When I gave birth to my first baby, I knew I was going to breastfeed. I’m a people-pleaser. I crave affirmation and words of praise from others and exclusively breastfeeding felt like THE THING I had to do for people to think I was a good mom.
So, I breastfed.
I breastfed in those first tender, newborn bubble days when a baby’s latch can feel akin to touching your nipple with a curling iron. I breastfed through the nipple fissure that developed on one side, slathering it with a $60 ointment that I had to get at a special pharmacy. I breastfed through a postpartum infection that made it difficult to sit upright, let alone hold my perfect little baby.
I breastfed through a tongue tie clip that grew back within days because many ENTs don’t fully understand the anatomical needs of the act of nursing for a young baby. I breastfed through a tongue and lip laser revision which meant I had to massage the scars on the inside of her mouth so the tight tissue wouldn’t regrow before I could latch her. I breastfed through her dairy and soy intolerances, which left her poop slimy and even bloody until I was able to work those proteins out of my system and avoid them for months.
I breastfed through a letdown that was too much for my baby which meant I had to feed by laying back at a 45-degree angle after using a hand pump to remove the first ounce or two before she even started so that she could skip the watery foremilk and get straight to the good stuff. I stuffed a silicone cup on the other side of my bra for months to catch the precious ounces that would drip, hoping to save them instead of staining my clothes with them.
I breastfed, even when I needed to go to work or to volunteer activities, which meant hours hooked up to a pump womp-womp womp-womp womp-womping. I breastfed and fretted every time I needed to be somewhere my daughter wasn’t, doing the math on ounces consumed and produced and her feeding schedule vs. my ability to find a space with a chair (not totally necessary), an outlet (completely necessary) and a locking door, or at least one that closed.
I breastfed, even as I screamed in my head, “Mommy needs a break!” as loud as I possibly could.
Then, this week, when I cut one of our five daily feedings because my daughter is nine months old and I’m beginning the slow process of weaning, I cried. For nine months, the act of extracting milk from my body to feed my baby, either by putting her to my breast or by using a pump, has been second only to “keep the baby breathing”. She does the breathing part on her own, so the feeding part has obviously required more work from me.
I have not taken time for myself. I have not been able to let anyone give me a break. I have fussed and panicked and not had anyone to turn to because no one seems to get it.
And the real kicker is that if any of my friends, or any other woman in the world, for that matter, tells me she doesn’t breastfeed, or that she supplements breastfeeding with formula or feeds exclusively with formula, I don’t blink twice. “Good for you,” I say. “I think if your baby is fed and you are healthy, both physically and emotionally, you’re doing a great job.”
And yet, for some reason, I haven’t been able to apply my own standard to myself.
I can see it now, clear as day, that the decision to exclusively breastfeed and the act of exclusively breastfeeding was and is bad for my mental health. I’m a person who grapples with anxiety, who worries tremendously about what other people think about me, and who loves her baby so fiercely, it hurts.
And I know that in the coming months, as I wean my little girl and give up breastfeeding, I am going to need to come to terms with the mental and emotional energy that I anticipate regaining as I come up for air after a year of anxious and obsessive behavior to achieve my goal of breastfeeding for a year. When I hit that one-year mark, and no one emerges with a gold medal or a giant check to congratulate me, to show that all my hard work was worth it, I’m sure I will be disappointed.
Like so many moments in motherhood, I will look around, waiting for the external validation that never comes.
But for now, I will breastfeed my baby. I will look down at her chubby cheeks, and her eyes that I’ve watched change, day by day, from baby blue to green and grey, and I will smile, and sometimes cry, and hope, like I do with every decision I made, that what I have done for her will be worth it.
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