When I was pregnant with my first son, I approached the idea of breastfeeding with a fairly blasé attitude and figured I would only do it if it came easily. As my mom always liked to point out, my two sisters and I were all bottle-fed babies and had turned out OK!
When my son, K, was born at 36 weeks (after a six-hour labor and a blessed epidural), the nurses placed him on me to breastfeed and any hopes that I had for an easy start quickly dissipated. I could not get him to latch. The pain was intense. The nurses who tried to help were forceful and impatient. And while the lactation consultant on staff was able to latch him to me properly, I could never manage to do it myself once she was gone.
Once we were home and my milk came in, I remember thinking, “Great, now we’ll get the hang of this!” but my optimism soon turned to horror when the baby started choking each time I would nurse him. His deviated septum, coupled with a very strong let-down and fast flow, was too much for him, and he would stop breathing as my husband and I frantically scooped him up and maneuvered him into different positions until he was able to breathe and nurse again.
Of course, he would never do this on cue when I took him to the pediatrician for help. Eventually, a lactation consultant came to my home and taught me a different holding position that prevented the choking episodes. Still, I approached each feed with a sense of terror and insisted that someone be in the room with me while I nursed.
Throughout those early weeks, rather than turn to the bottle (as many of those close to me gently suggested), breastfeeding became my sole mission. My son nursed around the clock. I did not sleep more than three hours straight at a time. I could not figure out how to comfortably nurse him in public places, and so I hardly ever left the house.
One night, I suddenly came down with a high fever and chills, and my husband took me to the ER where I was diagnosed with mastitis and given antibiotics. I nursed through the pain. I ignored my husband’s pleas to try giving him a bottle instead. My son became a champion nurser, and I cried every day. I screamed at my husband. Sometimes I even screamed at my baby. I insisted on exclusively breastfeeding, but I got no enjoyment out of it.
Looking back, I know that I was suffering from undiagnosed postpartum depression. I was engulfed in a sadness that I knew was more than just the “baby blues,” but I was too ashamed to admit it or to ask for help. Instead, I channeled all of my focus into breastfeeding. In my clouded mind, breastfeeding meant that I was succeeding at motherhood despite my sadness, and any deviation from that signaled my enormous failure.
I am fortunate that the cloud eventually lifted on its own, but I regret not having sought professional help that could have brought me relief sooner. I continued to breastfeed for 15 months until K was able to drink independently from a sippy cup and, while I was grateful that my body was able to produce all of the milk that my son needed, I felt no emotional connection to the act itself and did not mourn its absence when it ended.
My second son, Y, was born four years later—after a heartbreaking miscarriage followed by a year of unexplained secondary infertility, endless tests, and invasive procedures. He was also born at 36 weeks, but this time the labor progressed so quickly that there was no time for an epidural and he was born within 90 minutes. The unexpected pace of the labor and the pain of a drug-free delivery were such a shock to my psyche that I could not bring myself to hold or nurse the baby right away after he was born. My husband held and rocked him most of those first few hours while I lay in bed, awash with guilt for not wanting to bond with the baby that I had prayed so hard to God to bless us with.
My husband and I experienced those first few weeks with a sense of trepidation, fearing another bout of depression that thankfully did not come. I chose to breastfeed Y, but this time my choice was not a misguided attempt to compensate for emotional detachment or a way to assuage misplaced guilt. And despite a few more bouts of mastitis due to the baby’s tongue-tie, I was able to nurse Y with fewer issues and significantly more enthusiasm than the first time around. We even gave him a bottle of pumped breastmilk once a day for the first few months so my husband could also enjoy feeding our son and I could get an occasional break, but eventually the monotony and hassle of pumping wore me down and I reverted back to exclusive breastfeeding.
Fast forward to this week, when I just weaned my third son, A, after nursing him for 13 months. Anticipating another fast and drug-free labor, I hired a wonderful doula to help me through birth so that I would be in a place, physically and mentally, where I would want to hold and nurse my baby immediately after birth.
Indeed, A was born 90 minutes after my water broke following a bumpy ambulance ride to the nearest hospital. But complications after his birth caused me to be whisked into the operating room for an emergency procedure under general anesthesia, and it would be hours before I could hold and nurse my baby. I still get sad when I think about it, but I know better now than to be consumed with guilt or regret for something I could not control.
Perhaps, in the end, that is my tikkun—rectification: learning to forgive my mind and body for reacting to the amazing leap into motherhood in unexpected, and sometimes disappointing, ways. I was not able to bond with A as early as I wanted to, but we have made up for it in a year’s worth of cuddles and kisses.
I nursed him through a year of countless clogged ducts and bouts of mastitis, but I also allowed others to give him a bottle of formula once a day in order to give my body a break and dedicate time to my older children. The emotions, the accomplishments, and the setbacks that accompanied my birth and breastfeeding experiences with my first two sons paved the way for the very different journey that A and I have taken to reach this moment. My husband and I are blessed to have three beautiful boys and our family feels complete. Knowing that this baby is likely our last has been a reminder to me over the last year to slow down and try to be more present in the moment, to nurse my baby not only for the joy that it brings him, but also for the joy that it brings me, and to be grateful to have made it to this beautiful, bittersweet day.