On New Year's Eve when I was 20 years old — the night my baby was born — I was in my bedroom screaming, "I'm going to die." Around 4 a.m. on New Year's Day 2014, Lennon Anthony Guénette latched on for the first time.
I was enthusiastic about breast-feeding for the entirety of my pregnancy. I knew the benefits and advantages of breast-feeding, both for the child and the mother. I took a two-hour class on breast-feeding, bought a nursing bra and breast pads, and now had a hungry baby in front of me. What more could I need to breast-feed? Guts.
The truth is, I found breast-feeding much more painful than childbirth, and I was far from prepared.
After 24 hours of life, Lennon's latch began to hurt. I essentially lived topless for the next two weeks as I tried to figure out the awkward art of breast-feeding. My $100 maternity bra didn't fit. Milk finely coated the floors and pillows. The sheets had to be changed constantly. Pumping, a strict feeding schedule, and ointment were the only things that carried me through the first weeks, when the emotional and physical pain was truly unbearable.
My nipples were literally scabbing and falling off, while my breasts filled to the point of stretch marks and constant aching. Each feeding consisted of curling my feet in agony. I cried every time.
Looking back, I think I was crying with shame. Why wasn't it working as it seemed to in the Instagram pictures? Why can't I do this? I'm a terrible, unprepared young mother and I'm not enough for him. I had shameful thoughts about giving up and running away to become a childless gypsy.
If I hadn't had an advocating midwife and the support of my own mother to continue, I would have quit. But I continued, clung to the small support network I had, and waited for the miracle.
But while my body was slowly adjusting to my new role, my mind wasn't.
The shame I felt around not being able to "get" breast-feeding right away carried through to all areas of motherhood. We all have high expectations of ourselves as parents — to live according to seamless values and principles. And we often believe if we fall short of these goals that we are "less than." I didn't believe I was enough in any aspect.
Shame occurred when my breasts started leaking on a bus ride and my son was hungry but I couldn't safely latch him. Shame occurred when I saw other mothers, on social media and in real life, breast-feeding naturally and gracefully. I had been warned that breast-feeding might be uncomfortable at first. But I never imagined that emotional distress could stem from feeding my child.
It wasn't getting better, or easier. I felt anything but feminine. I felt dirty. Breast-feeding is a process that requires patience. For a long time I didn't trust the process.
What I didn't understand was that breast-feeding is a relationship. I didn't understand that it takes work, effort, compromise, and commitment. And I certainly didn't understand that sometimes the relationship just doesn't work.
It's a vulnerable place to exist in, where your body has milk and your child is hungry and the two have to somehow awkwardly meet. It's vulnerable to live in the pain, and compromise, in the view of unsupportive onlookers and your own self-judgment. It's difficult to remember that you are the ultimate in femininity in this stage of life, when you are covered in sour milk and stretch marks, half-naked and unbathed.
How I Finally Accepted My Struggle
Eventually, my heart opened to the possibilities of motherhood. I focused inward with the help of unexpected friendships and Brené Brown's research surrounding shame, vulnerability, and resiliency to perfectionism. I focused on what I had power over — not on the external factors I didn't.
My mind opened to the choices all mothers make that are best for them, and I was able to connect to a great community of parents. Without my struggle, I would have remained in the realm of parental judgment, comparisons, and self-righteousness. I would have missed out on the joy, accountability, and sanity found within community, regardless of parenting choices. My heart and mind would have remained fearfully closed if my breast-feeding journey hadn't brought me through pain, shame, and guilt before surrender and gratitude.
At 19 months into my breast-feeding journey, I feel I've finally found my grace. I've become resilient to shame and am now confident, and able, to feed my child wherever he chooses to eat. This is possible due to persistence, and fearfully waiting, for the miracle that would allow me to develop strength, acceptance, and community support.
When I first became a mother, I was unaware of the effort and commitment breast-feeding requires. My (unsolicited) advice is to prepare for breast-feeding, not just childbirth.
Breast-feeding is a choice both you and your child make. If you decide to try it, rent a hospital-grade breast-pump, have nipple ointment, and have a support system to advocate for you when your pain takes you to a place of apathy. Eat like you were malnourished, because you are once your momma milk is donated to your babe. Eat and forget about losing the baby weight. Forget about the Instagram mothers and fitness DVDs. Focus on nourishment, and finding your femininity and grace within that nourishment.
Know that whether the relationship thrives or falters, you are enough.
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