Before I had my first child, I thought the most painful part of becoming a mother would be labor. Don’t get me wrong, on a pain scale of one to ten, labor is a 24, but the pain that packed the biggest sucker-punch was breastfeeding.
The first couple of days after my daughter was born were fine, if you count the just-got-hit-by-a-semi post-labor feeling as fine. The nurses at the hospital showed me how to breastfeed and assured me that my daughter had a great “latch.” But by Day Three the baby’s tongue felt like sandpaper scrubbing an open wound. I went to see a lactation consultant, who went over the latching techniques again, and sent me home with the cheerful assurance that within a few days the pain would go away. It didn’t. In fact, it went from rubbed-blister twinge to full-blown shark bite.
I just couldn’t understand what was wrong. Half my friends had babies and they all breastfed. How had no one thought to mention that breastfeeding feels like putting your nipples through a meat-grinder? I couldn’t even think about milk without bursting into tears.
Desperate, I doctor-shopped at every lactation consultant in town. They prescribed antibiotics and painkillers, gave me a rubber nipple since my real ones were half sawed off, and sent me to an army of specialists, including a chiropractor and an ear-nose-throat doctor. The experts clucked and fussed and said expert things and made expert tsking noises, but couldn’t explain why I was in so much pain.
To keep from completely losing my shit, I started pumping breastmilk and bottle-feeding my daughter. The lactation consultants cautioned against this since the baby might start preferring the bottle, but they also said that if I was ever near breaking point, I could use the pump for relief.
The trouble was, I was always near breaking point.
I thought often of quitting, but there is a lot of social pressure to breastfeed. “If you love your baby, you’ll breastfeed,” is not stated in polite company, but it’s definitely implied. Breastfeeding is trumpeted as the first test of whether or not you will make healthy choices for your baby. Giving up would be selfish, putting my own need for a pain-free existence before the baby’s need for premium nutrition.
As the weeks dragged on, my bottle habit worsened. I’d use it on “bad days” because I didn’t need another reason to think dark thoughts about the baby. I’d use it on “good days” so they wouldn’t turn into bad days. So it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise when around 6 weeks old, my daughter refused to breastfeed anymore. From that day on it was the bottle or a hunger strike, just like the lactation consultants had warned me would happen.
I felt miserable, rejected, and guilty for not sucking up the pain. I worried that we weren’t “bonding” and that is why she had rejected me. I feared the slow death of my milk supply would eventually force me to feed my baby infant formula, the true mark of a lazy mother who doesn’t care about her child.
So I went back again to the lactation consultants with my scarlet letter: ‘F’ for Formula Mom. For six more weeks we tried every manner of coaxing and trickery to get my daughter to breastfeed again, but all for naught. At 12 weeks, I gave up.
And just like that, the moment when I let go of the notion that I had to breastfeed or I’d be a terrible mother was when I finally became a good one. For the first six weeks of my daughter’s life and several more thereafter I had dreaded every interaction with her. I associated her with pain, frustration, guilt and inadequacy. But as soon as I let go, as soon as I forgave myself for not being perfect, I was able to relax and focus on being a great mom in other areas. I realized it was all going to be okay. The bottle was not the first step on the road to perdition. My daughter would grow up healthy and happy. We could still “bond.” Formula wasn’t well-marketed rat poison.
Motherhood was something I could actually enjoy, pain-free.
Tessie Castillo never thought she’d be a mother, much less a single mother, much less a single mother who publishes articles about being a single mother. She still can’t figure out how she got here. In between her day job(s) as a social activist and mother to a toddler with an unsettling milk addiction, she write a sometimes funny, occasionally insightful blog about parenting after divorce. She is also a reluctant convert to Facebook and Twitter. Read her blog at The Diary of a Single Parent.
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