. So, I did. I fed him and fed him and fed him—without sleep or hiatus. Despite my determination and bleeding nipples, he remained small, hungry, and fell further into a chancy shade of sepia.
Militant lactation consultants rolled into our hospital room, inspected his latch, and shoved his face into my boob like a motorized vehicle, shifting from neutral into third. A crash of elbows and gums. They were doing their job, which I was grateful for, but it left me feeling foiled and mechanical. I would go on like this for days, weeks, and months, visiting different lactation consultants along the way. Their methods would diverge, but the conclusions my senses jumped to always remained.
Militant lactation consultants rolled into our hospital room, inspected his latch, and shoved his face into my boob like a motorized vehicle, shifting from neutral into third. A crash of elbows and gums. They were doing their job, which I was grateful for, but it left me feeling foiled and mechanical.
The blunt force realization that I wasn’t nailing it, with anything, but especially with motherhood, really sent me into a feet-over-head spiral. Which is to say I became extravagantly depressed. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the reality that I couldn’t give my baby—a baby I had hoped and wished for as long as I could remember, a baby that took time, supernatural patience, and a lot of hormonal elixirs prescribed by infertility doctors to create—the one thing that was supposed to be first nature. The thing that was best for him.
Then, by some hell-sent stunner of an unholy mess, I got mastitis. If you’re not familiar with the word, what that means is those bloody, chapped nipples of mine (yep, still talking about ‘em) caused an infection in my teat. Not just any infection either. Oh no, we couldn’t get the hang of breastfeeding, but, wow, we really outdid ourselves with the mastitis. I sweat through all my clothes, shivered so hard I couldn’t stand, and threw up for days. Next, my supply on that side became extinct.
Rather than giving in, I continued on our lactation consultant tour, baby still underweight. I scheduled appointments with our pediatrician for advice, she reminded me that I’m not a monster if I decided to give up, I ignored her. I went to my OB checkups, they gave me antidepressants, I swallowed them down. My very brave, very empathetic husband sat a sample of organic, non-GMO formula on the kitchen counter—you know, just in case—and I was filled with enough rage to start a riding lawnmower.
You see, when it comes to hormones and will, there’s hardly standing room for rational reasoning or well-intentioned advice.
So, I kept at it despite it not working. I kept at it because I couldn’t accept the failing. I kept at it because I was especially unenthusiastic about transgressing my baby. I kept at it while hating myself with a bitterness I can still taste. I kept at it as I lost track of the number of times I let tears squeak out, allowing gravity to drop them plumply onto the forehead of my newborn. I kept at it while offering my friend, also a new mother, the kind of judgment-free advice I, myself, resisted.
I kept at it for eight months because I was disgraced by the mere thought of being unable to provide an infinite best.
Best—an old, familiar antagonist, a warted demon in a cheap plastic princess tiara. Oh, yes, we’ve rendezvoused before. Though, giving credit where it’s due, that word, in this context, did inspire me to make a few much-needed amendments to what it could mean to be the best mama to my stupidly wonderful baby boy.
So, I gave the definition arguably too much thought.
And here’s the short version of what I came up with: Maybe being the best mom means turning down anything (and I mean that with the full heaviness of the word—an-y-thing) that keeps me from enjoying my baby and this condition called motherhood—every noun, sentiment, and tremor. Which meant breastfeeding, by my own translation, couldn’t make the cut.
So, I turned it down.
The part I didn’t expect is that, as soon as I threw in the breathable cotton nursing bra, I wished I’d done it sooner. Not because it was hard (which it was), but because I no longer felt like a passenger in my own body. I halted feeling hostile toward myself for not being enough.
The part I didn’t expect is that, as soon as I threw in the breathable cotton nursing bra, I wished I’d done it sooner. Not because it was hard (which it was), but because I no longer felt like a passenger in my own body. I halted feeling hostile toward myself for not being enough. I reveled in the luxury of wearing shirts without buttons or zippers. Most importantly, by giving up the thing I know bonds a lot of women and their offspring, I bonded even more with that little bald-headed baby of mine without worrying if he was still hungry or assuming he was absorbing a small fraction of my panic. The now laughable irony here is that I had wasted so much time feeling guilty about our excruciating breastfeeding saga only to now feel guilty about sticking with it for so long.
Looking back, through the fog-free mirror of retrospect, it’s obvious to me that I needed to come to my own definitions and decisions in my own time, after my own deliberations, to drop anchor with my own peace of mind. No one else could’ve told me what I needed to do—trust me, I invited them to over and over again and, bless their hearts, they did tell me, in their graceful, professional manner, over and over again. What I needed, though, was to realize that no one else had the place to tell me what was utmost; that space belonged solely to me.
So, if you’ve made it to the end of this essay, please don’t just remember a story about bloody nipples, but also remember this: You deserve some grace, so, I beg of you, give it to yourself—because there’s a fighting chance that whatever you’re doing is your best. And who could ask for more?
April (Swinson) Smasal spent her formative years in Wyoming, where her career options were limited to rodeo queen or writer. Foregoing the lure of an impressive belt buckle collection, she opted for the word thing. Now, she’s a copywriter and writer-writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Nick, baby boy, Hank Danger and very cute-slash-spoiled French Bulldog, Arnold E. Biscuits.
BY April (Swinson) Smasal - May 7, 2020
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
Thank you for sharing this. I stopped breastfeeding early on (pumped milk and formula worked well) and I never missed it. I felt so stressed trying to make sure my baby was eating and gaining weight. Once he was on bottles, I never felt that same kind of anxiety and could spend my time enjoying being his mother.
Thanks for reading, Annie! So glad to hear you found something that worked for you and allowed more happy times with your little guy.
I relate to so much of this. My kid was actually a feeding champ, but I had terrible, wake me from a dead sleep pain regularly, and when I switched to pumping my supply dropped. He didn’t mind the gradual switch to formula and we were both so much happier when we weren’t struggling.
Oof. It’s all so, so tricky (and hard!), but I’m happy to hear you both found a way that worked for you. Thank you for reading, Lesley!
thank you for this. we fought through an incredibly hard beginning and are still going strong 12 months later. however, i feel that the obsession with making it work (through prematurity, nipple shields, triple feeding, 3 bouts of mastitis) robbed me of precious moments in the beginning of motherhood. it’s hard enough already. if society would share more about the difficulty and taxing nature of the breastfeeding journey, i think moms would be better equipped when it all starts to feel so heavy. happy mother’s day!
So happy to hear you’ve been able to make it work, Susanna (especially with all those hiccups, yoy) and could not possibly agree more about the societal pressures (to the left with that, huh?). Happy Mother’s Day to you. Thank you for reading!
Brought tears to my eyes reading thinking of how I felt with my first. When I went back to work I’d pump and pump and would come home barely anything. Kept at it forever because I felt so guilty. The day I let it go was such a huge relief that I wished I’d done it easy sooner because it was never easy. I tell every new mother I know that it is ok!! All we can do is our best!!!
Ugh, it can be such a tough, lonely time for some of us, but I’m glad you found peace with it in the end. Thank you for reading and Happy Mother’s Day!
Every new mom needs to read this. Prior to supplementing (and eventually transitioning to all formula) I was crying every night, trying to pump enough to get my daughter through daycare the next day. Then we went on a trip with a mom I thought “had it all together” (aka in my mind she was for sure breastfeeding) and she brought along a tub of formula! It pulled back this huge curtain for me and helped me realize that there are MANY healthy and safe ways to feed your child. It gave me permission to start supplementing and was a… Read more »
Oh, Olivia, I am soo happy you had the support of someone like your mom during what sounds like a pretty tricky time. Happier still to hear that you found a turning point with your PPD. Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and for your comment. Happy (almost) Mother’s Day!
Yes yes yes. I live in the Bay Area and there is such a stigma about “giving up”. I had so much trouble getting my son to latch. We discussed getting his tongue clipped because of a possible tongue tie, spoon feeding him milk in the middle of the night, etc. I stopped breastfeeding at 3 months because I was having serious PPD and anxiety. Our pediatrician wasn’t comfortable with me breastfeeding with the meds I was taking. I felt so much guilt- was formula going to ruin my kid? But then after the first full day of formula he… Read more »
It was a smack in the face to realize just show closely breastfeeding and PPD were tied for me, too. And, whoa, it sounds like you really had a go of it—I’m happy you found relief and a new routine that worked for you and that made you (and your son) happy, too. Thank you for reading, thank you for your comment and have yourself a happy little Mother’s Day, will ya?
Thank you, this was timely for me. I’m 3 weeks postpartum and currently doing a half nursing/half formula regimen for a handful of reasons. My breasts hurt constantly. I don’t know how long I’ll continue, and I may keep going if there’s improvement, but deprogramming my brain from all the external noise and expectation over breastfeeding is necessary, either way.
Ohhhhh, Jamie. If I wrote this post for anyone, it was specifically for you. I cannot imagine going through breastfeeding troubles ON TOP of how lonely and chaotic the world is right now. No matter what you choose to do, I promise you, you’re doing the right thing and you’re doing a bang-up job with this motherhood stuff. All those cliches? They’re true. A feeding relationship (no matter how) is between no one but the mama and the baby and there are a million ways that can be—there’s no one-way-suits-all. And it does get soo much easier—every ounce of it.… Read more »
Such an important message! I literally have permanent scars on my nipples from breastfeeding. Becoming a mother is a challenge but the pressure to breastfeed is counterproductive and hurtful to many women. I took a class on breastfeeding and they made it sound like every problem could be overcome with the right latch and enough effort. That is simply not true for all women, and honestly, not always worth the grueling physical pain and emotional toll.
Soo true, Sarah. We’re hard enough on ourselves, without the help of outside or societal pressure. Thanks for reading and taking the time to send a note!
Here, here! Thanks for sharing. I was in a very similar boat, hungry baby, mastitis, minimal supply. The moment I threw in the towel my world changed; I began to realize how much better it was on the other side.
Hey, Crystal! Thanks for reading. I’m so happy to hear you’re on the other side of it all now. Happy belated Mama’s Day.
Great Article. I’m not even a lactating mother and the topic was catchy enough to bring me. The content too is top-notch! I love the whole of it! I even shared it on my twitter.
Aw, that’s the highest compliment! Thanks so much for reading, sharing and taking the time to send a note here—I appreciate it, ever so.