Belonging: A Personal Reflection on the Physical and Emotional Barriers of Breastfeeding, by Rochelle Christensen

The first night was the easiest. At our request, our new family was discharged from the hospital early; we were supposed to have a home birth after all. Of course, we were exhausted from the 30-hour marathon we just endured, but we were still riding that natural “high” of endorphins. With some early success at latching, it was clear that our baby was receiving small amounts of colostrum, and we were assured that my milk supply would improve within a few days. In retrospect, they did send us home with a few bottles of formula; it’s almost as though they expected me to fail from the beginning. 

            It wasn’t until three days postpartum, when the opioids had worn off and a myriad of hormones started to plummet and surge throughout my body, that I found myself feeling inexplicably detached from my new role. One assumes, at least I did, that becoming a mother was going to be difficult; I’d heard how challenging the fourth trimester can be due to lack of sleep alone. What came as a complete surprise, however, was just how painstaking and isolating the act of breastfeeding would be. After nine months of reading what I assumed were reputable resources, I was a self-proclaimed expert in breastfeeding. I was overly confident, even pretentious, when asked if I would nurse my son, at which point I would tout the many benefits of breast milk for mother and child. “It’s the most natural and intuitive source of nutrition a mother can provide, after all!”

            Like many other laborious events throughout my journey into motherhood, the burden of breastfeeding was mine alone. The physical and psychological pain I endured in those early days postpartum continues to overwhelm my senses, even now. At the time, it served to exacerbate my feelings of loneliness and inadequacy while breastfeeding, the unceremonious trips to the bathroom to eliminate and tend to my bottom, which felt like it had dropped out of my body, the solitary and sleep-deprived middle-of-the-night feedings, the smell of curdled milk as it dried on my clothes and lingered due to my lapse in hygiene, and finally, the backache of baby carrying this fragile little creature while I mustered enough strength to make a meal of my own. Still, nothing made me feel so unworthy of motherhood than my inability to produce enough milk for my son. “How could this be?” I thought. “Why are my breasts, which are the size and density of bowling balls, incapable of performing the one thing they were designed to do? Animals do it, for Christ’s sake!” 

            As he lay sideways on my bare chest, he woke quickly and let out a shrill cry before rooting, demanding the closest nipple. I am ashamed to admit that I resented the moment he stirred, partly because I knew I couldn’t satisfy him and because my nipples were equally pained – raw and blistered from multiple failed attempts. Before I had a minute to collect myself, the reckless strike of a newborn hit my nipple like sandpaper on an open wound, sending my back into spasm, with each latch afflicting the next vertebra in line with a calculated hit as he popped on and off, on and off. I was granted a moment of reprieve when he fell asleep, releasing his hold, but as I settled back into my seat, my thoughts were consumed with the cautionary voice of my midwife and her concern that he might “fail to thrive” if I couldn’t keep up. Once again, I encouraged him to latch. After 20 minutes on each side, he grew hungrier and more frustrated. I cried, pleading at my baby to nurse as he wailed and writhed at my breast.

            With a bruised ego and a broken heart, I had my partner prepare a bottle of formula. As I cradled him in my arms, he took the nipple flawlessly in his mouth and unapologetically guzzled what was, most definitely, the first real meal of his brief existence.

            Every two hours, more often less, he nursed. And I pumped while he slept, devoting all of my “free time” to increasing my milk supply. As I sat in my denim blue polyester recliner, naked from my deflated abdomen up, with a double electric breast pump precariously held onto each of my breasts between the straps of my nursing bra, I felt anything but the beautiful and poised mothers I’d ogled in my reference books. On the hour, I consumed a cocktail of galactagogues: herbs, teas, tinctures, and medications, also meant to increase my supply, while I waited for the machine to extract the same pitiful volume as before. 

            The early October sun began to shine through the cracks in the blinds, which I had carefully lowered, so as not to frighten my neighbours with one of my imminent outbursts. I can only assume that winter finches were bouncing in flight just outside the window, singing to one another, as they usually did at that time of the morning. I hadn’t been outside in days, though, and I couldn’t hear their song through the monotonous mechanical sounds coming from the torture device suctioned to my chest. Four months after his birth and I can still hear it taunting me with each pump, “moo cow, moo cow,” which merely confirmed what I already knew in my sleep-deprived mind.

            Foolishly, it was weeks before I summoned the strength to confide in fellow mamas: my own mother, friends and family, and even distant acquaintances. Finally, in sharing my story and commiserating with theirs, I felt, for the first time since my son had been born, like I was riding on the shoulders of the countless numbers of women who had given birth before me.

About the Author

Rochelle Christensen is a Registered Veterinary Technologist who manages the marketing and recruitment endeavours for a local mixed animal practice in the West Kootenays, British Columbia. She and her partner recently welcomed their first child, and together, they look forward to becoming humble students of life and love once again

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