Before having a baby, I spent a number of years working in baby gear / natural birth / breastfeeding / cloth diapering communities. I had watched The Business of Being Born and knew all about cracked nipples and perineum tears before I even met my (now) husband. To say that I’m passionate about breastfeeding is an understatement. Before my first baby was born, breastfeeding didn’t even rank among my concerns.
Never did I imagine that it might be difficult for ME. I was prepared, I was enthusiastic, I had no worries.
When my first baby was born, all warm and earthy with little round heels and skinny legs and a startle reflex, he was placed on my chest and we admired his ten skinny fingers and his dark cobalt eyes. A nurse suggested that I breastfeed him and helped me position him and get him latched. He didn’t eat, but they said that was fine and we went on with getting to know one another.
We ended up in the hospital for a few days due to (my) birth trauma. Every time I tried to get him to latch, I failed. A nurse would come in and shove my entire nipple into his mouth so that he could eat, but on my own I could never get him to latch successfully. They wanted to see that we were breastfeeding before I left. I remember my midwife sitting in my room in an arm chair, her long gray ponytail hanging down her back. A nurse had just, yet again, shoved my nipple into his mouth. “You have pretty flat nipples.” She had said. “That’s why it’s hard to get him to latch. Do you think you’ll be able to do it at home?” She asked. I said yes, I’d definitely be able to do it at home because, again, I was sure I wouldn’t have any troubles.
We went home to a dark, dismal apartment in frigid January to the gray carpets and the spiders that hung out in the corners. I’d lost so much blood during his birth that I felt weak and exhausted. He needed me in a way that I had never been needed before. His presence sucked the life out of me, what little life I had left, my veins working hard to pump a stranger’s blood through them. He wanted to be held constantly. If I put him down, even to pee, he would scream. I held him while he slept, while I showered, while I ate. The nursing was not going well. I’d get a successful latch every once in a while, but usually nursing sessions turned into him screaming, his little body rigid, his face red, and me bawling. My husband was concerned and asked me what we could do. I suggested calling a lactation consultant.
I don’t even remember her name. Diane? She was wearing a periwinkle blue polo shirt tucked into Carhartts. She came into my presence gently, with a soft and maternal energy. The postpartum depression caused my feelings about her to be mixed. Part of me screamed for her to leave, couldn’t wait for the appointment to be over, couldn’t bear the small talk, wanted to claw my way across the house into the lonely solitude of my shower and sob against the wall. Part of me wanted to cling to her, to lace my arms around her thin waist and beg her not to leave me. She looked at me with genuine empathy, the way you look at your own child when he’s suffering, that longing to remove the pain, that willingness to take on the pain yourself to alleviate your loved one. I attempted to nurse and she watched the hungry baby, frustrated as he tried to latch, his velvety blond head bobbing at my chest until he gave up, a cry of desperation opening up his tiny lungs and I cried too, my breasts burning and full and engorged, feeling like I couldn’t fulfill my maternal duties, feeling like a failure.
She had a solution, a silicone breast shield that would help the baby to latch. She didn’t have one with her but suspected it would be useful. My husband picked one up for me. It was less than $5, a thin piece of silicone shaped like a nipple. I tried it on, brought the baby up to my breast – and something amazing happened. He latched! In one fell swoop, a flimsy piece of silicone and a thin woman in Carhartts saved our fragile nursing relationship and my confidence as a new mom. We used the shield for about 5 months, and then he started latching without it.
Breastfeeding can be very challenging. We often hear that breast is best, but not so often do we learn about the struggles that many women go through in order to breastfeed. Not hearing about the struggles is isolating and scary.
I assumed that my firstborn would come out knowing exactly how to breastfeed, would latch on immediately, and the rest would be history. This wasn’t the case for me, and I’m thankful that there are so many resources for new moms like lactation consultants, La Leche League, and various support groups (both on and off line). I’m also thankful that I stuck with it, that my husband supported me through the breastfeeding relationship, that I’m now breastfeeding my second son at 14 months old. Like any relationship, it takes time to cultivate, but I find that it’s worth the effort and the trials.