Breastfeeding My Daughter: A Series of Vignettes
When I was expecting my first baby, I planned to try breastfeeding, but I wasn’t necessarily committed.
When they placed her on my chest, warm and whimpering, she rooted for my breast. The umbilical cord connecting us had been severed, but she still had a deep biological yearning for my body to succor hers.
Our second day in the hospital, the lactation consultant visited. She asked how things were going.
“It hurts,” I said.
She put her finger in my baby’s mouth and observed the click-click of my daughter’s tongue as it broke suction again and again. She examined my breast, and her eyes widened with compassion when she saw my nipple, already a bruised, swollen purple.
“Breastfeeding must be important to you,” she said. “Your baby’s suck is uncoordinated, and you’re already quite injured. Here are some things that might help.”
As she gently walked me through her suggestions, I felt both validated and devastated. Breastfeeding would not come easily for my daughter and me, but I realized that the lactation consultant was right: breastfeeding had unexpectedly become incredibly important to me.
Nursing pain was unlike any other pain I’d experienced: toes curled, ten out of ten on the pain scale for the first minute, then down to a six after that. I knew my aversion to formula wasn’t rational, but I couldn’t shake my resolve: I was determined to persevere if I possibly could. And eventually, with the help of a nipple shield, nursing became bearable.
My mom stayed for a week to help with the baby. I was completely out of my depth and would have been lost without her. I had not yet resumed wearing garments due to my leaky body, and I expressed concern about adding them back in the mix with nursing. My mom made a comment about how I’d want to wear my nursing bra over my garment top so the marks could be against my skin, and I recoiled at the thought of trying to keep nursing pads in place, managing one more layer, and the rough marks potentially grazing my sore nipples. The nursing garments available at the time looked so bunchy and impractical that I refused to even try them.
When I did put my garments back on a couple weeks later, I followed my gut and wore them over my bra.
When I think back on those first hazy months of motherhood, I most remember the nights: my baby in her soft cotton nightgown nursing with abandon, her arm flung over her face, her fingers grasping at my skin.
The first time I breastfed in public, my daughter was two or three weeks old and we went to SeaWorld with my visiting family. Every time my daughter needed to eat, I slipped my arms into a roomy, unbuttoned shirt of my husband’s to make sure my back and sides stayed covered, and I put on a nursing cover to make sure my front stayed covered. I was still new to the art of coordinating all of the layers I was wearing (nursing pads, nursing bra, garments, shirt, and sometimes undershirt, not to mention the muslin blankets or nursing cover to keep my chest, stomach, and baby covered), and it was difficult to keep track of which layers got pulled up and which got pulled down, which got stretched out and which got folded over. Add the nipple shield and burp cloths into the mix, and I felt like I needed at least five more hands. We made it through the day, though, and without anxiety attacks. Awkwardness and excessive layers aside, I considered it a win.
I had debilitating anxiety after my daughter was born. It took massive amounts of effort to get ready and out the door for church. I wanted to be there because I desperately needed community and social interaction, and every time my baby cried and I had to take her out to feed her during Sacrament Meeting or Relief Society, I felt despair and deep loneliness. My baby took an hour to nurse, so I would wonder why I had bothered to come when half of my time was spent in a closet. I wished I had the courage to nurse in Sacrament Meeting or Relief Society so that I could get the spiritual nourishment I desperately craved, but I had never seen anyone else nurse in church meetings before, and I was afraid of being judged or of accidentally exposing my breast or of someone hearing my daughter’s soft nursing noises and realizing what I was doing.
We were moving across the country. Everything we owned was boxed in a Penske truck, and we were ready to begin our exodus. My husband tried to usher me into the moving van, but I felt a need I couldn’t explain. I carried our five month old back into our empty and sterile apartment, put my back against our living room wall, and slid down to sit on the floor with my baby cradled in my arms. I felt panicky and unsure about this big and scary change, but as my daughter nursed, I felt the panic drain out of me. I listened to her steady suck-swallow-suck-swallow and felt the tension in my body unclench as the pressure of my letdown eased.
Shortly before my daughter was born, my bishop prohibited the deacons from passing the sacrament in the foyers, stating that as bishop, he was responsible for safeguarding the sanctity of the sacrament, so it was necessary for him to watch who was partaking. He also placed deacons (and sometimes high priests) at the chapel doors once the sacrament hymn began to prevent anyone from entering during the ordinance and to discourage people from being late.
The women in my ward were livid. During Relief Society one week, the bishop came in and asked for questions or concerns. Several of the women expressed frustration that if they had to take out their crying children during the sacrament, they would not be able to participate in the ordinance at all. They asked if he would rather they stayed in the chapel with their screaming children. The bishop responded that he would watch for women who had to leave during the service and send deacons out after them with the instruction to avoid serving the bread and water to any latecomers or foyer lurkers.
I did see the bishop send the deacons out after a mother with a crying child occasionally, but the sacrament was never served to the women in the mothers’ lounge. I usually tried to time my baby’s feedings so I wouldn’t have to feed her at the beginning of the meeting, but infants are fickle creatures who follow their own whims. Hidden away in the mothers’ lounge listening to the coughs and muffled noises caught on the microphone in the chapel over the speaker system during the sacrament, I remember crying and feeling unseen and in need of the ordinance I could not receive.
When my daughter was seven months old, she was injured while we were on vacation. We later found out she fractured her femur, but in the moment, all I knew was a primal need to comfort her in the best way I knew how. We curled up on the couch together, and she calmed and nursed, her hand clutching my shirt. I didn’t want to move her because I was afraid I’d hurt her, so she stayed on the same breast for an hour. I’d had issues with my supply, but in that moment of need, my milk continued to flow like the cruse of oil that failed not.
The mothers’ room at my church was small and cramped. There were two soft rocking chairs (one broken) and a folding chair. In our ward filled with young families, there were times when five of us were crammed in there, one awkwardly perched on the hard chair and two others sitting on the floor, legs at awkward angles to keep skirts in place. I felt unspoken pressure to try and remain covered while positioning the nipple shield and latching the baby, but it was often impossible as my baby squirmed and cried impatiently on my lap as I fumbled under the cover. Mothers of toddlers came in routinely to change diapers on the changing table. Once, a poopy diaper was changed two feet from my head while I breastfed in the rocker. Despite the lidded trash can, the room usually smelled of feces.
I now have three children and was lucky to be able to nurse them all until shortly after they turned one. Each of them was different: I had supply issues with one daughter, both daughters took 45-75 minutes to complete a feeding, my son only took 10-20 minutes but hated being covered, one daughter was a squirmer, one daughter was easily distracted, one had reflux, some took bottles better than others, one refused all solid foods until eight months of age, one didn’t put on weight after birth because of the nipple shield (so I had to nurse, then pump, then bottle feed until I could wean him (and myself) off of the shield). While I still generally nursed with the aid of a light blanket around other people, by my third baby, I no longer felt the need to keep every inch of my body under wraps at all times, and I generally left my baby uncovered.
My feelings about nursing are complicated, but I’m grateful that I was able to share that experience with my babies. I don’t view reproductive biology as inherently sacred, but that time I spent with my babies was a gift both painful and precious. I look back with compassion on my initial clumsy and anxious breastfeeding, swathed in my husband’s shirt with a nursing cover tied around my neck, trying to adjust to my body’s new capacity.
If I could visit now with my past self, I would embrace her–layers and all–and tell her not to worry so much about how and whether she is seen, but to focus on her body and her baby. I’d tell her nobody has died from glimpsing a breast or protruding folds of midriff or love handle. I’d tell her I know she’s doing the best she can, that I see how overwhelmed and anxious she is, and I’d promise her that it gets better. And then I’d lift the infant from her arms, press my lips against my daughter’s downy head, and relish, for just a moment, the weight of her in my arms again.