I breastfed both of my children well past infancy. I breastfed them at night. I breastfed them at the mall. I breastfed them in church, without a cover and without shame. I spent countless months of both my children's lives whipping out a tit left and right to assuage their panic, their sadness, their hunger. I nursed, on demand, for three years straight.
You might think, then, that I'd be all over National Breastfeeding Month, an initiative started by the United States Breastfeeding Committee in 2011, in order to "protect, promote and support" breastfeeding every August. The USBC, according to the mission statement on its web site, would like to champion breastfeeding as "the norm" for mothers and infants, and purports that breast milk is the "preferred and most appropriate source" of food for infants. This proclamation has led countless nursing moms to post infographics, nursing selfies and long-winded diatribes on the benefits of breastfeeding on social media. It's led to nurse-ins and demonstrations. From Twitter to Instagram, breastfeeding is trending.
But when I see smiling selfies of mothers serenely nursing their babies, claiming they want to "normalize" breastfeeding, I pause. Is that really what we're trying to do here? From the pictures I'm seeing, breastfeeding looks heroic. It looks ethereal. It looks effortless. But it certainly doesn't look like normal. Is there anything "normal" about breastfeeding a toddler naked in a field of flowers?
There's no doubt in my mind that any woman who chooses to breastfeed should be able to do so, publicly, without shame or criticism. But we might be doing an equal disservice to women by making breastfeeding look so glamorous, so easy. In the rush to "normalize" breastfeeding, advocates might be glossing over the fact breastfeeding can be ugly, messy, and difficult to establish. Oftentimes, it comes with cracked nipples, fatigue, clogged ducts, mastitis, and a legion of other maladies. Virtually never does it look like Nicole Trufino on the cover of Elle.
With both of my children, breastfeeding was anything but easy. I never considered bottle-feeding my firstborn child -- a daughter -- who affixed herself to my right nipple just a few hours after birth. June had what lactation consultants called a "perfect latch," and my milk supply was more than adequate. Watching her nurse for the first time in the recovery room, I was in awe. You mean I just mash her face up to my boob and that's it? I thought. This is awesome! And easy! And free! Why doesn't everyone do this?
Within days, however, this peaceful, natural activity became an abject lesson in torture. Gone was my reverence, my quiet awe. When my daughter would root around, sniffing at the air for milk, I would curl my toes and whimper in anticipation. Holy hell, it hurt. Imagine someone flicking on a lighter and holding it just over the surface of your nipples. That is what breastfeeding felt like for the first three weeks of my daughter's life. Only the vague notion that breastfeeding would save us money in the long-term kept me from giving up and switching to formula.
At nine days postpartum, I woke one morning and the pain had soared to eleven. Not only did my nipples hurt, but now everywhere on my body was aching and sore. Within a few hours, I had developed a high fever. The culprit? Mastitis -- a breast tissue infection common in nursing mothers that affects up to one third of breastfeeding women. At the OB's office that afternoon, when asked if I had any difficulty breastfeeding beyond the mastitis, I hesitated.
"Well," I said. "It hurts. Like, all the time. I'm honestly not sure it should hurt this much."
The OB shook her head with something like pity in her eyes. "I know 'they' say it shouldn't hurt to breastfeed, but it can," she said. She rubbed my elbow gently with one finger. "It doesn't hurt to rub your elbow. But if you rub it fifty thousand times in a row, it's going to start to hurt. Right?" As she wrote me a prescription for penicillin, she counseled, "Pain is perfectly normal."
That word again -- normal. Was it "normal" to feed my baby breast milk? I supposed it was, inasmuch as I had breasts and milk was coming out of them and a baby was crying. But did it still also hurt like hell? Was it also physically and emotionally taxing? The answer, unequivocally, was "yes." I hadn't realized that something "normal," a natural bodily process, would come at such a high cost.
When our second kid came along, my husband and I learned that he would be born with a severe birth defect called spina bifida. Yet again, what was "normal" flew completely out the window. We switched hospitals, threw out our birth plan, and prepared ourself for multiple corrective surgeries and at least a month in the NICU.
Once again, I had breasts, milk, and a crying baby. On some level, breastfeeding made sense. But as our son recovered from surgery, we discovered quickly that he was ravenous -- inhaling my colostrum and screaming for more as soon as the last drop was finished. Eventually, to curb his hunger somewhat, we supplemented with formula for the entirety of his NICU visit.
I had never intended to bottle-feed or supplement, but it's what happened, despite having the normal physical ability to produce milk. Breastfeeding may be the optimal choice for mothers who are able to lactate, like I was -- but with both children I confused what was "normal" with what was easy and, moreover, what was best for our family. One didn't necessarily follow the other.
Breastfeeding is a valid choice, and I'm all for flooding social media with encouragements to other women who might want to choose similarly. Whip out a boob. Nurse that baby. Post that selfie. But I personally won't be doing any of that without mentioning the several bouts of mastitis I endured. Or the weeks of chaffed, bleeding nipples. Or that time my daughter chomped down so hard she actually tore some skin off my right nipple (That happened). Unless moms start sharing the negatives of nursing in conjunction with the positives, we're just creating another idealized version of what women should do -- and setting them up for disappointment when their reality is inevitably different.
Until we show the ugly side of breastfeeding, we're not "normalizing" anything -- we're only creating a fairy tale.