One afternoon in the midsummer of 2015, months before my daughter would arrive in December, I went boating. Some pregnant women, I hear, feel remarkably attuned to nature, animated by the force of growing life. Even before pregnancy, I thought of my body less as a miraculous instrument working in concert with my brain and more as a functional protrusion of my mind into the world, my brain’s very own junkmobile. Whatever fairy godmother doles out gifts to pregnant women had chosen me to receive swollen, aching joints and a double helping of my usual physical awkwardness. When I noticed one of our fellow passengers, a friend of a friend, casually nursing her year-old son while carrying on a conversation, I was awestruck (and, even then, jealous of her confidence and coordination). It was as though no one had remembered to inform her that we were actually on water and in motion. Clearly, this was the seamless, well-rehearsed work of professionals. My daughter and I would be beginners, but likely always on solid ground. I would be kind to my clumsy body. We—the three of us: my daughter, my body, and me—would figure it out.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months…with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” In Western Massachusetts, where I live, many mothers skip straight to the end of the AAP’s statement, that ambiguous “or longer,” and think “yes, longer.” Around here, breastfeeding is widely encouraged and celebrated. (Or at least it is on a personal mother-to-mother level—we, like most of the U.S., still struggle with much larger structural issues surrounding who’s granted the huge swaths of time and space required to be a woman in the world and still nurse and pump.) And it’s not out of the ordinary to meet mothers who fly past a year, past 18 months, two years, onward. The flip side of all this sisterhood is that failing to commit to nursing through any number of struggles—or brazenly choosing not to—is often seen as a selling out, a moral failure.
The flip side of all this sisterhood is that failing to commit to nursing through any number of struggles—or brazenly choosing not to—is often seen as a selling out, a moral failure.
I thought I could do a year. Past that would be optional. Implicit in all of this is that I thought I would be making the decision without my body’s input. It would make milk and my daughter would eat it. For exactly how long would be, I thought, up to me.
But it felt like I couldn’t catch a single break. I was anemic—a suppressant of milk supply—following blood loss during delivery; I had retained placental fragments—another suppressant—requiring removal via outpatient procedure. (I pumped 4 whole ounces after I woke up in recovery and cried because it was, finally, so much. The bump in supply, it turned out, was temporary.) My daughter was diagnosed with a tongue tie, which we had revised in a doctor’s office. I tried fenugreek pills at $40 per bottle. My nipples are structurally soft and small, one even slightly inverted. My daughter’s difficulty in latching on (even post-revision for the tongue tie) shredded my breasts. I tried a nipple shield, but my daughter hated it. I could get a prescription cream to treat my cracked nipples, but only from a compounding pharmacy, the closest one nearly a half-hour away. I had tried to hold in my head, like a Zen koan, conflicting strands of advice from both of my hospital’s lactation consultants, one insisting I pump every 2 hours, even waking myself up from any hard-won sleep to do this, and the other insisting I sleep whenever possible to allow my body to heal. In trying to do everything, I did nothing well.
In trying to do everything, I did nothing well.
Breastfeeding lasted six weeks; no, I want to own it—I quit at six weeks.
I remember one of the last times I tried to nurse—I snuck my daughter off to my room without (I thought) my husband noticing, while my daughter and I both cried out of hunger and frustration. My husband came in to check on us, asking gently, “What are you doing?”
I remember hearing a line in those early weeks that might have been a joke: “You have one job postpartum; let your body heal and nurse your baby.” It has to be a joke, doesn’t it? That’s two jobs right there, two full-time, always-on-the-clock, often incompatible jobs, and I was ashamed to have failed at both of them. I felt shame, too, because my husband and I had had rational conversations about how the most important thing was that our daughter be fed, full stop. And yet I still had an idea—driven by a fear of failure, but also by some other weird animal thing that doesn’t have to do with anyone’s agenda— that maybe this might be the time it clicked.
I don’t remember if I answered then or just continued to cry, but my answer would have been the same then as it is now: I don’t know.
…I did not face merely one obstacle in trying to establish a good breastfeeding relationship; we faced what felt like all of them.
Early on, I’d tried to protect myself by obsessively “showing my work.” I needed other mothers to know that my daughter and I did not face merely one obstacle in trying to establish a good breastfeeding relationship; we faced what felt like all of them. My narrative tracing my effort has been my armor.
Two and a half years on, I want to say that I can look at my thriving, cheerful daughter and wonder what all the fuss was about. Instead, moving beyond this feels something like a continuous spiral moving upward, always within touching distance of where the emotions had just been a little more painful, more raw. I’m always coming around.
About the author
Jen Jabaily-Blackburn has been making unconventional lullaby choices since winter 2015. A poet, her work has twice been selected for Best New Poets (2014 & 2016) and has appeared widely in journals and magazines, most recently Rattle, The Common and Massachusetts Review. She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.