I'll Take Martyrdom for 100, Alex.
A thin wail split the silence of my bedroom. I screwed my eyes shut and chanted "go back to sleep go back to sleep go back to sleep." A small hiccough gave way to silence. "Oh, thank you thank you," I murmured as I flipped to my side and prepared to settle in again.
As the last tension melted from my weary limbs, the baby woke with a shout. As her cries soared, I pulled myself upright and walked the three steps to her crib. I began to reach for her, and my arms wouldn't move. Hot tears of pain and frustration welled suddenly, spilling down my cheeks as silent sobs shook my body. I watched my daughter root against her tiny fist, calling out for my breast, yet all I could do was lean my forehead on the cool wood of her crib rail and cry.
My husband, stirring as the baby's hunger grew, asked if I was okay. "No. I'm in so much pain, I can't lift her. I can't do it. I can't do it." He gently picked up the baby, and followed my lurching, sobbing form to the living room of our apartment. I collapsed in our recliner, face in my hands. After a few moments, I steeled myself and reached for my snuffling daughter. I grit my teeth, adjusted a pillow on my lap and prepared to feed my baby.
For the first week after my daughter was born, breastfeeding was easy. I was so proud, so confident. There had never been any question about how I would feed my child. I was determined. Then the problems began. I developed pain and sores on both breasts. I had heard that nursing can be a little painful in the beginning, and I decided that I didn't need help. I would just nurse through the pain, until my breasts adapted to the demands of a newborn.
By the end of week two, I noticed that my daughter had white patches in her mouth - an indicator of thrush. The advice nurse gave me a prescription for the baby, and despite my growing pain, I told her the nursing was great! I was doing fine!
By the end of week three, I found that all the ointment in the world was not sufficient to quell the pain I felt each time I latched my daughter on. Following the advice of more experienced moms, I spent much of my time topless, holed up in my apartment with shades drawn. I was told the four week mark usually was the turning point, and so I continued to nurse my voracious daughter, painful blisters, cracking and bleeding aside.
At four weeks, every single person in my life was utterly sick of the "nipple report" and had started recommending formula. No! My baby would not ingest that evil corporate, third-world destroying faux-milk. I stoically bit my lip at each feeding, trying to ignore the sharp pains that were coursing through my chest. Inwardly, I began to panic as I looked ahead. I planned to nurse for a year. The thought of this pain for the coming year was horrifying, but in my post-partum mind, both necessary and doable.
I spent hours a day topless, reeking of vinegar and lanolin. I tried to desensitize myself by freezing my nipples (via drinking glasses filled with ice. Yeah, not pretty.) Calls to my nurse practitioner yielded tidbits of information that reinforced my belief that my pain was normal, getting used to nursing pain, not a problem. I heard what I wanted to hear. I couldn't admit that I was not a 'natural.' As the fifth week passed, my breasts were so achy that the pressure of my daughter's nine pound body was excruciating. I could only lift her by carefully centering her tiny frame between my breasts.
The crying jag beside the crib was my breaking point. I completely lost control, unable to tolerate the pain, unwilling to bend at all in my desire to nurse successfully. I cried for hours, through the nursing of my daughter, and long after she and my husband had gone back to sleep. I was in the grips of insanity, wanting to be the best possible mother and afraid that asking for help would rob me of my credentials.
The following morning was my six week checkup. When the baby started to fuss during my checkup, the doctor asked me to nurse, so she could see that all was well. I began to cry. And cry. She cradled my baby while I revealed my damaged nipples. Her shock and dismay helped me understand that this was NOT normal. She immediately sent me to the Lactation Consultant.
I learned that I had a raging case of thrush, and my daughter had a lousy latch. The only way I was going to heal was to pump every feeding for my daughter, and feed her with a bottle for a solid week. The road to recovery was arduous. I spent an hour pumping, an hour feeding, had an hour off and began again. I rushed away from a dinner party to pump in the host's bathroom because a let-down was imminent. I slept little and cried a lot.
Finally, on my daughter's seven week mark, I had my first non-painful nursing session since the first week of her life. I was smiling and crying as her chubby cheeks worked away. I brushed my tears from her downy head and stroked her rounded profile. We were going to make it.
My youngest child recently self-weaned. I have nursed all three of my babies, and never did use formula. I am proud of this accomplishment, but find that my measure of myself as a mother is built on much more than this one triumph. My fervor for breastfeeding remains, but I see clearly now that it is not a sure path to parenting glory, nor is it the penultimate parenting experience.
In the five years that have passed, I have often flashed back on that time. What should have been the happiest days of my life were marred by my unwillingness to admit I needed help, and that I didn't have everything under control.
The tough-mom veneer has long since crumbled, allowing the skin, bones and sometimes the blood of my motherhood show through. I do not fear imperfection, and while I still strive to be the best mother I can be, I know that I do not and cannot have all the answers. I don't want to be a martyr - I want to be a mommy.