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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    { 83 comments }

    womaninawindow June 11, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Nice. How brave of you, too. I have to say, if I would have been a part of this community during the birth of my kids and been able to be home with my babies I would have persevered. As it was, I was disheartened, tired and lazy. I’ll admit something here, months after I stopped breast feeding I yearned, REALLY YEARNED to have my daughter back at my breast. Of course, there was no milk. Of course, there was no interest. Put it was a pull that I couldn’t resist, couldn’t explain, and hated myself for leaving behind. You tough it out! You’ve got the right stuff! And if even then it’s too much, then you gave it your all! This post was much appreciated…

    Jezer June 11, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    I miss it so much. Sometimes, I can still feel the heavy ache of fullness and the tingle of letdown and that first little relieving stab of pain that never, ever went away, even after over a year of nursing.

    Man, I miss that.

    pacalaga June 11, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    That was beautifully written.

    emmysmum June 11, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Delurking to say amen, amen, amen! Beautiful and true.

    b*babbler June 11, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Sometimes I still miss that feeling, although we did everything possible to draw out my non-existant milk supply as long as possible, and towards the end I really was only acting as a soother several times a day, *and* in the end it was Peanut herself who drew to an end our breastfeeding days.

    But the effort? You hit it right on – so very worth it.

    kittenpie June 11, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I have to say, the pain I hear of makes me wonder, too, if I may give up for the pump again if it is that bad for me, but the knowledge that it should get better, that light at the end of the tunnel, gives me hope that I will tough it out. So thank you for that, friend, and I’m glad it’s getting better.

    The Estrogen Files June 11, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    Abso-freaking-lootely. Beautiful post. I’m glad that the pain has lessened.

    Rachael June 11, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Well said. Being someone who didn’t have the option open – I couldn’t breastfeed because my body simply didn’t produce milk – I would have given a lot to have the chance. I would recommend that ANY woman having a baby at least try. If it doesn’t work out, or it’s too much, then don’t feel bad about it. But if it does, it is a great priveledge to experience that.

    ewe are here June 11, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    A lovely post.

    Rebecca June 11, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Great post. Thank you.

    ilinap June 11, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    You are so right. I endured nursing my firstborn for six tortuous weeks. I had had a breast reduction 6 years prior so I had no way of knowing if the plumbing worked until I tried. It didn’t. It turns out some ducts were severed so I could produce the milk but could not get it out. OUCH. My baby lost weight at an alarming rate, prompting even the lactation consultant to step in with feeding syringes and bottles. She red flagged rock bottom before I did. I was, however, a bloody, scabby, raw mess. Poor Bird sucked and sucked and starved. My boobs produced milk every time he cried in hunger and then ached because they were so dang full. Misery. It got to the point where I dreaded feeding him. Not good emotionally, for sure. Nonetheless, I am so glad I tried. I am so glad I felt the bond of him feeding (or trying) from me. Nothing captures motherhood better in my humble opinion. The biology and emotion of nursing are amazing. And you know what? He’s a healthy, smart, precocious soon-to-be-5-year old now. Enfamil to the rescue!

    Sorry my comment was as long as your post.

    PDX Mama June 11, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Reading this is not good for my ovaries. Most of the time I feel I am “done” now that I have two, but sometimes…having another pops into my head and reading this does not help.

    Beautifully written, as always. Nursing can truly be a beautiful thing. I don’t think it was until my baby (who is now almost 5!!!) was over 3 months old that I really began to appreciate nursing for its emotional and physical connection. I had a long, hard road to get to that point and along the way, I just couldn’t understand the “bonding” aspect of it because it just seemed like so much work (NOT TO MEANT TO SCARE PEOPLE OFF!!!). But I remember nights nursing him to sleep, us laying down like in that picture (except I was clothed) and I would sometimes get teary looking down at him as we cuddled and drifted off to sleep. I knew that time that would come to end eventually and it was just so…perfect.

    Must. stop. thinking. about. babies. :-)

    Anonymous June 11, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I think you rock. Glad you, your baby and your boobs are doing better!

    lizneust June 11, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Amen, sister. Very well put.

    tracy June 11, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Great post!! I believe I was one of the comments echoing your sentiments of pain and frustration.
    But to any women approaching motherhood: despite the challenges, breastfeeding is one of the best things I did for them, for me and for us. And even with the sore, raw and scabby nips I think back and know I would do it- pain and all- over again… and again… and again….and again…etc.

    mothergoosemouse June 11, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Having been where you are only a few short months ago, I can personally attest to this same motivation for nursing.

    To all the self-doubters: It’s so worth it. I swear.

    Heather June 11, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    I’m there with you, right now. In the pain, in the tiring period of adjustment.

    Yes, it is so worth it.

    Little Monkies June 11, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    And just like everything in motherhood, it rolls differently for different people and different one child to the next. I will always be grateful to the friend who said “six week, six weeks, girl…that’s all you have to hold on”. And six weeks and a day the discomfort ended and it worked. Not warming a bottle at night, never being stuck without food for the little one…totally selfish for me because I like convenience and nursing is surely that.

    For me, the second time was easier, but again, it’s different with every kid.

    Mom o'Bean June 11, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Oh my god, I cried reading your elegy post. I have been nursing my daughter for 8 months and I feel like every day brings us closer to the end and I know I will be heartbroken. She started solid foods recently and when I commented that it made me a little sad, my husband said, “you can’t be her everything forever.” Crueler words were never spoken.

    HeatherK June 11, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    That one paragraph. You totally captured it. Those moments of connection–nothing like it. Glad it’s getting better bit by bit.

    Fairly Odd Mother June 11, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    I think that if more breastfeeding advocates said what you just wrote instead of some of the other pro breastfeeding rationale, there’d be more women who would be willing to try. Beautifully said.

    Tracy June 11, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Don’t regret the previous post. I find that women are unwilling to share their true breastfeeding stories with other women because they don’t want to “scare them off.” But the reality is the reality, and if a woman is pregnant, isn’t it better for her to know what is coming and be prepared for it rather than being alone and bewildered, in pain and wondering why the experience is so painful that other women only sing the praises of? I wish more women would be as open as you. I chose not to breastfeed before I even got pregnant and thus endured many lectures from breastfeeding advocates extolling the joys of breastfeeding but none of the downsides. If I had given in and breastfed, I know very well that I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. I just don’t have what it takes. If I had to go through what you went through with only the echoes of LLL members ringing in my ears, I would have lost it. Totally.

    Anyways, my point is, never regret being honest. It really is the best policy.

    Chicky Chicky Baby June 11, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Amen.

    I’ll take the pain now to deal with the overwhelming joy of nursing. Our bodies can make, carry and maintain life inside and outside the womb and breastfeeding is hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

    The pain of giving it up, however, is what’s difficult to go through. and there’s no lotion or heating pad that can help that.

    Anonymous June 11, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I liked your post…very well said…truly well said.

    Having said this up front, I have to strongly disagree with the sentence that “the pain will pass”:

    That is a very generalize sentence while human is a very very individualized being.

    I say this comment not only as a person in a medical profession with a medical degree but as a mother that did breastfed for 3 months full of pain and misery and then had to pump my milk for another 3 months because the psychological and physiological affect of the pain was too much on me and the baby.

    After three months the pain DID NOT go away, in fact it was not only there full force but also got worse.

    There are women with extra sensitive nerve endings on the nipples. There is no but and OR about it.

    I fully plan to TRY again breastfeeding for the second baby, and the key word will be “TRY”. But this time I will not drag it on for three months if that will be the case.
    The reality that all women forget is this: the baby will look up and not only see but worse than that FEEL the pain and misery in the mother. With every feeding and every suck, what will go into the body is not only the milk but also the pain and sadness and if not consciously but subconscious feeling of misery.
    The last thing that any mother wants is for her baby to make a connection between “food” and “nurturing” with “sadness” and “pain”.
    There are things that are even more important to give to a baby than your milk…today more than any ever it is being proven with all the medical research in the field of child psychology.

    So while I fully support the sentence of “at least try”, I do not agree with the sentence that “it will pass, you can be sure of it”…both as a person with medical degree and as a mother that been there and done that!

    Loralee Choate June 11, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I’ve had three children. After a five year gap we are going to try for one more and I have already determined that if everything goes as planned, we will not be breast feeding.

    I loved nursing. I do think it is all kinds of awesome, best, blah, blah, blah, and my other kids were breast fed, but there are health issues and other issues that I have to make the decision to bottle feed.

    And? I don’t think it makes me a bad or lesser mother. So…I really loved this post. Thanks for it.

    Veronica Mitchell June 11, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    I breastfeed not for the wonderful reasons you explain but because I’m cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap.

    And forgetful. And once the pain of breastfeeding goes away, it’s a lot easier to use the breast when I’m out with the baby than remembering to pack a bottle. I never forget to bring my breasts.

    MoxieMamaKC June 11, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    My heart aches (and my nipples hurt) for you. I too was a bottle fed babe and I turned out with a well above average IQ, but I understand the struggle.

    I was only able to breast feed my baby for about 10 weeks before me, the pump and my darling girl gave up. Don’t think you are a bad mother because of it. Give it your darndest…

    I still feel bad compared to my mother in law and sister in law that made/make it look “Oh so easy” but some of us aren’t made that way. Don’t feel bad…just do what’s right for your baby.

    Yes, there is something about the feeling of when your breasts “let down” and the milk flows and you give (after you’ve given so much)…but your kid is going to love you even if your body can’t continue. It’s not a measure of your motherhood, no matter what ANYONE SAYS.

    Thank you for being so real and so raw with your posts. I wish I would have read them 3.5 years ago when I was in your shoes…

    Don’t give up if that’s what’s right for you. If it’s right for both of you to go to formula, don’t be ashamed. You didn’t fail and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Formula isn’t like when we were kids. After the colostrum and the first antibodies that breast milk provides, it’s all the same (if you have a PERFECT DIET) and that comes from THREE neo-natal nurses in my back pocket.

    You’ve made it thru the hardest part…when you are done, it’s still ok…

    excavator June 11, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Yes, it is not ideology that makes me whole-heartedly support breastfeeding, but joy. It’s an experience so lovely that I hate to think of anyone missing it.

    the dragonfly June 11, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Beautifully written…but made me a little sad, too. I tried and tried, but I never made enough milk, and my milk dried up completely (with no pain!) when my little one was just under three months old. I’m jealous of women who breastfeed successfully – even painfully! – and sad that I couldn’t have that specialness with my son. But…he is healthy and beautiful and just turned one year old (!)…so I can’t complain too much.

    Marly June 11, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    I didn’t leave a comment before, because it seems I am an exception to the unspoken rule. I had an absolutely wonderful breast-feeding experience entirely. Aside from the fact that it took my son almost two days to latch on, I never experienced anything negative related to nursing. No pain. No discomfort. And after almost a year, my son weaned himself.

    So while the subject is up, I just wanted to add, for anyone considering breast-feeding, that a negative beginning is not a certainty either. Thanks for opening the door, HBM – and good luck to you and your absolutely adorable little man! :)

    Lori June 11, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Delurking here. Your son is beautiful and I enjoy reading your posts.

    Like Marly, I too had a wonderful experience with breast feeding – no pain. It was the most natural thing to do following the birth of my children. Nothing compares to the experience.

    Since another reader voiced concern about it being painful, I just want to say it isn’t like that for everyone.

    HBM, I admire your choice to persevere in spite of your discomfort. He is adorable!

    Candygirlflies June 12, 2008 at 12:10 am

    Oh, yes. It really is.

    Congrats, HBM. You’re doing GREAT.

    xoxo CGF

    Veronica June 12, 2008 at 1:14 am

    I read through the comments and I have to agree with Veronica Mitchell, I never forgot to take my boobs anywhere (even on the days when I forgot clean clothes and nappies).

    That said, I had such a dream time of breastfeeding my first, I am terribly nervous of breastfeeding the one I am pregnant with.

    I know I will get there and that it all will be fine, but I feel like I’m tempting fate to expect such an easy time again.

    Mrs. T June 12, 2008 at 8:00 am

    Perfect.
    and exactly right.

    Tracey June 12, 2008 at 8:04 am

    I just wanted to say that the post was lovely, hon.

    I also wanted to add another voice to the crowd stating that nothing in parenting is guaranteed, including pain with breastfeeding. I breastfed 3 children for a year each and never had pain associated with it (aside from that second day engorgement!). For every mom considering nursing, know that there MAY be pain, and there may not. Neither is unusual.

    Good luck to all the breastfeeding moms and moms to be. May it be as sweet and tender for you as it was for me…

    Kyla June 12, 2008 at 8:11 am

    This is gorgeous. You nailed it. All the bleeding boobies in the world can’t outweigh the joy.

    gina June 12, 2008 at 8:51 am

    This whole topic is very dear to me, I just finished nursing last Thursday and I was surprised by how sad I was after sacrificing so much to do it for the last year. It is truly a beautiful experience once you get past those first few weeks. Thanks for making me smile.

    Syko June 12, 2008 at 8:56 am

    No regrets necessary. You were totally honest about your feelings and you shouldn’t have to apologize for honesty.

    My only attempt at nursing was with my first. I was 2 days short of 21 when she was born, and it didn’t go well. She was a big girl who wanted a lot of food, and I was so jittery and excited about new motherhood that I could not eat and never produced enough milk for her. Breast feeding was not encouraged in those days, nobody helped teach me – in fact, in the hospital the nurses would feed her formula between nursing attempts. I never heard of such a thing as a lactation consultant – La Leche was a new, radical group – I lasted two weeks. She did great on the bottle. So did her sister, 18 months later. My third didn’t come along for 7 more years. I was relaxed and calm with him (older motherhood is SO much better) and due to complications (excessive bleeding and strong drugs and bedrest needed to stop it) could not nurse him either. But I often thought… when the girls were small, every night feeding was a trauma for me, I was missing my sleep, I was tired, will they ever go back to sleep? With my son, he woke at night for weeks after he even wanted feeding, because that middle of the night thing was our time. We’d cuddle and rock and he’d take a few sips of milk, but mostly he’d lie in my arms and we’d look into each other’s eyes and talk to each other, and I have often thought that would have been such a great experience if only I’d nursed him. If I had been so insane as to have a fourth child, I probably would have tried. I think we all know it’s worth it.

    Glad you’re getting better! And Jasper is simply exquisite.

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 9:20 am

    For those who are afraid to try breastfeeding: I was afraid that it wouldn’t go well and I did not know anyone who stuck with it past a few weeks. I decided to give it a try anyway. My daughter just “got it” immediately. My milk was in before I left the hospital. My nipples did crack and bleed, but they were completely healed and toughened within 2 weeks.

    Maybe my next one won’t go so well, but I’m hopeful! Either way – it doesn’t have to be a painful, difficult task. It may be, though. But it may also be the easiest thing you do in raising a child.

    mamatulip June 12, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Yes.

    Just…yes.

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 10:14 am

    sometimes i look at the wild toddler that my little baby has become and miss that little nursing monster that kept me up all night and day……there is nothing like it……reading this post i actually felt jealous of you….isn’t that crazy? jealous of sore nipples!
    ha ha

    enjoy your new wee one
    :)

    Mimi June 12, 2008 at 10:17 am

    I want to join the small chorus of commenters who had no pain in breastfeeding: not one cracked nipple, a great latch, kinda hyper letdown reflex, but really problem free. It was cheap, it was easy, and no, I never forgot to bring my boobs with me when I went out :-)

    This is not to brag or taunt, but just to say, there are a range of experiences, and you don’t know which one you’re going to get. I’m sorry yours has been so painful, and I’m glad you’re starting to feel better.

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 10:30 am

    breast feeding is wonderful for so many reasons one being that it releases happy hormones…and for any women who are preggy and afraid to breast feed one thing they can do now is to rub a dry washcloth on the nipples every day to toughen them up a bit and expose them daily to air. i am so glad that nursing is getting better and less painful for you catherine LAVANDULA

    Bon June 12, 2008 at 10:32 am

    great post, Catherine. i had a hard time with it, and a hard time being patient with it…and yet, in the end, a hard time giving it up too. worth it, indeed, worth wading through.

    mary June 12, 2008 at 10:48 am

    “Camels, mommy?” From my two year old daughter. Who is still nursing. I think she would get used to weaning fairly quickly, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that! There are few things as beautiful as holding your child in your arms to nurse.

    Rusti June 12, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to break your heart – not even a little! And I promise – I’m still going to try breastfeeding. Blame my thoughtless words of terror on these crazy first trimester hormones which have me up and down and all around right now… feeling good one moment then rushing for the bathroom the next doesn’t have me in the best frame of mind… so although at the time I read your post (and Chicky Chicky Baby’s too) I might have been a little freaked out by the unknown – today I’m in a better frame of mind and really do appreciate your honesty and sharing – in both this post, and the previous one… and again – I am soo sorry for upsetting you at all! :( {HUGS}

    mary June 12, 2008 at 10:49 am

    In case you were wondering, that was what my daughter said about the portrait of the nursing couple. That’s just what they looked like to her I guess

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 11:00 am

    LAVANDULA here again.i have breast fed 4 children and each baby was unique.# 1 had problems latching on and there was lots of tears and frustration. # 2 was painful and i had to use nipple cream and air the poor girls out constantly.# 3 had problems latching on and it hurti stopped nursing her when she was 12.5 months and we went on vacation and i had to start breast feeding her again because she was getting so sick from the water supply where we were.my freind i was with had those small pills that produce more milk and gave them to me and miraculously i started producing enough milk to nurse her for the 3 weeks we were on vacation.# 4 was preemie and had to be both bottle fed with pumped milk, breast fed (very difficult and frustrating at first) and formula fed for the first 6 weeks of her life after which i was lucky and fortunate enough with the help of those milk producing pills to be able to breast feed her .sorry i know this was long and thati just commented .just wanted mums to know that there are lots of options. LAVANDULA

    Lora June 12, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I think it’s wonderful that you DO write about the not so good parts of breastfeeding. The media (and La Leche) portrays it as the most beautiful, natural, wonderful (insert your own superlatives here) experience when in reality, it’s work, and oftentimes painful at that. I tried and tried to breastfeed my son and it was agony, for both of us. Can you imagine a newborn actually pushing himself away from your breast, the breast that is already ravaged? He couldn’t tolerate any sort of side-lying position to nurse and my breasts just weren’t up to the task. The only way that he could have nursed was if I was hanging over him like some freakish cow so that he could lie on his back to do it. So I pumped, and felt guilty, and my nipples cracked from our hourly failed attempts, and it was awful. So thank you for owning up to the fact that it isn’t always easy.

    Anonymous June 12, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I think it is also important to say that it is not painful for everyone. I nursed my daughter until she was a year old, and I am thankful that I did not have your painful experience. I had a little pain for the first few days, but nothing intense. I hope that your breasts soon feel better, so that you can fully enjoy breastfeeding.

    And thank you for this post. It will be encouraging to people who may have been discouraged by your post last week.

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