I believe in breastfeeding. I’ve seen all of the stats. I’ve read all of the research. I know it’s what I’m supposed to do, if I am able.
So, for the first few weeks of my daughter’s life, I would feed her on demand (which roughly translated to once every hour and a half for anywhere from 20-40 minutes). At night I would settle into my corner of the couch for marathon cluster feeding sessions from 4-11pm. About a week and half into breastfeeding, I didn’t feel good. My body ached and hurt all of the time. I felt tired, run down, and I had constant chills. But I was a new mom. I had been told the same thing for the last nine months: Sleep now, because you won’t be able to sleep again until they’re in college. And I had just given birth to a human being. This was par for the course, right?
Then one day, I felt a small lump on my right breast. My lactation consultant said it was a clogged duct and gave me a whole host of home remedies to try and break it up. I continued to feel crappy and the lump didn’t ever fully go away, though it did get smaller. After more hot diapers on the boob than I can count, I called the doctor. My boob was angry, red, and painful—and the lump was still there. It was diagnosed as mastitis caused by a clogged duct. I did everything they tell you to do with mastitis: hot showers with massages, soy lecithin capsules to break up the milk, frequent nursing, rest and water, and, of course, hardcore antibiotics.
Five days of antibiotics, and nothing had changed—except that the lump was now very large and the boob was insanely angry and red, so very red. The pain was unbearable. My daughter would cry to eat, and then I would cry. The pain of feeding her was excruciating—so much worse than actually delivering my baby. I hated breastfeeding. Everything about it. If I could’ve stopped right then and there, I would have. But the only way to cure mastitis is to remove the milk, so I dutifully kept on nursing. This meant 8-12 times a day of fighting tears as I fed my daughter.
My best friend was in town and very simply said, “I know the doctor said mastitis is painful, but this is nuts. Let’s go to the hospital.” My head was in a daze, and crying was now just my normal state. I knew she was right. I couldn’t be a mother to my little girl in this kind of physical and mental state. I called my doctor’s after-hours line and told her I was in extreme pain, my fever was over 105, and I was now going to the ER. I can’t explain the body-convulsing sobs that came out of me when I left for the hospital that night.
I didn’t know when I would return back to my baby, who was only 19 days old. I hoped I'd be in the ER for a few hours, but instead dealt with a painful separation for three and a half days. They found a 6-centimeter by 3-centimeter abscess in my breast. No wonder it was so angry. And I was furious. This is what beautiful, bond-inducing breastfeeding had gotten me?
I remember sitting with my husband as the surgeon came in to tell me what they found in the surgery. The abscess was very large, the surgeon told me. “We had to cut quite a few of the milk ducts, and the abscess ate through a good portion of the breast. We had to remove a lot of necrotic tissue.”
“You removed part of my breast?” I asked her. She nodded. “And cut milk ducts? Will they grow back?” She took a deep breath and before she could answer, I asked a question I didn’t know I needed the answer to. “Will I still be able to breastfeed?”
She looked taken aback. Was that something I still wanted? The moments before the surgery, as I lay on a hospital bed, pumped full of painkillers and four types of antibiotics, I thought, Finally, I won’t have to breastfeed anymore, and no one can blame me or call me a bad mom for it. And there I was, an hour post surgery and fighting for my right to breastfeed.
“I don’t think you can,” she told me. “We had to leave the incision site open so the wound could fill in from the bottom.” She tore back the tape and gauze and showed me a 1.5-inch by 2-inch hole filled with packing gauze. I choked back bile and looked away. “I need to talk to your OB/GYN, because milk is still going to come in, and you still have an infection and it will be very painful. We need to figure out what to do.”
She left the room, and my husband and I stared at each other. I had no more tears left. I had used them all on pain. I grabbed my phone and flipped through the gallery of photos of my baby. I hadn’t had a clear head in so long. And in that moment, all of the fog lifted. I needed to bond with my baby. I needed to understand why I had gone through all of this. To stop now would defeat me more than anything else could. When my doctor came in, I asked her to research whether or not I could keep breastfeeding, if I wanted to. She reported back that once I was off all of the medicines, there was no reason I couldn’t, other than the pain involved in doing it and the awkward location of the open wound.
I was offered a plethora of suggestions, ranging from "nurse only on one side and hand-express the other" to "stop nursing altogether" to "take a break for a while and try re-lactation once you have healed." But no one would understand how much I needed to feel like what I had gone through was not for nothing. No one would understand how I felt like I had missed out on my baby girl because of this whole situation. I still can’t explain how defeated I felt as a mother in that moment. I needed to reclaim the warrior mother status I had felt when I delivered the perfect little human I had grown inside me. I needed her to know that you can do anything you put your mind to, even if she was only a few weeks old.
My sister saw the emotional pain that it had caused me. She, my husband, and my best friend sat around my boob and what was now affectionately called “the hole” and we had the weirdest conversation of all time. How could we maneuver the bandages so that my nipple would be exposed and I could nurse? Finally, we figured out a way. I can’t say it wasn’t painful. It was. But slowly, day by day, it got better.
She is now five months old. And guess what? I am healed physically. There is a scar, but it's no worse than the stretch marks I have as a reminder that I made that little laughing ball of fun I call my baby. I am also healed mentally. My daughter and I have enjoyed the last four months of nursing. She is healthy. She is happy. And so am I.
Perhaps this was God’s or the universe’s (whichever you prefer) way of preparing me for the challenges that life and motherhood will be handing me throughout my daughter’s life. Perhaps this was a way to show me just how strong I truly am. Perhaps this was a way for me to learn what it is to lean on, trust, and need your partner in such a vulnerable way. I’m not sure why it happened or why I chose the path I did afterward. But I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to see the strength that lies inside me.
If you’re reading this and you are struggling with nursing, weaning, or any parenting decisions for that matter, I hope you see in yourself the strength you need to persevere, to make the tough decisions, to believe that you know what is best for your family.
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