articles & essays

“Breastfeeding: The
Agony and the Ecstacy”

By Cathi Hanauer

from Child of Mine, edited by Christina Baker Kline (Hyperion, 1997)

Before I got pregnant, and then once I did, I imagined motherhood something like this: I'm sitting in a rocker in an earth-colored robe smiling down at my baby, who is lying in my arms, mouth fastened to my breast, dreamily nursing away. My husband is preparing us tea with milk and honey, and a feeling of peace pervades the room—one that will go on for months, as I fully intend to nurse my baby for no less than a year. Virtually everything I've read and heard makes it clear it's the best gift you can give yourself and your child. And for me, breast-feeding seems the essence of motherhood.

Here's the reality: I'm sitting on the spit-up-stained sofabed trying to balance my wailing three-week-old daughter, Phoebe, atop two pillows on my C-sectioned lap. I'm preparing her, but really I'm more preparing myself, for her ninth or tenth meal of the day. However I told her, I'm in for some serious pain. First she'll clamp on with a grip astonishing for a person who could fit inside a shoe box. Then she'll suck off the scabs that have formed on my nipples since the last feeding, oh, two hours ago. For a good thirty seconds my milk will "let down"—something the books describe as a mildly tingling sensation but for me feels like having my entire upper body mashed in a vise. Sweat runs down my body, and I clamp the couch, or my husband, and yell, "Shit Shit Shit!" So much for the baby's virginal ears.

But then the pain of let-down passes, and then come the reasons I endure the rest. My baby drinks plentifully, her gorgeous eyes affixed to my face; hormones cruise through me like some unearthly drug; and everything feels right, and even rather wonderful—for a little while, anyway. I sit back and remind myself I'm providing the ultimate substance in the ultimate act: feeding my baby something from my own body that will grow and heal and nourish her. I am Steinbeck's Rose of Sharon, El Greco's Madonna, earning my place among nursing mothers of history and literature and art—not to mention my peers, since every smart, hip mom I know breast-feeds. Many do this while working full-time office jobs; they get up at 5:00 A.M. to nurse the baby on one breast while pumping the other for the nanny's feeding, they rush home at lunchtime to get in a round, they pump in office bathroom stalls when their breasts fill up at work. And still, the "F" word—formula—is barely spoken in their homes, let alone the actual substance allowed to grace their baby's lips. Well, it won't touch my baby's, either, I tell myself as I gear up to switch breasts. I am the perfect mom. Her I sit, breast-feeding.

What I try not to think about, as my daughter suckles, is the bowl of now-tepid water sitting next to me that I've been using to apply hot compresses to my breasts, which are huge and rock-hard, absurdly uneven, and crammed with gumball-sized lumps. To complement my bleeding nipples I'm also experiencing my first case of mastitis, a painful infection that results from some combination of clogged milk ducts, fatigue, and stress. If untreated it can lead to a breast abscess, which requires surgical removal and other such pleasantries. Treatment consists of antibiotics, compresses applied round the clock, and bed rest. As if.

Let me interrupt to say that not every woman has the breast-feeding experience that I did. Some have no problems at all becoming human pumps. Some find it blissful from beginning to end, though I confess I've yet to meet one of them. More women, I think, have a few problems at first and then things click into place. My sister-in-law breast-fed four kids for two years each, despite clogged milk ducts at the start with each one. The leader of a breast-feeding support group I went to proudly announced that she'd been "lactating" for eleven years (three kids). If she'd experienced breast-feeding as I did, I guarantee you she wouldn't have spent fifteen percent of her life doing it.

But back to me. Before I stopped breast-feeding—after the nine weeks—I would get mastitis three times. I would swallow a small landfill of antibiotics that couldn't possibly be good for my kid, and spend countless hours massaging, soaking, pumping, and applying ice packs and heating pads to my throbbing breasts. I would bare my chest to the midwife and the gynecologist, the pediatrician and the breast surgeon who finally convinced me that, being literally not built for this, I should quit. I would pay a lactation consultant to suggest, via phone, that I had thrush, and attempt positioning techniques that required suspending the baby or my body in Twister-like poses the entire time I nursed. I'd spend hours talking to La Leche League volunteers and reading books and pamphlets for answers that don't exist, receiving contradictory advice at every turn: wear a tight bra, wear no bra; nurse more frequently, nurse less often; pump, don't pump, pump sometimes. I would spend Valentine's Day in the shower with my husband—him suctioning my breasts with a handheld plastic pump, me massaging the lumps from the top, and our baby, forever wanting more milk, wailing from her car seat on the floor next to us. It was hardly romantic, though if ever my husband performed an act of love for me, this was it.

Here is a sampling of what the baby bibles of the nineties and the breast-feeding zealots, or "Nipple Nazis" (as the slightly less determined call them), are quick to tell you about breast-feeding—the things I knew before I plunged in: It's easier, cheaper, more convenient than formula, and provides immunities and less chance of diaper rash. It may give your kid a higher IQ, and it makes him or her less likely to be obese. It also helps heal your body from the trauma of giving birth. In short, it forms an irreplaceable, lifelong bond between mom and baby. Read: If you don't do it, you're stupid, selfish, clueless. A freak.

Here is what those same bibles either fail to mention about breast-feeding or breeze over too casually—the things friends eagerly confess upon hearing my horror stories, the things I came to learn: Breast-feeding hurts. For me, in more ways than I have ever imagined two otherwise healthy breasts could, and far more than my C-section incision (though, granted, I had morphine for that). I've already mentioned pain with let-down, clogged ducts, and mastitis. There's also engorgement: Your breasts blow up to a few times their normal size over a few hours and feel like they're packed with wet sand. (Mine went from a 34-B to a 36-D in half a day, leaving the stretch marks I otherwise avoided during pregnancy.) As for nipple problems, I'll just add that mine felt, for weeks, the way it feels just after you burn yourself on a hot pan, and nothing I put on them—lanolin, vitamin E oil, breast milk—did a thing.

More breast-feeding reality: The baby sometimes latches on to one breast and not the other—which means you have to pump the other breast all the time or end up like those horrible haircuts of the Eighties. where one side was full and the other side shaved. Or—even worse—the baby won't latch onto either breast, which means you have to pump and feed it with a dropper, a cup, or your finger, since introducing a bottle at this stage, experts claim, could lead to "nipple confusion," which might make the baby reject the breast altogether.

When you're nursing, your breasts leak—meaning, they leak even when you're not. Mine did, anyway, they leaked in the shower, milk running down my body in streams, and they leaked as I stuffed them into breast-feeding bras with special leak-proof pads, forming circles of milk on every one of my button-down shirts ("Ah, I see you've got on the uniform," one friend said of my stretched-out leggings and milk-stained Oxford blouse). They leaked when someone else's baby whimpered, even if mine had just been fed. They leaked through my pajamas and into my mattress, so my whole bedroom smelled like milk. So I woke up sopped and sticky night after night. This, by the way, is indefinitely preferable to not having enough milk, which can also be the case.

Eventually, of course, one's breast faucets learn to regulate themselves. So I hear, anyway.

The truth is, in the first few months of motherhood, breast-feeding takes over your life. I suppose this is the point; newborn babies need their moms full-time, need to learn that someone will always be there for them. I knew and respected this need, and yet—whether out of stupidity, naivete, or simple lack of preparation—I still was staggered by the absolute power of breast-feeding to replace, or, rather, displace, everything else in my life. And this at a time when life seemed to multiply into a mind-boggling mass: writing thank-you notes, fielding the barrage of post-birth phone calls, reading about why your baby projectile vomits after every other feeding, making up missed work deadlines. One woman I know recorded her feeding schedule in one early twenty-four-hour period: 11:30, 2:00, 4:30, 6:30, 9:00, 11:00, 2:00, 5:30, 8:00, 11:30. Keep in mind these are starting times, and a feeding takes twenty to forty minutes at least—not including burp time, bath time, time to replace the many calories Baby nurses out of you so that you can keep making milk. I've yet to see a mother who can do all this without feeling frazzled, not to mention a teensy bit resentful when Daddy heads off for a day of uninterrupted work—or you both do, but his briefcase is filled with documents and the newspaper and yours with breast-pump parts and Medela milk bags.

The truth is, breast-feeding does not allow for shared parenting—not by a long shot. And if you're the sort of couple my husband and I are, in which the woman earns as much as the man and both salaries are necessary, it shifts the balance so far over to the woman's side it's a wonder we don't collapse. My husband loves taking care of our daughter, and he did almost everything at first. While I lay recovering from my cesarean or navigated the arduous trip from the hospital bed to the bathroom and back, he learned to diaper the baby, clean her cord, wrap her like a sausage, rock her to sleep. Back home, we placed her bassinet on his side of our bed, and for a while he rose and changed her and delivered her to me for night feedings. But soon we stopped changing her between feedings (she was barely wet, we were barely functioning), and then Dan's job of transferring her from bassinet to breast didn't keep him awake while I nursed, so at the end of the feeding I had to either wake him, which seemed vicious, or get up and walk around the bed to put her back, which seemed absurd. So we switched the bassinet to my side, and from then on I got up and fed her every few hours while he snored. Did I resent him? Hell yes. But really, why should we both be exhausted when I had the goods, when there was nothing he could do but sit and watch me nurse? This is how it goes with breast-feeding.

The upshot of this, of course, is that it's the mom—the food source—whom the baby learns to adore, at least at first. And let me tell you, I relished this adoration. When I walked around the block and came back to find the baby wailing and my husband helpless, it was all I could do not to gloat. A breast-fed baby smells its mother. Even when you introduce a bottle of pumped breast milk, Daddy can't give it if Mommy's in the room. The baby wants the real thing, thank you. Never have I felt so desirable.

Perhaps because I failed at it, more or less, it seems to me the pressure to breast-feed creates a subtle competition among women these days—another thing (perhaps like having natural childbirth in the Seventies or the perfect body in the Eighties) to make us size up each other and feel we have to measure up or exceed. The best mother in the Nineties is the mother who breast-feeds the longest, who never supplements formula, who leaves work the most times to rush home and nurse. Once, just after I stopped nursing, I told a friend who'd also quit because of mastitis that I'd had to stop for the same reasons. She asked my symptoms, and I told her: painful lumps that sometimes made it impossible for my daughter to get my milk out; hot, red blotches on my skin; pain when I lifted the baby, reached for a glass, walked up or down stairs. She listened carefully. And then she said "But did you have a fever?" "I don't think so," I said. "Then you didn't have mastitis," she announced. As if I were lying, or all the doctors had been wrong. As if I didn't have a real excuse to quit. Like she did.

Another time, on a weekend out of town, my husband and I met a couple with a baby just our daughter's age. "Are you still breast-feeding?" the woman asked. I said no, and then—of course—recounted the reasons I'd had to stop. "Oh, I had all those problems, too," she said. "But my doctor told me to stick with it, and my husband said, 'Honey, it's best for the baby,' and eventually it got better, and now I'm still doing it!" She grinned. I noted with satisfaction that her baby had cradle cap. And then my husband jumped in. "Well, it didn't get better for Cathi," he said. "She had to stop." I could have kissed him. But later, I pleaded with him, "Do you think I didn't try hard enough?" I couldn't stop thinking I was weak and selfish to have quit. No matter that our baby was moon-faced and lovely, the picture of health. I was a failure as a mom. At least compared to other women.

And yet, once I entered The Great Breast-Feeding Contest—even though I was losing—I couldn't seem to back out. I asked friends, relatives, mothers I met on the street how long they'd breast-fed, when they'd stopped, how long they'd go on. If they'd done it less time than I had or supplemented with formula, I felt deep relief. If they hadn't I felt not so much envy but admiration. But one thing I found both troubling and oddly reassuring was this: Almost every woman offered an excuse for why she stopped. "She got teeth at five months and started biting me," apologized one. "He got a cold at four months and wouldn't take the breast," said another. In turn, I recounted my own "Why I Quit" saga, always careful to mention that not one but two doctors—including the pediatrician—had advised it. And I wondered, even as I bored myself with the same graphic details, why I couldn't just say "I stopped at nine weeks." Or say nothing. But I couldn't. I still can't.

There's a quote I love: Every man's life is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another. For most of us—most of the women I know, anyway—there's a gulf between what we are and what we want to be. And for me, the experience of breast-feeding brought that gulf to light. On the Want To Be side I am earthy and breasty and maternal, never impatient, never glancing at the clock in my child's presence. Things will get done, or they won't. It doesn't matter. What's important is this: Motherhood. Breast-feeding.

On the other side of the gulf, alas, I am diminutive and hyper, strung tightly as a fiddle. I flit around like a wind-up toy on Duracell overdose. I can't stand chaos, can't stand disorder, love a good steak now and then, can't stomach tofu. I wear black, not gauze, and I don't look good in baggy blouses. I give birth by C-section, without which my baby and I would both have bitten the dust. So much for au natural.

I had thought I'd be able to close this gulf when I had a baby—after all, what better motivator than the health of my child?—and I did close it slightly for the nine weeks I breast-fed. I sat still for hours, nursing and cuddling my daughter while dust bunnies floated by and dishes towered in the sink. And the truth is, I found those weeks to be among the most intense in my life, a time of exquisite passion, pleasure, and pain—like falling in love with a man you're not yet sure loves you back, or losing your virginity to the boy of your dreams.

But for every second of sweetness came a second of pain, for every moment of pride, a moment of stress. This is what I'd have liked to learn—perhaps during one of the classes at which we spent so many hours studying childbirth, something that takes a day or two before breast-feeding kicks in, 24/7, week after week, without a break. I'd like to have learned that some of us might not meet the nursing goals we'd set, and that, if we didn't, we could still show our faces. I'd like to have learned that breast-feeding might be a contradiction, as it turned out to be for me. And while I wouldn't trade a second of it, I'm glad to be done, at least this time around. Because the week I quit breast-feeding is the week the balance in our family began to shift back, the week I stopped hurting. The week that motherhood became fun for me.

And yet. Sometimes now, when I see a mother breast-feeding, I ache with all my heart to do it again. Like the pain of labor, the sensation of nursing is slipping away, and I want to hold on to it—to remember what it was like to look down and see my daughter's lovely eyes, feel her suckling, smell her sweetness, cradle her soft downy head. To proudly nurse in buses and parks and coffee shops, reveling in the stares I'd sometimes get. I tell myself that next time, if there is one, I'll concentrate on the pleasure instead of the pain. That next time I'll learn to meditate, I'll try harder to work out the lumps. I'll let my nipples heal in the sun. Which, next time, will always be shining.

And then I come back to reality. Next time, if there is one, I'll be happy to get through nine weeks. My daughter, formula-fed for almost seven months now, could not be more perfect. She took to the bottle in an instant, wolfed her Isomil and never looked back. Maybe she sensed the stress draining out of me when I stopped breast-feeding, the happiness and energy seeping back. It was a happiness I'm sure I transferred to her, in lieu of breast milk. And really, when it comes right down to it, isn't that what motherhood is about?

Cathi Hanauer