I’ve been wanting to write this story for a long time. I wanted to write it down while I still remember it, and yet I kept putting it off because breastfeeding my firstborn was long enough ago now that I knew I’d have to think, ponder, and consult the archives (aka my journal). I also put it off because breastfeeding is such a touchy subject.
So first, allow me to frame our tale:
- In many circles, people only hear breastfeeding horror stories. Whether or not those people are ever going to be parents, breastfeed, and/or support partners who are breastfeeding, I think that’s a bad thing. Like sex, pregnancy, menstruation, eating, and just about every other bodily activity/process, breastfeeding is sometimes awesome, sometimes okay, sometimes neutral, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes unbearable (or impossible). I know I’m lucky that it’s been both easy and pleasurable for me, and I also know lots of other people who’ve had the same experience … which makes it weird that it was such a surprise to me at the time. (I hadn’t heard happy breastfeeding stories before I had my baby, you see.)
- In other circles, people *only* hear that breastfeeding works and you must breastfeed. Fuck that noise. For cultural, social, workplace/economic, physical, medical/pharmaceutical, and mental health reasons, breastfeeding doesn’t always work, and anyway you don’t have to do anything with your breasts you don’t want to do, full stop.
- This is just what happened for us. But it’s what happened for us, a data point and also a deeply meaningful personal story. It was wonderful. I cherish it, as I do all the other particularities of Noah’s early years.
- It’s so hard to write this story without constantly comparing our experiences with Simon’s and mine! But I tried to focus on our reality back then. My breastfeeding life with Simon has been equally wonderful and also, in some ways, very different. Perhaps I’ll write that story too, someday, if he ever actually weans.
Once upon a time, there lived a twenty-something grad student who suddenly wanted to have a baby. Um, that was me. So I got pregnant, marveled at how quickly one’s breasts can balloon in size and become distressingly sensitive (hello sleep bra!), and planned and dreamed up a storm.
I wasn’t scared of giving birth, and I wasn’t worried about being a good enough parent. I was, however, anxious about three things:
- The possibility of having a c-section. (I’m not especially concerned about pain or effort, but being cut makes me deeply uneasy. I’m weirded out by blood draws and shots, for heaven’s sake. So yeah.)
I was not worried that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed, or that it would hurt, or about managing it within my work life (I had a really flexible schedule and considerable work-from-home time during that stage of my life). No: I was grossed out by the idea of it, which worried me because I also wanted to give it a go.
Before I got pregnant, if I saw a photo of a baby breastfeeding, I didn’t think much of it one way or another. Once I got pregnant and breastfeeding was going to be a real actual thing in my life, if I saw the same photo, my stomach would turn a bit in anxiety and discomfort.
I’d pretty much only ever seen or heard about breasts in sexual/sexualized contexts. I’d literally never been around someone I knew personally who was breastfeeding. Photos of breastfeeding in books/pamphlets are often framed in ways that seem dehumanizing or just flat-out involve bras I’d never wear. And I’m pretty darned weird about bodily fluids in general (spit! so gross! why do they have to show tooth-brushing and spitting in movies so much?!?). These factors conspired against me, I guess.
My body was all about breastfeeding, though. My breasts were leaking significantly by the time I was 25 weeks pregnant, which (because of an oddly-positioned placenta) was only a couple weeks after I felt fetal movement for the first time. My breasts itched with a feeling I described as “like they need to be expressed.” “I’ve started actually looking forward to breastfeeding,” I wrote in my journal, “partly because I’m looking forward to having the baby for real but mostly because my breasts are so clearly ready for that task.” My body just felt like breastfeeding would feel good, would be a sort of relief. Suddenly my stomach wasn’t turning any more. I noticed all the breastfeeding people at our co-op and otherwise out and about in my world.
I got more pregnant. I bought a breast pump, which I would always loathe: I would never cry over breastfeeding, but pumping would bring me to tears more than once. I freaked out about my inability to find breast pads that didn’t show under clothes. I learned about nursing bras. (I didn’t know at the time that, despite many hours of research and lots of money spent, I wouldn’t find a nursing bra I actually liked until six years later. Alas. I would find great wool breast pads in time to start teaching when Noah was just five weeks old, though, so yay for that!) My belly grew to unbelievable proportions.
I gave birth.
The baby nursed soon after he was born. Later, still in the newborn magic fog, I wrote about that time:
One thing I wish we could do forever, although I imagine that like with the wedding and pregnancy I’ll be good and ready to be done when we’re done, is breastfeeding. I’ve been wanting to write about it a little because I hadn’t imagined it would be like this, and I’d like to remember it as much as possible. I’m trying to keep good records of our experiences now because sleep deprivation isn’t really conducive to clear memory … I asked Eric to help me take off my sleep bra while I was holding Noah, and [a nurse] watched me try to latch him on, but he wasn’t interested enough right then. But within minutes, just after [the midwife and nurse] left the three of us alone together, he looked hungry (I didn’t know I’d recognize that, but he just sort of did), and I latched him on to my right breast with his little belly up against mine, like I’d been doing it my whole life, and he ate for quite a while. It didn’t hurt at all, or feel uncomfortable or even strange; it was just nice, and warm with him up against me.
A few minutes later, he latched on uncomfortably on the other side; I broke the latch with my finger so we could try again.
“It was just all so easy,” I marveled. “I’m glad we had the breastfeeding class because we got a lot of information from it and because I could be having lots of problems that I happen not to have had, and I’m glad the midwives and nurses are all so supportive about it, and that we have a book about it—and we’ve definitely consulted that stuff more during the painful engorgement phase of days four through six—but I think it made me expect nursing to be a sort of skill-oriented activity that I needed to learn, with techniques and stuff. ” For us, it was simpler and nicer than that.
Noah turned out to be a slow, leisurely eater–and he still is, to this day. He can eat a bowl of cereal for an hour, for real. He nursed for 45 minutes at a time, sometimes an hour or an hour and a half. At first, he ate somewhat more briefly but pretty much nonstop:
He can be a very sleepy eater, maybe because he finds nursing so comforting that he often just passes out before he’s full, so a twenty minute feeding can actually take well over half an hour of waking, coaxing, burping, rearranging, undressing, etc. The constant nursing does make it tough to do a lot of other things, but it’s priceless to look down at Noah looking up at me with his big, intent blue-grey eyes, or to see him half-asleep but still working his jaw, or watching him try to latch on to Eric’s arm or chest or my chin when he’s decided he needs milk now.
He only nursed for very brief periods when it was about comfort rather than food: he’d had an upsetting diaper change or, later, had a fall. He nursed to sleep and then lay sprawled across the Boppy nursing pillow on my lap for hours while I frantically typed away at my dissertation and lesson plans. He patted me and held my hand. He made funny faces. He was sweet, and I wanted to eat him up.
By the time Noah was a week old, I’d nursed him “in public” twice. It felt awkward the first time and fine the second. I discovered that he declined to be covered with a scarf or anything else, thank you very much. When he was a month old, we figured out how to nurse while walking, with him in a carrier, and I loved how free that made me in various situations (who wants to be stuck on a bench nursing for 45 minutes at the aquarium or waiting to shop at the grocery store?). We nursed all over the place, and no one ever said anything nasty about it. Sometimes people said nice things. He charmed the socks off everyone, naturally.
When Noah was about a month and a half old, we tried having Eric give him a bottle at night in an attempt to get me some much-needed sleep. But Noah ended up hating bottles forever. I have to admit that I wasn’t too terribly broken up about the bottle thing not working out. I wrote at the time:
I’m emotionally incredibly resistant to it. I feel dehumanized by the pumping. … I am terrified that I’ll lose breastfeeding somehow, that this is really the first step in weaning, which I guess in a long-term way it is—but I know in my head it doesn’t mean I’ll stop having that part of my relationship with this child. I’m surprised at how important breastfeeding is to me … that I really love being physically so close with him during his most peaceful, content, quiet times. I briefly saw him with the bottle in his mouth, and it was awful. I know it’s a bizarre and irrational thing to feel, and I’m sure I’ll chill out about it, but there it was.
Noah’s resistance to bottle-feeding occasionally led to some screaming baby time for Eric near the end of my classes, during the minutes before they picked me up from campus or I walked in the door. Mostly it was fine because of how our schedules were at the time.
He tried his first non-breastmilk food the day after his six-month birthday and was adorable experimenting with it, though it would be quite a long time before much of his diet was composed of solid foods.
He started trying to sign “milk” at around 8 and a half months; he was smiling and opening his mouth in response to the sign earlier than that. We called breastfeeding “milkies” with him, and we don’t remember why.
As we got closer to a year, I balked. Eric and I had always talked about breastfeeding to a year if it worked out, in keeping with the magic “you should breastfeed for a year” line. But I had no desire to stop, and neither did Noah: would Eric be on board? When I hesitantly raised this question, Eric chuckled affectionately: essentially, he said, no kidding you’re going to breastfeed past a year, oh I’m so shocked, of course it’s great. Silly you.
When he was nearly 16 months old, I had the first pain I’d ever experienced with breastfeeding, perhaps related to Noah’s canines breaking through? I had some bruise-like soreness for a couple days, and then it went away. Dramatic, I know. (Oh, and one time he bit me.)
The next month, I wrote:
Noah seems to have decided he just wants to breastfeed once a day, when he wakes up. It’s interesting and nice to watch him make these transitions on his own, for reasons mysterious to us, and less gradually than one might expect—he was eating twice a day, and then he just sort of stopped with the second feeding, which he used to request either between his two naps or right after the second one.
Just before he turned a year and a half, we weaned:
On Thursday we officially decided to do what we had figured for a couple days we were going to do, which is to say that Eric and I agreed to encourage Noah to wean by distracting him with cow’s milk (which he charmingly calls ‘moo,’ a term we introduced to distinguish it from ‘milkies’ and which he pronounces in this really cute enthusiastic cow sort of way) and other foods. For a week or so before that Noah breastfed about once every other day until it feels really uncomfortable—not exactly painful but unpleasant—and then repeated with the other breast, and usually ended up crying or fussing. So no one was getting much out of it, and I’m finally ready to stop without feeling sad. Noah actually hasn’t breastfed since Tuesday when he woke up in the morning. On Wednesday he signed for milkies and said his version of it (‘deets,’ maybe) and was initially pissed off at the offer of moo instead, but I avoided sitting down and just kept going through the rest of the morning routine, and he downed his cereal and decided his Nalgene was okay after all. It was a little weird to deflect his request like that, but then the next day Eric was home, so it wasn’t really an issue because Noah’s less likely to bother about nursing if Eric’s primarily taking care of him while I cook, etc. And this morning when I was holding him, still in his sleepsack, in my lap and we were talking about what we could see out the window, he totally just pointed at his Nalgene and said “moo”; he was happy while I carried him into the kitchen and filled it up with him in my arms, and he drank it and ate his cereal and didn’t ask to nurse. He asked once when he woke up from his second nap today, but when Eric asked if he wanted apricots instead, he was instantly all “apple! apple!” (or rather “bapo! bapo!”) and went for a pear, which he considers as falling under the umbrella term ‘apple.’ I wonder whether I’ll ever breastfeed him again, but I doubt it; he seems just fine with eating other stuff and cuddling instead. I’m so, so glad I have been able to breastfeed on our terms, have this wonderful and long experience with my baby, and not feel pressure to wean when my breasts still became engorged or when I felt anxious and miserable considering the idea.
And then we didn’t breastfeed any more, and my breasts got way smaller than they’d ever been in my adult life and I needed all new bras, the end.
Somehow that baby turned eight this summer. It blows my mind.