Breast-feeding advocates (and I count myself in their number) are eager to evangelize. We promote the image of a serene mother, flushed with oxytocin, nursing her newborn in a wooden rocking chair while moonlight streams through the window. But romanticizing breast-feeding may backfire, setting moms up to lose heart when lactation difficulties arise. Here is the messy truth I tell my pregnant friends, in the hope that realistic expectations will empower them to persist through breast-feeding’s challenges in order to secure its very real rewards.
Messy Truth No. 1: Breast-feeding involves a learning curve.
It’s 2 a.m. I’m sitting up in bed, shirtless, a special breast-feeding pillow around my waist. My 3-day-old baby yawns. Squeezing my breast “like a sandwich” (as the lactation consultant instructed), I nudge my nipple into Violet’s mouth. Her suckle stings, as if I’m nursing a piranha. “A little help?” I mutter through my teeth. My husband gently adjusts Violet’s lip, widening her latch. Violet nurses for 30 seconds, then falls off the breast, asleep. Born three weeks early, my jaundiced baby needs breast milk to help her body expel excess bilirubin. But jaundice is making her too sleepy to breast-feed.
My husband examines the hospital handout on which we have recorded the hour of every feeding and diaper change since the moment of our daughter’s birth. “Feeding has to last five minutes to count,” Dave says, voice strained, near breaking. I stroke Violet’s jet-black hair. I kiss her olive skin. “Wake up and get your milkies,” I whisper. “Or Mama’s going to have a nervous breakdown.”
Messy Truth No. 2: Discretion is overrated.
I sat in the living room, coaxing Violet to latch onto my right breast. My milk had just come in. Abundantly. Whenever I so much as looked at my newborn, it shot out in an obscene lawn-sprinkler spray. I was staunching the flow from the left breast with my elbow when my 22-year-old brother walked into the room. “Yikes!” he cried, wheeling around and averting his eyes.
“Whatever,” I said. “I’m not skilled enough to be discreet.”
“At least you’re not as bad as this lady I saw at the store,” Michael said, dropping his K-Mart bags on the table. “She was pushing her kid in the grocery cart. He started crying and she whipped out this long, saggy, boob and began nursing him. In the middle of the aisle.”
I thought about the brazen confidence required to successfully execute this maneuver. “That lady is my hero,” I said.
Indeed, bodily shame regarding breasts seems silly once their actual purpose sinks in. Standing in the shower a few days after Violet was born, I took note of changes in my body. My stomach was distended. My belly button had stretched to the size of a quarter. My engorged breasts responded to the warm water by releasing sprays of milk. Thirty years of cultural conditioning instructed me to reel with shame at my loose belly, leaking breasts and excess fat. Instead, I felt like a fertility goddess. Enveloped in shower steam, I was suffused with awe — amazed at my power to nurture life. I made a person, I muttered. All those years I spent hating my hips, I’d missed the point. The purpose of my body is not to exist as an aesthetic object. The purpose of my body is to do amazing things.
Women who do not practice my scrupulous avoidance of recreational athletics probably reach this breakthrough sooner, through rock climbing or Ultimate Frisbee or hatha yoga. For me, it took the embodying experience of pregnancy and lactation to shake off my shame and knock some sense into my head.
Messy Truth No. 3: Co-sleeping and on-demand breast-feeding = lazy parent combo platter.
Once I was skilled enough to breast-feed lying down, night parenting was a snap. Violet slept beside me for 10-hour stretches, nuzzling up every now and then for a soporific top-off of milk. When I finally blinked my eyes open, the late morning sun was bright, and the first thing I saw was Violet’s beaming face.
Breast-feeding also suited my laziness when it came to scheduling. While I admire the organizational skills of parents who adhere to fixed timetables, I lack their consistency and discipline. I found it easier to meander through the day, letting Violet nurse and sleep at will. I never had to worry that a BBQ or hike or writing session conflicted with Violet’s “schedule.” I just popped her in the front pack and commenced eating spicy chicken wings, typing or staggering up a mountain.
Sure, Violet spent her first year attached to my breast like a lamprey. But wearing her allowed me the flexibility and freedom to continue living my own life after she was born.
Messy Truth No. 4: Breast-feeding is messy.
Whenever Violet detached from the breast, milk shot forth in a fire-hose spray, splattering every unfortunate surface in range. When I attempted a discreet feeding at a sushi restaurant, milk sprayed the decorative Shoji screen. When my father-in-law detailed the interior of our car, he was mystified by the dry white flecks on the glove-box, the dashboard, and the passenger seat window. When my sister sat too close, she suffered a shower of droplets on her wine glass. “Eww!” she said, laughing.
“Deal with it,” I said. “You sat in the splash zone.”
It was Violet’s face that got the worst of it. She would pop of the breast to grin at me, then bat her eyes, bewildered, as the spray hit her face. Milk soaked into the crevices of her abundant neck rolls. When she went two days without a bath, she smelled like yogurt. When she went three days without a bath, she smelled like cheese.
While self-conscious of the sopping patches on my shirt, I was grateful for my abundant supply. Violet gained weight at a healthy rate and never caught a cold — totally worth the cost to the upholstery.
Messy Truth No. 5: Breast-feeding lends itself to mom-centric parenting.
Imagine that your spouse is Superman. While the two of you are taking a stroll, you pass a burning building. Makes sense for your spouse to do the rescues, right?
Breast-feeding is a magical parenting superpower. Baby’s tired? Baby’s hungry? Baby has an owie? All these issues are instantly resolved with Super-Mama milk. While I knew I could express breast milk for my husband to bottle feed, this seemed to involve an overwhelming number of steps. (1. Find all pieces of breast pump. 2. Clean and dry breast pump. 3. Plug pump into wall and self into Internet television. 4. Pump for 30 minutes. 5. Avoid spilling precious milk. 6. Date and refrigerate. 7. Warm and administer.)
In using my magical milk powers to feed Violet, calm her and soothe her to sleep, I became the dominant parent. While I reveled in kissing my nursing baby’s sweet, soft fingers, Dave did the support work. He changed diapers for a red-faced, yowling baby. He vacuumed. He did dishes. He ran laundry. For me, motherhood was a blissful cocktail of infatuation and euphoria. For Dave, it was toil and sacrifice.
Though our initial parenting arrangement with Violet was lopsided, our roles have since found balance. Dave now reads Violets mountains of books, lets her sample strawberries at the farmers market, and takes her on library adventures. At 2, Violet is still Momma’s baby — but now she is also Daddy’s girl.
Messy Truth No. 6: Breast-feeding may make you envy your baby.
I got home from teaching writing at the local community college, sat on the couch, lifted my silky work shirt, and began nursing Violet. As she drew in great gasps of milk, her expression transformed from stubborn consternation to euphoric peace.
“I wish there was something that made me that happy,” I said.
As Violet grew older, she became more demonstrative in celebrating her love of milk. She would sit on my lap with an expression of unchecked glee, dive-bombing my breasts with gusto. She alternated between the two with feverish, bacchanalian delight.
“What do the milkies taste like?” I asked, trying to understand her bliss.
She pointed to my left breast. “Cookie,” she said, in her sweet, high-pitched whisper. She pointed to my right breast. “Banana.”
Puzzled, I recounted Violet’s description to my mom. “Cookies and bananas are the two sweetest things she can think of,” my mother theorized. She paused for a moment, reflecting. “Your milkies were chocolate and vanilla.”
Messy Truth No. 7: Breast-feeding can be irritating.
At age 1, my daughter developed the exasperating habit of pinching whatever nipple she was not currently drinking from. “You don’t pinch Momma,” I gently informed Violet, restraining her hand. She thrashed and yowled, outraged at the deprivation. “You can pat pat Momma,” I said, guiding her hand to my collarbone. She patted me three times, then snaked her hand back into my shirt.
In the breast-feeding community, this behavior is known as “twiddling.” La Leche League’s "Mothering Your Nursing Toddler" suggests that twiddling one breast may stimulate increased milk release from the other. When twiddling, toddlers are essentially turning the volume up on their milk.
Gentle reminders and patient redirections proved ineffective in eliminating Violet’s twiddling habit. Eventually I solved the problem by wrapping her up in a “baby burrito” blanket swaddle. She didn’t seem to mind the restraint, especially when I sang the “baby burrito” song. (In case you wish to add this melodic styling to your repertoire: 1. Take Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” 2. Replace the word “beluga” with “burrito.” 3. Enjoy.)
Messy Truth No. 8: It’s hard to surrender a superpower.
I love sleep. And with the lazy parent combo platter of breast-feeding and co-sleeping, I was getting plenty. The cost: surrendering milkies on demand to a thrashing toddler, three to 10 times a night. The cost: small hands scratching my chest in their search for milk. The cost: a child incapable of sleeping through the night without me.
My deep, intractable need for sleep outweighed these inconveniences ... until I was invited to read at the Iowa Book Festival. After 10 years of toiling in obscurity, this was my chance to bask in the spotlight, to attend literary cocktail parties, to dress in something other than sweat pants.
The cost: three days away from my toddler.
“If I’m going to baby-sit,” my mom said. “You’ve got to wean her.”
“If I’m going to do the night parenting,” my husband said. “You’ve got to wean her.”
It was time.
I held my sobbing, thrashing toddler through the night. Being present to my child in her suffering is practice for the rest of my life as a parent, I told myself. I imagined Violet as a heartbroken teenager, plastered to her bed, inconsolable. This is not the last time I will hold my child while she cries, I thought.
In between sobs, Violet requested her milkies by their respective nicknames. “Cooookieee!” she cried plaintively. “Bannannnaaaaaaa!”
After a week of nightmarish night weaning, Violet still made 3 a.m. milk requests. But she replaced the extended sobbing sessions with a few minutes of whimpering.
“That’s mine milky, Mama,” she yowled, as I rolled out of her reach.
“Actually? It’s mine milky,” I replied, patience spent.
“That’s your milky,” she acquiesced. She nuzzled up, resting her head on my shoulder. “I can share it?”
“No,” I said, and we both went back to sleep.
Messy Truth No. 9: Oxytocin is a hell of a drug.
Even before the nightmare of night weaning, my husband was growing tired of the family bed. “Violet was kicking me half the night,” he complained. “Then she was using my neck as a pillow, breathing her stinky baby breath on me at 3 a.m.”
“You think her breath is stinky?” I asked, perplexed. To me, Violet’s milky breath was a sweet perfume. When I couldn’t sleep, I would snuggle next to Violet, breathing in as she breathed out.
After I limited Violet’s breast-feeding sessions to once a day, her breath took on the distinct odor of canned corn. “We need to brush her teeth more often,” I told my husband. “Her breath smells weird.”
“That’s what her breath has always smelled like,” my husband said.
I realized: I had been under a hormonal spell. The surges of oxytocin released by breast-feeding had kept me in my baby’s thrall, convincing me that her breath smelled like unicorns.
Messy Truth No. 10: Breast-feeding may haunt your dreams.
Oxytocin withdrawal affected my mood, sending me spiraling into the slough of despond. My body retained water. Bereft of the calorie-burning magic of breast-feeding, I put on weight. As I struggled with hormonal upheaval, I found I missed breast-feeding as a parenting crutch. Before, when the afternoon grew long, I could climb in bed and nurse Violet while I listened to the radio. I could flop on the couch and flip through a magazine, mollifying Violet with milkies.
I didn’t miss the act of breast-feeding. I missed the way it made mothering easier — the way it created space for me to rest or read a book. I missed the magic button, the superpower, the uplifting oxytocin surge. Most of all, I missed the ability to transport my daughter to a realm of satiety and contentment.
“I still dream about breast-feeding,” my friend Lori confessed. A mother of three, Lori is now in her 50s. She told me that she has dreams in which she is breast-feeding a borrowed infant, a puppy, a baby bird.
“What do you think that means?” I asked, intrigued.
“I don’t know!” Lori laughed.
I think the dreams signify nostalgia for a time when nurturing flowed naturally from the body. Lori’s dreams are a sign that this yearning lingers, long after our breast-feeding days have come to an end.
Messy Truth No. 11: Breast-feeding’s end is bittersweet.
Violet asked for milkies this afternoon. Instead of relenting, I poured her a glass of chocolate milk. She downed it with great relish.
“Which tastes better, Mama milk or chocolate milk?” I inquired.
“Chocolate milk!” Violet declared. She beamed, holding out her glass for more.