“You’ll breast-feed?” people often asked me, though it would have been easy to mistake the question for a statement. You will breast-feed, seemed to be the message I got from co-workers, friends and even an eccentric old man with a penchant for photographing breast-feeding women and their babies. The question was slightly infuriating, as if I might not have come across the resounding message that “breast is best” in the stockpile of pregnancy books and magazines scattered throughout the house.
The truth was I’d always intended on breast-feeding my baby, knew that nutritionally there was no match for breast milk, but mind and body were not on the same page of this particular parenting manual. It was just that, well, I was uncomfortable with the idea of another human being feeding from me. If I said that breast-feeding conjured an image of lactating farm animals and how I was reluctant to be milked or suckled, I would likely be beaten down by the lactation advocates and the battalion of advice givers who think their word is The Word when it comes to parenting. (You know the type.)
But I promised myself I’d try my best for the first few months of my baby’s life, regardless of how I thought breast-feeding would make me feel. I knew it was only the beginning of countless lessons in putting my child’s needs before my own, and at 30 years old, I was finally ready to relinquish some of my own desires for that of another.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how bewildering it would be. When the nurse held my son — red-faced, wrinkled and still wet from delivery — to my breast and pushed my nipple inside his tiny pink mouth I feared he might suffocate. Neither of us knew what we were doing, and together we fumbled. Any position I tried felt awkward and clumsy and entirely wrong. What I quickly learned is that although breast-feeding is one of the most natural things in the world, as natural as sex and eating, it is very much a learned skill. (Think back to your first sexual experience, and you will likely cringe at the awkwardness of the moment, at your utter lack of knowledge. Even eating comes with a learning curve; as humans, we are first nourished with liquids and gradually introduced textures as teeth emerge and bite reflexes are mastered.) My point? It takes time for mothers to learn to feed their babies, to know how much, or even when. Babies can’t always latch properly. Mom’s milk refuses to come in, and even when it does, baby starts to lose weight. Mom’s boobs become engorged. The list goes on and on.
My problem was that everyone failed to tell me how excruciating it could be. After being pulled on and sucked for 20 to 30 minutes every two hours, my nipples were soon raw, bleeding and cracked. In the shower I shielded my breasts from the stream of water spitting down on my body, and after would carefully dab Lanolin ointment on my tender nipples to prevent further cracking. Even light fabrics grazing across my breasts caused a grating, irritating sensation that made wearing shirts and bras almost unbearable. Going topless from time to time would have been my saving grace, but then there was the spillage factor to consider. My breasts rained milk from dusk to dawn and all through the night, and a “no touch” rule was strictly enforced upon my husband in case my breasts “think” a hungry baby might be in the vicinity.
Through all this my breasts, sadly, became mere shadows of their former perky selves, and I found it best, if not absolutely necessary, to keep them contained lest I frighten anyone (husband, mostly) with their curious resemblance to a sweet old orangutan mother. But then one day, just after I’d resigned myself to wearing push-up bras for the rest of my days here on earth, they were gone, simply gone — suckled away, I suppose, by that insatiable appetite of his. Sweet old orangutan boobs suddenly seemed like a sweet deal, I thought, as I rummaged through my drawer for something resembling a training bra.
As the months passed I grew accustomed to it all, the endless tugging on my weary nipples, the mysterious case of the disappearing rack, the spontaneous leakage that occurred at the most inconvenient of times. There was something about the two of us tucked away somewhere quiet, somewhere private, where we stared at each other like star-crossed lovers, existing solely in the moment. It tugged at a part of me that hadn’t existed before baby. He needed to be nourished, and only I could provide him with what he wanted. It was as if we hovered in some peculiar time warp where everything stopped while he could refuel in body and I in mind.
Eventually, though, it became time to introduce a bottle, either formula or breast milk. I had been warned that if I waited too long, my son would likely reject it. Pumping hadn’t worked for me, and so after eight months, I decided to give formula (gasp!) a try. Inwardly my mind screamed “But breast is best!” while another part of me knew that it was time to get off the high horse and just give him the damn bottle already.
I finally justified the decision by reminding myself I’d already breast-fed twice as long as I’d anticipated. Besides, this formula thing was kind of an experiment; I was convinced he wouldn’t like its artificial taste — not after the rich, milky goodness that came right from Mom’s breast. Surely he would spit it out and look at me with disgust in his eyes, as if to say, Stewie Griffin-like, “Lois, what in the deuce is this? Do you think I’m stupid? Feed me the real stuff, woman. From your boob!”
But that isn’t what happened. Not at all. He reached for that bottle and sucked it back like a cold beer on a hot day. He smiled at it and sucked at it furiously until he’d slurped every last drop. All of a sudden that bottle was his new best friend and Mom was cast aside, the old friend he didn’t have time for anymore.
This was the moment I was supposed to feel free, wasn’t it? I’d expected a battle — a long, drawn-out struggle between baby’s need for breast milk and mama’s desire to take back ownership of her body. After all the endless tugging and pain and embarrassing wet spots, I should have felt overjoyed. And I did — for just a moment.
But then came disappointment. Outrage followed (what were they putting in that stuff, anyway? Crack for babies?), and then anger at everyone who’d suggested I try. Then anger at myself for having listened. I worried my milk would dry up and that revelation made me angry at myself all over again. Most of all, I was heartbroken. The fact that he could abandon our moments with such ease crushed me. I had not realized until then: I absolutely loved breast-feeding our son.
In that moment, I was aware of both the cruelty and beauty of motherhood, of the mysterious bond that had already emerged from such a young relationship, created in utero and continued into the world. I knew it was the first of many heartaches. That this was only the beginning of an inevitable end, in which a son, forever a child in his mother’s eyes, leaves her for the great big world beckoning to him: new friends, a career, a partner. A new life. One without her. One without me. Panic! It is all I can do in these moments to keep from crying out, from holding him close and refusing to let him go.
There is still one feeding left, first thing every day. In the early morning light, when night gives way to day and the tall pines outside my bedroom window begin to take shape, I carry my son to bed and nestle him close, marveling, still, at all the delights and revelations he has brought.
I just didn’t see this one coming.
Liisa Allen is a writer whose essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail. When she's not writing about breastfeeding or her brief foray into reality television, she plugs away at her first novel and contemplates the merits of starting a blog. Her website is liisaallen.com.More Liisa Allen.