Author’s note: If no one’s relayed this information to you yet, breastfeeding is really, really hard for some people. Luckily, there are plenty of lovely folks out there whose job it is to make it easier—so, please, reach out to them if you’re overwhelmed by the whole thing. Also, if you’re opposed to nipple chatter, you may want to sit this one out.
I imagine the emotional thesaurus to be filled with infinite pages when it comes to the word motherhood, where every noun, sentiment, and tremor sleeps, represented in all its naked grandeur. Love is surely written there, but also chaos, doubt, occasional misery, and wretched happiness. And guilt, the prima donna.
Of all the bottomless items there are to feel guilty about when it comes to maternity, breastfeeding is one of those sparkling topics able to set you on your way to regret and shame well before you’ve even begun. Pediatricians, OBs, midwives, the Internet, great aunts—they’re all ready and all too willing to remind you that #breastisbest so, yeah, just make it work.
Frankly, I never much entertained the possibility that breastfeeding may not work out. In my head, I speculated it would look something like a practical matter that my body, brain, and baby would all figure out intuitively. I didn’t romanticize it by any means, but I theorized a simple, effortless, natural transaction.
In reality, it was none of that.
My son was born three weeks early. Not so early that there were any hearty spooks or complications, but early enough that I felt drastically unprepared, relatively unearthed. He was small and hungry (he gets that from his mother) and jaundiced (all him). And because he was small, hungry and jaundiced, I was advised to feed him as much as possible. So, I did. I fed him and fed him and fed him—without sleep or hiatus. Despite my determination and bleeding nipples, he remained small, hungry, and fell further into a chancy shade of sepia.
Militant lactation consultants rolled into our hospital room, inspected his latch, and shoved his face into my boob like a motorized vehicle, shifting from neutral into third. A crash of elbows and gums. They were doing their job, which I was grateful for, but it left me feeling foiled and mechanical. I would go on like this for days, weeks, and months, visiting different lactation consultants along the way. Their methods would diverge, but the conclusions my senses jumped to always remained.
Militant lactation consultants rolled into our hospital room, inspected his latch, and shoved his face into my boob like a motorized vehicle, shifting from neutral into third. A crash of elbows and gums. They were doing their job, which I was grateful for, but it left me feeling foiled and mechanical.
The blunt force realization that I wasn’t nailing it, with anything, but especially with motherhood, really sent me into a feet-over-head spiral. Which is to say I became extravagantly depressed. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the reality that I couldn’t give my baby—a baby I had hoped and wished for as long as I could remember, a baby that took time, supernatural patience, and a lot of hormonal elixirs prescribed by infertility doctors to create—the one thing that was supposed to be first nature. The thing that was best for him.
Then, by some hell-sent stunner of an unholy mess, I got mastitis. If you’re not familiar with the word, what that means is those bloody, chapped nipples of mine (yep, still talking about ‘em) caused an infection in my teat. Not just any infection either. Oh no, we couldn’t get the hang of breastfeeding, but, wow, we really outdid ourselves with the mastitis. I sweat through all my clothes, shivered so hard I couldn’t stand, and threw up for days. Next, my supply on that side became extinct.
Rather than giving in, I continued on our lactation consultant tour, baby still underweight. I scheduled appointments with our pediatrician for advice, she reminded me that I’m not a monster if I decided to give up, I ignored her. I went to my OB checkups, they gave me antidepressants, I swallowed them down. My very brave, very empathetic husband sat a sample of organic, non-GMO formula on the kitchen counter—you know, just in case—and I was filled with enough rage to start a riding lawn mower.
You see, when it comes to hormones and will, there’s hardly standing room for rational reasoning or well-intentioned advice.
So, I kept at it despite it not working. I kept at it because I couldn’t accept the failing. I kept at it because I was especially unenthusiastic about transgressing my baby. I kept at it while hating myself with a bitterness I can still taste. I kept at it as I lost track of the number of times I let tears squeak out, allowing gravity to drop them plumply onto the forehead of my newborn. I kept at it while offering my friend, also a new mother, the kind of judgment-free advice I, myself, resisted.
I kept at it for eight months because I was disgraced by the mere thought of being unable to provide an infinite best.
Best—an old, familiar antagonist, a warted demon in a cheap plastic princess tiara. Oh, yes, we’ve rendezvoused before. Though, giving credit where it’s due, that word, in this context, did inspire me to make a few much-needed amendments to what it could mean to be the best mama to my stupidly wonderful baby boy.
So, I gave the definition arguably too much thought.
And here’s the short version of what I came up with: Maybe being the best mom means turning down anything (and I mean that with the full heaviness of the word—an-y-thing) that keeps me from enjoying my baby and this condition called motherhood—every noun, sentiment, and tremor. Which meant breastfeeding, by my own translation, couldn’t make the cut.
So, I turned it down.
The part I didn’t expect is that, as soon as I threw in the breathable cotton nursing bra, I wished I’d done it sooner. Not because it was hard (which it was), but because I no longer felt like a passenger in my own body. I halted feeling hostile toward myself for not being enough.
The part I didn’t expect is that, as soon as I threw in the breathable cotton nursing bra, I wished I’d done it sooner. Not because it was hard (which it was), but because I no longer felt like a passenger in my own body. I halted feeling hostile toward myself for not being enough. I reveled in the luxury of wearing shirts without buttons or zippers. Most importantly, by giving up the thing I know bonds a lot of women and their offspring, I bonded even more with that little bald-headed baby of mine without worrying if he was still hungry or assuming he was absorbing a small fraction of my panic. The now laughable irony here is that I had wasted so much time feeling guilty about our excruciating breastfeeding saga only to now feel guilty about sticking with it for so long.
Looking back, through the fog-free mirror of retrospect, it’s obvious to me that I needed to come to my own definitions and decisions in my own time, after my own deliberations, to drop anchor with my own peace of mind. No one else could’ve told me what I needed to do—trust me, I invited them to over and over again and, bless their hearts, they did tell me, in their graceful, professional manner, over and over again. What I needed, though, was to realize that no one else had the place to tell me what was utmost; that space belonged solely to me.
So, if you’ve made it to the end of this essay, please don’t just remember a story about bloody nipples, but also remember this: You deserve some grace, so, I beg of you, give it to yourself—because there’s a fighting chance that whatever you’re doing is your best. And who could ask for more?
April (Swinson) Smasal spent her formative years in Wyoming, where her career options were limited to rodeo queen or writer. Foregoing the lure of an impressive belt buckle collection, she opted for the word thing. Now, she’s a copywriter and writer-writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Nick, baby boy, Hank Danger and very cute-slash-spoiled French Bulldog, Arnold E. Biscuits.