I was changing my two-week-old son’s diaper when I looked up and saw fresh blood pooled around his head. Its source was unclear.
His serene moonbeam face reflected nothing of the guilt-stricken panic that seized my soul. I was sure he was dying. Of course he was dying. He was being taken from me because I did not love him enough, because, though it took me two years to conceive him, now that he was here, the transition to motherhood had not felt as natural as I had hoped.
The pediatrician told me to come in immediately, but I found myself paralyzed. I had not left my house in two weeks. Questions that I would have found irritating, if not mildly amusing pre-baby, now presented themselves as barriers to his life. Where were my clothes? Where were my car keys? Where was the car seat and how did it snap into the car again? A neighbor rushed over and calmly coached my harried, spit-stained self on the steps necessary to leave the house.
Two doctor’s visits later, and I had my answer: The blood was from my breast—likely due to an open cut from a poor latch—and it was completely harmless to him. But not to me. For me it carried the bitter sting of inadequacy.
In the past two years, pain had become my bedfellow: I had injected myself with intimidatingly long IVF needles, had been through the requisite labor pains, but nothing—no explanatory videos or cheerful lactation consultants, no book on the benefits and joys of breastfeeding—could prepare me for the visceral pain of feeding my child.
Every two to three hours—sometimes all day—I’d fumble with a squirming newborn as I tried to get him to latch onto my breast. At contact with the soft tissue, my baby’s smooth gums morphed into the dagger-like teeth of a great white shark. I shouted a single expletive as tears dove to the rims of my eyes. I counted down from ten, waiting for the pain to subside. Often the latch would come undone just as the baby was starting to feed and the miserable ordeal would repeat itself. Adding to this excruciating pain was the frustration of never knowing how to hold the baby. I would find my body contorted or hunched over as I tried to align my baby’s mouth with the food source. Blankets and pillows buoyed my arms and elbows up at angles that were impossible to recreate. Feedings lasted no less than an hour.
When my wonderful husband returned home from work in the evenings and my patience had thinned to a mere pinprick, there was nothing he could say that would not be met with a sardonic response. I would nurse our child as we sat on the couch watching a comedy, trying to eke out some semblance of pre-pregnancy normalcy . But I sat tense and unsmiling, my body rigid with discomfort. One weekend morning I had a complete breakdown, repeating the phrase “every three hours, every three hours,” my voice a nervous crescendo, a mantra from hell. Nursing was “supposed” to be a bonding experience, but I felt like a captive.
Amidst this interminable chaos bloomed a realization: I was alone.
Since my husband and I had met almost ten years earlier, our approach to life had always been as members of a team. Suddenly the limits of his support were starkly apparent. I had the food source. He did not. Though an obvious observation, the reality of it unsettled me. If my pregnancy had sown the seed of this revelation, it was breastfeeding that had truly brought the fruit to bear.
The man who had coached me through each heart-pumping step to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro years before was no longer on my path. We had likely diverged many months ago but only now did I notice the single set of footsteps below me.
Without a network, I knew I’d have little motivation to forge ahead. I decided to attend a local breastfeeding support group, where I had the good fortune to connect with two women who became my lifeline. As we chatted about the mix of love and chaos that is new motherhood, the act of nursing my child took on the casual air of a Sunday brunch. Now, when I strained my eyes open in the eerie stillness of a 3AM feeding, I no longer felt alone. Even as the breast pain persisted, I began to feel like a human again.
In the haze of those bleary-eyed hours, when day and night merged into a general state of exhaustion, when Saturday nights became just any other evening, the chiseled daggers of my baby’s bite shed their blades. My son was growing. In the wake of pain was left an airy sense of wonder: I was the sole source of nourishment for another human being. If I repeated this to myself, the words held a sort of magic.
I was a creator. A sustainer. An animal called woman. A mother. I had tapped into a vital source of power and its potency was invigorating. Slowly, I began to experience a sense of pride in my body having nothing to do with its appearance. In a world that applauds women for the speed at which they resume their pre-pregnancy bodies, my pride felt like a quiet act of resistance.
Now I watch our beautiful son grow and thrive and I say to myself: I did that. Gradually, I’ve begun to enjoy feeding him, noticing how the soft pads of his fingers cling to me, smiling at his dreamy doe-eyed look before bedtime, and having the heartbreaking but healthy knowledge that this time together is fleeting.
For my husband and me, there is no going back to what passed as normal before. Our lives are different now. I am different. Our Ketubah hangs on our wall: two people standing together as the trunk of a tree. From their heads emerges a single, beautiful, tangled canopy. Together we bring different strengths to the same goal: to nurture our darling child.