Like many aspects of motherhood, breastfeeding is simultaneously put on a pedestal and devalued. On the one hand breastfeeding proponents, more fondly known as “lactivists,” can get quite impassioned about their cause, which as a fellow advocate I can understand and appreciate, but their outspokenness is sometimes at the expense of their fellow mamas. As author and activist Jessica Shortall writes in her open letter to breastfeeding “lactivists”:
You don’t care if I’m stressed, or anxious, or if producing breast milk is causing me conflict with my spouse or employer, or if I lie awake at night feeling like a horrible mother for not making enough milk, or if the demands of breastfeeding are really, really hard to juggle with two or more little kids. You don’t care if it will take me years to get over the feelings of shame and inadequacy that all this “every ounce counts” stuff has brought on. You don’t care if I might be a better mother, or happier person, if I could somehow take some of the breastfeeding pressure off.
I feel like you look at me and see one thing only: a milk-delivery system. A machine, with dark circles under her eyes and a permanent baby bump, whose purpose is to make milk for a baby. And if anything that I want, or even claim to need, gets in the way of that milk-delivery system, it is simply to be overcome. I must be made to see that the Most Important Thing is making milk. Everything else can wait until after the kid turns two.
On the other hand, and I hesitate to bring more attention to his antics, presidential-hopeful Donald Trump actually called a called a lawyer “disgusting” for taking a scheduled lunch break to pump. While many of us can point to how outrageous that is, the signs that have been popping up in stores and other public places telling nursing moms to cover up have received more mixed responses. (They have also elicited some hilarious responses from nursing mamas.)
But seriously, between the lactivists and the breast shamers, is it any wonder that so many of us are scrambling to cover up the way we get our babies fed? I’ve decided to take my metaphorical cover off and share exactly how I’ve fed mine.
Within hours after the birth of my daughter, my doula (birth coach) noticed that my daughter was having a hard time latching. She strongly suggested I contact a lactation consultant about a possible tongue tie, which would make nursing difficult and painful. We followed her advice and got an appointment for the following day. By the time the lactation consultant arrived I was a mess. My daughter’s “suck” was more like a “chomp,” leaving my nipples damaged, cracked, and bleeding. (Is reading this grossing you out? Try living it.) For weeks I had to stand backward in the shower because the sensation of the falling water on my chest was excruciating.
Breast was not best for ME in that moment.
My lactation consultant was my saving grace. She affirmed that the pain I was experiencing was not normal and that I needed time to heal before my injuries got worse. She taught me so many things–how to pump, how to accelerate my healing with compresses and essential oils, and how to establish a healthy milk supply. None of this was intuitive to me. Overwhelmed by all of the new information and postpartum hormones, I made her write down on a notecard exactly what I needed to do.
Three days after the birth our lactation consultant accompanied my husband and me to a kind oral surgeon who performed a quick laser surgery on our baby’s mouth to fix what turned out to be extremely severe tongue and tip ties. For the following two weeks as she healed, we had to supplement what milk she was getting through nursing by feeding her pumped milk through a tube after every feeding. My husband did exercises diligently with our baby to teach her how to suck properly. We were an around-the-clock-baby-feeding machine.
I’m now nine months into my breastfeeding journey, and I can say that it’s gotten infinitely easier. It does feel natural now, but only because my daughter and I have spent hundreds of hours doing it. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, and when I look at my baby’s adorably plump thighs, I think to myself proudly, I did that. At the same time I’m aware of how fortunate I am to work from home where I can nurse my baby on demand, which has kept my supply steady. My mama friends who pump everyday at work, you have my deepest admiration.
I say all of this not to impress anyone with my breastfeeding “war” story or my strong sense of determination that kept me hanging in there, but rather to help dispel the myth that breastfeeding is easy, natural, innate, or without cost. It was none of those things for my family.
Breastfeeding is a reproductive justice issue.
For our family, writing a few hefty checks and paying an insurance deductible were financial investments we were willing and able to make in order for me to breastfeed, but not every family has that luxury. The success of a breastfeeding relationship shouldn’t depend on a person’s socioeconomic status.
A person who wants to breastfeed needs more than just a strong sense of determination. Access to services like lactation consultants, health insurance to cover any necessary procedures, and support from family, friends, and the broader community aren’t optional; they are essential.