The first time I nursed was an hour after Beckett was born – we had just been moved from the delivery wing to post-partum, into a cozier room with a smaller bed and sleeper sofa for newly minted Dads. It was noon and we were going on no sleep from getting to the hospital at midnight the night before. I was still riding high on the adrenaline from labor, but could feel that and the epidural slowly wearing off – little spurts of pain were dully peeking their way through the curtain of numbness. I’m not sure if it was the medicine mask or because my nipples were still a blank canvas for the pain experiment that was about to begin, but the first time was extremely pleasant and almost gratifying. The baby who had been living inside me for the last nine months was now in my arms, his tiny mouth searching hungrily for sustenance, sustenance my body was providing. And there was no pain, just the strange feeling of my body being used in a new way, the only time that your internal functions re-calibrate for the sole purpose of keeping another being alive. It was surreal, and I was in love with it.
And then we were home, 2 days and 24 feedings later. I was still in good shape, as feeding the baby in the beginning is more of an exercise of practice than it is necessity – the baby’s stomach was still too small to consume much in the way of ounces, and he still had a good stockpile of nutrients from being inside the womb. Another day or so passed before the feedings began to wear on me – by this time the sleep deprivation had started to kick in, and I became fixated on counting how many hours of sleep I had gotten the night before. The first night – two hours. TWO HOURS, not even consecutively. I couldn’t stop thinking about it – the sun was rising, our baby was still crying, and I didn’t understand how I was supposed to make it through a whole day of taking care of him on such a small amount of sleep. I was dizzy and force feeding myself giant jugs of water every thirty minutes because per the lactation consultant, I needed to flood my system with water to help with milk production and the recovery process. I made Steven turn the heat up high. As everyone else in the house dressed in shorts and tank tops to withstand the temperatures, I was wearing multiple layers and wrapped in two blankets while shivering. It took all the willpower I could muster to remove the blankets and layers, take off my shirt, and expose my breasts so that the baby could feed. Freezing nipple was covered by a warm suckling baby mouth, but with it came searing pain. Unbelievable pain that made everything go white and squeezed giant tear droplets from my eyes. “Why is your face all wet?” I remember Steven asked during a feed. “It is?” I said. I didn’t even know I had been crying. I trudged on, through the sometimes hour long feedings, hoping at some point that it would get better, but it didn’t. The pain would go in and out, sometimes bearable and sometimes not, as I willed myself to stare at Beckett’s face and remember why I was doing this – “this is for him, not you … for him, for him, for him” – I chanted over and over. But then came the bleeding – things went downhill from there.
The third night home is when my milk finally came in – I had no idea that it hadn’t yet but knew instantly when it was happening. All the books describe the signs to you – the flowing feeling down from your shoulders, the breast fullness, the tingling sensation, but they never tell you about the transformation of your breasts into two giant balls of pain. If I hadn’t already read up on it I would have thought that someone had shot poison into my shoulders and my breasts were engorged from the infection. I remember screaming out and running to the bathroom to get a warm compress that I pressed gingerly against what felt like stones on both sides. When that didn’t work I stood under the hot shower and clutched my breasts, crying as they surged with pain, blood still trickling from my nipples.
I equate the first few weeks of breastfeeding to being a vampire hostage. There were days when I laid in our room all day and all night, lights dimmed in an attempt to sleep but drifting in and out of consciousness while I sucked down water and approved pain medication. Going to the bathroom sometimes required assistance and was like an obstacle course, I struggled to remember a time when I could pee without being scared my insides would fall out. Food was brought to me on little trays, an old wives’ tale buffet of pork products, cabbage, and other vegetables that were supposed to increase milk production. Every 1-2 hours the little prince was carried in and I was to begin my usual routine of undressing and adjusting myself into the most comfortable position possible, I’d imagine the same way a sentenced man shifts the weight between his feet as he stands before the firing squad. Then of course came the feeding. The range of emotions flashed like colors through my brain as the baby ate, switching positions, falling off then latching back on, taking long gulps then short shallow sucks – red, white, blue, purple – the pain rainbow in all of its glory – bad, worse, and blackout.
The weak moments were unlimited – I had a lot of stops and starts and times when I would wail to Steven in the middle of a feed that I couldn’t do it anymore. He and I had both been adamant about going the minimum 3 months at least until I went back to work, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d last 3 weeks. “This is just not right, it’s not supposed to be like this.” He was always concerned and as much as he encouraged me to keep going, he was the first to give me the out I needed when he saw how miserable I was. “It’s not worth you being in this much pain, I think you should stop.” Strangely, knowing that he was okay with me stopping was what kept me going. I’d tell myself that tomorrow would be the last day, and tomorrow would come but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. As long as the baby continued to need me, I would bear through it.
In the wee hours of the morning I was nestled in the rocker in his room, nursing him in the dark with the glow of my iPhone being the only nightlight. Every day during this time I was trolling the breastfeeding forums – led there by a slew of Google searches – “when will breastfeeding stop hurting?”, “benefits of breastfeeding”, “proven benefits of breastfeeding”, “minimum breastfeeding term”, “breastfeeding pain”, “nipple pain”, “latching techniques”, and the ever popular “I hate breastfeeding”. It wasn’t getting any easier but it helped to know so many other moms were struggling like I was. I kept wondering why no one had warned me – someone should have twisted my nipples really hard then stuck them with needles and said “there, that’s what it feels like. Enjoy!”.
But I kept going – I’m not sure how but I did, and miraculously in month four, things finally started to turn around. It stopped hurting, and his feed times were shorter and more predictable. By month five I found myself looking forward to our time together and realized that it was one of my favorite things about being a Mom. Now, in month fifteen, I’m having trouble admitting to myself that I’m not ready to wean. Two years, do I dare?