Learning to Nurse

[Two years ago, while pregnant with my third child, I wrote this rambling reflection on learning to nurse, as well as a few other things that made it through my baby-focused brain filter: what it’s like to be pregnant for the third time, how hard it is to learn to breastfeed, and why that first month of motherhood is so hard.]

These days, I gauge my emotional state by how much my head itches. I’m not sure exactly why my dandruff and hormones, not to mention my overall ability to handle life in general, are so in synch when I’m pregnant, but it appears to be one of those basic truths. And if my head is itching, boy, watch out.

This particular round of itchy flakiness, giant zits, and tearful bitchiness is actually due to my third ride on the pregnancy roller coaster. I’m afraid to say that by now the novelty of being pregnant has worn off, and all that’s left are the million and one ways my body is being hijacked by this little guy—and my less than thrilled attitude about the whole thing.

Does that sound horrible? Unmotherly? I think my husband was a little taken aback when I expressed my doom and gloom outlook while lying in bed one night. I can only say in my defense that it’s not that I don’t want the baby, it’s just all the collateral damage that happens to me as a result of the little dude’s arrival on planet earth that I don’t relish.

Pregnancy #1, I marveled at the beauty of creation and my small part in it. Pregnancy #2, I knew what was coming and took all the hurdles in stride. But now it’s Pregnancy #3, I’m at home all day with my preschooler and my toddler, and I’m just plain tired. I think that pretty much sums it up.

And so it is from this predictably unpredictable vantage point of hormonal instability that I am reflecting back on the 2+ years I spent nursing my first two children (that number is a combined total—I’m not that good) and looking ahead to the who knows how long I’ll spend nursing this next one. I acknowledge the risk that my temporarily depressed state (if you consider nine months temporary) will skew all recollections toward the negative, but I as I write this I am sitting at my neighborhood cafe, and I just ordered so much food that they served it up with two sets of utensils, so perhaps with a blood sugar spike just moments away there’s hope yet for a more cheery recounting.

Tired as I may be, the cobwebs in what remains of my once healthy brain are not so thick that I can’t recall what’s still to come, what lies before me. (A quick question: On my third pregnancy, do I merit the title of Veteran Mother? What about Old Pro? Perhaps it’s best to just be honest and go with Old Hag, but “hag” rhymes with “sag,” so please, no, let’s not go there.) Regardless, I know enough to know that the pregnancy finish line, so often dangled tantalizingly after the labor and delivery mile-marker, is actually a tricky mirage. You go through all the rigmarole of pregnancy and childbirth, and emerge on the other side proud, exhausted, and relieved that you have your healthy baby and it’s all over. But it’s not.

Sorry to be the bearer of the unhappy news, but it ain’t over until the fat lady is done nursing. Yup, you don’t fully get your body, hormones, emotions, or sanity back until you’re done nursing. (I left “mental agility” off that list on purpose. No matter what people tell you, I don’t think we ever fully get our brains back. After this long I think it’s safe to conclude that my fuzzy-headed feeling is here to stay; I have just gained new skills to compensate. Yes, I am a better multi-tasker, I have gained life wisdom, blah blah blah, but man, I sure do miss my math skills.)

So why on earth does anyone ever breastfeed? Why do we subject ourselves to this misery extender? A myriad of reasons I suppose, not the least of which is that even if you decide to skip it altogether, heading immediately to your local grocery for that giant can of formula goodness and the bag of frozen peas for your aching bosom, your journey back to your old self may not be any easier—or quicker. Depending on who you are (and whether you live in Hollywood, apparently), your particular path to someone who resembles the old you may be as short as a couple of months or as long as a year and a half. How the To Nurse or Not to Nurse decision figures into all that is not an exact science either—like so many things in life, every choice has its pros and its cons.

In the months leading up to my first child’s birth, I had a loose idea that I would breastfeed. My mom had breastfed me, and it made sense to me on a basic level that it would be preferable to nourish my baby in the way women had been dong it since the beginning of time. But apart from this vague inclination, I hadn’t thought too much about the specifics. Although I did have in my possession several books on breastfeeding, I, like so many first-time expecting moms, was primarily focused on the looming labor and delivery that would soon initiate me—as well as my newborn son—into a whole new world. And so the books sat unopened under economy-sized boxes of diapers and wipes, unconcerned, as if they knew I would come begging for guidance in just a few short weeks.

After the big event had passed and my son and I had both made it through (literally or figuratively, depending on who you’re talking about), we found ourselves spent and starving. My hunger could be remedied by sending the in-laws off for some fried mushrooms, but my son’s was a little more complicated. For him, there was only one item on the menu, and to get it he had to master a new physical skill—the art of suckling. Luckily for both of us, a kindly German post-partum nurse grabbed me by the boob and popped him on, easy as anything. Unluckily, the kindly German nurse was only good for one use, because by the time the little guy was hungry again, we were home (at our local birthing center, they aren’t big on letting you linger), and this time around it was just us—my son, me, and my giant areolas.

Ah, yes, that’s how it all began, that month from hell. And when I say month, I don’t mean your average 30 days. I mean 30 days in a new wormhole world where time has no meaning and you feel as though you accidentally admitted yourself into some sort of mental ward—except that I don’t think they serve peanut butter sandwiches and lemon-lime Gatorade around the clock in a mental ward, which is pretty much all I subsisted on during those first 30 days.

(I used to wonder how on earth such a tiny vulnerable creature could grow and add actual pounds to his frame when all the nourishment provided him came from peanut butter sandwiches and lemon-lime Gatorade. I now know the answer to this: he took it from me—from my reserves, from my tissues, from my very bones. In the hierarchy of the mother/baby system, I have since learned, the baby ranks. So now I know that whether or not I feel up to a well-rounded meal, I should try my best to dig one up from the farthest recesses of my refrigerator. Even if it means opening a dozen sketchy tupperware containers, eating the nutrients is much less exhausting than having them sucked from my bones.)

So what exactly is it about that first month that is so excruciatingly difficult? I wondered this myself before it all began, vividly remembering the haunted expressions on the faces of friends during the first few weeks after the birth of their babies. I remember one friend in particular, normally so pulled together, who quieted a dinner party once with her chilling one-line summary of daily life with her one month old: “I’m lucky if I brush my teeth by dinnertime.”

Now that I’ve experienced this joyous time myself I still sometimes find myself at a loss to explain its challenges. Requests for specifics from doubtful yet apprehensive pregnant friends tend to produce only vague, stumbling answers from me. But a few weeks ago one of my best friends had her first child, and although everything is going quite well in the grand scheme of things (baby and mom are healthy, he’s gaining weight, she’s not suicidal), hearing her voice over the phone and reading her experiences over our long-distance emails have reminded me all over again why those early weeks are so hard.

It’s not any one particular thing. It is not just this or that or that other thing. For one person, in fact, this may be horrible but that may be just fine. But overall, when all is said and done and you have the perspective of time to sit back and reflect, what emerges from the haze of clouded memory is a period in time when everything is upended—when everything known no longer matters, and everything that matters is now unknown. Whether this thing or that thing ultimately becomes your particular challenge is irrelevant and unknowable until you’re there, but what is for certain is that you are entering new and foreign territory, and what you will do in this new land will seem like the most important work you’ve ever done or will ever have to do.

It’s stressful enough that you and your partner are in charge of this little child’s general care and well-being, but when you finally face the basic truth as a breastfeeding mother that you alone are responsible for providing 100% of your helpless baby’s nourishment—his or her very sustenance on earth—well, that can be downright terrifying. Then add to it that the act of breastfeeding is a complicated act involving many coordinated physical movements and—say it’s not so—yet more interference from those pesky hormones (read: uncontrollable crying in the middle of the night), and you have the perfect recipe for freak-out stew.

Does it get better? Yes, a million times over. Will your child starve? No way, not possible. But at the time, when it’s 2:00 a.m. and your baby won’t latch on or your milk won’t let down or your nipples hurt so much that you are literally crying as if you’re being tortured (and in all of these scenarios, mind you, your baby is screaming in such a manner that you are certain the state authorities will be arriving any second and you will find yourself on the evening news as the Worst New Mother Ever), you have zero perspective and so little ability to cope.

If you’re lucky, you might have a husband who wakes up 50% of the time in these situations to murmur something supportive before he drifts off again to peaceful slumber. (If you ask him, of course, he can’t sleep a wink what with all the crying and carrying on. And here you thought his closed eyelids, heavy breathing, and rhythmic chest movements actually meant he was sleeping. Silly you.) If you’re even luckier, you somehow have retained a shred of your sense of humor, which allows you to find a small amount of comfort in calling your husband bitter and hilarious names while he is drifting off into said slumber. Even if you aren’t lucky, however, you still have the inevitable passing of time, the ticking off of days on the calendar until you and your baby start to get a hang of each other and of breastfeeding and of all the other new tasks you are learning together, until bit by bit you start to feel your sanity returning.

If this were any other task in the world—if you were putting together a bicycle or making a soufflé or defragmenting your hard drive (I don’t even know what that means)—you would simply, if you were a sane person, stop. You would stop and go to bed. (It is 2:00 a.m. after all.) This is not working, you would say. I’ll try again tomorrow. But unfortunately, and this is the part that really gets you at 2:00 a.m., you CANNOT STOP. You cannot stop, and what’s worse, this is never going to end. This baby needs to be fed, and this baby will always need to be fed. You can see this long line of feedings and burpings and barfings and poopings and peeings stretching off toward that all-important 18th birthday (yet another mirage of a finish line, my mother tells me), and depending on who you are, this will cause you to panic in a small way or in an extremely large way.

No matter who you are, though, and what your particular level of tolerance for responsibility and being needed is, the sheer enormity of this particular responsibility cannot help but shake you in your shoes a little bit, if not blow them off completely. When this realization hits you that this kid is here to stay and that God or the universe or Mother Earth has for whatever set of insane reasons decided to entrust immature, irresponsible, not-got-it-together you with this baby’s welfare, well, that’s a big one to swallow, people.

And so it is that the first month of your child’s life will be a big one for you, one that really steamrolls you and leaves you pancaked. Yes, it is all the work, and the new skills to learn, and the late nights, and the hormones, and the sore nipples (pray they’re not cracked), but I think the hardest thing of all, the thing that really debilitates us as new parents, is the way life requires us—all in one fell swoop—to grow up.

I can remember that time in my own life so vividly, that first month with my first child. There I was: the birth was successfully behind me, the breastfeeding was painful and exhausting but hey, it was occurring (and that was what really mattered, I figured), and my son was eating and sleeping and pooping and peeing. All in all I thought I was handling this whole baby thing quite well, thank you. Then we had our two-week check-up at the midwife’s office, and one little bump in the road sent my hopped up confidence careening into one of those dreaded SUV rollovers.

They weighed him (the all important two-week weighing), and oh lord, he didn’t weigh enough. Babies, it turns out, lose weight after they are born. The poor things are a little dazed and confused from the whole vagina tube shoot, not to mention the fact that mommy’s got-it-covered umbilical cord is no longer serving it up 24/7, so some weight loss is normal and expected.

But if they lose too much weight, or if they don’t regain this lost poundage by the time they hit the two-week mark, the medical types start to get nervous. Well, my son did not regain his weight, and for some reason that I’ll never know, my midwife got really nervous. My memory, which yes, might not be super objective, has her gasping in horror at his weight, literally running down the hall to get a bottle of formula, and shoving a latex nipple into my stunned baby’s mouth. As my son gulped to keep up with the flow from this unknown contraption, my midwife announced triumphantly, “See? He was starving!”

Was she having a bad day? Were her patients stacked up in the waiting room and she was flustered by the prospect of anything delaying her further? Was she driven to bitterness from her envy of my giant breasts? I’ll never know. All I do know is that I, sobbing uncontrollably in her office, instantly lost any and all perspective I was pretending to have and summarily concluded that my baby was indeed starving and that I had failed him in the most basic way possible.

Later my mother would try to introduce sense and reason back into my thoughts: “Starving babies act lethargic, their faces look sunken in, their skin looks pale. Starving babies don’t have wet diapers.” But I would hear none of it. My mother-in-law tried as well: “Some babies don’t grow as quickly as others. I hate it when doctors act like all babies are the same. My third slept all the time after he was born, barely ate, and now he’s taller than all of us.” I ignored her as well. What did these women know? They had only nursed and raised five children between them. But my midwife, a real official medical person, had confirmed my deepest fear, that I, loser that I obviously am, HAD SCREWED THIS WHOLE THING UP ROYALLY, and that was the story I was running with.

And so it was that for the next two weeks I found myself in this ridiculous cycle of weighing my naked baby on an expensive medical scale, nursing him, weighing him again, dressing him, putting him down to nap, pumping (and if pumping is an experience from which you have as yet been spared, say a little prayer in thanksgiving, for it is as unpleasant as it looks), pausing for three seconds to tend to my cracked and sad nipples and gulp down a peanut butter sandwich and glass of lemon-lime Gatorade, only to wake my son up to start the whole process over again. (Yes, you read that correctly; I said wake him up.)

This was supposed to help my breastfeeding? This endless cycle of anxiety and exhaustion was supposed to increase my milk flow? (For those of you who have not read endlessly about how exactly the lactating woman produces milk, let it suffice to say that a calm and relaxed mother produces more milk. As for a super-stressed, unrested, underfed, and unshowered mother? Yeah, not so much.)

I cannot tell you the logic behind this crazy plan. In truth, I think it was more of a fear-based plan than a logic-based plan on the part of my well-meaning midwife. A medical official can only observe you and your baby for a very short period of time, and if they miss something, some breakdown in the system or worse, actual neglect on the part of the caregivers, the fallout can be devastating—for both the practitioner and the baby. So they act conservatively and recommend a course that covers all the bases. Understandable, but by no means does this have to be the final word. You as a thinking person can and should exercise your own judgment. Did I do this? No way. This would have required confidence in myself and my abilities as a mother—a confidence that in those early days was nowhere to be found.

If the me that I am right now had been around back then, I would have called my old self on the phone to offer up some advice, and believe me, my words of wisdom would NOT have included any recommendations to exhaust myself around the clock to fix a problem that might just as easily be cured with the passing of time. Neither would I have suggested micromanaging my son’s weight gain with expensive medical equipment that made my cozy home look like a hospital or electronic sucking devices that made me feel like I had just escaped from the dairy farm.

The new me would have told the old me all about the importance of rest and calm and a good diet for healthy milk production, and the new me would have clucked my tongue at the hasty overreaction of the midwife and told anecdote after anecdote of babies that don’t fit the “standard” at two weeks. But honestly, even after all that, would the old me have listened? Would I have acted any differently? Probably not. After all, my mother and mother-in-law were saying practically these same things to me at the time, and their words bounced off my closed mind like so many ping pong balls. No, I was determined to take the high-anxiety road. Which, come to think of it, is how I handle most changes in my life, but I digress.

So what’s the rest of the story? Did my newborn son escape his supposed near-starvation? Did I come back from the brink of nervous breakdown to one day shower again? Was I fool enough to get pregnant once more? Yep, yep, and yep (twice). The good news is that never again is it as bad as it is that first month. That first month is like the mommy-world equivalent of boot camp. Just keep on trudging through the field and climbing those fake rock walls, mommies, and once boot camp is over, life will get easier, I promise.

Breastfeeding, like so many of those coordinated physical tasks that prove so challenging for some of us (riding a bike, driving a car, walking through the house without bumping into inanimate objects), is a breeze once you get the hang of it. In fact, if you can muster the sheer force of will to keep it up long enough (usually one month gets you over the worst of it), you may find yourself praising the universe and its infinite wisdom for equipping your body with these handy milk-making devices. No warming, mixing, washing, or sterilizing necessary. No matter where you are, milk is at the ready—and it’s free! (Well, relatively free, although there is the added cost of your wolfing down everything with calories in a 50 foot radius.) Plus, breastfeeding allows for hours and hours of guilt-free TV watching. I myself have seen every episode ever of What Not to Wear (the British version) at least twice. And don’t forget those huge boobs! (Hey, when your abdomen has the consistency of risen bread dough, you need to focus on the positives for the sake of your self-esteem—not to mention your libido.)

As for the anxiety, well, anxiety will probably always have a role in my life, old friend that it is. At least now I can focus all that anxious energy on other things, such as my search for the perfect double stroller on craigslist or the seemingly impossible task of fitting a third child into our tiny two-bedroom house.

One thing I’ve learned from all of this, though, is the importance of nursing not just our babies, but also ourselves. We mommies need loving care as well during this difficult time. Many are blessed with friends and family just waiting to be asked to help; we also have doulas, libraries with entire parenting sections, community groups such as La Leche League, and online forums to rely on as resources.

Perhaps even more powerful, however, is our dormant capacity for—at the risk of sounding cheesy—self-love. Assuming responsibility for a tiny being’s care is an awesome task, probably the biggest life-changer many of us will ever experience. So we should try our best to cut ourselves some slack. Ask yourself this question: If you decided to change careers, wouldn’t you expect to experience a steep learning curve for the first month—even year—on the job? Would you expect 100% perfection from yourself on day one? Or here’s another: If your best friend had a baby and she called you to confess that her infant was having difficulty learning to breastfeed, that her six month old wasn’t sleeping through the night, or that her toddler had accidentally fallen off the bed, would you consider her a failure as a mother?

Sometimes we need a reminder to treat ourselves with the same compassion, understanding, and forgiveness we too often save for our friends. Loving ourselves can be hard enough when we look closely in the mirror (all those pores!); to ask this during times of stress might seem impossible. But a little compassion for yourself during your next mini mommy crisis might just be what is needed to open the door—just a crack—to those foreign worlds of Sanity and Perspective. All you need to do is wedge that door open just enough to allow a little sense of humor to creep in. Once you have a good laugh at yourself (and perhaps a good cry), you can go ahead and take that nap you need so desperately. Yes, it will only be a 10 minute nap. But let me tell you, when you’re exhausted, a 10 minute nap is still a beautiful, beautiful thing.

4 thoughts on “Learning to Nurse”

  1. Hello! I was DELIGHTED to read this. I had my first child 8 months ago and the challenges of bf’ing seemed insurmountable. This is so . . . lucid and clear and kind, on the topic. I wish I’d had it to read, then! You know you shouldn’t panic, but maybe the panic is part of the bonding? It was very, very hard. I hope to read more! Deserves publication, somewhere. Send it out!

    1. Thanks, Meredith!! Your words mean a lot. I am so happy that you liked it! I think breastfeeding was so, so difficult at first, too. Of course, after that, it becomes truly wonderful. I don’t think I really talked about that enough! I have so enjoyed nursing my children. Weaning has always been bittersweet for me–on one hand, I knew it would grant us both additional independence, but on the other, we would have to say good-bye to this singular intimate time. As for publication, I would love to submit it. Let me know if you have any ideas of where would be a good fit. I’ve been planning to spend one of my weekly “nights off” at the bookstore looking at parenting magazines; I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Take care, and thanks for reading! Amy

  2. Oh, I’ve always loved this piece. A new ending, if memory serves me correctly. Brava Amy! Love every word and image on this blog so far.

    1. Thank you, Karen! Those words are so overused, they seem insincere. But without the insincerity: thank you!!! And yes, you are correct–a new ending. I am so bad at beginnings and endings (and titles). Everything, actually, but what I am trying to say. :) The first time I wrote this, I just sort of ended. After rereading it several years later, I guess I was feeling a bit more . . . loving? nostalgic? It’s probably because Harry’s 18 months old now, and I am beginning to catch my breath. :) Thank you, Karen, and I hope all is well, Amy

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