Photo: Courtesy of Jen McLellan
Not 24 hours after my son was born, a couple weeks early, I remember joking with my husband that my ginormous breasts could probably feed all the babies in the NICU.
I had assumed breastfeeding would be easy. But I soon learned that maybe I should have read more than just Chapter One of the nursing book on my night table. As it turned out, nursing did not come easily to us—and having big boobs doesn’t mean you make more breastmilk.
I had a completely healthy plus-size pregnancy and birth, but Braeden had arrived a month early, and needed some extra support in the NICU. During our hospital stay, I worked with the hospital lactation consultant to figure out how to nurse him with my size F breasts that were twice the size of my son's tiny head.
The lactation consultant was supportive, but she made breastfeeding feel far more medical than natural. Each time we nursed involved timers, charts, and supplementing with pumped breast milk.
To make matters worse, my own mom—like many concerned new grandmothers—made a comment in the early days of breastfeeding that made me question whether I was doing it right, too: she asked me if Braeden could even breathe.
“I'm not smothering my baby!” I told her, while thinking, Am I smothering my baby?! I tried to brush it off, but her comment added to my insecurities. I think all new moms have doubts about whether they’re breastfeeding correctly and worry whether their babies are getting enough milk, but for me, it was wrapped up with my complicated emotions about my breasts, my body and my size.
I wasn't smothering my son, but I was, as I soon learned, unintentionally starving him. Even though I was feeding him on demand and supplementing with pumped breastmilk, at his first check-up we learned that he had dropped 15 per cent of his weight and wasn't getting enough milk. It turns out my ample bosom couldn't even feed my baby, let alone all the babies in the NICU.
We were readmitted to the hospital a mere two days after being sent home. I was devastated. Those days back in the hospital were a blur as Braeden was treated for high jaundice levels. I started using a nipple shield during nursing sessions, we introduced formula to make sure his nutritional needs were met, and once we were released, we had twice weekly paediatrician visits to track his weight. Breastfeeding still felt like a tug-of-war between my baby and me, whereas the bottle flowed with ease. But I was determined to keep trying.
To make matters worse, between my big belly and huge boobs, I found it difficult to breastfeed without a nursing pillow, which made nursing in public easier said than done. With my pillow and nipple shields in tow, I did, occasionally, master the art of breastfeeding outside the comfort of my home—but it wasn’t as effortless or "natural"-feeling as social media leads you to believe.
I know moms of all sizes can get plenty of side-eye while nursing, but being a big mom (and needing all my props!) made me feel far more visible. I don't know for certain if the stares I got were because I'm a big mom, or because I was breastfeeding—probably both. But I was so uncomfortable. If only people understood how hard I was fighting to make breastfeeding possible for my baby.
When Braeden was five months old, I took him with me on a flight. Now, if there's one thing people dread more than a fat person on a plane, it’s a fat person on a plane, with a baby.
I’m used to being something—someone—people fear. So I smiled as I pre-boarded with the other families, balancing the baby, a giant diaper bag, and my trusty Boppy pillow.
As quickly as I could, I squeezed my body down the aisle and into my window seat. After Braeden and I were situated, I did the thing I always do on planes: I prayed. I didn't pray for a safe flight—I prayed for the middle seat to remain empty.
I tried not to notice the looks of relief on my fellow passengers’ faces as they passed my row to find their own seats, but I sure saw the businessman who arrived and sat in 4D, the aisle seat in my row. (I don't know his real name because he didn't say more than "Hi" to me, let alone coo over the baby or offer to hold him.) I considered it a small victory when the doors closed and the plane finally took off without anyone sitting in the middle seat separating us.
Just when I thought I could relax, Braeden started fussing. To my dismay, he wouldn’t take the pacifier. I could tell people were getting annoyed—especially the guy in 4D. I knew nursing could help with ear pressure during takeoffs and landings, so I reached into my diaper bag for my nursing cover.
Once Braeden finally latched, I glanced over at 4D, who was clearly wishing I had pulled out a bottle rather than my breast. Now I wasn’t just the fat person on the plane, I was breastfeeding, too! Braeden kept popping off the nipple shield, fussing every time. I wanted to pull the nursing cover over my own head.
Finally, I gave up and pulled out a bottle of formula. Both Braeden and 4D seemed relieved. And I was an exhausted new mom who just wanted the scrutiny and the embarrassment to be over.
That was the last time I ever breastfed in public, and I stopped nursing altogether soon afterward.
I should never have felt ashamed simply for feeding my son. But it was such a struggle, and I always felt like I was failing miserably at it. I’ll forever be proud, however, of how hard I worked at it. This isn’t how I thought our breastfeeding journey would go, but it’s my story—it’s our story.
I’ve now transformed what was once the most difficult time of my life into an opportunity to help others feel less alone, with my Plus Size Birth blog and Plus Mommy community. And whenever I see a mom nursing or bottle-feeding in public, especially a plus-size mom, I give her a nod of solidarity and support, because we’re in this together.