— Eisley, three days old
I've wanted to write this post for a while now, but I could never find the words I was searching for. Also, I know that not everyone likes to read about these sorts of things. (And some people enjoy them in a way that I don't exactly appreciate, like the old man who tried to add the above photo to his creepy breastfeeding group on Flickr. Sir, you make me hate the internet.) But I guess that if you don't want to read about a subject like this, then feel free to move along. I just figure there are some new mothers or soon-to-be mothers that would be able to learn from my experience, so I'd like to share.
Now that I am no longer breastfeeding Eisley (after seventeen months, which is hard to believe!), I felt the need to at least write down a few things I learned throughout my own experience. For the past few months I'd actually started this post in my head, so now seems to be the perfect time to finally write all these thoughts down.
I never thought I'd be someone who feels so passionately about breastfeeding. I always knew I wanted to breastfeed, but I don't think you ever realize how much it changes your life until you have your first child and go through this wild transformation from woman to mother. Within moments, you realize that you are no longer just you—but, instead, there's this tiny little person who is completely and entirely reliant on you. Morning, noon, and night. You are all they need.
After Eisley was born, I knew I was going to breastfeed. My mom breastfed me when I was a baby, and it was always my desire to do the same. Although my heart was set on it, I halfway expected to come up against a bit of trouble at first, considering I rarely came across any stories where a woman says, "Oh, breastfeeding is easy peasy! No trouble at all. Instant pro." On the contrary, most people I spoke with or read about had some sort of trouble. I'm glad I was at least aware of that, because I know many women feel like something is wrong with them when they realize there is a bit of a learning curve to the whole thing. It's the most natural thing in the world, sure, but it certainly didn't feel like it for me.
The hospital I had Eisley at was very pro-breastfeeding, which I appreciated. It meant that during the few days I spent there, I had more than my share of nurses and lactation consultants all up in my business. I'd say I'm generally a modest person, but it's a little ridiculous how quickly that went out the window when I was trying to figure out how to breastfeed Eisley. Pretty much any nurse who came in would try to help me throughout the day, and I left that hospital with more people seeing "the ladies" than I'd ever thought possible. Still, I appreciated the help and feedback and encouragement. I remember how awkward it was in the beginning, trying to figure out how to hold this little six-pound baby and do everything correctly.
Hold her like this. Move this way. Lift her head at just the right moment. Her mouth needs to look like this. Latch! Latch! Latch!
Despite all the help I received at the hospital, I didn't leave feeling confident in my abilities. It was a tough beginning, for sure.
Long story short (and to spare you all the specific details), it took me about six weeks to get the hang of it all. Six long weeks. In new-mama time, that felt like a year and a half. (Especially in the beginning, when you're feeding your newborn nearly every 3 hours!) Eisley had issues latching and I ended up having to use these little shields until she figured out how to latch properly. Anyone who has used them will tell you how inconvenient and annoying they are. Helpful, yes. But also just another thing you have to worry about keeping track of and washing and figuring out how to inconspicuously put on beneath a nursing cover while standing up in a museum bathroom trying to breastfeed a screaming three-week-old baby. (Yes, that happened. Why don't all womens' bathrooms have places to sit, anyway? Nursing mothers do not approve.)
After she was a month old, she would still have screaming fits after eating and couldn't latch without the shields—no matter how hard I tried. I was having so much trouble that I made an appointment with a lactation consultant at the breastfeeding center affiliated with the hospital where I had Eisley. An appointment I had to cancel after learning it wasn't covered by my insurance, and it would cost $90. Um, hi? That is ridiculous. I get very bitter when I think about how much breastfeeding is encouraged by doctors, yet if a new mom needs help from a breastfeeding center, she has to pay such a high out-of-pocket cost. Sure, I could have attended a La Leche League meeting, but at that point in the game I was so intimidated and frustrated and overwhelmed, and the last thing I wanted to do was drive somewhere I'd never been to meet a bunch of people I'd never met.
I ended up sobbing to myself one night, watching YouTube videos on latching (INSTANT REGRET AHHHH) and wondering what my life had come to.
I was so exhausted and frustrated, but I kept going. And one day, determined to figure it out on my own, I threw the shields into the back of a drawer and (kindly) forced Eisley to nurse without them. And what do you know? It worked. I don't remember how old she was at this point, but I want to say it was somewhere between six and eight weeks. And after that, I finally got it. It was magic. For the first time, it actually felt natural and easy and every bit the calm, bonding experience I was hoping for.
I ended up nursing Eisley until she was seventeen months old. (She got her first cold and couldn't breathe through her nose—therefore, we ended up unintentionally weaning her.) At that point, we were only nursing before her nap, before bedtime, and once at night. But I was, and am, grateful for that time I had, and for the experience. I in no way look down on mothers who choose to give their babies formula (every mother does what she feels is best), but I'm very pro-breastfeeding. And wish there was more education and understanding and less judgement and shame when it comes to these sorts of things.
I feel the need to admit that at one point in my life, I was one of those people who judged mothers who nursed in public. At least a little bit. And I also may or may not have rolled my eyes when people talked about extended breastfeeding. But now that I'm at the been-there-done-that point in the game, I thought I'd share a few things that I've learned and wished I had been aware of before being all judgy and ridiculous.
To people who say, "UGH, just give your kid a bottle!": Eisley took a bottle at the beginning, but after a few months she straight up refused. Yes, there are kids who refuse milk unless it's from the source, so to speak. And sometimes nursing mamas need to get out for more than 3 hours at a time to avoid becoming crazy hermit ladies. A bottle isn't always an option in these situations, so we do what we have to do.
To people who say, "Stop breastfeeding in public already! I don't need to see that!": I think it's a shame that our culture all but celebrates nudity, yet when it comes to a woman using her breasts for something other than something sexual, then it's all like PUT THOSE AWAY, LADY. And although there are women who breastfeed in public just to "take a stand" (which I don't necessarily agree with, because I don't think that is the right way to create understanding and awareness), you should also keep in mind that there are mothers who aren't out to make a point by breastfeeding in public. It's just something they have to do. Do you think I wanted to breastfeed on an airplane, or at Disneyland, or at brunch, or at a stranger's house? No, I didn't. But I did, because I had to. On that same note, because I understand not everyone needs to take a gander at my boobs, I was always sure to use a cover when breastfeeding in public. I think it is respectful, and not too much to ask. (Although, it's only fair to note I've heard from some mothers who have babies that refuse to nurse under any sort of cover. So, again, you do what you have to do!)
To people who say, "You shouldn't breastfeed your kid once they can walk or talk or have teeth; that's gross!": It's not as big of a deal as you think. I think I would have continued to breastfeed Eisley until she was 2 if she hadn't stopped before then. It was only a few times a day, and it was always at home before she went to sleep. No, she didn't need to breastfeed after she started eating real food at each meal, but it's not just about nutrition. It's hard to explain until you have a child of your own, but it doesn't feel as unnatural as much of our culture makes it seem like it should. At this point, I also must ask, "Why does it matter to you?" I mean, if it doesn't involve you, and someone isn't forcing you to nurse your 2 year old or watch them nurse theirs, why does it matter?
This is getting incredibly long-winded, but I have to share one specific story:
When Eisley was about four months old, we went to Disneyland with her for the first time. (We live close to the park and Jay used to work there—no, we didn't plan some big theme park vacation with a child that young!) That evening, Eisley needed to eat and we were far away from the nursing station. (Disney is the best. They have a designated place nursing mothers can go to sit comfortably and in private. So fantastic!) She was crying and we didn't want to have to walk a mile just to nurse in private, so I decided to feed her outside. I did my best to find a fairly quiet and unpopulated corner, settled in on a bench completely out of the way, threw on the nursing cover, and fed my daughter.
Two women were walking by, headed to a restaurant near where I was sitting, and one of the women caught my eye, gave a quick thumbs-up and mouthed, "Good job!" I tear up every time I think about that moment, because what that woman did was accept, encourage and validate me in the best way possible at that time in my life. I wonder if she knows how much of an impact she had on me, because after that night I stopped thinking I needed to go hide in the corner to avoid unintentionally offending someone. I was doing everything I could to be courteous to onlookers (and eye-rollers), but also wasn't going to deny my child what she needed, despite the circumstances.
When it comes down to it, breastfeeding is a very personal thing, but also something that I feel needs to be talked about more—and understood more. I guess that's why I wanted to take the time to share a bit of my story, because every woman's experience is unique. I'm grateful for (and proud of) the year and a half I breastfed Eisley, and I'm also grateful for the new perspective it gave me.
If you are a new mama and ever need someone to commiserate with (or vent to) about breastfeeding, please reach out to someone who has been there! There were many days that a bit of encouragement from friends (both online and off) was all that kept me going and kept my spirits up until things got better. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me (or tweet!), and I'd love to lend any advice I may have!
— Further reading: Eisley's Birth Story