Once again, it’s 6:30 AM and I’m the only person in the house awake. Sam is dozing at my breast. My parents are asleep in the guest room. Cassie is conked out in her bed, and Michael is snoring away to beat the band. The snoring drives me crazy, but it’s his birthday today so I’m fighting the urge to pick up something large and heavy and throw it at him.
As a present to Michael, I let him get a full night’s sleep last night, meaning I took it on myself to handle all the baby details alone. Yeah, I’m crazy-stupid that way. I ought to be demanding that people take care of me since I’m the one who just had the baby, but considering that I’m breastfeeding Sam, I would have been up two or three times last night anyway, so it wasn’t too much extra work. I just had to change poopy diapers in addition to doing everything else involved in nursing.
Speaking of nursing, my best friend Cindy came over yesterday with her husband Rick and their new baby Izzie. This is their first child and Cindy is currently learning all about the joys of breastfeeding. Those of you who know anything at all about breastfeeding will realize the sarcasm in that last comment. Contrary to what people think, breastfeeding is not easy and does not come naturally. It’s a painful, frustrating, agonizing process that comes second only to being in labor in terms of physically painful things women end up doing in their lives. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Imagine having someone saw off your nipples with a dull steak knife. That’s what learning to breastfeed is like.
I made the decision with Cassie to breastfeed, and I was very determined to do it. I couldn’t get pregnant the natural way – had to go the infertility route. I couldn’t deliver the natural way – Cassie was breech and never dropped so I had to have a C-section. Therefore I determined that something about my initiation into Motherhood was going to be natural and breastfeeding was it. I knew nothing about breastfeeding. I just figured I had breasts, they looked to be in good shape, and I’d naturally be able to feed my child with them.
Naturally, it turned out to hurt like hell.
During the eighth month of my pregnancy with Cass, I took a breastfeeding course at the local hospital. The lactation consultant there explained that breastfeeding does not come naturally to most folks, and that all us mo-mos were in for a bit of a shock the first time we tried it. Babies have to learn how to properly latch on to the nipple, otherwise they’re going to suck it raw trying to get the milk out. There are also the issues of engorgement (where your breasts suddenly turn into massive, rock-hard water balloons ready to explode), cracked and bleeding nipples, infections like mastitis, thrush, etc., etc., etc. All in all, breastfeeding is a fun way to torture yourself.
Even so, I was determined to go through with this. I’m one of those fools who can’t really fathom how bad a situation can be until they’re stuck right in the middle of it (thus explaining my willingness to do a natural childbirth this last time around). So Michael and I bought all the things I’d need for breastfeeding and then we waited for the day Cassie would arrive.
I had a C-section with Cassie, so on the day she was born, her first feeding didn’t happen until a few hours after the doctor cut her out of my gut. I was woozy from the spinal block and itched like crazy from the morphine. Somebody, a nurse I think, handed me this squirming fussy bundle and said, “Okay Mom, time to nurse!” That’s when I discovered I didn’t nearly have enough hands to do the job. I needed at least one hand to hold the baby, one hand to maneuver my breast and a third hand to pry open Cassie’s reluctant little mouth so she could latch on. It was impossible. Cassie’s jaws stayed stubbornly locked shut, and I kept thinking at any minute I’d drop my newborn daughter in my attempts to feed her because quite frankly, I suck at juggling. Then somehow, miraculously, Cassie yawned and managed to get my nipple into her precious little maw and that’s when the fun really began.
From the moment she first clamped down, I knew we were in trouble. The nipple was in, but it wasn’t positioned right. Cassie’s jaws once again went back to being locked up tighter than Fort Knox and I couldn’t get her off or reattached to save my life. I think the nurse had to get a crow bar and pry her off. My poor nipple came out flattened and bruised and naturally, I was on the verge of swearing at everyone in the room – husband, nurse and baby. But I decided to stay calm and try again. And again. And again.
I can’t recall how many attempts it took to get Cassie latched on and nursing. I do remember she never did latch on correctly and over the course of half an hour managed to strip the top layer of skin of that nipple. Two hours later, she got to do it to the other nipple. Two hours after that, she went back for a second layer of skin on the first nipple, and so on and so on. That’s when I discovered the further joys of breastfeeding. First, babies need to be breastfeed every two to three hours. Second, they have tongues made of rough-grit sandpaper. That meant I was up for grade-A torture every other hour of the day, more frequently if she was really hungry. My life was about to become a living hell.
I remember my mother sitting on the hospital bed next to me as I suffered through the third or fourth feeding. She told me my cousin Anne had managed to survive three months of breastfeeding before she finally quit. I remember thinking, “Three months? I’ll be lucky to last the next three days!” Then I doubled over in pain as I discovered another side-effect of nursing. Nursing promotes oxytocin, a hormone that among other things causes the uterus to contract back to normal size. That’s right, contract. In other words, warp itself back into shape one painful squeeze after another.
Michael and I used to joke about how everybody has their own personal version of hell. His was being stuck driving through the middle of a crowded country music festival in a manual shift car going uphill while trying to get to an event he was already fifteen minutes late for (the event, by the way, was Phantom Of The Opera). I found my personal hell that day in the hospital. It involved sitting in a chair, nursing a screaming infant while my uterus contracted and I suffered from a four inch hole cut into my gut. Yes, breastfeeding is natural… natural hell.
Still, I went home determined to continue breastfeeding. I quickly discovered how little time I would have to do anything between nursing sessions. Cassie ate every two hours on the hour. She nursed for 30-40 minutes at a time, leaving me with just over an hour to do anything else. Nights were even worse because she had reflux, so in addition to being nursed, she had to be carefully burped, then soothed and rocked to keep her from puking up anything she just ate.
I caught sleep in brief 30 minute snatches at night between feedings. During the day, I struggled to do anything beyond sit in a chair and swear as Cassie chewed my nipples into hamburger meat. When I wasn’t in the glider nursing, I stumbled around the house with leaky breasts and a screaming child. I considered myself lucky if I managed to get a shower. Bonus points if I got the dishwasher loaded or managed to do a load of laundry. I wept to realize that I had become nothing more than a badly functioning milk machine. The only good news was that I was producing milk, and doing so in spades.
I produced so much milk that Cassie couldn’t keep up with the flow. Frequently, she would break off in the middle of feeding, choking and sputtering. Then she’d begin to shriek in rage as my nipple continued to spew milk all over her face. I’d slap a burp cloth over the offending breast and watch in horror as liquid seeped through the fabric and continued to spray. I spattered the walls of the nursery with so much breast milk that people often asked if I had repainted the place.
I leaked, I sprayed, my nipples cracked and bled, my daughter screamed. It went on for ages. Then one day, a miracle occurred. I got out of the shower, rubbed myself dry, watched one last layer of skin peel off my nipples and discovered that beneath all that dead tissue, I had nubs of steel. That’s right – bright, shiny metallic points that felt no pain whatsoever. Cassie could clamp down on them as much as she liked and I wouldn’t feel it. It was a blessed relief.
You people think I’m kidding. I’m not.
Armed with my new anatomical discovery, I sat down and nursed my daughter. She latched on and sucked. I felt the pull of her mouth, but nothing more. Milk flowed in a nice even stream into her mouth and she never once broke off screaming. Cassie took twenty minutes on one side, then twenty on the other. I sat peacefully and cuddled her in my arms. Hell was over. I had finally made it to mommy heaven.
I continued to nurse Cassie until she weaned herself at 18 months. When we reached the day that she finally turned down my breast, I almost felt like crying. Almost. I had run an eighteen month marathon, I realized. I was ready for a break.
It’s two years later now and I’m back in the glider, nursing Sam. The steel nipples never went away, fortunately, so I only experienced a little discomfort as we started out nursing. Sam figured out how to latch on very quickly, just as I recalled how to easily bring a squirming baby to the breast. My big problem with Sam is getting her to nurse long enough so that I don’t end up engorged. I still tend to overproduce milk. But we’re working through that. In fact, I’ve gotten so good a nursing that I’ve been able to sit here this morning and type in this entire blog entry while nursing Sam. I’ve got a pretty sweet set up – a nice new glider, a small table for a drink and snack, and a portable desk with my super-cool laptop all ready for me to work on during those round-the-clock feedings. I’m a plugged-in 21st century mom.
My advice to any expectant mom who’s considering breastfeeding is this. Keep in mind that breastfeeding is just like any other part of raising a kid. It’s long, frustrating, and frequently painful. But it also has its rewards if you can work through it. And for those moms who can’t or don’t choose to breastfeed, don’t worry, I’m not going to chew you out. It’s a painful process, sometimes so painful that you can’t make it work. I know. I’ve been there. But if you do decide to suffer through it, take heart. It’s worth it.