I sat on our soft, suede couch with my arms propped up on my pale green nursing pillow. A blanket was draped over my shoulders and my newborn son was latched onto my breast sucking away. My back didn’t hurt, thanks to the sturdy nursing pillow we purchased at the breast center before we left the hospital to bring my daughter home two years earlier. A pillow that practically saved my life. My son was wrapped in the fuzzy, sea-blue blanket I knitted for him while he was in my belly.
Everything about this situation whispered warm, cozy, secure. Except I didn’t feel any of those things. Every time I sat down to nurse him I tried to create this cocoon of warmth around us, as if I could force the heat and comfort into my body. But even with the blanket around me and my baby’s snuggly body pressed close to me, I was still cold; the warmth never reached my bones.
My two-year-old daughter was upstairs in her bed asleep (such a good sleeper, that child) and my mom, husband and I were going to have a late dinner in front of the television together. From my spot on the couch I could see into the kitchen. My mom stirred her shrimp scampi on the stove while my husband asked her clues for the New York Times crossword puzzle. They both drank jam jars half-full of chilled Pinot Grigio. They were sharing and laughing. Normally I loved how much the two of them cherished each other, but all I felt at that moment was separate, on the outside of a thick, glass wall looking in. Like looking into people’s windows at night with their lights on, the glow filling up the inside while darkness enveloped me outside.
So many, many times while nursing I wanted to cry, “Help!”
What I wanted to ask, over and over again was, “Am I the only one? Does anyone else out there feel that heavy dense weight of intense loneliness every time you nurse your child? I’m scared and lost and I need help.”
What I always, always asked instead: nothing.
Why? Fear of being the only one, fear of being judged, fear of being called a bad mother, and fear of not really understanding what I was going through. Every time both of my children latched on I felt a crushing sense of loneliness that nearly overwhelmed me. The words, “I hate nursing,” coursed through my body just as confidently as my milk, but I didn’t dare speak those words aloud.
There were a few people around me who I knew wouldn’t judge me, who just wanted the best for me and my baby: my wonderful husband and my kind and gentle mother. Still, I never voiced my emotional pain, because I would have felt shame.
I did feel shame. Shame and confusion at my feelings.
I strained my eyes away from the happy scene in the kitchen, those two people going on with life, and looked down at my tiny son, all seven pounds of him. His gray-blue eyes were closed and he sucked away with such a furious intense expression on his face. One of his soft hands was firm on my breast; I couldn’t tell if he was holding on or pushing me away. Every nerve in my body hummed with an ache of loneliness. It was huge, this feeling, when all I wanted to feel was joy and connection.
It couldn’t be right for me to feel loneliness, deep fear and the thought that I hated nursing. So many influences around me in society – the new mother books, the nurses and doctors, my relatives, the progressive city I lived in, mother nature herself – all screamed at me that I should love nursing, I should feel proud to feed my baby the most nutritious thing I could.
They say it takes a village, but boy, find yourself in the wrong village and you could be burned at the stake.
Most of the time while nursing I felt absolutely miserable, but I never told anyone.
Miserable is a word you apply to war victims, not nursing mothers. The lonely, the separateness, these feelings scared the hell out of me. Even the stinging burn of thrush my son and I had on and off for the first two months of his life, didn’t scare me the way the loneliness did.
I couldn’t explain these feelings because I had no basis for understanding them. I wanted to nurse my babies. I wanted to love nursing. Instead, I felt more lonely than I ever had in my life, even, at times, while nursing in a room full of people I loved.
Nursing is heavy, it’s weighted, it has so many facets. Yes, it’s beautiful that you are literally giving life to another human, but literally they are sucking the life out of you. Nursing hurt. Nursing made me feel so thirsty like I’d spent a week chewing on nothing but cardboard. Nursing exhausted me more than pregnancy ever did.
The real sigh of relief always came when I was finished and I could cuddle my tiny one to my chest and breath a huge sigh of, thank god that’s over for now.
Secretly I thought there had to be other moms out there like me who felt these emotions as nursing mothers. I couldn’t be the only one, or could I?
My fear of being the only one, along with the fact that I couldn’t understand why the loneliness was so profound – this new language I didn’t yet know how to speak – kept me silent. Was it because sitting on that couch, completely responsible for another human being, I was faced with the awareness that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing? Could it have been that being thrust into this new role in life, of a mother, the roles I knew and felt confident in, daughter, writer, wife, felt strewn out behind me in shredded pieces, never to be put back together?
Eventually that evening, my husband and mom brought dinner to the coffee table, sat down next to me and turned on an episode of The Good Wife. I swallowed my loneliness and confusion and questions. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and nursed, all the while pretending everything was fine. When my son finished, my husband took him from me. I wrapped myself tightly in my sweater, sucked down my water and devoured the buttery shrimp scampi because I knew my son would be hungry again in less than an hour and I would be right back at it, lonely and confused.
Sara is a writer living in Everett, Washington. Her essays can be found at Anderbo.com (as Sara Mitchell), Trillium Literary Journal, Mothers Always Write, and the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America. Currently she writes about life, food, motherhood and gardening at www.lemonsandroses.com.
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