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