In the beginning (the beginning before the beginning), breastfeeding is a holy thing. A sweet, perfect ideal. We’re talking Madonnas with halos, black and white photography with blurred edges. It is cast in gold with amber glowing light. It’s “best for baby,” don’t you know — 90% of Harvard graduates were breastfed, only 2% of breastfed babies get divorced, breastfed baby boys always put the seat down when they’re done.* And how hard can it be? Women have been breastfeeding their babies for eons, after all. Sure, it might take a little determination, but it’s natural. Nature will be your guide.
But then the baby is born and you haven’t slept in 48 hours, which is the longest you haven’t slept ever. And during those 48 hours you have been required to push an eight pound baby through a really rather small and not very stretchy opening. And it hurt. A lot. The term “ring of fire” is a term for a reason, people. And all you really want to do is sleep for a week, but now there’s this baby that you’re responsible for and — wait! — they’re leaving you alone in a room with him and suggesting you try to breastfeed.
Your whole adult life, your small but reasonably symmetrical breasts have served you well — in that they’ve existed and have behaved themselves, staying put in bras, etc. — but now is their chance to shine. To fulfill their primary biological purpose.
And they choke.
Milk just isn’t coming in. Apparently, they’re less symmetrical than previously thought, since one nipple needs coaxing out with a hand pump before the baby will even think about trying to latch. And it hurts. A lot. Like there are actual tiny knives being pulled out through your nipples. A friendly neighborhood lactation consultant stops by and shows you how to hold the baby’s head with one hand while pinching your nipple with the other, squeezing your breast slightly with your third hand and opening the baby’s mouth with your fourth. But you are one of those defective humans with two hands. You nod and smile and cry into your deficient hands when she leaves. Maybe the reason you’re not producing milk is because you’re crying out all the extra liquid. If babies drank tears you’d be all set.
You go home and spend most of your days shirtless, because how is it possible to feed a baby while wearing any clothes? People ask you how it’s going and you cry in response. But you’re so happy — really — he’s wonderful. Just happy and crying and convinced you’re never going to be able to feed your baby.
And then, slowly, it starts to work more often than it doesn’t. Maybe he’s figuring it all out, or maybe you are, or maybe his mouth has grown slightly, or the milk is actually thinking about coming in. Either way, you start to feel like you must be the most highly developed human on the planet. You even figure how to feed him while wearing a shirt. And your milk comes in! You throw a party with fireworks and cake and balloons. Not really, because you haven’t slept in a week and that would be ridiculous. Instead, you squeeze your boob every now and again to make sure there really is milk coming out and occasionally squirt your son in the eye.
Eventually, it stops being a thing you feel triumphant about and starts just being a thing you do. All the time. Like actually All. The. Time. Sometimes it’s amazing — you never have to pack bottles or formula, and it seems to be the solution to pretty much every problem. Other times, you lay awake at 3 a.m. resentfully realizing that breastfeeding has to have been invented by a man because it’s the perfect excuse for why your husband is sleeping soundly in your bed and you are lying on a futon mattress on the floor of the nursery with an infant attached to your boob.
And then he gets teeth, and the best way to describe being bit on the nipple is to say it feels like being electrocuted. And when he does it after you’ve been trying for an hour to get him to sleep, you can’t scream out all the swears, you have to just whisper them, which is far less satisfying. He now won’t tolerate being stuffed up a sweater and likes to expose you to restaurants full of people. Sometimes he crawls over to you and just sucks the nearest bit of exposed flesh he can find — your neck, your foot, your shin — waiting for you to get the hint, and if you don’t, he bites. You think you’re probably ready to stop. That you really should start thinking about weaning. He bites, and you think that probably you’ll just stop right then and there.
And then, that evening, you lie down on your futon on the floor of the nursery (because that is pretty much where you sleep now) and you pull him close to you, curling your body around his, kissing his head and smelling his hair as he nurses. And it is a moment cast in gold with amber glowing light.
*Statistics entirely made up and almost certainly untrue