Joy, And Pain

June 10, 2008

I wrote a post last week that I now regret writing. Sort of. I suppose that it’s more accurate to say that I now have reservations about having written it: regret is the wrong word, seeing as the writing of it (and the responses to it) proved immeasurably valuable to me. Writing about how painful and difficult breastfeeding has been in the first weeks of my baby’s life was a necessary rant, a venting of my frustration with the seemingly infinite degrees of pain involved and with the near-total lack of resources for dealing with that pain, and the responses I received were invaluable in helping me overcome some of that frustration (advice on changing holds and being diligent about nipple creams was especially life-saving. I’m now at the stage where nursing feels less like having my bare nipples dragged over rough pavement and more like having them lightly sanded. Still painful, but tolerable.)

But when I wrote about that frustration – and the pain causing that frustration – the last thing that I wanted to do was discourage anyone from nursing their own babies. So when I read this comment – “Wow… I’m only 9 weeks preggers and a friend asked the other day if I’m planning to breastfeed… my answer was that I was planning to try… but holy shit – I think I’m now terrified by all the comments and your post itself…” – my heart broke a little bit. I don’t want to cause anyone to not breastfeed. Not just because breast is best blah blah blah, but because – once you get past the pain – and you do get past the pain, you really do – nursing provides some of that post-partum bliss that everyone promised but that in reality seems in such short supply.

I haven’t persevered with breastfeeding because it’s the healthiest option for my baby – that’s a bonus, of course, but having been a bottle-fed baby myself I know that formula-fed babies turn out just fine. Nor do I persevere because of some vague hope that breastmilk will magically confer extra IQ points or artistic genius or a scholarship to Harvard upon my child – I’d sacrifice one or two of my kid’s IQ points and risk condemning him to community college or trade school in order to avoid having my nipples torn off, no question. I’m selfish like that. So, no, I haven’t stuck with the nursing through all of the pain and frustration just because the medical establishment and La Leche League tell me that it’s what good mothers do. I’ve tried being a conventionally good mother, and have found that it’s much easier and nonetheless effective to just be a loving and devoted slacker mom, which is to say, I have no opposition in principle to formula and bottles.

I persevere in nursing, simply, because there is no sweeter joy than looking down upon my baby’s tiny, perfect head as he bends over the nipple and nestles there, his wee arm curling ’round the outer curve of my breast, grazing my skin with his impossibly tiny, impossibly soft fingers. Even as the pain pierces my chest and my tears splash upon his brow, the joy is there, the love is there, keeping my hand pressed upon his back and under his cheek, pulling him to me, ever closer, his gurgles and sighs and the sweet smell of his skin a balm for the pain. The knowledge that I can do this for him, that I can nourish him, that I can comfort him, that I can be all the warmth and comfort of the womb and then some, is balm for the pain and sunlight against any encroaching dark. This is why I nurse.

I know that it will get easier. I know that we will reach a point, he and I, when the force of his suckle will be met by the toughened strength of my breast and we will nourish each other in comfort. And I know that when it ends, inevitably, I will look past the weeks of past and frustration and fix my heart upon the sweetness and joy and mourn the passing of this precious, precious time.

This is why I nurse. This is why I hope that every mother makes the effort to nurse, that every mother has the chance to hold her baby to her breast at least once and know how sweet that effort.

But it would be a lie to say that that effort is anything other than what it is – an effort, one that is often painful beyond imagining.* I wish that I’d understood that before I undertook that effort the first time. This time, I know, and that knowledge is carrying me through the pain. It’s nonetheless painful, but it is a lot less emotionally draining this time around (the emotional drain comes from withstanding the boob pain while also struggling through the pain of shredded nethers and trying to wrangle a manic toddler on little food and even less sleep. That, nothing prepares you for.)

Painful beyond imagining, but oh so rewarding. That’s not just breastfeeding; that’s motherhood. It’s so worth the effort. It really is.

*Often, not always. As a number of commenters have reminded me, it’s not tough for everybody – some women cruise through breastfeeding with ease (the same is true of pregnancy, labor and childbirth – not everybody gets morning sickness, not everybody labors for hours and hours – or, as in my case, weeks – and not everybody delivers under extraordinary circumstances and sustains physical damage like I did). No two experiences of any aspect of motherhood are the same. Embrace your own, and do what you need to do to make the best of it, whatever it looks like. xo

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    hschinske June 12, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Hey, Rusti, I just wanted to say that Catherine’s experience *has* been unusually tough. Don’t worry too much that yours is going to be like it, because the odds are in your favor that it will be easier. What I’d take away from it if I were you is the realization that we’re social animals and need a lot of support pre- and postpartum. Even if you have an easy time, planning for an extra pair of hands and an extra sympathetic voice in the house can’t hurt.

    I also think a lot of breastfeeding problems (not all, obviously — I’m not talking about the kind of thing C. has been through) seem small in retrospect, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t loom large at the time. It’s like having a rock in your shoe: you just can’t function until you get it out, and then when you do, it usually turns out to be so small that you can’t believe it hurt you so much. But never make the mistake of saying “I’ll just get over this hill before I stop to take the rock out …” (hope that made sense!)


    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    There is a primeval notion to breastfeeding, an act that connects us to the natural world of mammals and primates, apes, for instance, nursing their young for a period of 4 to 6 years.

    But unlike the natural world, we, in our human realm must content with the difficulties, frustrations, and ultimately, the choices so frequently fraught with guilt, and remorse.

    “I’ve never seen a wild thing feel sorry for itself.”
    -D.H. Lawrence

    Jenifer June 12, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I have many friends who nursed well past the one year mark with no pain at all. In my case, and it seems with many of us it was horribly painful – to the point where I nearly fainted. I think it is unique for everyone and for those of us who have such pain an added challenge that we have to face in those early days. I expected sunshine and rainbows, no one prepared me for what I experienced and I think your post would have made me feel a million times better knowing I was not alone.

    Steph June 12, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Beautiful post.

    Jaelithe June 12, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    I think many women who nurse decline to talk about how challenging (anmd painful!) it can be precisely because they fear they will turn first-time expectant mothers off from the notion of nursing at all. I think that’s also why so many lactation consultants outright lie to women, saying “It won’t hurt unless you do it wrong.”

    But the problem with this approach is that so many women give up nursing in the first few weeks, convinced that they are inadequate or broken in some way, that they ARE doing something wrong, because they had no idea that nursing would be such a challenge. And then they feel guilty for failing.

    I think you did the right thing by telling the truth about your situation. And I think you’re doing the right thing now, too, by pointing out the reasons not to give up on nursing.

    I nursed my son for two years. I nursed even though my breasts became painfully, ridiculously engorged during the first couple of weeks (which of course I was told by a lactation consultant meant I must be “doing something wrong,” until I came in and she saw my son was gaining wait beautifully and had a perfect latch). I nursed even though my nipples cracked repeatedly through the first month. I nursed even though my job made it almost impossible to pump– in fact, I eventually quit that job so that I could stay home nursing. I nursed even after my son got teeth and started biting me.

    This was not because I am a masochist. It is because there is absolutely nothing like nursing. Aside from the health benefits I knew I was conveying on my son and myself, nursing made me feel more connected to my son. It made me feel like I still had a hand in creating and sustaining his body, even after his birth. It forced me to stop whatever I was doing every few hours and focus solely on him. And while that in and of itself was frustrating at times, I believe it made me a stronger, more focused mother in many ways.

    Of course sometimes bottle feeding makes one a less-stressed, happier mother. It all just depends on the situation.

    jt June 12, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    I had a horrible time starting nursing with all 3 of my daughters, just miserable, painful, frustrating. I loved every minute of it once we got it down tho’, because you’re right, there is nothing in the world like looking down at that sweet little body nestled up to you. My last one broke my heart, she only nursed until she was 9 months old, and then kicked me to the curb. 7 years later, I’m still mad at her for that :) .

    TZT June 12, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Thank you for this – it’s lovely and brought tears to my eyes. It’s true that every experience is different. I had a mostly happy pregnancy, a scary and difficult birth and surprising ease with breastfeeding.

    I would add that anyone giving birth in a hospital where there are lactation consultants should use them, because they can help even if you’ve read and read and prepared. My son and seemed to be doing okay on our own, but I called for reenforcement coaching before I went home – I think that the Lactation consultants being able to see what I was doing, and giving me pointers about position switching, adjusting my hold, using the lanolin, etc. helped me to avoid pain before it happened.

    jenB June 12, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    hugs and loves and you are doing just fines. xoxoxoxoxoxo

    Shannon June 12, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    There are many like us. Many who had a hard time nursing, but upon reflection, would not take back our decision to breastfeed. There are many reasons that we feel this way. There are times when I look back and think that perhaps I would have been healthier mentally if I had switched to bottles at the time. I was very stressed out. But I am so glad I got the chance to be close to my kids in that way.

    I think the best thing a new mother can do is be informed. Read, take classes, talk to other mothers who have breastfed, and make sure you know what resources are available to you in your community. Although the lactation consultants never had anything of significant value for me in terms of nursing positions or latch techniques, it helped SO MUCH just to have someone who knows about nursing tell me what a champ I was for hanging in there and promising me it would get better.

    justmylife June 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Beautifully written! And totally true. Glad everything is going smoother.

    Jenn June 12, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    That was beautiful! I think if you want to breastfeed go for it! I think it’s awful how some people make others feel bad for doing it and then there are some people that make you feel bad if you don’t. I think it’s your baby and you should do what feels right for you!

    Jen June 12, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Well said. I can identify with your reasoning, and with being a loving and devoted slacker mom. So many things about motherhood fit the bill of being “so worth the pain”. Thanks for your honesty!

    ScientistMother June 12, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Please don’t ever regret being honest. It so important for the different realities to be know. Especially for those like me. I was meant to nurse, milk came in no problem, monkey latched no problem. It was easy and I loved it. I do not say this to make you feel bad, but to say that until I read your posts, I never understood why women said they hate it. You have given me perspective, shown me the other side and I understand, I empathize and I can say to other women I KNOW you are not alone in your pain and that you can do it, it does get better.
    And nursing is so worth it. I lost so much weight and energy making the year, and if I could physically have continued I would’ve. Its been 6 months since I weaned monkey and every night lying before he goes to sleep I yearn to nurse him again

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I enjoyed your post very much. Mostly because it was real. You said your opinion and at the same time you did not take any side what so ever. I think that is one of the reasons that your blog has good number of readers.

    Before saying my comment (which will be very much different from almost everyone up there), I have to say that I am a mother of two and both of my children were breastfed for one year, successfully with little pain and discomfort at the beginning.

    But I STRONGLY OPPOSE to this notion of “breastfeeding” is amazing and good and natural for EVERYONE…this whole movement makes so many women absolutely in the bottom of a self created hell if they CHOOSE – yes CHOOSE- not to breastfed.

    The breastfeeding should be a choice for the mother, no and or but.

    There is NOTHING wrong if the woman CHOOSES not to do that for personal reasons, and she should not be obliged to have a more “acceptable” reason for it. I mean in my profession I deal with a very good number of mothers that feel a bad mother if they choose not breastfed or if they really do NOT get the same pleasure as the rest of the blissful population gets.

    In the comments above all these wonderful mothers talk about the fact that now they can not breastfed because of the medical reasons or because of other FORCES. There is NOTHING wrong with a woman who decided to become a mother and who CHOOSES to bottle fed her baby not because of a medical reason but for totally personal reason.

    The same way that there is nothing wrong with a totally healthy woman decides not to become a mother…

    Let’s face it, it is true that we are mammals, and it is true that we are women…. but not necessarily all the females mammal HAS TO BECOME A MOTHER and not necessarily ALL the FEMLES MAMMELS THAT CHOOSE TO BECOME MOTHERS, HAVE TO BREASTFED. After all we are the only mammals that have the CHOICE in life…in everything in life.

    As a psychologist – with the specialty in the children filed I may add- who spends her time both in practice and research, I can not say that the fact of a women breastfeeding, makes the bonding more strong or less.

    The relation between a mother and a child is built on so many verities and not necessarily one makes it more important than the other.

    What we, all of us, has to start question is that why there is so much “guilt” in the psyche of women and more than that in the psyche of mothers?
    Personally and professionally I think a major part of it comes from the society and surprisingly a good percentage of it comes form other women and other mothers.

    Thank you “Her Bad Mother” for allowing all of us voice our differnt opinions in your post.

    Giulia June 12, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    “Even as the pain pierces my chest and my tears splash upon his brow, the joy is there, the love is there, keeping my hand pressed upon his back and under his cheek, pulling him to me, ever closer, his gurgles and sighs and the sweet smell of his skin a balm for the pain. The knowledge that I can do this for him, that I can nourish him, that I can comfort him, that I can be all the warmth and comfort of the womb and then some…this is why I nurse” I wish I had written this – and I am so glad that you did, so perfectly, as it expresses so well what I always felt. I never left a message here before, but I love your blog, I love your writing and I love how you nail such difficult emotions and feelings related to motherhood. I sit here reading you and I often cry because you and what you write move me so deeply. Nobody told me that breastfeeding was going to be such a powerful thing in my life – I stopped a year ago when my son turned 19 months, and I feel it’s one of those things that made my life sweeter and the memory of it always make me smile – and I also remember the pain at the beginning, which you describe so well and that I had forgotten….I never really thought of stopping nursing, not even when I had mastitis after 8 months, because despite the pain I loved those moments, that were only ours, how I could have my son all to myself, and in the end when he was already a year and a half I would joke with him while he was nursing and he would laugh while at it and we would laugh together so much, it is just the sweetest memory, I hope I can do it again with another baby soon enough. Thanks for putting it all out in writing.

    Mama Luxe June 12, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I think in writing about breastfeeding, at all, you are being far more encouraging than discouraging.

    Online, you get the feeling that breastfeeding is more popular than the numbers show…and it is especially nice for those who live in areas where breastfeeding is even rarer to see it discussed openly.

    And I think a lot of women are SHOCKED by the initial challenges. So maybe a realistic look, sans rose colored glasses, will help them through those early days.

    Hope you are feeling better!!!

    Kate June 12, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Beautiful post: writing and image are magic together. Being a visual person, I had to track down the source and found it fitting that the artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker, was a strong, smart and beautiful woman – fitting accompaniment for HBM!

    Leah June 12, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    What you do here is not just a record but a public service.

    Laural Dawn June 12, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    well said.
    When I read the comments, what stood out to me was not whether or not you should breastfeed but that there were a whole lot of women saying that you are a good mother no matter what choice you make.
    I think that’s the message that should be sent out – and unfortunately it gets lost behind the breast/bottle debate.
    Good for you for persevering though. With my son I never really loved breastfeeding – I did it because I felt the pressure, but with my daughter the choice has been solely mine and I’m finding it far more manageable (and also the only time that is hers alone).

    Lady M June 13, 2008 at 1:00 am

    I think everyone is faced with difficulties somewhere. There is only one woman that I know who had a blissful pregnancy, easy delivery, and took to breastfeeding with no troubles. She was hospitalized for post-partum depression. So we all pay somewhere, and some of us in more than one place.

    Yesterday, I wrote about wondering why new mothers aren’t told there are many options besides exclusive breast feeding and exclusive bottle feeding. I’ve seen too many ladies suffering so much pain and not realizing it isn’t all or nothing.

    Michaela June 13, 2008 at 4:54 am

    That gave me goose bumps… My daughter drank ‘pink milk’ more than once during the first 8 weeks of her life and there were moments when I cried and flinched when I could see her getting hungry. I remember one day, sitting on the sofa, nursing her, tears streaming, looking over her across the room into my husbands eyes, my pain reflected in his eyes, he told me silently ‘You can do this’. And I knew I could, and I did, for many many months to come and I persevered exactly for the reasons you describe: Because it’s beyond beautiful. To me, nursing my baby has been the essence of it all. To know that the milk my body produces to readily for her keeps her alive and well and comfortable, and, once the pain subsides and the two of you have figured it out, to sink into that space of comfort and connection – it is truly magical. I still miss it.

    carolyn June 13, 2008 at 9:09 am

    As with all things in mommyhood you just do the best you can all the time. Some people can nurse, some can’t. Some people can babywise their kids to sleep, some can’t (maybe I’m jealous but I never understood how that worked.) Some mommy’s don’t use a pacifier, some (like me) relied on it. We’re all just dong the best we can.

    Vicki June 13, 2008 at 10:02 am

    My twins were 10 weeks early. I pumped from the time shortly after birth until 10 weeks later when I could no longer stand the pain. My babies could not latch, my nipples bled and cracked, but I pumped enough milk to feed both of them until they were 14 weeks old. I ached to feed them but couldn’t because of breathing machines and the like.

    I ended up quiting pumping because I found out that I was taking too much calcium (drinking milk, taking a multivitamin, and taking a calcium supplement) and it was causing me to have calcium crystals in my milk ducts which was stopping them up. After I quit taking the supplements (except the multivitamin) it was too late. The damage was done and one of my breasts would no longer produce milk. You can’t feed twins with one breast not working at all.

    I think what you are doing is brave, HBM, because you tell it like it is. You don’t sugar coat it for anyone but you do explain that you support anyone in their decisions. I’m proud of you and I’m glad that I found your blog. You truly are an angels’ voice in a sometimes dark world. Thank you.

    Maman June 13, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Why should you regret posting something that you actually felt at the time you were posting it?

    Because it is perpetuating the myth that motherhood is all sunshine, flowers and babies farting perfume?

    Some days it sucks and it is hard. But we do what we do because we think it is important and worthwhile.

    The end.

    Mandy June 13, 2008 at 10:47 am

    I am so glad you are feeling better.

    And I loved the Rilke post. One of my favourite writers.

    All the best.

    Beck June 13, 2008 at 11:28 am

    It will truly get easier. Really. And there is nothing sweeter in the whole world than a sweet baby breastfeeding, nothing at all.

    Des June 13, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    I am one of those moms who sailed through breastfeeding, so there is hope out there! But I also got incredibly fat and swollen with horrible morning sickness and 15 hours of labor. So I think I deserved one thing easy :)

    zellmer June 13, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    I had a hard time with my first baby, and like you, saw blood in my pumped milk due to cracked nipples. But the soreness went away after six weeks and when I tried to wean her at six months, I was such an emotional wreck that I had to continue. She could have weaned just fine, but I couldn’t. What you describe, so very well, is one of the greatest joys of motherhood. (Once they heal, of course.)
    I miss the nursing more than anything.

    followthatdog June 14, 2008 at 11:14 am

    I can identify with both the rough starts and the ecstasy of success. For something so natural and healthy, it can be pretty hard to figure out at first. But I am firmly in the camp that if you can get it going right, it is very much worth it, for both people involved.

    Hop things continue to go better for you.

    ame i. June 14, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I think expectant moms need to hear about the dificulties some go through with nursing, healing, etc. I was very lucky when it came to nursing my 2 daughters. I was hesitant to try with my first and even let the nursery give her a bottle a couple of hours after she arrived because the c-section was horrible and I was exhausted. I half-heartedly tickled her cheek with my nipple and was surprised how well she caught on.
    If expectant moms took all “horror stories” to heart, the human race would have died out a long time ago ;)
    A warning I do pass on to others: make darn sure you are numb before a c-section. I had an epidural and thought it was “natural” that I was regaining some feeling before surgery. I suggest women give themselves a mighty pinch on the tummy before the start of a c-section. If I had done that, it would have saved me alot of screaming and some nurses the trouble of restraining my husband to prevent him from entering the OR.

    Kelly June 15, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Beautiful and heartfelt. Simply put, I’ve done both: bottle and breastfed. Though both were intimate acts, I can say with certainty which one stays with me as something intense and primal. The first 5 weeks were a desperate struggle of pain and breastfeeding complications. Once we were past that, good Lord, the beauty of that relationship still floors me to this day.

    Duff June 17, 2008 at 9:10 am

    I was really glad you posted the now regretted post. It made me feel a bit more human as a mom for my experience. Because no one ever told me about breastfeeding as honestly as you did in that post.

    Give yourself a pat on the back for perservering. I didn’t, and I’m still not quite at peace with it.

    Chin up! (that’s to both of us, and all moms).

    Tiaras & Tantrums June 17, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Beautiful POST!!!

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