it's not just bitter. the sweet part is coming.
theo and i have completed our breastfeeding journey and its a bittersweet end. in reflecting on breastfeeding, i have a lot to say, so this is a longer post.
before i was pregnant, women in my life (my sister in law, my friend) breastfed their babies. it was normal for me to see women close to me breastfeeding, and talking about breastmilk. i also had people who formula fed, and that was completely normal in my world, too. i knew, going into pregnancy, and during pregnancy, that i wanted to try breastfeeding with our baby. i wasn't attached to it like i would die if i couldn't, but i respected the commitment i had to trying it, at least. still, i didn't think that much about the realities of breastfeeding and the deep impact it would have on my life, or how much i would have trouble weaning him when it was time.
what i've learned over the last 13 months of breastfeeding theo, is there is so much wrapped up in breastfeeding for women. women's, and mom's identities, connections with their babies, workload, and hormones are all wrapped up in breastmilk, and it makes for some super complex feelings and thoughts about motherhood. for me at least, it did.
on the bitter side, breastfeeding was painful, only really at the beginning, but i'm not sure i ever expected it to be. for something that everyone talks about as so natural, and normal, it was more than just uncomfortable. in the first days, i was consistently told that nipple pain is pretty normal with breastfeeding. but this was like, unbearable pain. was i just a wimp? maybe i was doing something wrong... and here's the beginning of where breastfeeding and being an adequate mom are first matched in a new mom's mind. back to this later.
it's hard to think about and remember sometimes since there have been so many positive memories between now and then, but mike reminds me occasionally how i was just crying and crying, saying i wasn't sure i could do it, and that was only the 3rd day in. thankfully, my mom encouraged me to find a lactation consultant, which i did, and thank goodness i did, because that woman is a big part of the reason i was able to keep breastfeeding. she helped me with what to look for, and feel, and different strategies to try. she made me feel heard and understood and gave me reasonable tips to follow. and a week later, when i got a bleb, a little clogged nipple duct, which made me feel like my nipple was going to explode, she helped me with a simple solution to fix it. THANK GOD FOR HER! she is a big part of my team who helped encourage me to keep breastfeeding.
on the bitter side, breastfeeding also meant clothing changes, and night feeds. it meant cluster feeding, and warm compresses. it meant leaking and nipple pad changes along with the menstrual pad changes. it meant pumping, and washing pump equipment, and bottles. breastfeeding meant hormones and watching what i ate because it gave theo such bad gas. it meant staying on pre-natal vitamins, and being careful of chemicals. and that whole list doesn't even explain the entirety of it, like lack of sleep, and feelings of inadequacy, and being the only one who could feed him which felt hard and lonely. and all of these are real for so many new moms, not just me.
and yet, just like every other dang thing in motherhood, it's not just bitter. the sweet part is coming. breastfeeding was one of the first connections theo and i had once he was living outside my body, and for six months, i was his entire food supply. think about that, for 15 months from the time of conception to his 6 month birthday, I WAS IT, ALL OF HIS NUTRIENTS. and that continued on until he turned 13 months when we ended our breastfeeding journey.
this, to me, is unreal to think about.. i am so grateful to have fed him anywhere and everywhere without mixing and heating up bottles and to have been around people who supported that choice. i never felt insecure about breastfeeding in public, or around others. in fact, breastfeeding was a community effort in a lot of ways. mike got up with me for every night feed for the first two weeks of theo's life. my mom came over and put compresses on my breasts, and my mother in law held up my shirt, more than once, because it kept falling in theo's face. my dad and father in law and brother asked about breastfeeding without any shame or weirdness attached. all of the women in my life who recently had babies, my sister in laws and friends, were important sources of advice and venting in those first weeks and months. all of these people encouraged my breastfeeding journey, but also gave me permission to stop, if i wanted to - to use formula, to pump exclusively, to wean him when i was ready and supported all of those choices. and i know not everyone has this support system, but dang, i'm so glad i do.
breastfeeding meant i always had to have theo with me, and also that i could feed him anywhere without packing extra stuff. i fed him in the car more times than i can count, even during covid when we couldn't go out much. breastfeeding also meant that i was the one doing all the feeds, but now, in a weird dose of reality i never saw coming, i don't even think about all of those hard nights, crying while he fed and he and i alone in the dark. it was so recently, and so far away all at once, that breastfeeding, right now, seems way more sweet than bitter.
but let me just go back to talking about how so much stuff is wrapped up in breastfeeding for a moment. i was trying to do it all, be environmentally friendly, and thoughtful about chemicals, and do everything myself, and pump to build a stash cause everyone tells you to do that and i was so, so tired. this was my first baby, i had no idea what i was doing, and i was feeling like i got hit by a truck and trying to do ALL THE THINGS. so here's your reminder, jess, of the things you WILL AND WILL NOT DO NEXT TIME YOU ARE BREASTFEEDING. if you need to hear this, read it when you need it.
1. i will use a lactaction consultant for any breastfeeding related issues, pain and challenges. they are worth the investment.
2. i will NOT use re-usable nipple pads. they don't work.. i had to wash them too often, they leaked through my clothes, and they constantly smelled like sour milk. EW. instead, i will always have the disposable ones. they were easy peel-and-stick like pads, fit nicely in shirts without being noticed and NEVER EVER LEAKED. even at the beginning when i had way too much milk. please remember: you can also cut up pads and use as nipple pads if you run out.
3. i will invest, during pregnancy, in the knixwear leakproof bra and/or nursing tank. i've heard good things, and wish i would've splurged when i was pregnant with theo. the bra situation during breastfeeding is too hard, and no new mom should have to deal with that hassle.
4. i will not buy nursing specific clothes. the same t-shirts will work, as long as they are baggy and pull up to chin height. reminder to keep a hair clip on you to clip up shirt if slipping into baby's face, to have a hair elastic since at the beginning, you don't want your hair in your face, and to always bring an extra bra and shirt, and extra nipple pads, just incase.
5. i will not force myself to pump to build up a stash or to encourage bottle feeding, unless it feels effortless. with theo, i put way too much pressure on myself that he should take a bottle, and i spent all this time and effort pumping and washing pump supplies and he still hated the bottle. as soon as i stopped trying to force it, i felt a lot more secure as a mom and a lot less pressure to do it all.
6. with another baby, if able, i will express my choice of breastfeeding, breastfeed on demand, in public, through the night, and until either baby or i feel like we are done and need to wean.
7. i will always start with a warm compress or epsom salt water bath for sore nipples and/or breasts, it cures everything.
8. i will only follow my own instincts on this topic and not feel pressured by what other people are doing or what's best for other people's babies. i will also give myself permission to stop breastfeeding and use formula, if that's the best decision for all of us.
9. i will remember that breastfeeding is a short time that goes by in the blink of an eye, and that 13 months from birth, i won't even think about how hard it is.
10. i will remember that breastfeeding needs to be good for the mom, too and will always support other moms in their choices to breastfeed, pump, formula feed, and any other method needed to keep themselves and their babies nourished and healthy.
bonus; i was blessed with theo to have pain only at the beginning and not have troubles after that, no infections or mastitis, no supply issues, and no time forcibly away from baby preventing them from having breastmilk. this may not reflect any future breastfeeding experience so please remember, jess, to be graceful with yourself and know that you have made it through 100% of the hard things you've done, and that you will be fine, in time, and with patience.
it still feels weird, after a week and a bit of not breastfeeding theo at all, when referring to milk, to only be talking about his cow's milk in his cup rather than my body. and to know that that one night, before bed, was his last ever breastfeed. it's bittersweet. i'm happy to be building a different type of connection with him now, and for him to be developing and becoming more independant. and also, i'm happy to not have to consider as much what goes into my body, the bras i wear, and stopping leaking one day. all in all, a little bitter but mostly sweet.