Breast is best, right? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been spoon fed this mantra like so many pureed prunes. Obviously the repetition has had some effect on me because I breast fed both my babies (and in some very unusual places) without question. On the one hand, the simplicity and convenience of breast feeding appeals to my lazy, I–can’t-be-bothered-to-use-a-sterilizer attitude.
However, when I find myself standing over the sink, pressing shot glasses full of saline solution against my breasts to aid the healing of my severely chewed nipples and to stave off the gangrene, I wonder “Is it worth it?”
My first son hated nursing from the moment he was born. In fact, he refused to eat for the first 24 hours of his life. After that, he would only nurse with the help of a plastic shield between his mouth and my nipple. It was a boob condom. As if that wasn’t insulting enough, he fought me tooth and nail every time I tried to nurse him. Literally. My breasts looked like I’d been mauled by a wolverine. It wasn’t pretty. Eventually, he self weaned around 10 months old and never looked back.
My second son was less dramatic. His position was one of ambivalence. If he was hungry or really upset he would nurse for precisely as long as it took him to drain one breast: usually around three and a half minutes. He wasn’t one for pillow talk. It was all business. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. For which, to be honest, at 3:00am, I was pretty grateful.
There were times, with both my boys, that I was overwhelmed with the joy and beauty of entirely sustaining another human being with my own body. I was their everything. These tiny little creatures came into the world with no defenses, no language, no chance of surviving on their own, but they knew how to nurse. They knew better than I did. It’s a humbling experience to see such ancient and basic instincts in action.
Breastfeeding a newborn is a perfect circle of symbiosis. The baby needs nothing but his mother. In fact, he can only see far enough to gaze up at her face while he nurses. With her he is safe. That’s all he needs to know. Mom receives a cocktail of endorphins and hormones that even the best pharmacy can’t recreate. The more the baby needs her, the more she loves him. It’s a flawless system. For a while.
Around six months old, two things happen that change the game completely: teeth and solid foods. Suddenly, the perfect circle is bombarded and bent out of shape by external factors. The baby starts to realize that he doesn’t need milk to survive. In fact, smashed banana is pretty tasty and more satisfying than the dwindling supply of milk that Mom has struggled to maintain for this long. Breasts become a pacifier and a toy.
My boys liked to clamp down on my nipple, then pull back as far away from my body as my skin would stretch before releasing it to snap back into place (sort of). Like pulling taffy. No wonder my nipples can’t figure out which way to point anymore. They’re concussed.
When this game became dull or predictable, they would move on to the lightning round. Here, the goal was to see how many times they could scrape their teeth over my nipple as they released it before I would scream and make them stop. My first is the reigning champion, but the challenger is coming on strong. I’m not sure what is the reward for winning these games, but I know that my nipples will pay the price. I’ve started buying tubes of lanolin by the gross.
Aside from the pain, there is the constant uncertainty about how much milk the baby has drunk between biting my nipples, pinching my breasts, and blowing raspberries on anything he can reach. It’s anyone’s guess. I know you’re supposed to trust your body and the baby to do the right thing, but I’ve always had trust issues. No, I need tangible proof: hard evidence. So I become that mom who buys a baby scale so she can obsess daily over every ounce he gains, or doesn’t gain. It’s like an eating disorder by proxy.
So, I ask again, “Is it worth it?” The truth is, I don’t know. I can’t know whether my children would have been happier, healthier, smarter, fatter, or skinnier if I had bottle fed instead of breastfed. I don’t know whether it was the doctors, society, or some ancient and evolutional maternal instinct that convinced me to breastfeed in the first place.
All I know, is when it came time to wean my first son for good, I cried. My nipples did a little victory dance, but I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss. I thought I’d hated the entire process. Breastfeeding had been nothing but a source of stress and insecurity. Hadn’t it? For some reason, the first evening I put my baby to bed without nursing him, I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember the pain or the frustration.
All I knew was that my body was aching for the little baby that would never again need me the way he used to. Maybe it was just the milk pooling with nowhere to go. Maybe it was just hormonal. Suddenly breastfeeding was once again a beautiful and natural privilege that I would miss.
Until the next baby takes a chunk out of my nipple while I doze uncomfortably in a rocking chair at 2:00am.