Before I had K, even though I had decided to nurse, I wasn’t sure I bought into all the hype about the magic of breastfeeding. “It’s so much bonding,” they said. “Your baby will make eye contact with you and all will be right with the world,” they said. “The heavens will open up, angels will sing, and you will be forever grateful that you have this moment with your child,” they said. Okay, maybe they didn’t literally say all of that, but it was close enough and despite the fact that I witnessed the wonderful nursing bond between my friend and her child, I was not completely convinced that it was going to be that good.
And the first days – hell, the first weeks – proved me right. K had a decent latch and was an eager enough eater but this was. not. fun. And it certainly didn’t feel like bonding. It felt like a breast attack that I was faciliating by carefully lining up mouth to nipple, “making a cheeseburger,” and helping my baby go at it. And for every battle won through successfully feeding my child, there was another melee on the cusp of commencement. I would get “a break” and what seemed like minutes later C would be saying, “I think she’s hungry.” And while I would like to believe that I always responded sweetly, “Of course, my darling, let me provide my precious child with the best nourishment I can,” I may have sometimes said “are you sure?” or sighed or – on rare and stressed occasion – made a mooing sound as I trudged to the baby, prepared for whatever might come. And sometimes what came was simple and delightful but during the first weeks it was more often challenging and disheartening as the baby and I struggled to get it right.
“If you’re doing it right, it won’t hurt,” they said. But even with a lactation consultant and doula approved latch, even with changing positions or putting my feet up or nursing more or less frequently, even though my baby was sleeping and gaining weight and clearly thriving, it hurt. Sometimes (often) to the point of tears, through which I would gently talk to K, who might also be crying, and give us both a pep talk. “We’re learning,” I said, “We’re both just learning. It’s okay.” And I tried to make myself believe it.
And over time, it was okay. Not great, just okay. After the third or fourth week, the pain pretty much went away. Not long after, K became more adept at finding my breast and I became much better at figuring out the positioning that worked for us both, recognizing a good latch, and responding more quickly to her needs. Without the frantic pace of newborn feeding and the confusion about how to make it happen, I was able to experiment to see what worked best for us. She gained weight like a champion, which made me feel good about my ability to provide. And as I headed back to work after 12 weeks, I felt the loss of those daytime bonding moments, particularly as they were replaced with the cold sterility of the pump.
With the busyness of work and long days and long nights, I soon entered a period of ambivalence about nursing. On one hand, I liked my connection to my child and the uniqueness of our relationship, particularly in a two-mom household in which we don’t naturally fall into socially defined neat and tidy special roles. This was something for me and the baby. On the other hand, I wished that C could partake once in a while, particularly at bedtime and in the middle of the night, particularly on nights where sleeping didn’t come so easily to her, particularly after nights when I was up several times and C rolled over in the morning and asked, “Did the baby wake up last night?” The ambivalence only increased when we taught K the sign for milk and I felt more acutely both my strong and wonderful ability to provide for her and her desperate desire for something only I could provide.
“It was really hard for me to give up,” they said. And while I had occasionally seen glimpses of how that could be, I mostly didn’t believe it would hold true for me in any significant way. That is, until the past month or so. Whether it’s because we are nursing less or because we are nursing better or because she is communicating more or because I miss her so when I’m at work or because it’s just so obvious how quickly her babyhood is flying past, something shifted and I find myself loving our time together. I love the way she looks for me. How she snuggles close to me. How her little hands open and close enthusiastically when I say the word milk. I love the way, in the middle of the night, she becomes a newborn again right before my eyes, her eyes closed as she finds her way to the breast, her body calm and still. The way in this stage of head bumps and falls and those sharp silences before equally sharp cries, I can comfort her when nothing else will. I love that my fiercely independent, determined baby is still, ultimately, my baby, and even as I celebrate her movement toward toddlerhood, I cling to the moments of pure baby, recognizing just how brief they are.
Is nursing still a pain sometimes? Yes, now and then. Do I sometimes want a break? Occasionally, but not nearly as often. Will I be happy to get to a place in nursing where we still have the bond without the need for the pump? Definitely.
And were they right? Not entirely, for many reasons, but close enough. I am grateful for this time, I will miss it, and I will remember fondly the fleeting moments when my baby fit so snugly in arms… and then when she fit less – and more – all at the same time.