Photo: Courtesy of Simone Olivero
Topless, raw and exposed: That’s how I spent the first few weeks following the birth of my daughter, Dale. In fact, for most of last December, I lay in bed, in a freezing room (a CPR class made me paranoid about my baby overheating), feeling sorry for myself. My skin was too raw to cover with clothing, so I wore an open cardigan to keep my arms warm because I couldn’t pull the covers up higher than my ribs. Every so often, I’d glance at Dale, asleep in a bassinet next to me, and dread that moment when her eyes would crack open and the call to feed would come again. This was motherhood apparently and, less than a month in, I already felt like a failure.
Even before I found out I was pregnant, I had this notion that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. I don’t know if it was because my mom wasn’t able to breastfeed or because the idea of milk coming out of my body was too strange for my brain to process, but I obsessed over every aspect of breastfeeding. I read every blog and website I could find. I’d look at my boobs in the mirror and poke them to see if they were filling up. At work, I watched a breast pump webinar instead of taking a lunch break. In the evenings, I registered myself and my husband for a breastfeeding clinic with our local La Leche League—that man dutifully learned how to hand-express a crocheted breast in a class of four pregnant women and no other soon-to-be dads. It was totally irrational, but I held onto the notion that I wouldn’t be able to do it like a badge of shame—and that didn’t stop once my daughter arrived.
After 24 hours of labour and 2½ hours of pushing, I had a beautiful baby girl. I should have felt joy, exhaustion and even relief. Instead, I was completely consumed with anxiety over what would come next.
By some miracle, my boobs did, in fact, work and I was able to successfully feed my baby, but it wasn’t the easy or “natural” experience I’d read about. All of the various breastfeeding holds I had learned in lactation class (football, reverse football, crossover, side-lying) felt awkward and unnatural. My first attempt at nursing involved three sets of hands (mine and those of my husband and a labour and delivery nurse) and a lot of thrusting of my nipple in the general vicinity of my baby’s face. It didn’t work very well. And it didn’t help that the second she finally got a hold, I shrieked in pain and pulled away.
If others tell you that breastfeeding doesn’t hurt, they’re lying (or, at least, they were way luckier than I was). For me, it felt like the stinging blisters you get when you’re trying to break in a new pair of shoes. It killed and, within a few minutes, I had the bloody nipples to prove it.
Before I left the hospital, I had a lactation consultant visit me three times to assure me that there was no issue with the latch and that my baby wasn’t tongue-tied—there wasn’t, and she wasn’t. I found myself lying to the nurses about how often I tried to feed her for fear that they would make me do it again while they watched or, worse, make me supplement with formula. I was overcome with guilt and pain, but I also wouldn’t give in. I knew the benefits of breastmilk from all of my research and, since my boobs were technically capable, I had no excuse to resort to formula. The way I saw it, formula might as well have been an admission of failure.
Besides the crazy pressure I was putting on myself to breastfeed, the expectations from everyone else were overwhelming. Health Canada recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, followed by sustained breastfeeding for two years or longer. Though people will tell you, “Don’t worry, fed is best,” giving formula to your baby is saddled with stigma. It didn’t even feel like it was an option for me. Pain aside, my supply was good, so giving Dale formula seemed lazy and unwarranted.
The day after I got home from the hospital, I visited a public health breastfeeding clinic and had another lactation consultant take a look. Once again, she assured me that everything was in working order. I lived in fear of the next feed, but it was a quiet fear I shared with no one. At home, I lathered on every kind of nipple cream I could find. I made cabbage bras, covered my nipples in breastmilk, avoided letting the stream of the shower touch my upper body and left my skin exposed as much as modesty would allow. To get through the actual feeds, I distracted myself. I scrolled through Instagram, binge-watched six seasons of Scandal, tried reading the news (a reminder that there were bigger problems in the world) and sometimes just stared at the clock and counted the passing minutes—anything to take me away from what I was feeling. Those first few weeks were a blur of pain and exhaustion.
Eventually, I found some peace. My doctor prescribed Dr. Jack Newman’s All-Purpose Nipple Ointment—a lifesaver! —and I started using my breast pump to express as much milk as possible between feeds. After four painful weeks, I introduced the bottle and my husband handled every other feed. Things got better. To get through cluster feeds, I limited Dale to 15-minute intervals on each side to avoid too much carnage.
Once the blisters cleared up, I dealt with blocked ducts, infections and oversupply. She adapted and I adapted and we got lucky—the process became bearable. I even had a few moments where breastfeeding felt a little empowering. But I also didn’t put up a fight when my baby weaned herself at 11 months. Part of me was relieved that it wasn’t me who had to make the decision.
I realize now that it was silly (and probably harmful) to put myself through so much anguish. This past year, I’ve met countless moms who, for a variety of reasons, gave their babies formula instead of breastmilk and those babies are fine. They aren’t neglected, and they don’t love their mothers any less. I’m also aware that it was a privilege to be able to breastfeed my daughter. There are many new moms who are aren’t able to breastfeed and would welcome the option, even if it can be excruciating and frustrating.
While I was writing this, I talked to other moms about the pressure and pain that can come with breastfeeding and was surprised by their understanding nods. Many of them had faced similar struggles themselves (or worse) and, even when they hadn’t, they were sympathetic. I wondered if I would have felt less shame and less alone if I’d had these conversations earlier. Maybe I would have spent more time enjoying the milestones rather than counting down the days. I’m sharing my story so that other mothers will know that they aren’t the only ones. Perhaps they’ll be stronger than I was. Maybe they’ll have the conviction to choose what’s right for them, regardless of what others might think.
This article was originally published online in January 2018.