The Portrait of a Breastfeeding Mom
It was a portrait of motherhood perfection, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was sitting at a leaders training when a mom who was sitting close to me started breastfeeding. I was pregnant at the time and so it was the first time I had actually given much thought to the art of breastfeeding. I remember she was wearing a light blue sweater that she pulled up and with one fluid movement she brought her baby underneath to nurse. It looked so natural, so comfortable, so effortless. “It won’t be too long,” I thought to myself, “until I have an adorable bubbly baby of my own that will nurse so naturally and comfortably in public.”
A couple months later I was in for a rude awakening. I remember lying awkwardly on the bed trying to feed my baby girl for the first time- it was difficult, it was painful and not to mention it was painfully awkward. Surely it’s not supposed to be like this. I rewatched those breastfeeding videos I had casually perused in the months before, tried every kind of breastfeeding pillow, had multiple people try and help with positioning and latching. “Why is this so hard? If I can barely breastfeed with all these pillows and all this help- how can I possibly ever do it in public?” The pain was such a surprise to me - I never expected it to be so uncomfortable. When I saw a specialist at a ‘world renowned breastfeeding clinic’ she reassured me that pain wasn’t normal. ‘How would we have survived as a species?’ she reasoned. Yet all the procedures and medications, specialties and resources didn’t make the pain go away. They didn’t make my daughter stay on the breast and didn’t give me the breastfeeding moments I had hoped for.
While pregnant with my second, my breastfeeding concerns resurfaced - ‘what if it’s a disaster again? I can’t pump with a toddler on the loose!” I was ready with formula, nipple cream, nipple shields- whatever might help.
I refused to breastfeed in the moments immediately after the birth of our second. I wanted to disassociate breastfeeding with the pain of post-labour. After I was more comfortable and relaxed, I tried to breastfeed our little newborn. It was still incredibly awkward, but things felt better initially, so I was hopeful. Eventually, with the help of pillows and positioning, I felt more confident. Yet the pain remained. “Why is this still challenging ? Why is the pain still there?” I thought to myself. With the advice and input of seasoned specialists, I became better at positioning and could breastfeed sans pillow - but the pain remained. ‘You’re doing everything right,’ one specialist reassured me, ‘she’s latching well and getting lots of milk.’ But why was it still painful? I felt defeated as I drove away, tears of frustration running down my cheeks.
‘It’s been really hard’ I shared with another mom who had asked how breastfeeding had been this time. ‘It’s still painful and I thought it would be better after the first weeks.’ This was a seasoned mom, who had two toddlers and a baby in tow, surely she had some light to shed on the situation. But rather than sharing some practical tip, she shared her heart. She told me that it had been painful for her for months, with each of her kiddos. She told me that even with her current baby, who was about nine months old, she was still finding breastfeeding painful. She'd even had to run to the store to get medication to help heal the damage. I was surprised to hear that it was painful for someone else. Maybe it wasn't that something was wrong with me. It had never occurred to me that it could be someone else's reality as well. Not long after that, another mom shared her painful breastfeeding experience with me. She admitted that she didn't just have the initial pain with breastfeeding, but that she struggled with it the whole way through. Story after story, I realized that maybe I wasn’t alone in this -
That mama after mama had this secret hidden struggle. Could it be that so many others like me had stuck it out--through the pain, past the discomfort, the awkwardness, and the social anxiety? That the beautiful portrait of a breastfeeding mama actually wasn’t displaying the grimace, the sacrifice that was going on within.
Although breastfeeding isn’t always painful for every mama, it is uncomfortable for all of us. Whether learning to bend and position yourself to support a flimsy newborn, having your breasts adjust to making milk (oh the joys of engorgement), the cracked nipples, the leakage, the initial postpartum contractions, the tears over spilt (and spit up) milk, the teething baby, the awkwardness of trying not to expose yourself in public and the list could go on.
Breastfeeding is beautiful, but it isn’t easy. For me in this season, it’s looked like pushing through soreness and pain by focusing on something else - saying a prayer for my girls or watching my little ones toes wiggle while I nurse. Taking in this moment of closeness and knowing how fleeting this season of littles is. It’s involved embracing the nursing dresses, learning that there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding my daughter in public and having a defence ready if I’m approached about it by others. It’s entailed giving myself permission to take it day by day and the freedom to use bottles or formula if needed.
If I could go back and tell my new mama self anything, I would say, “Mama, don’t be deceived by the flawless nursing you just witnessed- breastfeeding is a journey fraught with challenges and moments of both victory and defeat. Remember, you are an amazing mama - regardless of the amount of pillows you need, the amount of milk you make, or the choices you make to feed your baby. And if your are choosing to breastfeed despite the pain and discomfort, know you are not alone. Know that the real beauty of a breastfeeding mom isn’t in how seamlessly she latches her babe, but rather in the sacrifice that’s hidden as she pulls her baby in close while their hearts beat side by side.
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