It takes a village — my experience breastfeeding in the modern world.
This week is World Breastfeeding Week, and as I’ve scrolled through the various breastfeeding FB/IG accounts I follow who have been marking the occasion, I’ve been surprised to realize how many personal thoughts I have on the topic. It’s come at a pivotal time in my breastfeeding journey and caused me to reflect back over the last 7 months. What I keep coming back to is this: just because something is normal, natural, and beneficial does not necessarily mean it’s easy, beautiful, or free. Please note: this is my personal experience, and I know what a sensitive and challenging experience breastfeeding can be for so many women.
It’s taken a village. It started with Brigette, my birth doula who taught me how to express colostrum in the traumatic hours after Lily was born and I was left alone in L&D. Anna, my postpartum doula who took care of making sure I had a hospital-grade pump after I was discharged and who helped me establish and tweak a pumping schedule to help my milk come in while Lily was still in the hospital. The nurses who logged and cataloged the syringes I would triumphantly bring them every morning — I considered them “my trophies,” the only thing I felt I had to show for myself in the days after childbirth. Susan, the UCSF Intensive Care Nursery Lactation Consultant who checked in on us multiple times a day after Lily was re-warmed and ready to learn how to eat, teaching me how to breastfeed a baby, who, while full term, was covered in wires and tubes, still groggy from days on morphine. Our first few days of breastfeeding in the ICN was a circus with a huge audience — LCs, OTs, nurses, Dan, my Mom, 8 hands, 4 pillows and that green leather recliner by her bedside. Renee — the UCSF Mission Bay outpatient LC whose support group I attended weekly throughout maternity leave. Who helped me through oversupply, forceful letdown, plugged ducts, mastitis, and a baby who refused the bottle til the week before I went back to work. The handful of women who digitally and personally checked in on me while I sat in Lily’s dark ICN room, willing my body to create milk and praying she would figure out how to eat nearly a week after she was born, just to ask “how are you doing?” Who brought me supplements and hugs and cake. My girlfriends — who have been available 24/7 via text messages for encouragement, advice, support, recommendations, and commiseration.
My husband — who despite his “worthless nipples,” has washed more pump parts than I ever have. Ten times a day, he washed a million parts in the tiny hospital room sink. Who waited on me hand and foot through the weeks of cluster feeding… summoning food, water, my iPhone, the remote and burp clothes, on demand, 24/7. I never thought I would survive the weeks after he went back to work, right when Lily hit her peak cluster-feeding phase every evening from ~4 to 9 pm. After a whole day by myself with the baby, I just wanted someone else to hold her. I remember scarfing down dinner while she sucked the hair right off his chest. He’d hand her back over to me saying reluctantly “I think she’s still hungry…” as I sobbed, feeling like my body had been completely sucked dry, like I couldn’t possibly summon the energy to get her to re-latch, to produce another ounce.
My own mother, who regaled me with her stories from the mid-80’s when she returned to teaching Economics the semester after I was born. Before the era of ACA-subsidized breast pumps, she huddled underneath the desk in her office with the glass see-through door and hand expressed milk into little plastic specimen bottles she got from the Chemistry department. Who listened for hours as I stressed, complained, and pontificated if I was doing it right. Who researched facts and articles on the internet to give me some thoughts, but who never judged me or told me how to do things.
I’ve pumped in front of doctors, residents, neonatologists, and the janitors when I was a few hours postpartum. On airplanes, in the bathroom at museums/airports/client sites, the back of Lyfts, the bathroom at a fancy steakhouse during a client dinner, and while taking conference calls. I’ve nursed on airplanes, on the side of the 101 after getting pulled over for forgetting to put the updated registration stickers on our car. At a brewery, a restaurant, the synagogue, a bench by the beach, AT&T Park. This list is not herculean or unique, but these individual experiences are a part of our journey. It’s not been in an effort to “normalize breastfeeding,” but rather a means to feed my daughter, while remaining a (relatively) functioning adult, a contributing member of society, and a productive employee.
Breastfeeding is not free. Pumps, pump parts, time away from work, the physical effects of weekly plugged ducts, mastitis, and living in fear that you’re going to contract an infection so horrendous that if given the option between continuing to breastfeed or going through unmedicated labor again, you’d quickly choose the latter. It’s living in fear that your body will be unable to feed your baby in the ways that you want, or worse, in the ways society says you should. The impact to your mental health, your sleep, your sanity, and your body.
And yet I know I’ve had it “easy,” relatively speaking. I have been fortunate to have options, support, and resources. I live in a city where breastfeeding is encouraged and celebrated. I have an employer and job where pumping is accommodated. The silver lining to Lily’s birth/subsequent hospital stay and my near constant oversupply has been our ability to provide colostrum, transitional milk, and breastmilk for half a dozen babies, including those of my close friends. Lily never got my colostrum in her first few days of life, but I am proud that other babies did. In spite of all of this, my experience still hasn’t felt easy, it hasn’t been “free”, and breastfeeding never made me feel like a superwoman nursing in a peaceful forest with baby deer prancing around me. For some women, breastfeeding may make them look or feel like a badass goddess. I envy those women, if in fact they even exist. Or maybe that’s just my perception of “how I thought it was supposed be.” But that hasn’t been my experience. I have felt conflicted about breastfeeding since the very beginning, from the days before I had even held my daughter my arms, when I made the decision to try to make it work, starting with that first syringe of colostrum. I’m grateful for my supply and I’m proud of what my body has done to make a human grow to nearly 3x her birth weight while desperately wishing it wasn’t so hard, so all-consuming, so physically and mentally and emotionally taxing.
Now, here we are 7 and a half months later, essentially back to where we started — me and my breast pump, around the clock. I’ve been exclusively pumping for nearly a month, after struggling to seamlessly transition between work week pumping and nursing an incredibly distracted baby in the mornings, evenings, and weekends, without throwing my supply into overdrive. Oh the irony of the baby who for 4 months didn’t take a bottle. If only I had known! I don’t know what the next few months look like for us. Like the early days, I’m committed to taking this one hour, feed, week, and month at a time. But our breastfeeding journey, like every aspect of motherhood, is dynamic. It is but a season, whose end has yet to be determined.
To all the Mamas out there, for whom breastfeeding doesn’t look or feel like what you expected, or what you wanted. Who have overcome insurmountable challenges and adversity, who face the criticism or the self-doubt that comes along with how we feed our babies. Who despite all of this, feed their babies in whatever way is best for their family, so that their babies can thrive and grow (so literally, all Mamas, everywhere) — be gentle with your body and your emotions. You freaking rock!
If you’ve supported a Mom in her feeding journey, as a spouse, a partner, a baby’s grandparent, a friend, an employer/manager, a birth worker, a lactation consultant, a medical professional— you rock, too!